Devolution: the Constitution Committee misses the point

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has published a report on Devolution in the UK.  It’s primarily focused on the relations between the four nations; that means that, despite taking a wide range of evidence, it misses the point almost completely.  It doesn’t understand the most fundamental problem with the whole idea of devolution: that power in the UK is overwhelmingly centralised.  Local government in the UK used to be responsible for hospitals, social assistance, public housing, gas, electricity, water, police, fire, public health, schooling and transport.  Local authorities could develop enterprise, issue bonds to borrow money, and raise money for specific projects. All of those powers have been taken away.  The promise of the ‘Northern powerhouse’ is a pale shadow of what local government used to be.

During the Scottish referendum campaign, I wrote about The failure of the UK.

The most obvious problem is remoteness –  the problem of London-centred government.   That was a problem in the 1920s and 30s, and the centralisation of the UK since World War II  has made it progressively worse.   The process began with the centralised control of services and resources that were necessary in wartime; after the war, while central government gradually (and reluctantly) relinquished control of industry and markets, it retained control of resources and services that were formerly part of local government.  … In the process, the regions – all the regions – have been left behind.  It’s not just the arrogation of control to the centre over public services; it’s been the sustained campaign to deny any part of the regions the power to borrow, to build,  to take action on behalf of their population.

The process of ‘devolution’ is about delegating scraps of authority, rather than allowing regional and local authorities to act.  Federalism is not about the grant of authority: power in a federal government is reserved to smaller units.  There is no understanding in this report of that principle or what it implies.

Meeting the costs of Basic Income

Howard Reed and Stewart Lansley have prepared a new report on Basic Income, for Compass.  The options they examine go some way to crystallize the disquiet I sometimes feel about Basic Income.  They write:

It is not possible to design a scheme that is revenue neutral, pays a decent sum and withdraws most means-tested benefits without significant numbers of losers.

Basic Income would probably leave some very poor people worse off.  It would be necessary to retain a raft of existing benefits, which tends to undermine  the beguiling simplicity of many Basic Income schemes.  That is not a fatal objection, because (as Child Benefit does) a partial Basic Income could at least help to offer some security and stability of income; but it falls some way short of what the most passionate advocates of Basic Income would like to believe about the scheme.

Once we accept that Basic Income is going to be partial, we then have the question of what kind of partial scheme would be best.  We could improve the Basic Income scheme relating to children, fairly simply, by doubling Child Benefit: it would cost £12bn.  We could extend a Citizens Income to all Pensioners at relatively low cost.  We need then to consider what priority to attach to the extension to people of working age, at what level such a benefit could be introduced, and how it could be financed.

The abolition of the personal tax allowance implies a level of intrusion and penalties for people working in marginal employment.  But it doesn’t all have to be done by  Income Tax – it’s not the only option that governments have to raise money.  Other options include, for example,  purchase taxes, property taxes and public income generation.  I’ve suggested before a way of combining a contributory element into a scheme for Citizens Income.  Currently the National Insurance Fund pulls in £113bn p.a.  If we upped NI contributions to 20% and removed the upper limits, that could go some considerable way towards funding a benefit based on a combination of solidarity and work record.

Fraud and error in Universal Credit

Universal Credit was supposed, through some process I can’t claim to understand, to reduce fraud and error in the benefit system.  According to the Business Case, there were supposed to be reduced overpayments worth £14 billion over twelve years, or £1.16 billion per annum.    I commented in 2012, and again last December, that I found this claim implausible: Universal Credit doesn’t do anything about most of the circumstances which lead to fraud and error, but it does add layers of complexity to make confusion and mistakes more likely.  Now we have the first figures from the DWP on fraud and error in Universal Credit.  Universal Credit was overpaid by 7.3%, compared to 5.0% of JSA (the nearest comparable benefit) and 5.2% of Housing Benefit.  It was underpaid by 2.6%, while JSA was underpaid by 0.8%. The system makes more mistakes in both directions.  The DWP points to the complexity of managing some claims – but that, of course, is the point.

The DWP summary pleads that the difference between UC and JSA is ‘not statistically significant”, and that in any case UC and JSA are not directly equivalent.  True enough, but Universal Credit was supposed to cut fraud and error by somewhere between a third and a half of all overpayments.   If UC was supposed to save a third but is actually costing nearly fifty per cent more, the level of fraud and error is running at more than double what was expected.  If it was supposed to save half, it’s three times what it should be.

Vote Leave summarises its campaign: muddled, mendacious and offensive

The Vote Leave campaign has just offered us a referendum broadcast, which was aired on Radio 4 this evening.  Here is the full text.

“On the 23rd June there is a referendum to decide on Britain’s future membership of the EU.

This is your chance to Vote Leave and save the £350m a week we pay for Britain to be a member.

Vote Leave to spend that £350m on our priorities like the NHS.

Vote Leave to regain control of immigration and borders.

Vote Leave to stop future migrants from countries like Turkey, Serbia and Albania entering Britain freely.

Vote Leave and we can have a points based immigration system like in Australia.  It is safer and more humane.

Vote Leave to deport dangerous criminals and terrorists who threaten our safety.

Vote Leave to let Britain negotiate its own trade deals with the USA, China and India.

Vote Leave to stop British taxpayers bailing out countries like Greece.

Vote Leave to prevent unelected EU politicians passing laws for Britain.

Vote Leave to end EU law overruling British Law.

Vote Leave to stop paying corrupt expenses like £11m a year on a chauffeur service for MEPs.

Vote Leave to stop EU workers undercutting British workers.

Vote Leave to take back control.

Vote Leave on the 23rd June.”

There are thirteen claims in that list.  Four are questionable:

  1. Developed countries with open societies cannot in general control  immigration by policing the border – consider the position of the USA, which has millions of unregistered residents.
  2. Any money not spent on the EU is unlikely to be spent on the NHS; it will have to be spent on replacing the kinds of things the EU does (such as support for agriculture and promoting trade).
  3. MEPs can claim expenses for travel; this is part of the expense they incur, not corrupt practice.
  4. Isolation is not self-determination, and leaving is no  guarantee that Britain will ‘take back control’.  The UK will lose its present control over EU practice, and will have to accept EU conditions to continue trading with the EU.

Five are (more or less) true, but they might not be understood in the same light by everyone:

  1. Britain could introduce a points-based points scheme – but its current scheme for non-EU immigration suggests it is more interested in direct financial contributions.  The Australian approach to immigration favoured by UKIP is not exactly perfect  either.
  2. Britain hasn’t been faced with supporting Greece in the Euro, but that’s not the main point.  Members of the EU are committed to supporting countries in trouble, because that is implicit in solidarity, and almost every country in trouble will have been badly managed at some point.  Some of us think that mutual support is a good thing.
  3. Some EU workers can undercut UK wage rates, as the UK can undercut wage rates in much of Northern Europe.
  4. Britain could negotiate independent trade deals, give time.  Whether these would be favourable to Britain would remain to be seen.
  5. EU law can in certain circumstances trump UK law.  We’ve been required, for example, unwillingly to remove gender discrimination from our benefits and pollution from our coasts.

Four of the points made it the broadcast are just plain wrong:

  1.  Britain does not pay £350m per week to be a member.  (The figure disregards the rebate.  This is like saying that you have just spent £3 on a fizzy drink which was actually reduced to  £2, because the label included the price before the reduction.)
  2. Turkey, Serbia and Albania are not members of the EU.  Whether they become members depends on agreement of all countries, including Britain.
  3. All laws passed in the EU have to go through the Council of Ministers, all of whom represent elected governments.  That is not to say that they pass laws for Britain.  The system of regulations and directives works by asking national parliaments to introduce laws compliant with the treaties.
  4. The UK already has the power to deport dangerous criminals, European or not.

The frequent repetition of bogus claims looks like a deliberate and knowing attempt to mislead.  Add to that the snide, offensive comments on migrants, applicant countries, ‘corruption’  and the association with criminals and terrorists: Vote Leave comes over as something very unpleasant.

This is my 700th entry on this blog.


Guy Standing: Basic Income as a response to insecurity

I went tonight to hear a lecture by Guy Standing, who was talking to the RSA in Edinburgh about precarious labour and the case for Universal Basic Income.  He argues that the model of secure income which predominated in the mid to late 20th century has now broken down.  The combination of global labour markets and huge increases in the supply of labour worldwide have led to unstable lives, heavy dependence on money wages.  This has been accompanied by a neo-liberal agenda that has led to commodification of services, an erosion of the commons and a loss of citizenship rights.  I do not think this is universally true – it might equally be said that there have been major improvements in civil rights and living standards in recent years; nor is precarious labour  a recent phenomenon; but he is right to point to the emergence of the precariat as the basis of an economic class.

Standing’s argument for Basic Income is based partly on social justice, and partly on its instrumental role in furthering economic stabilisation.  He has drawn some persuasive evidence from his own work in a pilot in Madhya Pradesh, where a basic income led to improved health, nutrition, sanitation, school performance and economic activity.  He emphasised in particular its role in emancipating people – two of his strongest examples related to the position of women, who are empowered by having their own income – and strengthening their hand in wage negotiations.   The only group who did less work were the children, who went to school instead.  He sees the Basic Income as liberating people, and, he told me, as a means of decommodifying labour.

Both of these elements are persuasive in their own terms, but I am not yet convinced that the problems he rightly identified in the first part are addressed by the solution he was proposing in the second.   The core of his argument for Basic Income is based on evidence that poor people do better when they have more resources.  There are other ways that resources can be provided.  A basic income is an individualised response; it gives people money to spend in the market.  If we want to strengthen the commons, there are alternatives – making communal provision for services such as health and education, looking for collective responses to social needs such as communications, roads and water supply.  There is a reason why Basic Income has also commanded support from neo-liberals and free marketeers, who see it as an alternative to public services, not a way to strengthen them.

Equally, while it must help to offer incomes that are more secure, it is far from clear that Basic Income will produce greater stability in people’s lives in other ways, such as the loss of the ‘occupational narrative’ Standing is concerned with.  If we want people to have dignified, stable, secure employment, we need the community to create the right sort of jobs.  Basic Income can only be a partial response.

The Named Person: not exactly a new idea

The Scottish Government’s proposals for appointing a ‘named person’ for children have come under heavy criticism.  I was puzzled at the discussion on Question Time last night, which seemed to treat the idea as a strange invasion of alien ideas. (One of the discussants compared to the intrusive behaviour of Italian police.  Imagine – foreigners, and European foreigners at that!)

The idea of the named person comes from the 1978 Warnock Report on special educational needs, later prominently supported by Margaret Thatcher (who had set up the Warnock Commission while education minister).   Warnock wrote:

We believe that there is a clear need for one person to whom the parents of children with disabilities or incipient special needs can turn for advice on the different services available to meet their child’s needs. This should be someone who is well known to and accepted by them. The principle holds whether the children are under five, of school age or making the transition from school to adult life. We therefore recommend that one person should be designated as Named Person to provide a point of contact for the parents of every child who has been discovered to have a disability or who is showing signs of special needs or problems.

The Named Person was supposed to offer continuity throughout a child’s lifetime.  As the Warnock report argued, however, needs can occur at many points in a child’s lifetime and there is no clear, constant distinction to be made between children who have special needs and others.  Extending the principle to other children is unsurprising.

It’s not a bad principle, but after more than 35 years we can say something about how the idea actually works.  The system of the Named Person doesn’t, in practice, provide continuity through childhood.  Some professionals, such as Health Visitors, may have a prominent early role which reduces in importance later; others, such as teachers, may take on responsibilities for a few years before the child moves on.  So from an early point, the practice has been to nominate a generic official, such as the Director of Social Work or Director of Education, and any idea of continuing personal contact becomes meaningless.  This is a pleasing idea that was tried and didn’t really work.


Controlling corruption in Nigeria

The Prime Minister has been accused of a diplomatic faux pas in describing Nigeria as ‘fantastically corrupt’.  I only know Nigeria at second hand: over the last fifteen years I’ve met a long series of Nigerian students studying for the Masters in Public Administration.  Most of them would, I think, share the Prime Minister’s view.  If anything, they have an exaggerated view of it; I’ve sat in class while Nigerian students claimed, in the presence of other students from Iraq and Somalia, to be the most corrupt country in the world.  The Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International ranks Nigeria 136th in the world,  while Iraq is 161st and Somalia is bottom at 167.

Initially, I found students training for public administration were reluctant to discuss issues of corruption.  As time has gone on, there has been a greater sense of openness, and willingness to discuss the situation, both ethically and practically.   Klitgaard argues, in Controlling Corruption, that some corruption may be necessary for a system to work at all: the task is to reduce it, not to impose zero tolerance.  Low pay in the public service is a problem, because it makes the system vulnerable to bribes.  There is a case for introducing standard charges for services, because there is not much point in pretending that services are free if people have to pay bribes to get the free service.

Many of Nigeria’s official efforts have been devoted to catching the big fish, through the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission; but that is not the everyday aspect that most affects people’s everyday lives, often based in small-scale shakedowns and demands for money from officials.   According to my students (who may not be representative) items where people used to demand bribes or a ‘dash’, like birth certificates or passports, have become more automated, and people have learned to record the behaviour of corrupt police and officials on their mobile phones (e.g. in this report).  Things are getting better, but they have a way to go.

Revising the role of committees in the Scottish Parliament

Tricia Marwick, the retiring Presiding Officer, has been making again a case for a review of the structure of committees in the Scottish Parliament.  Because there is no second chamber (unless we count the UK parliament in Westminster as one), the scope for initiating, revising and monitoring legislation is limited.   In principle, the Committees have that role.  Marwick argues that there are too many committees for the number of members,  committees have been dominated by supporters of the government and the role of committees has often been reactive.

There is a real problem here, but her proposed solutions have not attracted much support.  Reducing the numbers of committees leads to some topics eating time from the scrutiny of others – Health and Sport, Education and Culture, Rural Affairs and Climate Change.  Besides, extra committees are still needed in Parliament for the scrutiny of particular legislation, so there is no way of ensuring that MSPs only serve on one committee.  There just aren’t enough of them to go round.

There are several alternatives which might be considered.  One might be to appoint a body, like the French Conseil d’Etat, to consider the technicalities of legislation.  (The French model combines that function with the judicial branch, which is not wise – it violates the separation of powers, and it gives too little attention to the substance of policy. The principle to take away is that legislation can sensibly be reviewed by an appointed external body, reporting back to elected officials.)

Another option would be to create an external support structure for the committees, allowing committees to delegate the process of evidence gathering, monitoring and expert judgment to appointed sub-committees, whose reports and work would then be scrutinised by the elected politicians.  At present, that kind of scrutiny and support is not available to the Committees; it is only available to the Scottish Government through the civil service.

A new Scottish Politics, or a bit more of the old?

The results of the parliamentary elections on Thursday have confirmed the position of the SNP.  SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens were largely happy to hold their own; the biggest change is the reduction of the number of representatives from Labour, and the increase in the representation of Conservatives.  Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats put a lot of emphasis on the show-business end of politics, including performances with children and animals.  That may, I fear, mislead future campaigners into believing that what matters is the razzmatazz.

What the SNP and the Conservatives had, and what Labour notably lacked, was a broader narrative.  For the SNP, the principal points were about self-government and competence; for the Conservatives, it was about the strength of the union and mounting effective opposition.  Labour, by contrast, tried to emphasise a series of policies.  None of the parties was short of policy.  Nor was this, as John McTernan would have it, about right and left: all the parties in Scotland are to the left of the UK government.  The simple truth is that offering people a shopping list is just not enough to counter a good story.   If Labour wants to appeal, it needs to restate its own narrative.  It can do that by focusing on its principles – equality, empowerment, solidarity and the common weal.

Europe: an update of the arguments

I promised when I first posted about this in February that I’d update the arguments as we went along, and I’ve been doing that.   This is the latest version.

Good arguments to REMAIN

(and what I see as the counter-arguments)

Good arguments to LEAVE

(and what I see as the counter-arguments)

The EU makes it possible to control things which are beyond the scope of national governments – including the environment, trade, multi-national corporations.

True, but the EU’s track record on international regulation has not been good – often because of obstruction by the British.

THE EU has a ‘democratic deficit’; it is remote from the people it serves.

More than half-true – but in the UK, the same is true of almost every tier of government, including local government.  Democracy is an argument for more engagement in the decisions that affect us, not for withdrawal from those decisions.

The EU has defined and raised  minimum standards across Europe, e.g. on the environment, transport, water quality.  Without it, standards will fall.

No counter-argument.


In some fields the EU has promoted a ‘race to the bottom’, undermining citizens’ rights.  Examples include the rules on public services and the bar on living wage contracts.

In any federal system there will be decisions that member states might disagree with.  The test is whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Britain’s diplomatic influence is magnified by the EU. John Major has given a series of examples – including sanctions on nuclear development and the protection of the Kurds – where the UK took the initiative, the UK could not have done in its own right, and where the USA eventually followed suite.

Major’s specific  examples are powerful, but the EU is primarily focused on European affairs, not only foreign policy.


Europe is also a social project which makes life better for its citizens, for example through travel, residence abroad (more than 2 million Britons live in other European countries) and social protection.

There has long been a consistent political majority against ‘Social Europe’ and the project has stalled for many years.

Some shockingly bad decisions by the European Court of Justice (e.g. Rüffert v Niedersachsen, 2008 C‑346/06) have revealed a structural weakness – there is no obvious way to revise and correct defective federal laws without revisions of the treaties.

This could also be seen as an argument for extending the powers of the EU to facilitate the review of federal legislation.

The EU has created rights for its citizens across Europe, such as rights for workers, for women and in consumer protection.   Without it, rights will be eroded.

This is largely true, but the counter-argument is the ‘race to the bottom’: the EU has also undermined significant rights, such as the enforceability of collective wage agreements.

The free movement of people within the EU has been chaotic.  The principle has been undermined by the combination of enlargement and the abandonment of basic planning and population management to cope with social change.

This is a problem of free markets.  Social and economic development depend on establishing a common framework, not on laissez-faire.

The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner and UK industry and finance will have to comply with its conditions to maintain access.

No counter-argument.  If the UK becomes, like Norway, only a member of the EEA, it will also have to accept free mobility of labour.


The EU’s handling of the Greek crisis reveals a deep malaise –  narrow financial interest,  some bad behaviour on both sides of the argument, bullying of the weaker party and a disregard for the welfare of European citizens.

Without regulation and agreed procedures, the bullying will get worse.  This is an argument for stronger regulation and clearer rules, not for leaving.

Britain’s economy depends heavily on the provision of services to other countries and many of those  services (especially finance) could as effectively be provided elsewhere.  Leaving threatens an economic catastrophe for Britain which the IMF has warned could go beyond that to engulf the world economy.

The counter arguments are weak.  The defence that Britain is too big to be allowed to fail is naive, as is the emphasis on the size of the economy, which is based on book values rather than an analysis of prospects.

Bad arguments to REMAIN

(with counter-arguments)

Bad arguments to LEAVE

(with counter-arguments)

The EU has brought peace to Europe.

True, but it doesn’t follow that the UK’s presence is central to that.

The EU undermines national sovereignty.

Sovereignty is all about the authority to make laws – rules of recognition, change and adjudication.  The EU safeguards  the rule of law throughout Europe.  

The EU wants to be a superstate.

The EU aims to develop the rule of law at a different level from the nation state.  Many British politicians don’t understand that other governments don’t work the way they do: most have shared competence at different levels of government.  Other federations are not centralised.

The EU promotes liberal markets.

The EU is wedded to a model of ‘structural adjustment’ that has been discredited in other international organisations.  European markets stand in need of regulation and consideration of the consequences of collective actions.

The EU stops the UK from controlling its borders.

The UK cannot expect in a  modern, open, connected society to govern EU or non-EU migration at the frontier.   In most European countries, migration isn’t mainly controlled at the border: it’s controlled through employment, access to housing and services.

 The USA wants Britain to remain as a conduit for furthering US interests.

It’s difficult to see what’s in this for the UK or for Europe.

Leaving means that the UK will be able to act as it wishes and negotiate arrangements in its own interests.

It won’t, either with Europe or (as Obama has made clear) with America.  Negotiations will be difficult and slow.  The EU nations will favour trade in areas  where trade runs in their favour (e.g. cars) while blocking other imports (such as foodstuffs: the example is the previous French ban on British beef, blocked by the EU).

The UK can make the EU better through positive engagement.

The UK has often  made the EU worse.


The EU has promoted trade rules which exclude or  disadvantage developing countries.

This is a fair criticism of policy, but it is an argument for changing that policy rather than for leaving.

The EU is stopping the government doing what it would otherwise do over issues like human rights and workers’ rights.

There is a confusion here between the EU and the European Court of Human rights: but in so far as this is true, it is an excellent reason to remain.


There is something deeply wrong in principle with the idea that a majority can vote to extinguish rights valued by a minority.   This is particularly important for British citizens living in other EU countries.  Many British citizens who are resident in the EU are ‘under-registered’ and those who have lived in the EU for a period over 15 years are being denied a vote.  The process is flawed.