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The Autumn Budget 2017 is the perfect time for a Universal Credit U-turn

When you look at the statistics, the devastation inflicted by the wait for Universal Credit is clear. 

I am a big fan of U-turns. Last summer I wasn’t paying attention to my SatNav so I ended up driving for 17 miles in the wrong direction. Once I realised, obviously a U-turn was the best course of action. It would have been foolish of me to just carry on, stubbornly ignoring the fact that I was clearly getting farther away from the destination I was aiming towards.

I’m a big fan of political U-turns for the same reasons. I’ve never really understood why they are met with such criticism, mockery, and derision. Surely, if a government policy is missing the mark, causing harm, having unintended consequences, a U-turn is the best course of action. I for one want my leaders to have the humility and grace to change their minds – and their policies – especially when they are hurting the poorest and most vulnerable in our country.

That’s why I’m desperately hoping the Autumn Budget 2017 will bring a U-turn on the six-week gap that’s built into Universal Credit. If it comes, as many of us in churches and the charity sector are eagerly anticipating when the announcements are made, my response will be to applaud the U-turn. I’ll be thankful for it. I have more respect for a leader who is prepared to look at the facts and change his or her mind, than I do for someone who doggedly sticks to their course of action, no matter who is being harmed along the way.

I’ve written before about the massive increase in demand at my local foodbank that has happened since Universal Credit was rolled out here just before Christmas last year. We’ve now seen an 84 per cent increase in referrals, compared to the previous year. Universal Credit may not be the only reason, but it’s definitely a significant factor.

Some politicians continue to argue that the dramatic increases in foodbank use seen over the last few years reflect the fact more people now know that foodbanks exist. The implication of this assessment is that people mainly go to foodbanks simply because they know they can. This view ignores three vital facts.

Firstly, it shows a lack of recognition of the statistics. Take my foodbank in Hastings. It opened in April 2012, and that year we received an average of 53 referrals per month. It is true that we saw a significant increase the next year – 159 referrals per month on average in 2013. That could be attributed to more people hearing that we could help. But after that, the stats simply don’t give us leeway to believe that “knowing foodbanks exist” is what is driving the rise in demand. Our figures for four years (from the start of 2013 to the end of 2016) are fairly static, even dipping a little in 2015. But when we come to this year – the first year of Universal Credit hitting Hastings – our average monthly referrals have skyrocketed to 289. Since we opened five years and seven months ago, we have fulfilled 11,156 voucher referrals. Of these, 29 per cent have been in the last 11 months.

Secondly, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the way most foodbanks work. To receive food from a Trussell Trust foodbank (the largest network of foodbanks in the UK), for example, you have to be referred by a frontline organisation that deems you to be facing a crisis situation that will be alleviated by emergency food to sustain you for a few days until longer-term support kicks in.

Finally, it reveals a lack of appreciation of the shame and embarrassment many people who come to foodbanks feel. Volunteers at foodbanks all across the country spend a lot of time reassuring the people who come through our doors that it’s OK to ask for help when you’re facing a crisis, that we want to help, that it could happen to any one of us.

It’s not just foodbanks that have been affected by welfare reform, though. Since the end of 2016, when Universal Credit was introduced in Hastings, my local Christians Against Poverty (CAP) Debt Centre reports that its waiting time between initial enquiry and first debt advice appointment has doubled. My local Citizens’ Advice office has experienced a 25 per cent increase in the number of households seeking debt advice this year compared to last. My local council has seen a 13 per cent increase in people being threatened with eviction due to rent arrears since Universal Credit arrived, compared to the same period the previous year.

This isn’t just happening in Hastings. I work for a national Christian charity called Jubilee+ that is hearing similar stories from across the country. It’s what the Trussell Trust, CAP, Citizens’ Advice and many others are seeing too. That’s why we’ve been calling on the government to fix the inbuilt six-week delay from claiming Universal Credit to receiving your first payment.

Most people agree that streamlining the benefits system is a good idea, and long overdue. Most people agree that reforming welfare provision so that work pays is a good idea. I’ve been on Jobseekers’ Allowance for two periods in the past. In both seasons I picked up bits of freelance journalism and found that everything I earned from working was deducted from my JSA. Every penny. For every £1 I earned, £1 was taken away. It made it pointless to work. I’m glad that Universal Credit has changed that (though, truth be told, I still wish it would deduct less than it does).

There are currently 5,000 people on Universal Credit in my town, because so far only new claimants and those with a change in their circumstances have been transferred across. We’ve seen the incredible misery the six-week gap is causing for people, plunging the “just about managing” in poverty, saddling people with debt it will take them months to repay, piling pressure, stress and anxiety onto some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

But there are still a further 8,000 people here who will be transferred across to Universal Credit under the same circumstances unless there’s a change in policy. That’s why I’m hoping that ministers are listening. That’s why I’m hoping they have the humility to change their minds. That’s why I’m hoping tomorrow will bring news of a U-turn and the six-week gap will be removed, or at least reduced.

There’s no shame in a U-turn. The only shame would be in persisting with a flawed system that is causing untold misery for those affected by it.

Natalie Williams is communications head at the charity Jubilee+ and oversees social action at King's Church Hastings, home of Hastings Foodbank. She is the co-author of The Myth of the Undeserving Poor (2014) and A Church for the Poor (2017).

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.