The former Welfare Reform minster has described two of his own policies as “excrescences” that were made into law because they were popular. The phrase “Performative Cruelty” has been used to describe such policies and most recently in describing the treatment of refugees. Here Paul asks if or when the description “Performative Cruelty” is appropriate.
Two of the changes made to the benefit system over the last decade have intentionally broken the link between a family’s needs and the support offered by the state. Both the Benefit Cap, first introduced in 2013, and the 2017 two-child rule, cut the incomes of already disadvantaged families with children. These policies have become important drivers of recent child poverty and are among the principal reasons why around one million foodbank parcels were provided for children by Trussell Trust last year. These consequences were clear and obvious from the first moment the policies were suggested, which is one of the reasons why churches alongside many others campaigned against them.
Lord Freud describes two of his own reforms as “excrescences”
It is exceptionally welcome that the former minister, Lord Freud, is now in agreement with us. In a speech to the House of Lords last month he described the Benefit Cap and the two-child rule as “excrescences”. It was, however, infuriating to note that while the noble Lord found time to namecheck his new book and indicate further revelations were to be found within it, he did not find time to mention that the “excrescences” were his own. He was the government minister responsible for Welfare Reform who took these policies through the House of Lords.
It is doubly infuriating, as the mantra of government ministers, including Lord Freud, when these measures were introduced was that their key principle was “personal responsibility”. The reality of the reforms borne out by this speech was that all too often personal responsibility was forced upon the weakest claimants regardless of their culpability, while personal responsibility for the hardship caused was effortlessly evaded by the powerful.
The rationale behind these “excrescences” was that they were popular
Lord Freud’s speech contains the reason why the “excrescence” – that is the Benefit Cap – was implemented, and then, despite the evidence of harm without any compensating positive effects on people’s lives, it was further expanded three years later.
Lord Freud explains that the then special advisor at the Treasury said, “I know it didn’t make much in the way of savings but when we tested the policy it polled off the charts. We’ve never had such a popular policy.”
The Benefit Cap has four properties that are now largely uncontested: 1) it causes hardship focused on children, 2) it saves little if any money overall, 3) it has no measurable effect in moving people into work and 4) it is spectacularly popular with the general public.
The irony is that even as the policy was being first discussed, long before it became law the evidence for all four it these points was overwhelming. Knowing this we the churches opposed the policies. Perhaps naively, we continue to believe that popularity is insufficient reason to justify causing children harm. We are now told it was the key justification for a policy known to cause hardship, particularly to families with children.
Defining Performative Cruelty
Last month, a charity that provides support for refugees in Kent described the policies that create a “Hostile Environment” for asylum seekers as “performative cruelty”. It is a vivid phrase and it is worth looking at what might make the hostile environment, or any other policy, deserve this description.
- The policy must cause significant, detectable harm to people. It would be inappropriate to use the term “cruelty” simply for an economic loss, but only if that loss leads to hardship .
- It must not result in those being harmed experiencing compensatory benefits. Hardship alone is not sufficient. It is conceivable that harm caused by a policy could be a regrettable but necessary step on the way to other compensating benefits.
I must admit to being sceptical about such policies that are said to be “cruel to be kind”. I have noticed that while it is common for a policy to be justified as being “cruel to be kind” when it affects the poorest and weakest. Kindness to millionaires rarely takes the form of cruelty.
- The policy must be openly and widely understood to be causing harm to a defined group of people. While conceivably this could be any group in a democracy like the UK, it is hard to imagine this being anything other than a politically weak and unpopular minority of some sort. Asylum seekers or benefit claimants are the obvious candidates of today, but ethnic minorities, those of non-heterosexual orientation and many others have faced time in this unpleasant spotlight.
If a policy meets each of these three criteria, the most obvious and possibly only rational explanation for it is that the policymakers see an advantage in being seen to do harm to the unpopular group. Performative Cruelty would be an apt description.
Passing the performative cruelty test
The Benefit Cap and the two-child rule are rightly described by one of their creators as “excrescences” exactly because they cause hardship without compensating advantages. The designers do not appear to have set out to harm or cause damage. By their own admission, they set out to be popular, and the harm to vulnerable families was the cost of that popularity. Performative Cruelty appears to be a fair description.
The most prominent recent use of this phrase was in reference to the “hostile environment”. This is a raft of policies designed to make the UK an increasingly unpleasant place to live for those unable to prove they are UK citizens or Home Office approved migrants. It is clear that the policy leads to huge harm to some people, mostly undocumented migrants, but also to (mainly poor and non-white) UK citizens unable to provide evidence of their immigration status. We have written about the enormous human cost of the policy in the report “Destitution, Discrimination and Distrust”.
The policy was highly public, including well-publicised poster-bearing lorries being sent round areas that housed large numbers of immigrants. It is difficult to say it is successful, even in its own terms, because it is hard to know what success would realistically look like. Certainly, the government’s own Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration concluded that “ministers had not set any specific targets by which the effectiveness of the ‘hostile environment’ measures would be assessed,” and that the controversial ‘right to rent’ rule was “yet to demonstrate its worth as a tool to encourage immigration compliance”.
Numbers of asylum applications, returns, or appeals appear to vary with push factors in other countries such as wars, oppression, and famine, rather than in response to Home Office policy in the UK. Performative Cruelty appears to be a reasonable if difficult to conclusively prove, accusation.
Why is this important?
Despite its emotive colour, the phrase “Performative Cruelty” is not in itself important. However, what it represents is. One of the oldest, most successful, and most shameful ways of courting popularity is to find and define an outgroup and then cause them harm.
All people have worth and dignity. As Christians that flows from our belief that all are made in the image of God. That worth is not lost if you belong to an unpopular group or come from a distant part of the world. The idea is imperfectly put into law by concepts such as human rights, where no matter who you are these rights are yours to draw upon.
As the Nationality and Borders Bill continues through Parliament, it is important to ask the question: does it pass the Performative Cruelty test? Ten years from now will a current minister calmly reminisce to the House of Lords that the Bill was an “excrescence” – but a popular one?
Just as importantly, are the immigrants and asylum seekers affected by this Bill protected from performative cruelty? Are they able to protect their own dignity and challenge harms done to them? In legal terms this means asking if they have access to courts and tribunals to challenge those that violate their Human Rights. If access to these is reduced, the risk of Performative Cruelty increases.
We do not believe the defenders of the Bill have a convincing or compassionate answer to these and many other important questions. There is an opportunity to lobby parliamentarians, ask questions and seek to improve the Bill before it becomes law. We know that a Bill that makes asylum seekers’ already difficult lives harder may well be popular, but it can never be just.
Christians should be very clear – even from our own history – that popularity is no justification for harmful policy. Or to put it another way, no matter how loud the cheers of the crowd, they could never justify someone being thrown the lions.
The two-child rule means that Universal Credit will normally only provide support for two children in a family, irrespective of the families size or needs. The benefit cap is also focussed on families with children for example, of the 221,000 families affected since its introduction only 365 have been childless couple families.
 Trussell Trust collects comprehensive statistics and has commissioned extensive research into why people need foodbanks. It should be remembered that Trussell only represents just over half of the UK’s foodbanks.
 Counterintuitively the Department for Communities and Local Government believed the policy would actually increase overall public expenditure. While the cap reduces the amount spent on Universal Credit and Housing Benefit by a very small fraction, the resulting increased hardship spills over to other services and to the DWP in longer more expensive spells on benefits. Sadly, government has made no attempt to fully quantitate its impacts post-implementation.
 It is also possible to argue that harm to the environment or other creatures may qualify also, but for simplicity, I focus here on humans.
 It is possible to argue that hardship for a small number is justified by bringing benefits for society at large. This argument appears stronger in extreme situations such as soldiers in warfare, but it becomes sinister and dystopian when applied to the normal social policy of an affluent democracy.
 I am Irish and my generation has largely escaped this – but I can remember those of my grandparents’ generation speaking vividly of being second class citizens with manifestations varying from being the acceptable butt of every joke to being last in the queue for employment and housing.
 Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (2016), An inspection of the ‘hostile environment’
measures relating to driving licences and bank accounts, ICIBI-hostile-environment-driving-licences-and-bank-accounts-January-to-July-2016.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk), page 52.
 Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (2018), An inspection of the “Right to Rent” scheme, An_inspection_of_the_Right_to_Rent_scheme.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk), page 2