Policy, evidence and dogma – the homelessness episode

A leaked memo from Communities & Local Government exposed in today’s Observer has already generated considerable comment. The memo, written by a senior civil servant at the start of the year, sets out perfectly clearly not only that the Government’s welfare reforms ran the risk of making an additional 40,000 households homeless and reduce the number of new homes constructed, but also that – taking these knock-on effects into account – the “reforms” won’t save any money. On the contrary, they are likely to impose an increased burden on the public purse.

A lot of attention has focused upon the former point. It raises important questions about whether David Cameron misled Parliament in statements about the downside risks of the policy. The memo suggests that statements may have been made in Parliament that contradicted the best available evidence and advice to Ministers. The memo also gives some indication of what sort of costs the Prime Minister considers worth paying to drive this policy through. There is a callousness there that many will no doubt find extremely distasteful.

It has been asserted today that Mr Pickles has distanced himself from the memo and is fully behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. I’d expect nothing less. Or more.

The suspicion of Government hypocrisy is bad enough, but I think it is the second component of the memo is more revealing.

The overriding narrative of this Government is that the deficit must be brought down in order to reassure the markets. A wide range of reforms that attack the living standards and rights of low income and vulnerable people have been perpetrated in the name of taming the deficit.

Do we live in a world of evidence-based and rational policy making? If we were in such a world then if good quality evidence emerged to demonstrate a particular initiative would, in fact, not reduce the deficit but increase it, then presumably the policy would be halted as unhelpful.

Yet, strangely enough, policy moves forward despite such evidence.

Of course, this isn’t an isolated incident.

In Higher Education, for example, it rapidly became apparent that the policy of removing block grant and increasing tuition fees was going to cost the public purse more than it will save. Did that mean the was halted? No, it means that the Government has sought alternative mechanisms to try to keep the lid on the total cost of pursuing the policy.

It is relatively clear to many observers of Higher Education that the Government’s primary objective is to create a market in Higher Education and, in particular, open the system to more private providers. The need to reduce the deficit provides a pretext for pushing forward with this policy. When it doesn’t look like it will save money that’s an inconvenience because it threatens to blow the Government’s cover. But it isn’t going to derail the policy.

It would appear that welfare reform is taking a similar course.

The Liberal Democrats went in to Coalition for the good of the country and deal with the deficit. It seems to me this requires policy to be rigorously evidence based and finely calibrated to minimise the pain imposed upon the population. I don’t believe the Party signed up to support dogmatic policy rooted in an alien and unpalatable ideology based upon division and unnecessary increases in inequality.

It will be interesting to see how the Party react to this latest evidence of the real agenda driving the Tories. Not that, to be honest, more evidence is really needed.

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  1. I think some of these plans to cut public expenditure are a bit like get rich quick schemes – seem effective until you read the small print. Actions have consequences which have not been properly assessed or have been wilfully ignored.

    I have noticed that the Government has a habit of quoting gross rather than net figures in a lot of areas and doubt the Coalition will meet its targets around deficit reduction.