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How it feels when your research is used to justify disability benefit cuts

Ben Barr, co-author of a key research paper, says "the government has misinterpreted the evidence".

The government misinterpreted the findings in one of just two pieces of evidence cited in support of recent Employment Support Allowance cuts, according to an author of the study in question.

Last month Employment and Support Allowance was reduced from £102.15 to £73.10 per week, leaving those out of work due to illness or disability on the same rate as people receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance. The Department for Work and Pensions introduced the cut in a bid to encourage people back to work, believing the inflated benefit was a disincentive to join or rejoin the labour force.

The reforms were based on evidence that included a study by Barr et al. from which the department stated: “eight out of 11 studies reported that benefit levels had a significant negative association with employment.” However, the paper later highlights substantial validity issues regarding the studies, adding there is insufficient evidence of a high enough quality to determine the extent of any such effects.

Ben Barr, senior clinical lecturer in applied public health research at Liverpool University and co-author of the paper, says: “It seems the government has misinterpreted the evidence in the paper.

“We found that some of the higher quality studies did show very small effects in changes in the level of benefits being related to employment, but there are a few things that need to be taken into account.

“Firstly, those studies were looking at the effect of increasing benefit levels, which reduced employment slightly, and they were based in Scandinavian countries that already have very generous levels of payment. That can’t really be applied to the situation with the cut in ESA, which is taking a benefit that’s already at a very low level - among the lowest level for people with disability in OECD countries - and taking it down to a much lower level, which is basically going to put a rather large number of people into poverty.”

The Work and Pensions select committee, in its report on the proposals, noted the evidence presented before it was “ambiguous at best”, adding ESA claimants have unavoidably higher living costs due to their conditions than those on JSA.

In fact, the study may even point to the government's cuts having the opposite impact. “We don’t know what effect [the cuts] are going to have on putting people into employment,” says Barr. “It may well have the opposite effect, which is what many in third sector organisations are saying, and it’s much harder for people with a disability to get into work if they’ve having to cope with living in poverty.

“The other factor mentioned in the paper is, even if that policy did result in a number of people being in work who wouldn’t otherwise, if it’s also causing a large increase in poverty among other people, the net effect could still be extremely negative.”

Writing for the Faculty of Public Health, Barr adds: “One in three working age disabled people are living in poverty. Their risk of poverty is one and a half times greater than for people without a disability. The government’s strategy, however, for improving the lives of disabled people, focuses almost exclusively on the disability-employment gap rather than this disability-poverty gap.”

“Increasing poverty among people out of work with disabilities will adversely affect their health and increase health inequalities. We know that poverty damages people’s health, and adequate welfare benefits for people who can’t work can reduce these effects. We have seen that in recent years inequalities in health are increasing in part due to disability benefit reforms. The severe cut planned by the government will further exacerbate these inequalities, potentially increasing levels of disability.”

Last month’s ESA cuts will not work retroactively, so those already receiving the higher rate will continue to do so. But the situation must be carefully monitored to record exactly the effects this cut in support has on the lives of those suffering from illnesses or disabilities that prevent them from working.

“It’s a pretty horrific situation,” says Barr. “I’m a bit horrified they’re using our paper in the way they are because it doesn’t really support the policy. You can see poverty is already on the increase among people with disabilities out of work, particularly those with low levels of education and skills - this will just exacerbate that.”

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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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