Prescripted Living: Gender Stereotypes and Data-Based Surveillance in the UK Welfare State

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

From the post-war welfare state that inherently assumed married women would be supported by their husbands, to the 21st-century introduction of Universal Credit which financially disincentivises some women in cohabiting relations from working: the welfare benefits system in the UK has historically favoured individuals who conform to gender stereotypes.

At the same time, the welfare benefits system also uses more and more surveillance of claimants to determine who is ‘deserving’ of support, using increasingly sophisticated data analysis tools to impose conditions on welfare claimants and punish those who do not comply.

Laura Carter, PhD candidate in the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project at the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre, published a new article in Internet Policy Review, which argues that both stereotyping and surveillance reinforce structures of categorisation – in which individuals are treated according to group membership (whether or not it is accurate) and control, through normalising some behaviours while punishing others.

The article argues that the combination of gender stereotyping and surveillance in the UK welfare state risks creating a vicious cycle, in which the categorisation and control dimensions of both stereotyping and surveillance reinforce each other.

This increases the likelihood of the system coercing welfare claimants—by definition, people living on low incomes—into certain ‘accepted’ behaviours, and discriminating against those who do not conform.

The increased conditionality of welfare benefits has already caused demonstrative harm to those who cannot or struggle to access Universal Credit. The article further argues that the coercive, surveillant nature of the welfare state risks cementing hierarchies of power that continue to stereotype and discriminate against low-income people.

This is the case particularly for low-income women who are expected to balance the demands of their disproportionate unpaid caring responsibilities as well as increasing requirements for job search activities.

Carter’s article applies a human rights analysis—including recognition of the harms of gender stereotyping, as recognised by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) —to this system of coercion and conditionality, in order to make visible analysis the specifically gendered nature of the harm caused by surveillance and conditionality to welfare benefits claimants.

Applying analysis of gender stereotyping can further identify—and combat—harms that are inherent in the current structure of the welfare benefits system in the UK, with the aim of ensuring that benefits are accessible for all who need them.

Article full citation: Carter, L. (2021). Prescripted living: gender stereotypes and data-based surveillance in the UK welfare state. Internet Policy Review, 10(4).

Police and Crime Commissioners: A Dislocated Expectation?

Image by James Eades

New research, based on exclusive interviews with high-ranking figures from across UK policing – including Chief Constables, PCCs, one of the most senior persons in policing and one of the persons involved with introducing PCCs – suggests a postcode lottery in police accountability. The calibre of individual PCCs is seen as the key factor in ensuring adequate oversight, with stark differences exposed between forces.

Dr. Simon Cooper, from the Essex Law School, gained unprecedented access to key figures from all sides, on the condition of their anonymity.

Dr. Cooper’s findings, which were published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice and subsequently cited in the House of Commons Police and Crime Commissioners 2021 Report as well as House of Lords 2022 Report Police and Crime Commissioners: Powers and Functions, support the argument that the current system can work.

However, Dr. Cooper identifies a “significant anomaly”, with accountability dependent on the relative strengths of PCCs and Chief Constables and the relationship between the two. Success, in this respect, can be seen to “hinge on luck”.

Dr. Cooper said:

“These findings suggest a significant variation in how police accountability is administered around the country. While one Chief Constable described being regularly ‘grilled’ by their PCC, some Commissioners are seen as ill-equipped, ill-prepared and potentially ego-driven. The importance placed by the system on these single individuals suggests there is a real possibility that some Chief Constables are being held to account more effectively than others.”

One Chief Constable, identified as Chief Constable D, outlined the issues that exist when dealing with their elected PCC, contrasting it with the previous ‘tripartite’ structure, where Chief Constables would report to the Home Secretary and their local Police Authority:

“…there is a significant risk that the relationship (between PCC and CC) either becomes excessively hostile, excessively friendly or… there isn’t the balance, additional questioning or informing of the debate that a wider group would give. (…) Because of poor safeguards and governance arrangements it too quickly descends into personalities and subjectivity in which accountability becomes likeability, becomes re-electability. Accountability becomes all of those things it shouldn’t.”

Another Chief Constable, Chief Constable C, underlined the importance of the PCC-Chief Constable relationship, noting the impact of individual experience and characters:

I have seen evidence of PCCs who are ill-equipped and ill-prepared and actually don’t have the skills to understand big organisations making sweeping statements and making assumptions about individuals without any basis whatsoever. I have also seen Chief Constables that do not want to adapt to a new way of working and will be very obstructive towards PCCs.”

Summarising the impact on oversight, Police and Crime Commissioner D asked:

“The question is can a PCC be played by a Chief Constable? They clearly could be and some I suspect are. I am quite sure that there are some Chief Constables who just pay lip service to their PCC.”

The current system was seen by some as placing an impractical burden on one individual. The lack of a ‘pool of different views’ limits opportunities for the PCC to moderate their thoughts and has the potential to leave the PCC either exposed or guided by advice from others, with no formal oversight role. PCC A commented:

Presumably if it’s something they (the PCC) didn’t know a lot about they talk to a lot of people about it but you don’t see any of those conversations played out.”

In reality, one senior figure, Person Z, was left questioning the original design of the PCC system:

“For one person, even though they are elected, to replace the wisdom and contribution of 19 [Police Authority members] is a tall ask. There’s only one person [the PCC] providing scrutiny [of Chief Constables] and that’s a heavy responsibility, so in terms of scrutiny of course it’s a lot less. Palpably has it worked? No… I suspect PCCs might, in hindsight, be regarded as a blunder.”

Dr. Cooper’s findings suggest a need for the Home Secretary to review the Policing Protocol and for an Accountability Code of Practice to be issued. He said:

“This research encourages the Home Secretary to exercise their power and urgently review The Policing Protocol Order. In its current form, the PPO is overly broad, presumption-based, loosely-worded and generic, with a resulting impact on accountability.”

Dr. Cooper’s research is published at a time of a continuing debate on police accountability. The Police Foundation found a “crisis of confidence”, recommending “root and branch reform”, and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services recommended a “profound and far-reaching police reform” and there have been calls for a Royal Commission.

Dr. Cooper’s research also found that in some instances the PCC model is viewed favourably when contrasted with its forerunner, with the previous bureaucracy and resulting backlog replaced by a “single point of decision-making” and a greater “visibility” of the decision-making process at a local level.

Other interviewees, however, suggested such appearances could be deceptive. PCC E commented:

“We have gained in terms of visibility but lost in terms of detailed scrutiny that the Police Authority was capable of.”

Dr. Simon Cooper’s article titled ‘Police and Crime Commissioners: A Dislocated Expectation?’ was published in Vol. 15, Issue 3 of Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice and can be accessed via the publisher’s website here. The House of Commons report on PCCs, citing Dr. Cooper’s research (pp. 10-11), can be read here. The House of Lords report also citing his research (para. 1.3) can be read here.

This ELR post was updated on 10 November 2022 to reflect recent developments in the impact of Dr. Cooper’s research.