Anecdotal Evidence – the new ‘levers of power’

By Robert Whiston, April 29th 2009

Moral panic; advocacy research; predictions of calamities; ‘scary’ numbers; fatalistic theories, and anecdotal evidence are today the methods used by pressure groups to create a socio-political climate where it is easier to influence government.

In turn, governments use the self same tools to influence the public. We, the electorate are ruled not by government and fact-based laws but prejudice and opinion. These are the tools have become the new undisputed levers of power.

All of the above techniques have a peculiar if not fatal, attraction for newspaper editors and thus drives much of what we read.

Advocacy research, as Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, once observed, is less to do with exploring the unknown than the need to come up with some numbers to support a pre-existing dogma.[1] 

In her speech to the House of Commons (March 25th 2009) seeking reform of cohabiting laws Mary Creagh, MP, cashed in on many elements of these advocacy techniques. In the quote below, note how she, in common with other reform advocates, falls back on anecdotal stories of someone they’ve met. when they lack clear data to make their case.

In her petition to the House for reform, she spoke of the “many women”, “left homeless”, “after many years”, and how all MPs have met such people who have suffered in this way, etc etc:

In the summer of 2006, I met a woman in Wakefield who was homeless. My constituent and her 14-year-old daughter were both sleeping on sofas in the living room of a friend’s one-bedroomed flat.

The woman’s long-term relationship had broken down. She had lived with her male partner for many years, brought up their child, and contributed to all household bills.

However, when their relationship broke down, my constituent was entitled to nothing from her ex-partner.

She moved out of the family home, to which she was unlikely to be entitled to a share unless she could prove to a court that there was a common intention of joint ownership, either by agreement or by financial contribution to the property.

The courts could not consider what might be a fair outcome because she was not married.

My constituent and her daughter were left destitute. She had discovered, in the hardest possible way, that there is no such thing as common law marriage.

The burden of providing for her and her daughter fell on the state and the taxpayer.

Mary Creagh, MP, and the clique of supporters around her are being dishonesty with the public, for the proposed legislation will bite not after ‘many years’ of cohabiting but after only 2 years. It has nothing to do with being left ‘homeless’ after many years, and has as much to do with duration as it has with the fidelity or commitment of the cohabitee about to be fleeced. Elsewhere in this series of papers the lurid numbers have been countered and demolished.

It was at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 1996, that Irwin Hyman proposed a campaign of what he called ‘advocacy research’, using bits of research as propaganda to change public policy. The symposium was debating smacking children and despite numerous studies, nobody has succeeded in establishing a causal relationship between smacking and negative ‘outcomes’ for children. Hence the problem for the anti-smacking crusaders and the welcome solution offered by Irwin Hyman.

Subsequent comments by a colleague, Leonard Eron, give us further insights into how non-scientific research works in shaping public policy. Eron challenged the audience to have the courage of their convictions regardless of the state of current research, and bemoaned:

‘How much evidence must we have and how incontrovertible must this evidence be before we can act ?’

The only beneficiaries of this powerful manipulation of perceptions are the professional lobbyists who are in the business of saving or promoting one cause or another.

Ten years later citing ‘advocacy research’ and ‘bits of research’ as propaganda appears to have had the desired effect of changing public policy even though it is not scientific.

Empirical inquiry is dead. Experimental objectivity and raw data is for fools. The only research work considered worthy is that produced by ‘contextualization.’ Everything, from Archeology to Zoology, is contextualized. Uncomfortable facts and problematic sharp edges are not important; everything has to be processed, dumbed down, filtered and made bit size.

Contextualisation was once rightly confined to theological matters where biblical ‘facts’ had to be reconciled and interpreted in the face of historical and geographical certainties. Since its adoption by sociology in the 1960s it has subsequently permeated into every academic discipline. Contextualization, in its secular guise, assigns meaning, worth, value; it interprets, adjusts and accommodates words, phrases and meanings into the understandable context of the respondent’s cultures – which lays it open to accusations of manipulation by the researcher.

Among feminists, who tend to see the world order in terms of power struggles, conspiracies, their oppression by men, and the ever-evil western hegemony, it is a favourite form of research.

After preparing her audience with advocacy research Mary Creagh makes the classic but mistaken assumption of all liberals and do-gooders, namely that it is the state that is responsible for individuals and the choices they make. Although the burden of providing for her constituent and her daughter will very likely fall on the state, i.e. the taxpayer, we have to ask why should it ?

The constituent is adult and mature and certainly old enough to allow the burden of being a grown-up to fall on her shoulders.

Why does being homeless and ‘all alone in the world’ bring forth legislation for women when it does not for men ?

Mary Creagh and others’ buy-in’ totally to the Law Commission’s view, stated in its May 2006 report namely that;

“The result of the current law’s inadequacy is hardship for many cohabitants on separation, and as a consequence, their children. . . . . And in many cases relationship breakdown may lead to reliance on the State in the form of claims to welfare benefits and social housing”.

The current law is not inadequate, it is judgmental and the public rightly expects it to be so. If it was not judgmental law would lack consistency and dependability. We would be writing new rules for every case – we would have anarchy.

The current law is does not cause hardship ‘for many’ cohabitants – reckless behaviour alone causes that and the numbers Mary Creagh refers to are as miniscule as the number of cohabiting fathers left homeless. If this view is thought to be wrong, then show us the numbers !

Unless cohabiting in some way impedes society or another’s rights – in the way Fleet marriages and irregular marriages did – it is no concern of the state.

As we have shown in a previous article (see http URL Cohabitating Controversy), unless outright and absolute ownership is the goal there is no inadequacy and hardship for any responsible female cohabitee and therefore no case to answer. If, however, she is of a nomadic disposition and wishes to gain from each move while her former partner is still alive then under the present rules she is out of luck – she will only be able to gain on the demise of each successive male cohabitee.

Women MPs, e.g. Harriet Harman, Mary Creagh, allege there are “4 million people who live together” and they want to give “new legal rights” to all of them (ONS believe there to be only 3 million). What they really means is that they want to give new legal rights to only half the cohabitees, i.e. the 2 million females. No one has so far highlighted the new legal rights the male cohabitees might look forward to and if they will be of any consequence.

Lord Lester, Harriet Harman and Mary Creagh might be deliberately misleading their audiences in the Houses of Parliament, for data shows up that 80% of cohabitees will marry. So who are these 4 million people who are being left out ?  Are they the same 4 million people who will marry and get property rights anyway ?

If we look at cohabiting patterns by age and ethnic group (Fig A), we see it starts off at a high level and then tapers off. If we insert an imaginary line at 11% we see that about the same numbers are cohabiting above the line (12% to 19%) as below the 11% line. The difference is that cohabitations have evolved into marriage or single motherhood by the approximate the age of 28.

If the trend is downwards and has reached approx 8% at age 35, what percentage of women will still be cohabiting at age 55 when Mary Creagh’s women are allegedly supposed to being left ‘homeless’ after ‘many years’, especially when among Asian we can see that it has completely vanished by the age of 34.

 

Fig A. Cohabitation (by age and ethnic group) (%) 

Source OPCS No 77. Autumn 1994, Population Trends.

How hypocritical then that her speech continued in the vein of the ‘rights’ of the 1.25 million dependent children who would suffer “devastating hardship on the breakdown of their parents’ relationship” (ref: Hansard 25 Mar 2009, Column 310). Someone should point out that at the rate of 1.25 million it would take but 10 years for the entire population of children in England & Wales to suffer “devastating hardship.” This is another of advocacy research’s junk arithmetic to compliment what Americans call ‘junk science’.

The need to ‘protect children’ from ‘hardship’ and respect their ‘rights’ has never before stood in the way of female liberation. Indeed, fathers’ and men’s groups have been the lone voice consistently pointing out this particular stalking horse.

It has been fathers’ and men’s groups that have time and again pointed out the fallacy that family breakdown carries no price and flawed rationale wrapped around it. This is view slowly being adopted by media and politicians alike. [2]

 

The Church of England is as fuddled in its strategic thinking as the reformers, who see themselves as the political illuminati. The Church of England tries to have it both ways; it recently passed a motion that recognised the vulnerability and hardship for female cohabitees; reaffirmed the centrality of marriage; but then called for the creation of new legal rights (presumably to be embedded in some new form of marriage variant).

Mary Creagh quoted the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey as showing there is also an appetite throughout the country for a cohabiting Bill. To arrive at that firm conclusion one has to take a simplistic view matters or prefer to be ‘selective’ when making public comments. Creagh is right in that the 24th Report does state, “Nearly nine out of 10 people think that a cohabiting partner should have some financial provision. . . . ” but the same sentence continues with the caveat, “ . . .  if the relationship has been long term and involves children.”

Mary Creagh and the cabal of reformers, therefore, fail to make the argument, for within the survey are yet more items that point in the opposite direction that they are trying to move public opinion. (See – http  – 2008 British Social Attitudes Survey).

This approach to swaying public opinion is a repetition of the dubious practices confessed to by Ruth Deech in ‘Divorce Dissent’. When she was a Law Commissioner pushing through the Divorce Reform Act she admits  swaying public opinion by omitting statistics , misquoting others and ‘selectively’ data to enhance their case.

That was a shocking revelation when she made it in 1995, but it has not invalidated the law passed and the many amendments since. The other deplorable aspect is that we can safely assume that since 1969 and the Family Law Act 1996, the situation will have become if anything worse.

The extent to which society has lost its moral compass is symbolised by the fact that 44% of all children in England and Wales are born to unmarried partners – only Sweden comes close to that rate. Government is said to be ‘relaxed’ about this 30 year trend because to discriminate against it would be illegal and show bias against one of allegedly several valid lifestyles (see ‘Marriage Lite’ – http Comparing ‘irregular marriages’ and Cohabiting).

The cohabiting proposals as announced are not a solution. The recommended cure (of state regulation of cohabiting) will not be preventive of some imagined hardship or inequity.

Cures shouldn’t kill the patient – but the present recommendations seem intent on doing precisely that. Cures shouldn’t spread the infection and fuel the disease – and on a finding of fact the present recommendations meet those criteria too.

Reading the various speeches made by the reformers one begins to find contradictions. Like insects they suddenly find they have fallen, into amber and are trapped by their previous promises – for example:

However, we need to be clear. The Bill does not give cohabitants the same legal protections as marriage does. Marriage and civil partnership are special and offer specific protections and benefits. – Hansard 25 Mar 2009, Column 310.

That is surprising. The very point of the Bill – if we are to believe other statements – was to give cohabiting women the same rights as divorced women.

It is also surprising because when ‘civil partnerships’ were being debated and voted upon the public was assured such unions were not true marriages but merely a vehicle for homosexuals to legitimately express their long-term commitments to one another by registration, have rights of hospital access when ill and rights to inherit free of death taxes when one of them died etc..

One has to ask whether the reformers see cohabiting reforms as excluding the rights to inherit money, property and possessions upon death and that they will be free of death taxes ? At one moment it would appear they do want all this, but then also state that cohabitants will not have the same legal protections as marriage or civil partnership which must raise doubts.

Is the Church of England is correct after all ? Are we to interpret the proposals to lead to a third marital status ?

In any event, the registration of cohabiting homosexuals is entirely voluntary whereas the planned regime for heterosexuals is the very opposite of voluntary.

To a bemused but patient British public it would be rewarding to be able to explain how it is possible for marriage not to be the same as cohabiting when the only part of the legal framework that matters – the division of the ‘spoils’ –  is exactly the same as if the couple had been married.

In true twisted logic, the beauty of fleecing male cohabitees is said to be that, “It may even remove the incentive to cohabit in order to avoid the financial costs of a divorce, which many people do now.”

If nothing else this is a back-handed admission that the fleecing of married men takes place and acts as a disincentive.

Elected to up-hold democratic principles and represent all of the people, Ms. Creagh appears to have completely lost touch with reality. She is set to promote the views of a minority that wil adversely affect the majority. She is poised to abolish the right of personal choice, universal personal freedoms and its attendant liberties.

She wants to be considered a serious player among the reforming cognoscenti and has set her cap to capture her rightful place among the feminist bourgeoisie.

 

Undoing legislation, even ill-considered legislation, is usually impossible in the Westminster context. For instance, the UK has created the world’s biggest DNA database by recording DNA for every infraction. The inventor of DNA, Alec Jeffreys, has said the technique as currently used is not reliable enough to convict and the ECHR has ruled that retaining DNA is an abuse of state power (see http://robertwhiston.wordpress.com/2008/02/29/6/, and DNA pioneer Alec Jeffreys: drop innocent from database’. 15 April 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/apr/15/jeffreys-dna-database-human-rights-police). Despite this the law has not been repealed or amended and there is nothing on the political horizon to indicate change is imminent.

Ms. Creagh must be ‘an innocent abroad’ with no experience of ‘heads of policy’ or the essential precedence set by, for instance, tax law ? If it is perfectly legitimate and a long established tenet in common law for a taxpayer to take steps to reduce his exposure to taxes, why should a heterosexual man not also avoid the financial meltdown of a divorce by opting for cohabitation ?

The numerous authorities for this freedom to choose include Lord Templeman’s ruling that: [3]

“The material distinction in the present case is between tax mitigation and tax avoidance. A taxpayer has always been free to mitigate his liability to tax. In the oft-quoted words of Lord Tompkin, ‘every man is entitled if he can to order his affairs so as that the tax attaching under the appropriate acts is less than it otherwise would be’”.

Under the Lester and Creagh proposals for cohabiting there will be little room, if any for a male cohabitee to mitigate his liability.

The other leading authority is the Willoughby case in the House of Lords:

“The hallmark of tax mitigation, on the other hand, is that the taxpayer takes advantage of a fiscally attractive option afforded to him by the tax legislation and genuinely suffers the economic consequences that Parliament intended to be suffered by those taking advantage of the option.”

The difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall. [4]

How many cohabiting men will find themselves threatened by those prison walls is open to speculation. One suspects that men in general will once again sleep walk into this disaster.

END 

[1] “Punishing parents”, by Frank Furedi, Spiked, 2004. http://www.spikedonline.com/articles/0000000CA5D0.htm  . Author of “Where have All The Intellectuals Gone ? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism” (pub 2005), Continuum, “Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right” (pub 2005), Continuum, and many others. 

[2]   a).‘Marriage ‘keeps families united’, BBC, 7th  September 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5323798.stm

b). ‘Conservatives to renew their marriage vows’, by Philip Johnston, Daily Telegraph, 11/12/2006

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/12/11/ntory11.xml, ‘Iain Duncan Smith says that community disintegration is endemic and he blames family breakdown’(Social Justice Policy Group).

c). ‘Tories say marriage is key to ending social problems’, by Jenny Percival & PA, Times on-line, December 11, 2006, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article667633.ece

d). ‘Married couples are no longer the social norm’, By Sarah Womack, Social Affairs Correspondent,. The Telegraph, 24 Jan 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1576322/Married-couples-are-no-longer-the-social-norm.html

“Family breakdown is a major cause of social exclusion,” he said. “For years this debate has been stifled, with Government research papers even excluding marriage as a special family category.”Small wonder that the cost of family break-up grows, estimated at £20-£24 billion.” 

[3]  ‘Tax Avoidance, Tax Evasion & Tax Mitigation’, by Philip Baker, p 9, http://www.taxbar.com/documents/Tax_Avoidance_Tax_MitigationPhilip_Baker.pdf

[4] Quote from Dennis Healey, a former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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