It’s been reported that Lord Howard, once a hardline Home Secretary who became briefly the leader of the Conservative Party, has had a little local difficulty with the law. When his car was detected speeding, Lord Howard was unable to say whether he or his wife was driving. It’s a route they drive frequently, the notice of committing an offence comes some time after the offence has been committed, and either of them could have been driving. Lord Howard has been heavily penalised for not making the declaration, suffering a penal fine and extra points. The two drivers had the same number of points; they could have agreed a story between themselves; they could have lied. They chose not to. Instead, they gave the honest answer: we don’t know.
Regular readers of this blog will be ahead of me. I’ve argued for years, sometimes to the bafflement of MPs and MSPs, that people claiming social security can’t sensibly answer the questions that the authorities want to ask them. People with disabilities can’t say whether they’re disabled or not (most of them get it wrong). People who are forming a relatonship with someone else often can’t say when that person becomes a partner. People who start work in our new, ‘flexible’ labour market may not know whether they’ve got a job or not, or even if they’re going to be paid. When they fail to answer the black-and-white question, or when they plump for the wrong answer, they’re penalised for it. I trust that Lord Howard will now have the insight to champion their cause.
The National Audit Office has published a critical report on benefits sanctions. In 2015, 400,000 claimants were sanctioned, out of 3.5 million claimants of sanctionable benefits; the NAO reports that 24% of JSA claimants have been sanctioned. The application of sanctions is not properly monitored, and the DWP does not know what effect this is having. The NAO raise doubts about consistency, accuracy and timeliness. Their overall conclusion is this:
The Department has not used sanctions consistently. Referral rates vary substantially across jobcentres and providers, and have risen and fallen over time in ways that cannot be explained by changes in claimant compliance. While the Department is correcting errors earlier, it needs to do more to show that the quality of referrals and sanction decisions has improved. Our review of the available evidence suggests the Department’s use of sanctions is linked as much to management priorities and local staff discretion as it is to claimants’ behaviour.
The DWP, as is their wont, have blamed inconsistencies on the front line staff (p 26). We should be careful what we wish for. It’s perhaps worth putting this together with the information from the Couling Report, which denied (however implausibly) that the DWP had any centrally directed policy to impose sanctions or targets governing their number. If the DWP does as the NAO asks, it will have to.
There are much more serious concerns about sanctions than their inconsistent application. There are reasons to question their purpose, their scope and their legality. I hope that when the Public Accounts Committee will go further when they report on their inquiry.
There are two days left for the consultation about limiting Tax Credits and Universal Credit to two children. I’m not making a submission. This is not a consultation about the policy, but about what exceptions should be made, including multiple births and the children of rape. It’s a depressing process, which illustrates a general problem: if governments create stupid rules they then have even more problems to stop the anomalies from spiralling out of control.
I’ve some sympathy for a comment made from the IFS in their work on the Autumn Statement, which included a change in the UC taper rate but maintained the swingeing cuts in the work allowance. Stuart Adam pointed out that to date there have been four changes in the work allowance, one to childcare support and now one to the withdrawal rate. It’s exceedingly difficult to know what the effect of cumulative small changes to Universal Credit will be, and maybe they shouldn’t be done unless we do.
On Thursday 17th, I was part of a group of academics giving verbal evidence to the Social Security Committee of the Scottish Parliament, concerning the future development of social security in Scotland. The verbal record of the proceedings is here, in the section headed ‘Work Programme Priorities’ (that’s about the future work of the Committee, not the Work Programme). There is also a full video of the committee (our discussion starts at 1:03). As I can be fairly sure that most of you won’t read or listen to that discussion, here’s a shortened version of my opening statement:
… there is often a tendency to respond to the current set and diet of benefits as a laid table. The terms on which benefits are delivered always determine what it is possible to think about for the future, and it becomes extremely difficult to adapt to change or to anticipate change because of the huge pressure to make up for what has gone before. We saw that in relation to the bedroom tax … [and] tax credit cuts … however, I am afraid that it will not be possible to deal with most of the cuts. Quite simply, there is too much water coming through the dyke and you do not have enough fingers. …
It is important to look to the future and future priorities for the ways in which benefits are to be delivered in Scotland. There are some very large issues of huge importance coming at Scotland at great speed. The Scottish Government will take responsibility for what is, admittedly, a minor part of the total social security system but one that, nevertheless, represents a huge administrative, practical and financial challenge. That must be the priority for future work over the next five years.
In some ways, it is a minefield. Whatever happens—no matter how well the system works—we all know that, with a large system with multiple iterations that deals with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will get the blame when it does. We have to accept that as being part of the enterprise that we are engaged in. It is clearly important to try, as far as possible, to promote the kind of agenda that the Scottish Parliament has previously adopted relating to respect, dignity and fairness to ensure that the system works properly.
I know that it is tempting to focus on specific policies… I would argue that, rather than trying to adapt specific policies on each and every thing, the focus should be on something that is fundamental to everything, and certainly to dignity and respect: developing the administration and mechanics of benefit delivery.
There’s lots more in the full verbal report.
I was at a conference today on funeral poverty, part of the Scottish Government’s agenda for #fairerscotland. The current system of support is very limited, and horrendously complicated. There are five elements in a claim: the circumstances and resources of a claimant, the circumstances and resources of the deceased, the arrangements made for a funeral, the relationship between the claimant and the deceased and the situation of other relatives who might potentially pay instead. I argued that the system could be simplified most effectively if we treated the liabilities and any claim as a matter for the estate of the dead person. That position didn’t attract much support at first, but as the discussion went on more people saw the point of it. This is virtually the only circumstance in the UK system where we directly oblige family members other than spouses to take on the financial liabilities of their adult relatives.
It’s always a pleasure to learn from people who know much more than I do, and the representatives from the organisations for funeral directors were particularly impressive, not just for their detailed knowledge but also for their sensitivity and awareness of the issues. Unfortunately, the profession isn’t well regulated, and I was shocked to hear of bodies in England being kept in the freezer for months until fees could be met – in one case, for 25 years. Some problems can’t be solved by the market. There’s a strong argument for decommodification, and while there will always be some elements of the process that depend on personal choice, there’s also a case for reducing the role of payments and charges, for example by direct provision of burial lairs or cremation.
CROP, the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty, has just published a poverty brief I wrote for them, on Poverty as a wicked problem. In the brief I argue for a pragmatic approach to poverty, rather than an analytical one. Poverty is a wicked issue – complex, multidimensional, unclear and changeable. There is not one problem to be addressed. If we are not dealing with a set, specific problem, or even a defined process, there is little point in chasing after definitive, mechanistic answers. There are some common misunderstandings about anti-poverty policy. The first is the belief that we can prevent poverty by identifying and dealing with its causes, or the ‘generative mechanisms’ that lead to people being poor; this has led to a long series of bad policies. The second misconception is to suppose that if we know what causes the problems, we will know how to stop them; the way into a problem is not usually the way out of it. Neither position is tenable, and too often they have led policy astray.
The problems are not going to sit there waiting for someone to solve them, so that they can be picked off one by one; new problems and issues are arising all the time. Poverty is dynamic – constantly shifting and changing, as an enormous range of processes coincide and collide. One of the central insights offered by the emphasis on poverty as a multidimensional issue has been to emphasise the importance of the perceptions, experience and voice of people who suffer it, as a way of clarifying issues and developing priorities.
The Times has reported the prospect of “all out war between the Sturgeon administration and Scotland’s local authorities.” (Councils to be stripped of powers in local government revolution, 11th November 2016, p 19). It may be a little difficult to think of any field where councils have many powers left to be stripped. Local authorities are a shadow of their former existence: after 1945 they have lost powers relating to social security, health, public utilities, and more recently they have lost most of their functions relating to housing or social work. Education has been boxed in by a national curriculum. Planning and licensing have been strangled by the imposition of a quasi-judicial framework, requiring councillors to behave as if they were judges rather than representatives. Residual powers relating to police and fire have been centralised. So current proposals to take out still more functions, or to shift responsibilities for bin collection to ‘towns’, would leave little more than a shell behind.
Some years ago, I asked a group of councillors for their views. Many were deeply resentful of the Scottish parliament, which in their view claimed a democratic legitimacy which they thought they had in equal measure. The current system of local government is already remarkably centralised by European standards – Highland Council, to take the most obvious example, is responsible for a geographical area the size of a small country. I don’t think there is any way to resolve the conflict within the current framework, but there is at least a way to put reform in a positive light. There’s a powerful case for real decentralisation – locating services at a level where communities can get much greater control of the affairs that matter to them. To do that, there needs to be a system of local government that is based on existing communities – towns, villages, and traditionally recognised areas – as a centre for schools, housing and public amenities. That would call for reform both at central and at local government levels.
The petition I submitted to the European Parliament in July has not yet been approved for public view, but an interesting proposal has been made by a Luxembourg MEP, Charles Goerens. The Constitutional Affairs committee is considering the EU’s institutional arrangements, and Goerens has proposed the following amendment to their report:
Motion for a resolution, Paragraph 37a (new)
37a Advocates to insert in the Treaties a European associate citizenship for those who feel and wish to be part of the European project but are nationals of a former Member State; offers these associate citizens the rights of freedom of movement and to reside on its territory as well as being represented in the Parliament through a vote in the European elections on the European lists.
My petition, provisionally numbered 0922/2016, had stated
As citizens of the European Union, the status of British nationals is protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Citizenship is the right to have rights. If European citizenship is truly fundamental, not just a conditional privilege, no European citizen should have it withdrawn without consent or treated as if it never existed. When the UK ceases to be a Member State, the Parliament, as the guardian of Fundamental Rights, should ensure that European citizens of British nationality who wish to preserve their fundamental rights are able to retain their citizenship.
Goerens’ amendment, though it does not refer to the EU’s obligations under the Charter, is a substantive response to that. As the amendment is framed, however, it asks for Treaty change, and it does so in relation to a document which seeks nothing less than a fundamental review of the Lisbon Treaty. This is likely to be a slow and difficult process, if it happens at all. In so far as the Charter of Fundamental Rights is already part of the constitution of the EU, Treaty change should not be necessary. The EU should do what it has already undertaken to do.
An article in the Economist holds up the case against Uber as an example of how new ways of working pose a challenge for policy-makers. It claims that “Over the past 150 years, regular employment has been the norm.” It may seem so to those too young to remember daily labour in the docks or casual hiring in agriculture, but it’s not true. There has always been ‘sub-employment’ and precarious employment. In the 1970s we called it ‘the lump’, and bemoaned the failure of successive governments to deal with the obvious problems. Casual employment in particular is a long-standing feature of conventional economies – see, for example, Beveridge’s Unemployment: a problem of industry (1909). The National Insurance Unemployment Benefit made provision until the 1980s for odd days of work – workers had to declare if they earned more than a very small amount on any single day, and show that they were not employed to the ‘full extent normal’. There is nothing new about the ‘gig economy’. What’s changed has been the removal of the support systems that were designed to deal with it.
The benefits system has been immeasurably damaged by the obsession with work as an answer to every problem. People who are sick have been forced to declare that they are actively seeking work; others have been put under pressure to find work where there is none, or in situations where their disadvantages rule them out. Some have been sanctioned for non-compliance; more have been disentitled. People who work do not necessarily have the income they need or the rewards or opportunities that work is assumed to bring in its train.
The DWP Green Paper, Improving Lives, is just awful. It complains about the inactivity of the most sick and most vulnerable. It does not accept that some people need to be excused from the labour market: “1.5 million people now in the Support Group … get little by way of practical support from Jobcentres to help them into work.” It does not seem to understand that pressure to work will unavoidably be seen as a threat to the security of people’s income while they are ill – because that’s what it is. It proposes to extend to those for whom working is least viable the kind of regime that has so signally failed for people in the ‘work related activity group’. If people who are sick cannot find ways to engage with the labour market, why should we imagine that people who are sick and vulnerable should fare any better?