The Centre for Social Justice: Decision-Based Evidence-Making to Punish the Poor?

The Centre for Social Justice: Decision-Based Evidence-Making to Punish the Poor?

Daniel Silver, Becky Clarke, Amina Lone, Patrick Williams

Iain Duncan Smith established the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think-tank in 2004 following his Easterhouse epiphany in Glasgow, as he witnessed “levels of social breakdown which appalled” him. Now led by Christian Guy, the work of the CSJ appears to be a crusade that rests on moral panic rather than robust social science research. This has major implications for public policy and the much-heralded aspiration for evidence-based policy.

It is important to scrutinise the CSJ as they wield considerable influence on government and receive largely uncritical media attention. Tom Slater has written that in order to give ‘scientific’ credibility to extending the neo-liberal state and deepening social inequality, think-tanks such as the CSJ have “mastered the craft of decision-based evidence making, tailored to the needs of policy elites and politicians on the lookout for accessible catchphrases to woo a jaded electorate.”

In 2006 the CSJ identified the five pathways to poverty: family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness and dependency, addiction and serious personal debt. The pathways are a tautology that not only reverses social causation, they also individualise the causes of poverty within a stigmatising ‘underclass’ framework that deftly rejects the wider structural inequalities that create and (re)produce poverty and inequality.  The CSJ use these defined pathways to poverty to explain a whole range of complex social problems. Iain Duncan Smith wrote in the 2009 CSJ report on gangs entitled Dying to Belong, that:

“Britain’s gangs are the product of these pathways and are found in our most deprived and marginalised communities. They are most commonly found in areas of high family breakdown, addiction, unemployment and worklessness. The modern gang is perhaps the best illustration of how broken Britain’s society is.”

Following the riots in 2011, many politicians and commentators were keen to transpose their existing world view onto explanations of what happened. The CSJ noted that “Gangs played a significant role in the riots and it is dangerous to pretend otherwise.” The riots seemed to fit within their narrative of ‘Broken Britain.’

The landmark study by the Guardian and London School of Economics Reading the Riots, which interviewed 270 people who had participated in the riots, found that one of the prime factors behind the riots was antipathy towards the police – driven by consistent criminalisation through the disproportionate use of Stop and Search. Contrary to the CSJ’s statements, Reading the Riots found that “on the whole the role of gangs in the riots has been significantly overstated.”

This analysis does not chime with the CSJ view of the world. They took the opportunity of the riots to spread their particular form of moral panic and paint a picture of imminent social collapse. The CSJ were bullish in their rejection of such evidence, and argued that the people who “…regard the riots as a random one-off and mistake the quashing of the disorder as control of the streets… could not be more wrong. The alarming fact is that many streets across the country are besieged by anarchy and violence. There is no control in such neighbourhoods.”

This paints the picture of council estates that are breeding social disorder and provide a dangerous threat to society. This territorial stigmatisation is a clear pattern throughout all of the CSJ’s work. In, Dying to Belong, under the heading of “Social housing – incubating social breakdown,” they wrote that: “…the majority of social housing households are now headed by young, workless lone parents and single men and women, often with incomes below the poverty line. Gangs are, unsurprisingly, most commonly found in these highly deprived areas.” As Lisa McKenzie notes, the stigmatisation of council estates and people living in them “have been central in producing new ways of exploitation through the fields of culture, and media, inventing new forms of class differentiation, and class antagonism.”

Loic Wacquant argues that as ‘small government’ emerges in the economic realm – there is an increase of ‘big government’ in terms of workfare and criminal justice. Wacquant says that this is all part of punishing the poor. As the social safety net is reduced to a minimum and individuals are blamed for poverty, the punitive role of the state increases as a means of discipline. He argues that this is in fact a constituent aspect of the neo-liberal state. This analysis sheds light on the central purpose, role and function of the CSJ and it is worth quoting Wacquant at length from his article “Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare, and Social Insecurity.”

“…punitive containment as a government technique for managing deepening urban marginality has effectively rejoined social and penal policy at the close of the twentieth century. It taps the diffuse social anxiety coursing through the middle and lower regions of social space in reaction to the splintering of wage work and the resurgence of inequality, and converts it into popular animus toward welfare recipients and street criminals cast as twin detached and defamed categories that sap the social order by their dissolute morality and dissipated behaviour and must therefore be placed under severe tutelage.”

The contemporary animus towards welfare recipients (‘shirkers’) and street criminals (‘gangs’) represents the 21st century’s pathological reconfiguration of the working class poor. Within CSJ ‘evidence’ and analysis there chimes the spectre of Murray’s culturally maladaptive underclass.  Sadly, much of their evidence downplays the lived hardships, experiences and inequality endured by such groups, which are then elucidated through perennial modification of deterministic cultural and criminogenic explanations for poverty, crime and offending behaviour.

Of more concern, the CSJ is rooted within the practice of ‘dog-whistle’ politics, stealthily signifying the contemporary ‘folk devil’ for populist consumption. This conceptually flawed ‘evidence’ base permeates the Centre’s most recent forage into the most unlikely nexus, Girls and Gangs”. The report was shamefully released on the same day that the media reported the fatal shooting of a young Black London teenager. Despite this, the report received considerable and largely uncritical attention from the national media, yet it crystallises all that is troubling about the Centre for Social Justice. One of the striking aspects of this study was that the CSJ had heard that “…young women have used buggies to carry weapons…” and that they are rarely stopped. This anecdote is used as a basis to recommend that the Police “should revisit their review of Stop and Search Powers to ensure that police force’s Stop and Search practices are not incentivising girls to carry firearms and drugs.”

The report signals the ‘whistle’ for a stronger concerted response driven by ‘control agencies’ refashioned as multi-agency collaborations or as Tufail describes, ‘punishing partnerships’ comprised of the state, the ‘cash strapped’ and compliant VCS organisations and an unwitting (yet CSJ constructed) ‘culpable’ community. The image of the young single mother deceptively carrying weapons accords with the CSJ narrative of a society that is collapsing due to family breakdown: indeed, young single mothers on benefits are the ultimate pariah, the manifestation of all their fears and the focus of many stereotypes.

At the same time, there is increasing evidence, which demonstrates the disproportionate impact of this government’s policies on women – in particular, those women at risk of criminalisation from the strategies proposed by CSJ and whose experiences may be intensified through the threefold dimensions of racism, sexism and classism.

For example recent figures on the outcome of the work programme published by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, illustrate that ‘men get more jobs through the Work Programme than women, and the gap is increasing. Furthermore, this gap is increasing at a time when a range of austerity policies implemented by this Government also start to affect these same women in a disproportionate manner. For instance, the Women’s Budget Group note that Universal Credit (imagined up by the CSJ) could signal a “return to a ‘male breadwinner model’ in which men do paid work and women stay at home to look after children and other dependants.” Arguably then for young women for whom poverty and marginalisation is part of everyday lived reality, pressure is increasing and opportunity reducing.

With the CSJ report on ‘Girls and Gangs’ and the strategies proposed therein, there appears to be an ignorance of the understanding and recommendations of Baroness Corston’s government commissioned report on women in the Criminal Justice System back in 2008. This report bore witness to the damage done by the inappropriate criminalisation of women, particularly on mothers – resulting in family breakdown. Whether that damage is experienced as a result of the inappropriate application of the patriarchal practices and policies of the criminal justice system, or associated with pathways into crime engendered within homes and communities mostly through the  actions of men.

If stop and search is the first gate to the criminal justice system, and we acknowledge that this system can be disproportionately harmful to women, with this strategy, the Centre for Social Justice seek to further alienate women from any protection the state can offer them. Instead of identifying and investing in social security policies which assist women to move beyond the structural constraints of their lives the CSJ proposes to wield ‘stop and search’ a process widely viewed as discriminate and ineffective. We need to keep challenging the over-expansion of criminal justice into women’s lives, and recognise that these policies and practices undermine women’s safety.

The concept of the ‘gang’ is a transcendental signifier obscuring the acute socio-economic problems endured within marginalized communities.  The initiating of moral panic is it seems, of particular interest to the Centre for Social Justice – certainly of more interest than the rise of social inequality or the impacts of benefit sanctions on vulnerable individuals and families.  On the surface, the CSJ report on ‘Girls and Gangs’ appears to be identifying a particular problem for girls and women. In reality, it is all part of their wider approach of developing decision-based evidence making for regulating society, and in particular, punishing the poor – and it is women and girls who bear the brunt of the burden.

Dan Silver, @DanSilverSARF, co-Director of the Social Action & Research Foundation, which is a think-tank that co-produces policy with communities to address poverty ( Dan has worked for over ten years in the voluntary sector around issues of poverty, participation and equality. Becky Clarke, @beckyjoyC, is a criminal justice researcher involved in a range of projects examining experiences of young men, women, families and care leavers affected by crime, social harm and the CJS. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology department of Manchester Metropolitan University. Amina Lone, @AminaLone ,co-Director of the Social Action & ResearchFoundation. Amina has worked with underserved communities for over twenty years in major cities across England, and is also a local councilor in Manchester. Patrick Williams, @PatrickWillia17, is a senior lecturer in Criminology at the Manchester Metropolitan University.  His research interests include the disproportional impact of Criminal Justice processes and differential practice.