Election Brief: Living standards in the UK have fallen

Professor David Gordon discusses coalition arguments relating to living standards, a key aspect of tomorrow’s general election 

A copy of the full Election Brief is available at: <http://www.poverty.ac.uk/editorial/uk-living-standards-pse-election-briefing>

The change in UK living standards is one of the key contested issues in the May 2015 General Election.  The Coalition Government argues that living standards have increased since it came to power in 2010.  The Labour Party and other opposition parties claim that living standards have fallen.

In March 2015, the Chancellor George Osborne presented evidence in his final Budget that living standards have increased.  This evidence is misleading.  Research from a range of reputable academic studies has shown that average income has fallen over the past five years and poverty has increased.

The latest available data clearly show that the living standards of the UK population have fallen, particularly since the April 2013 cuts in Social Security and other austerity measures took effect.  More people in the UK are now in financial difficulties and increasing numbers are unable to afford both the necessities of life (such as two pairs of shoes) and minor luxuries, such as a one week holiday away from home.  Both fuel poverty and utility bill arrears have increased.  These are the stark conclusions from a comparison of the change in UK living standards between 2009 and 2013, based on early release data recently provided by the UK Government to the European Statistical Office (EUROSTAT).

In 2009, 45 per cent of people lived in households which did not have sufficient money to pay an unexpected expense; by 2013 this had increased to almost half (49 per cent) of the UK population (see Table 1).  The figures also show that, for every single indicator of financial difficulty, more people were having problems in 2013 than in 2009.  It is clear that both serious and more minor financial difficulties are increasing amongst the UK population, with over a third of people in 2013 having difficulties in making ends meet and over one in five people finding their housing costs a heavy burden.

Table 1: Financial Difficulties in the UK in 2009 and 2013

2009% 2013%
Cannot pay unexpected expenses 45 49
Difficult to make ends meet 31 35
Housing cost are a heavy burden 17 22
Cannot afford a small amount of money to spend on yourself each week 14 21
In arrears on rent/mortgage, utility bills or HP during the last 12 months 9 13

The data also compares how the richest two-thirds of the UK populations’ standard of living changed between 2009 and 2013 (see Table 2).  The percentage of people who could make ends meet without any difficulties fell from 69 per cent of the UK population to under two thirds (65 per cent).  Only the very richest (those who could make ends meet very easily) saw no perceived fall in their living standards.

Table 2: No difficulties Making Ends Meet in the UK in 2009 and 2013

Ability to make ends meet? 2009% 2013%
Fairly easily 39 36
Easily 19 18
Very easily 11 11
Total – no difficulties 69 65

The Chancellor’s claim that living standards have risen is fallacious as the National Accounts household sector data that he used are primarily a measure of the movement of money not the living standards of households.  Real Household Disposable Income (RHDI) measures the total income of households compared with the rest of the economy.  There is no information about how the total expenditure or income is distributed at the individual or household level.  Thus, if only the richest 1% have a rise in their incomes, this will also increase the average income in the household sector by exactly the same amount as if the increase had been shared equally by everybody.  RHDI cannot provide a good or adequate measure of living standards.  By shifting attention to the Real Household Disposable Income (RHDI) GDP measure, the Coalition Government has obscured the real impact on peoples’ lives of fallen living standards.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from the available scientific evidence – the majority of the UK population has suffered from a fall in their living standards during the current government’s term of office. Both the poor and the majority have indeed ‘all been in it together’ – only the richest appear to have escaped.

It is a shame that the Coalition Government was not prepared to release the latest statistical information on living standards to the public before the May 2015 election – fortunately, it has recently become available via the European Union.

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Co-production and change for disabled people

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Val Williams discusses research around support for disabled people

Social practices can be enabling or disabling

Imagine you are the woman in this picture, a patient going to your doctor to talk about symptoms you’ve been having. The patient here is a disabled woman who is sitting directly in front of the doctor, with her personal assistant taking notes for her, out of the doctor’s direct line of sight. This might seem a trivial thing, but going to the doctor might not always work so well for some disabled people. The doctor might talk exclusively to their carer or to a family member, instead of engaging directly with them. Or of course, they may not have a third party to help them remember what has been said. All these things are important when you want to get good health care, and they may require just a few changes in the way things are routinely done. Kerrie Ford, in the picture above, set up this scene back in 2010 as part of a training pack arising from a research study about support practices, in which she was a researcher.

Although disabled people might traditionally be seen as part of the problem, they can find their own solutions. For instance, in our research about support practices, disabled people suggested and developed ways of getting their messages across, to shift practices and to enable them to challenge inequalities. Disabled people have their own movement, which is now a global one, and have banded together to re-define some of the problems that confront them, and to redress the power imbalances that they face when professionals, practitioners and medical authorities dictate what is best for them. The most pressing issues are to find better ways to understand how to change disabling practices, while we listen to and work with disabled people themselves.  Our new study is aiming to do just that.  ‘Tackling disabling practices: co-production and change’ has been funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) which I lead at the Norah Fry Research Centre at Bristol. Disabled people’s organisations, represented by ‘Disability Rights UK’ (DRUK) are joining with us to explore the ways in which we can understand and theorise change, in a way that really makes a difference to disabled people’s lives, on their own terms.

Disabled people of all ages experience inequalities in society, in every part of their lives. There is strong evidence that disabled people are often amongst the poorest, as the recent poverty survey carried out at the University of Bristol has revealed and that they face abusive or inadequate support practices in everyday settings (Antaki et al., 2007).  Further Pauline Heslop and her team found that people with intellectual disabilities were dying prematurely, with men dying 13 years earlier than non-disabled men, and women some 20 years earlier. Health care is simply not adapting to meet the needs of all. In the UK, most of these problems are the subject of intensive investigation, resulting in legal and policy reform. For instance, in 2011, a Panorama television documentary exposed the abusive treatment being perpetrated against people with intellectual disabilities in an ‘assessment and treatment unit’.  Following this, that particular hospital was closed down and a Government Concordat was signed in 2012, which pledged a reduction in hospital placements for people with intellectual disabilities and ‘the closure of large-scale inpatient services’. Support was also provided for commissioners and practitioners in the form of workforce development, guidance and toolkits to ensure better practice. However, in 2014, a further report acknowledged that:

For decades people have argued for change and described what good care looks like, and how we can commission it….. but the problem remains. Why?  (Bubb, 2014: 17)

The conclusion in the 2014 report is that we do know ‘what good looks like’, and indeed we also know how to get there, but that it is simply too easy to ‘do the wrong thing’.  Yet again, a further series of recommendations ensued, which invoke the rights of disabled people and their families to better community services, along with a system for holding local authorities and other agencies to account.

Why then are some practices so difficult to shift?  Our new project starts in April 2015, and aims to interrogate the turn towards ‘practice’ in social science, in order to see what it can offer to our understanding of what is going on in practice and how the goings-on could be malleable, could be shifted, and maybe made more productive. We do not want to demonize those who are there to provide health and social care support. Indeed, we know that all of us could be inadvertently discriminating against disabled people by the way things are set up – even in our own Higher Education institutions. One of the strands of research in our new project is being led by Sheila Trahar in the Graduate School of Education, to explore the experience of disabled students, from their own point of view, while Sue Porter will lead on research about the experience of disabled academics. Other strands will be led by Beth Tarleton, building on the ‘Working Together with Parents Network’ working with Nadine Tilbury, Danielle Turney and Professor Elaine Farmer, to analyse how to achieve better support for parents with intellectual disabilities; by Pauline Heslop, who examines reasonable adjustments in healthcare provision; and by Val Williams and David Abbott, who build on the approach to micro-analysis of interaction (Williams, 2011) collecting videos and recordings of what goes on between support workers and disabled people. All our research work in this project is about how we can make a difference, and how we can theorise those changes in a way that is useful for social science and for disabled people themselves. Therefore Bernd Sass at Disability Rights UK is central to everything, and in the research strand based at DRUK will be taking forward the notion of ‘user-driven commissioning’ to see how disabled people’s own actions can have an effect on changing local authority and health care structures.

We are particularly pleased that our ESRC project is based on several partnerships. Not only is the DRUK a key partner, but the project will also include Professors Charles Antaki from Loughborough University, Celia Kitzinger from the University of York, Chris Hatton from the University of Lancaster, Alan Roulstone from Leeds, Dr Stanley Blue from Manchester, and Sue Turner from the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTI), as well as Professor Andrew Sturdy from our own Department of Management at Bristol.  We are working with experts across the disciplines, who have different ways of conceiving of practice – from the high level policy and strategic decisions made by government, to the micro-detail of front-line support offered to disabled people. Instead of pointing fingers of blame at particular individuals or institutions, we want to find out more about how to understand social practices, so that we can enable them to change.

Val Williams is Reader in Disability, Policy and Practice in the Norah Fry Centre the School for Policy Studies

References

Antaki, C, Finlay, W.M.L., Jingree, T and Walton, C.(2007) “The staff are your friends”: conflicts between institutional discourse and practice. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 1-18.

Bubb, S. (2014) Winterbourne View – Time for Change. http://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/transforming-commissioning-services.pdf

Heslop, P. et al. (2013) Confidential Inquiry into premature deaths of people with learning disabilities (CIPOLD): final report. http://www.bris.ac.uk/cipold/

Williams, V. (2011) Disability & Discourse: analysing inclusive conversations with people with intellectual disabilities. Wiley-Blackwell.

 

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Poverty in paradise

Shailen NandyResearch Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at  the School for Policy Studies discusses poverty in the PacifShailenic Islands

I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes” (Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener)

What images come to mind when you think of the islands of the Pacific? Sun-kissed beaches, turquoise seas, balmy climes? Amazing rugby players? How about poverty? No? Well, you might be surprised.  Poverty, however it is measured, is a very real problem among the Pacific Islands, Countries and Territories (PICTS).  It has also been frequently overlooked.  Data from Oxfam New Zealand spells out in grim detail just how bad things are.  Around one third of the region’s population, about 2.7 million people, lack sufficient income to meet their basic human needs. Rates of child and maternal mortality are high, and large proportions of the region’s children either never enter school or do not complete primary education.  Adult literacy is low, at only 65% in the Solomon Islands.  Basic service and housing provision is poor, with 15% of the population of Papua New Guinea (around 120,000 people) living in informal urban squatter settlements.  These overcrowded households lack access to improved sources of water and forms of sanitation, and are subjected to the spread and effects of debilitating and deadly diseases, which drive child malnutrition and mortality.  These, and other, conditions contribute to a climate with high levels of gender violence, with over half of women in Samoa and the Solomon Islands reporting experiencing physical and/or sexual violence.  Paradise for many maybe, but certainly not for all.

The United Nations identifies 57 countries as Small Island Developing States (SIDS).  Located around the world, they share similar development challenges, including having small populations, limited resources, vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change, and being geographically remote.

The lack of attention and research on poverty in SIDS, like the PICTS, has impeded some governments from developing the strong and effective anti-poverty policies that are needed.  Conventional monetary poverty assessments cannot give a true picture of the extent of the problem, especially in countries where people may use bartering or reciprocal exchange instead of cash purchasing, and where families live together in extended households, pooling and sharing material and social resources.  In addition, in some PICTS, many households receive remittances in cash and as durable goods from relatives living and working abroad and these can be very difficult to measure accurately.  In such instances, assessing poverty needs a more sophisticated approach, with less reliance placed on traditional measures like an individual’s or household’s income.

Bristol’s Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research has an international reputation for poverty research, analysis and anti-poverty policy development.  Members of the Centre have advised governments, the United Nations and many international organisations around the world on how best to identify, assess and ameliorate poverty.  Recently its work, through the ERSC-funded Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom project, informed the public, national media, and policy makers about the true extent of poverty in the UK at the height of the recession.  What made the project so important were its use of methods and techniques which are recognised as being State of the Art for poverty research.  The project used the Consensual Approach, which has been developed over 30 years.  It takes into consideration the opinions of the general public about what items and activities they consider to be necessary for an acceptable standard of living, from which no one should be excluded due to a lack of resources.  Importantly the approach introduces a democratic element into the definition and measurement of poverty enabling populations, rather than just academics or politicians, to determine what constitutes poverty and thus how it should be tackled.  The approach is increasingly being used in a growing number of countries, including many in the European Union, South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and even low income African countries, like Benin.  Bristol researchers have been involved with most of these studies, and there are now plans to expand use of the method more widely, across the twenty-two Pacific Islands Countries and Territories (PICTS).

In November 2014, Bristol PhD student Viliami Konifelenisi Fifita demonstrated to representatives of regional statistical offices the potential of the Consensual Approach for assessing poverty in the PICTs.  This trip was funded by a travel grant from the Alumni Foundation and the School for Policy Studies.  He showed how, as part of his PhD looking at poverty in Tonga, the method was well suited for use in a Pacific Islands context.  As Government Statistician for the Kingdom of Tonga, Viliami developed a survey module for Tonga’s national Demographic and Health Survey, which he is using to make the first scientific assessments of poverty in Tonga.  His presentation so impressed delegates, that by the end of the meeting a draft module had been drawn up and was being considered for inclusion in other national surveys.  At least four PICTS will run surveys containing the module in 2015, with other countries set to follow in 2016 and 2017.  The data generated will change, and improve, the measurement of poverty in the region, providing researchers and policy makers with new data with which to develop better anti-poverty policies.

Viliami’s efforts to enthuse his colleagues to adopt and apply the Consensual Approach, has begun a process of collaboration between Bristol academics and PICTs statisticians and governments.  One aspect of the SIDS – their small size and close-knit communities – holds considerable potential for policy development and implementation, in that policy changes can be made relatively swiftly, with benefits and improvements to people’s lives following quickly.  Of particular interest in the region is the fact that the Consensual Approach captures important non-monetary aspects of poverty, which until recently have not formed part of regional poverty assessments.  In March 2015 Viliami travelled to the Solomon Islands, to begin training survey enumerators in the method.  Funding for this important work was provided at very short notice by an ESRC Impact Travel Award, the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice, and the School for Policy Studies.  The use and application of methods and techniques developed at Bristol, and provision of training and assistance to PICTS statistical offices and governments by Bristol researchers will, in the years to come, make a meaningful impact to the lives of people living across the entire Pacific region.

 

 

 

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Sexual violence in India: feminists and others

Geetanjali Gangoli, from the School for Policy Studies, discusses the issues raised by ‘India’s daughter’

The recent furore around the BBC Four documentary, India’s Daughter, has once again brought to the forefront the issue of sexual violence in India. Sexual violence continues to be a serious issue for Indian women. The latest crime statistics released by the Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB, 2014) show that 93 women are raped every day in the country. The number of reported rapes a day has increased nearly by 700% per cent since 1971 — when such cases were first recorded by the NCRB.

GG

The documentary, made for BBC by a British filmmaker Lesley Udwin was based on the well publicised rape and murder of 23 year old student, Jyoti Singh in a bus in New Delhi, and featured controversial interviews with Mukesh Singh, one of the six men accused in the case. He is currently on death row, awaiting an appeal to the Supreme Court, and he made several misogynist statements about the victim, including arguing that women were more responsible for rape than men were. He also argued that the woman should not have fought back, and that if he was executed, that it may lead to murders of rape victims. The film also included interviews with the defence lawyers, who also argued that the victim should not have been out at night with a male friend, and with her quietly dignified parents, and friend, whose voices are used effectively to challenge these pervasive rape myths.

As is well known by now, a group of feminists wrote an open letter to NDTV, an Indian news channel, which was planning to air the documentary on March 8th 2015 (at the same time as BBC Four), asking them to show restraint and postpone the broadcast, as the appeal against the death sentences is still pending; but also raising some other objections to the film, including that it promoted ‘hate speech’ against women, that it could lead to increased violence against women, and that it included graphic and gratuitous descriptions of sexual violence. The Indian government however banned the film, on the grounds that it violated ‘permission guidelines’ in airing the interviews with Mukesh Singh, and his comments were ‘highly derogatory’ and violated the dignity of women.

The documentary was, however, aired on BBC Four and released on you tube, rendering the ban ineffective. Since the ban, a number of interesting feminist views on this issue have been voiced, not one of them supporting the ban. What to me has been most impressive is that Indian feminists have been one of the strongest voices standing for the rights of the accused to a free trial (even and especially in a case where the ‘facts’ of the case appear to be clear), and arguing that the death penalty is not only counterproductive, but against feminist principles.

The film itself is interesting and well made, though at points tends to suggest that not much happened in the public and social sphere against sexual violence in India before this particular case, and that sexual violence owes much to poverty, deprivation and social exclusion made worse by globalization, and commodification of women. It projects Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder as emerging from a clash of culture between the upwardly mobile, forward thinking section of Indian society and the socially excluded working class, who have not been able to benefit from globalization. By virtue of omission, it also tends to project sexual violence as happening primarily in the public sphere, by strangers, rather than within the domestic sphere. Recent statistics released by the Delhi police suggest that in over 95% of all recorded cases of sexual violence, the accused was either a family member or known to the victim.

Indian feminists have of course, challenged these rape myths since the 1970s. They have constructed sexual violence as an act of patriarchal power and control, rather than as class warfare, and pointed to the endemic nature of rape and assault across social class, caste and region. Even though most cases of sexual violence around which Indian feminist campaigns have been centred on the rapes of working class and/or Dalit women by those in power (for e.g. the Mathura rape case in the late 1970s, and Bhanwari Devi case in the 1990s), feminists have placed sexual violence as an integral part of the domestic sphere, and demands have been made to the State to criminalise marital rape since the early 1980s. That these have still not been met reflects the pervasive nature of popular beliefs of the sanctity of marriage as a ‘private’ sphere, and the acceptance of male entitlement to women’s bodies, particularly in the home and within the private sphere.

Feminists have always (often simultaneously) collaborated with and opposed State (and media) engagement with gender based violence. Following Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder, feminist groups have fed into Justice Verma Committee , a committee made up of Justice J.S. Verma, Justice Leila Seth (both retired judges) and Gopal Subramanium constituted by the Government to look into possible amendments to the Criminal Justice Law ‘to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assault of extreme nature against women’, and some recommendations of the committee were passed into law through ordinance in early 2013. In opposition to feminist demands, the ordinance retained the marital rape exemption; therefore women in violent and abusive marriages continue to be unable to access the law when raped by intimates. It also created the offence of rape and sexual assault as a gender neutral offence, both in terms of perpetrators and victims, in ‘everyday contexts’ as well as the aggravated rape cases (e.g. gang rape and custodial rape cases).

Demands for legal changes are often an immediate response to social issues, especially in the area of gender based violence, but even moderate ‘successes’ – such as the inclusion of the custodial rape clause and the repeal of the ‘past sexual history’ clause – are often rendered useless where social attitudes regarding women’s sexuality remain unchanged. Legal intervention, even where unsuccessful or partially successful, therefore, must be seen as part of multiple strategies within the Indian women’s movement which seek to challenge, redefine and reshape patriarchal conceptualizations of women’s sexuality in law and society.

Celebrating 25 years of Gender Violence Research @ Bristol Policy Studies.
Save the date: June 15th 2015.

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From Bristol City to Mexico City: New challenges for obesity research

In this blog, Simon Sebire from the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences and three PhD students reflect on new avenues of research into childhood physical activity and obesity in Low and Middle Income Countries and the opportunities and challenges this work presents.

New ideas emerge in the least likely places. As I listened to Professor Andy Gouldson present his research to the School for Policy Studies in spring 2014, I was inspired to sketch connections between some of Andy’s concepts (economic development and environmental issues) and my own (the psychology of motivating people to adopt healthy behaviours like being physically active). After the talk, I shared my scribbles with my colleague Prof. Russ Jago, only to find that he had an almost identical set.

Our thoughts had independently been transported from Bristol to Mexico and musings about the potential associations of urban development and rural-urban migration on the lifestyle behaviours of children and their families. This international perspective is not something either of us had previously pursued is but clearly had prompted some scribbling! The Mexico connection was inspired by three CONACyT-funded students, from Mexico, who at the time were studying our MSc in Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health and were considering PhDs.

Nearly 1 year on the three students (Ana Ortega Avila, Maria Hermosillo Gallardo and Nadia Rodriguez Ceron) are now PhD students in the School for Policy Studies Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences supervised by Prof. Russ Jago, Dr Angeliki Papadaki and I. They secured further funding from CONACyT to pursue their programme of research to study how various social, psychological and environmental factors might be related to physical activity and nutrition behaviours in children adolescents and their families in Mexico.

The causes of and response to increasing levels of obesity in low and middle income countries have been the focus of a recent Guardian Global Development Podcast. The podcast draws on the experiences of children, families, health practitioners and campaigners from South Africa and Mexico. In Mexico 73% of men, 69% of women and approximately 35% of adolescents are obese or overweight which is higher than in the USA. It is clear that there is much to be done to both treat those who are already overweight and prevent the development of obesity in young people. However, extrapolating our existing research and knowledge of what we think drives obesogenic behaviours in places like Bristol to the context of people’s lives in Mexico presents a number of challenges.

Ana, Maria and Nadia have a wealth of experience from previously working in Mexico as nutritionists or within the food industry, so I asked them to listen to the podcast and share their insider’s view of the challenges ahead:

Maria referred to the potentially damaging effects of families in Mexico aspiring to an American lifestyle dominated by unhealthy foods and sedentary behaviour:

The blog says that processed foods and junk food are one of the main causes of overweight and obesity increasing in Mexico, which is partially true, but I think it has to do a little bit more with what I call “junk behaviours”. For example, how mums from rural areas prefer to give their children processed foods instead of home-made meals because they heard somewhere that people from USA consumed them, and because Americans always choose right (at least that’s the belief in some parts of Mexico); junk food and processed foods are the way to go for feeding their children.

Ana suggested that this influence may be strongest in regions closest to America and highlighted the broader problems associated with researching an issue which is geographically diverse:

Mexico is among the largest countries in the world geographically and demographically (118 million people); where differences in dietary pattern exist between rural and urban areas or between north, central and south regions.I have always lived in the northwest and the influence of the U.S.A. is visible in a lot of aspects in our life compared to the centre or south of the country. Our dietary patterns are based on American food choices and less on the Mexican traditional diet.

Ana, Maria and Nadia all added that the potential mismatch between perceptions of wealth and health may be making being overweight an aspiration:

Ana: In my experience as a nutritionist there are a number of cultural misconceptions among population when it comes to healthy nutrition. For example, being a little overweight still means you are healthy and well-nourished whereas being thin means you are unhealthy or sick. People don’t see overweight as a problem, on the contrary, they see it as something normal.

Nadia suggested that such perceptions may prevent parents from identifying obesity as a potential health problem in their children:

I think the healthy body image is distorted as family, friends or in the streets, the most common thing is to see someone obese; and that is really concerning because how will they do something to improve their health if they don’t even think there’s a problem. 

Ana, Maria and Nadia reflected on the challenges of applying our physical activity and nutrition research findings which are largely based on evidence from developed countries such as the UK or USA to the context of middle income countries such as Mexico. A good example is parents’ perceptions of safety when letting their children play outside of the home. In UK research, including some in Bristol by my ENHS colleagues, we tend to focus attention on the presence of traffic or children’s risk of injury while unsupervised. In contrast, perceptions of safety in Mexico are measured nationally with questions including those related to the risk of kidnap, existence of violent gangs in the neighbourhood, armed robbery and frequency of firearms shootings. 73.3% of the participants in the 2014 National Survey on Victimization and Perception of Public Safety (ENVIPE) in Mexico reported not feeling safe in their local areas. In addition to the safety implications of conducting research in this context, it is clear that current measures of parents’ perceptions of their child’s safety to be active outside the home will not be sufficient and Nadia has plans to develop a new tool.

In addition, the political landscape challenges us to consider different ways in which our research may be best able to impact on health policy:

Ana: The political context in Mexico is complex, the government is dealing with high levels of insecurity and corruption, events that prevent the government from focusing on other matters such as the implementation of new health policies.

Maria believes that more is needed to be done to educate policy makers in addition to the public: There is a huge educational barrier, both governmental and individual, which makes difficult to take seriously the obesity and overweight problem.

Nadia: All those factors are completely different to high-income countries, and makes the context a complex matter to understand when almost all the research has developed in a completely different contexts with a wider range of opportunities to change or create policies that have a real impact in the population’s health. 

In summary, over the last year or so, I have been transported from Bristol city to Mexico City thanks to a fortuitous combination of research daydreaming and inspiring MSc (now PhD) students.  As a supervisor, my initial conversations with our new students has forced me out of my research comfort zone, an experience which has been echoed and reported by researchers in the International Physical Activity and the Environment Network in Latin America. Undoubtedly, our success in co-producing research which could have international impact will require us to work together to combine our collective knowledge to understand the context and key drivers of obesity-related behaviour change in Mexico.

Thanks to Ana Avila Ortega, Maria Hermosillo Gallardo and Nadia Rodriguez Ceron for their contributions.

  • Ana’s PhD focusses on the development of a social media intervention to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in  Mexican older adolescents
  • Maria is studying the associations between urbanicity in Mexico and lifestyle behaviours and the influence of the rural urban transition on family health.
  • Nadia’s PhD focusses on the environmental and social correlates of physical activity in children in Mexico City.

Dr Simon Sebire is Lecturer in Physical Activity & Exercise Psychology in the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences (ENHS) in the School for Policy Studies.The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) confirm the Centre’s international reputation for research excellence within the field of physical activity, nutrition and health. ENHS was rated 1st overall in the UK.

 

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Social housing futures

Alex MarshIn an essay published for the Chartered Institute of Housing, Alex Marsh, Professor of Public Policy and Head of the School for Policy Studies, speculates on social housing futures 

The housing problems facing the UK are multifaceted. They include the failure to build sufficient new dwellings to keep pace with population growth; significant market volatility; problems of affordability for both owners and renters; and problems of insecurity in the private rented sector.

The Coalition government has been quite strong on rhetoric and has announced a succession of new policies and initiatives. In the social housing sector these have included changes to subsidy, tenancy security, regulation, and rent levels. The Coalition has had rather less success in bringing affordable, secure accommodation within reach of a greater proportion of households. Indeed, housing circumstances have become more precarious for many.

In the run up to the General Election, the Chartered Institute of Housing has published a series of policy essays looking at various aspects of the housing challenge and the policy responses not only in housing, but also in related areas such as welfare reform.

In the most recent essay in the series I have provided a perspective on the future of social housing, focusing on housing associations in England. The essay covers four broad areas: the squeeze; looking beyond housing; narratives; and marginal voices.

None of the political parties with a chance of power are proposing a significant departure from the current policy trajectory. So, barring some major unforeseen event, we are going to see the continued squeeze of austerity. The result will be many housing associations continuing to move towards higher levels of borrowing to fund development and higher rents to service their loans. This is going to challenge housing associations in reconciling the commercial imperatives they face with their social purpose. This challenge is not new, but it will be felt more urgently. It is not easy to predict how this tension will play out. But as I state in the essay, in my view commercialisation will eventually triumph: “financialisation has an insidious, transformative power”.

The squeeze is not just affecting housing organisations. The organisations they work with – local authorities and the health service in particular – are facing similarly tough times. And the public spending cuts planned after May 2015 are going to be more painful. Gaps in services will open up. This will present housing associations with opportunities to demonstrate greater place-based leadership. We will find out quite quickly whether associations are minded to take up these opportunities.

There is much talk in the housing association sector about the increased risks associated with current policy directions. Much of this talk has focused on development and private finance. I would argue that reputational risk is a broader issue and enters the picture earlier. There are risks to housing benefit-dependent households in the face of an increasingly inadequate social security system. But there are risks associated with succumbing to the increasing pressure to house relatively better-off households at higher rents and use the revenues generated to cross-subsidize genuinely affordable social housing. Similarly, there are risks associated with efficient asset management which has the potential to transform neighbourhoods and increase social segregation.

A key part of how these risks is managed should be greater attention to narratives – are social housing organisations doing enough to explain what they are doing and the constraints within which they operate?

The political economy of housing policy is driven by the interests of older owner occupied households because they are the households that are more likely to vote. However, we can see that this political economy is changing. The rise of Generation Rent, the activities of the Radical Housing Network or the Focus E15 protesters all indicate that new voices are being heard in housing policy making. Some of those voices are making claims using concepts such as the Right to the City, which represent a profound challenge to the logic of mainstream policy approaches.

The volume and influence of such marginal voices is likely to increase in the coming years. Eventually the political system is likely to be compelled to take them more seriously and to take more decisive policy action addressing the concerns of renters and those excluded from the housing market.

The social housing system is facing profound challenges and housing organisations will need to innovate to survive and succeed. While the constraints on the system are real, it would be a mistake to treat them as binding. The future is not given. It is made. And if we are to secure the broadest possible social benefit from innovation then learning and effective practice needs to be shared as widely as possible.

You can read the full essay here.

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Informing the debate on directly elected mayors

David-SweetingDavid Sweeting

Recently George Osborne announced the creation of a ‘metro-mayor’ for Greater Manchester. In doing so he has joined a long line of heavyweight politicians who have endorsed the idea of directly elected mayors as at least part of the solution to issues in urban governance in English cities. From as far back as Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s, via Tony Blair, and through David Cameron the idea of a single figure to govern our cities has resonated strongly in Whitehall. In the press release on Manchester’s metro-mayor, Osborne is quoted as saying: ‘This will give Mancunians a powerful voice and bring practical improvements for local people, with better transport links, an Oyster-style travelcard, and more investment in skills and the city’s economy.’ The prospect of other cities introducing similar figures is clearly back on the agenda – whether on existing city boundaries or across a city-region.

One of the frustrations in the debate around directly elected mayors is the lack of empirical evidence around which to base judgements on their impact. Competing camps tend to paint over-idealised or over-pessimistic scenarios, depending on the position they wish to advocate. The pro-camp points towards the creation of a powerful central focus for urban governance. A leader of place rather than the council, this figure increases interest in civic affairs and is able to use their profile for the good of their areas, joining up diverse interests, and is firmly held to account at the ballot box every four years. The anti-camp tends to warn of the dangers of centralisation, with a directly elected mayor able to have free rein over the electoral cycle, yet with no reason to suppose that this figure is better able to work with diverse interests than traditional council leaders in their areas, often with concerns about the ‘wrong’ sort of person being elected.

In 2012 Bristol introduced a directly elected mayor, based on the city council area of Bristol. The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is analysing the introduction of the new system, drawing on empirical data from before and after its institution, both from members of the public in Bristol, and from different sectors involved in the governance of the city. We have reported our most recent analysis in our Policy Briefing, published via Policy Bristol.

Here I discuss two findings that are likely to be of interest in the debate around the introduction of mayors in other cities. The first is that there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of citizens who agree with the statement ‘the city of Bristol has visible leadership’. It has risen from 24.1% in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, to 68.6% in 2014. This is a startling rise, and provides a boost to those who argued for the introduction of a mayor in Bristol on the basis that existing city leadership lacked sufficient public profile. The second is that there are very different views on the introduction of the mayor in different sectors of governance in the city. Our survey of civic leaders in 2012, before the introduction of the mayoral system, found that, on the whole, councillors were much less positive about the introduction of a mayor than other respondents from the public, private, and third sectors in the city. This is significant because directly elected mayors are often advocated on the basis that they will facilitate positive relationships across the city beyond the council chamber. Our research suggests that this may well be the case, but there clearly would be work to be done to convince councillors of the benefits of the system.

Our project in Bristol is ongoing, and in future we will be able to report a much larger, more rounded set of results. As we have data from both before and after the introduction of the mayoral system in the city, our work is well placed to shine light on claims about profile and visibility, or relationships between sectors, as a result of changing the system of governance, as reported above. Of course, there are limits to these claims, both as a result of methods used, and as a result of the complex nature of urban governance. For example, survey research is not sophisticated enough to disentangle the impact of the change in governance system and the change in political leader. There are also limits to the transferability of these results beyond the Bristol context. In relation to ‘metro-mayors’, for example, there is the issue that the mayoral system in Bristol was introduced on existing city boundaries, whereas, for example, the Manchester proposals are across the sub-region. This inevitably adds a layer of complexity when establishing new governance structures that are both effective and democratic. We nevertheless hope that other cities considering a variant of the directly elected mayor model of decision-making will find these results very useful in thinking through the consequences of introducing mayoral governance in their cities.

David is Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is being carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol, and the University of the West of England, Bristol, and has benefitted from ESRC Impact Acceleration Account funding.

This piece was originally posted on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog

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Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow in the School for Policy Studies, discusses gendered violence

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People around the World are currently engaged in 16 days of activism against gendered violence.  Communities across different nations are challenging the inequality which some men interpret as an excuse to violate and oppress those, predominately women and children, who are more vulnerable than themselves.

This image is being used with permission from J.Fleming

This is a global phenomenon which has landed in the middle of our city of Bristol. I drove past the Premier Inn on my way to work this morning.  The same hotel where last week it was revealed that a young, vulnerable, girl of 13 had been raped and sexually abused by a group of men who had been grooming her for sexual exploitation.  That building used to house Bristol Social Services.

It is possible that I have met this young woman, or someone like her, during the course of our research on the needs of homeless women or in the recent evaluation of a nearby Child Sexual Exploitation project.

She could be Jasmine, not her real name, who we first met when she was 19.

But when I got kicked out the last time, that was the only person who I could go to … but he’s on like a paedophile thing, he’s on the sex offenders for life … and he’s just not right in the head. […] Not … he never done nothing to me … or that I know about … cos he could have done it when I was asleep … but I never felt safe there. It was just horrible. (Jasmine, age 19)

When we spoke to her again, she told us

When I think back to that I do get very paranoid thinking he might have put stuff in my drink and … cos I just would not put it past him.  And … but I try not to think of it, cos I’d never find out now. (Jasmine, age 19)

When Jasmine told us about this she did so with a resignation and matter of fact honesty.  She genuinely does not know, on that occasion, if she was sexually assaulted or not.  The rest of Jasmine’s story has an inevitability about it, for example she told us about both her current and ex- ‘boyfriend’:

One time my ex-boyfriend, he hit me before … this was like proper punches to the head … never got the police involved when I should have.  But this one’s a bit different – although he’s physical, he’s like in your head.  That’s what he’s more like – he tries brainwashing you. (Jasmine, age 19)

And about how she coped with alcohol and drugs:

I know it sounds stupid, but I was just thinking a bit religiously and thinking it’s not natural, this is not what God like wanted you to do – take drugs and drink all the time. There’s got to be more to life than that (Jasmine, age 19).

Speaking with older homeless women, the vast majority of whom had experienced domestic or sexual violence throughout their lives and used alcohol and drugs as a coping strategy, demonstrates how the abuse of vulnerable girls and women continues overtime with immeasurable personal costs.

Blossom was 52 when we spoke to her:

[…] this person I’d known from last year, […] he harassed me going along the road, he wouldn’t leave me alone … he said “I need to talk to you” … and the outcome was I was assaulted […] And you see the thing is I knew him when I had nowhere to live, and I stayed there for a night.  And people don’t realise how vulnerable you are when you have nowhere to go. […] you’re vulnerable to all sorts of people.  And believe me I’ve met people that are not nice, and they take advantage of the situation. (Blossom, age 52)

Or Daisy and Ginger who spoke to us about staying in a mixed homeless hostel:

[…] the mixed [shelter], it ain’t safe in there because being women, sometimes I’d get a lot of attention from men, you know?  […] you don’t like waking up in the night getting touched or things going that shouldn’t be going on, you know what I mean?   (Daisy, age 30)

Yeah it’s mostly men, there’s only four women there.  It can be a bit agitating, cos the men there think they can just grab you when they’re drunk and do what they like, you know, but they can’t really can they? (Ginger, age 49)

The Bristol case yet again highlights the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable girls but it also challenges us all, as a society to reconsider how we respond to victims and how we all contribute to the reality in which abusive behaviours, across the continuum from wolf whistling to rape, are experienced and understood.

Whilst the media is rightly abhorred by the rape and sexual exploitation of young vulnerable girls, it doesn’t ask about the wider dynamics of gender and power which contribute to such abuse taking place.  When exploited girls talk about perpetrators as their ‘boyfriends’ it is in a context where society teaches young women to judge their self-worth on the basis of women’s objectification in the eyes of men.  Where they are bombarded by objectifying images on a daily basis in our newspapers, on TV, and on the cover of magazines.  Where senior executives from one of our national TV stations think it is ok to represent the harassment and abuse of women as tongue in cheek comedy entertainment.

In Bristol we have a council that sanctions licenses for sexual entertainment venues – whilst simultaneously seeking to educate young people in the city about respectful relationships. What we need to realise is that the violence and abuse experienced by women and children is inextricably linked to gender and inequality.  If we fail to challenge the latter, we fail to address the root causes of abuse and let victims and survivors down.

Dr Emma Williamson

Anyone who wishes to donate to a local Bristol charity which works with vulnerable women in relation to sexual exploitation might wish to donate to:

http://one25.org.uk/

http://www.sarsas.org.uk/

 

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Nudge and the state

alexmarsh

Professor Alex Marsh, Head of the School for Policy Studies

Last week I took part in an enjoyable discussion on nudge policy as part of Thinking Futures, the annual festival of social sciences. Through a slightly mysterious process I ended up speaking in favour of nudge-type policies, while Fiona Spotswood from UWE made the case against relying on behaviour change initiatives. Fiona made a robust case. I have to say mine was a little less than compelling, in part because in reality I have quite a lot of sympathy with the critics. I find debating from a position you don’t entirely agree with more successful on some days and some topics than on others. This was not one of the better days.

Nonetheless, I find the topic of nudge, and behaviour change policy more broadly, fascinating because it raises so many issues.

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge was published in 2008 and has subsequently generated a vast critical response. Such a response is not uncommon. But what is rarer is that it has got everyone worked up. There is barely a discipline across the social sciences and humanities that hasn’t had something to say on the matter. Thaler is an economist and Sunstein a lawyer, but the critical response has gone beyond those fields to include philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, management, marketing, public health and public policy scholars. We have also seen cognitive and behavioural scientists offering views on the issue.

The critical response has addressed nudge from a wide variety of angles. Much of literature addresses the ethics of nudge. Is it ethical for governments to seek to exploit known systematic biases in human cognition in order to assist individuals in meeting ends they would desire, if they had stopped to think about it? A whole host of questions follow: how are those ends identified and by whom? Does this constitute manipulation? Is it acceptable or unacceptable for governments to manipulate in the ‘public interest’? Is it coercion? Is this the thin end of a wedge that leads to authoritarianism or even fascism (which is part of the critical response primarily among more libertarian-inclined lawyers/economists in the US)?

Is a failure on the part of government to nudge simply allowing other (private sector) economic actors a free hand to nudge individuals in all directions, without any countervailing action to mitigate the worst effects of private nudges? Perhaps the simplest way to make that point is to consider the nudge argument that if you place healthy food more prominently near the checkout in a cafeteria, rather than the confectionary that is usually there, then it increases the likelihood that people will eat healthily. Critics object to government manipulating choices in this way. But the prior question is why is the confectionary there in the first place? It is, of course, because the manufacturers of sweets know that we are prone to temptation and impulse purchases while standing in line. They are manipulating a systematic bias in our decision-making.

Of course, the alternative response to this problem is to seek to do something about the way private actors manipulate choice in the first place, rather than surreptitiously nudging in the opposite direction. But that would require a braver government than any we have seen in recent years.

A second strand of the argument focuses on the evidence base underpinning policy proposals. How well attested are these behavioural effects? One simple criticism of the literature is that much of the original experimental data comes from studies of the decision making practices of US undergraduates. To what extent do these conclusions generalise? Behavioural economics tends to assume that generalisation is unproblematic, but that is hardly a sound starting point for policy. Under the UK Coalition government the policy debate about behaviour change has been one area where considerable prominence has been placed on the role of evidence and on policy pilots. But it is an area in which one type of evidence – that drawn from randomised controlled trials – is seen as pretty much the start and finish of the conversation.

A third strand of argument is about the efficacy of nudge. Even if we accept that there is robust evidence of systematic biases in cognition (such as the tendency to weight current consumption more heavily than future costs when making decisions) what can be done with this information? Most importantly, is it a substitute or complement to other forms of government action? Can nudge be used instead of more paternalistic regulation, for example? This is a point that governments have been rather vague on. Nudge, when it arrived on the scene, was viewed as being able to stand in for more interventionist approaches. But this position has subsequently been modified in the face of criticism. It may be possible to improve social outcomes in modest ways using nudge techniques, but it is hopelessly underpowered for addressing some of the major challenges facing society.

Finally, there is the fact that “nudge” is rather elusive. By that I mean that it doesn’t refer to a very clearly defined set of actions. Or rather it has been applied to a wide range of actions and interventions that don’t really accord very well with the original definition of a nudge offered by Thaler and Sunstein – a definition which has, itself, been heavily criticised. The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team was colloquially referred to as the “nudge unit” but it drew much more broadly on insights from social psychology and behavioural science than simply focusing on nudges of the Thaler and Sunstein variety. There are now quite a number of other approaches to behaviour change circulating. Some of them have similarly catchy labels (think, steer, budge, shove). Some of them start from very different premises to nudge itself. Some have had an impact on policy in particular fields – with much of the running being made by the debate in public health. Some of them have yet to make much of an impact on policymaking in practice. The academic discussion is a riot of theoretical innovation, with various frameworks and heuristics being proposed. Some are engaged in the hard graft of evaluation and synthesis, with the aim of being clearer regarding what works, when and how.

An outstanding question is whether as the accounts of behaviour change become more complex and nuanced they start to lose their purchase on policy – which typically wants simple messages leading to clear prescriptions. But that is simply another case of the perennial tension between research and policy.

This post was originally published on Alex’s Archives.

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Child Sexual Exploitation: Groundhog day

Emma Williamson and Natasha Mulvihill, Centre for Gender and Violence Research

The report into the abuse and sexual exploitation of children and young people in Rotherham[i] whilst shocking, is not a surprise. The report comes in a long line of reports, inquiries, research, and reviews which are consistent in their findings. That victims have been ignored or not believed; that busy professionals have been unable (for a variety of reasons) to respond appropriately; that officials have not adequately prioritised the work of those on the front line; and that existing legislation is not being used even in cases where it could be, to tackle the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

As British actor Samantha Morton made clear in her recent interview, every incident of child sexual abuse is a life sentence for that individual, their families, and those around them.

As calls for yet another inquiry are made, maybe this is the time to take a different approach. A recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report, published in April 2014, concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that in terms of child sexual exploitation “justice cannot currently be served due to the lack of a specific offence”. The recommendation of this report was that “existing offences could be used more effectively”.  Sheila Taylor, CEO of NWG Network, in recent news interviews and her own press release, highlighted how their organisation had compiled the recommendations from 16 recent relevant reports which resulted in up to 400 recommendations. The result, she suggests is that practitioners are overwhelmed, frustrated, and struggle to implement the findings from a report before a new one comes out. Ms Taylor suggests, and we would wholeheartedly agree with her, that maybe that money would be better spent on dedicated, ring fenced, services to implement the recommendations we already have and provide the much needed victim-focused services which are clearly needed.

Too often the response to inquiries, reviews, and reports by the time they come out, however damning, are that lessons have been learnt and changes made. The scandal which we need to face is why this keeps happening if lessons have been learnt? What happens in these areas when the glare of the media spotlight disappears and victims once again become the target of perpetrators whose behaviour society allows to go unchallenged?

Our recent evaluation of a specialist service working with young people at risk of sexual exploitation[ii] is that lessons haven’t been learnt. Austerity is impacting on the ability of statutory services, the police, social services, and youth services, to deal with the cases that fall onto their desks, let alone going out and finding what are hidden and difficult cases to deal with. Too often the services for those in need, as opposed to those where there is a statutory responsibility to intervene, are restricted, where they exist, to short term interventions. It beggars belief that commissioners think that someone being groomed for sexual exploitation would be identified, supported to recognise the abuse, and disclose that abuse in the 6 week support packages currently written into so many service contracts. Those being exploited need specialist support, over a long period of time, and for there to be coordinated responses between the police and support workers. All of that costs money which is increasingly difficult for local authorities and voluntary services to find.

Given the difficulties faced by service providers with ever increasing workloads and limited specialist service providers where they can send clients, it is not surprising that victims end up falling through the net. The vulnerabilities which perpetrators target victims for, are the same that allow agencies under pressure to perceive these victims as difficult and un-credible.

Rather than waste yet more money on an inquiry, the responses to which we have heard before, maybe the government and all political parties should commit to 10 years of ring fenced funding for the establishment of a national response. This should include specialist sexual exploitation workers to support victims in every area of the country and specialist dedicated police officers in those areas to use every law at their disposal to target perpetrators so it is their behaviour under the spotlight and not that of the victim.  Where this has happened in local areas, real progress has been made.  We need the same concerted effort nationally to tackle this problem.

The authors can be contacted at nm8543@bris.ac.uk and e.williamson@bris.ac.uk 

This blog was originally posted on the PolicyBristol blog. 

[i] Jay, A. (2014) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

[ii] Mulvihill, N. and Williamson, E. (2014) An Evaluation of the GDVSAP Trafficking and Grooming Project, Gloucester, UK.  Bristol: Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol.

 

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