Universal Credit: the monster staggers on

It’s being reported that Universal Credit is to be delayed again.  There are also suggestions that a small number of minor tweaks will be made – allowing legacy benefits to run on for two weeks, changing direct payment rules and altering rules for self-employment.  None of that really gets to the heart of the problems.  The system is simply not designed for the variety and complexity of conditions it is supposed to deal with.

The BBC offers this graph of delays, citing the National Audit Office as source.  It’s kind to the record, because it waves aside the failed attempts that led to the system being “reset” in 2013.  The original deadline for the completion of the rollout was not 2019, but 2017.  The planning has, of course, been going on since 2010, and at no stage has it ever seemed likely that UC could be delivered, as Iain Duncan Smith repeatedly claimed it would be, on time and within budget.

Universal Credit delays graphic

I’ve been blogging about the problems with Universal Credit since October 2010, and complaining about the bogus claims made for it since the first glimpse of a business case in 2013.    The Treasury failed altogether to follow its own procedures, undertaking massive expenditures before any plan had been submitted.  The lack of routine scrutiny has been scandalous; but not as scandalous, I regret, as the way that claimants have been treated in the hope of sparking life into the monster.

Is there scope for universal support for funeral payments in Scotland?

Funeral payments are being devolved to the new Scottish social security system.  The current arrangements are more than a little haphazard.  The means-tested Funeral Expenses Payment covers some of the basic expenses (typically not all), but the scheme administered by the DWP has some of the worst features of any means test in the system.  It calls for information about the deceased person’s estate, the funeral, the means of the applicant, the relationship between the claimant and the deceased person, and the position of other family members who might bear the costs instead.  Only half the people entitled get the benefit.   The average funeral expenses payment, successfully claimed by less than 4500 in Scotland,  is a little under £1400.

A consultation document on arrangements for funerals in Scotland has given me some material to think about.  There are about 58,000 deaths in Scotland every year.  Currently 68% of people are cremated, at an average cost of £738 for the cremation itself, and 32% of people are buried, with an average cost of £1428 for the burial; but the fees vary from £586 to £870 for cremation, and £705 to £2,340 for burials.

Funeral arrangements can cause dreadful hardship.  Some relatives walk away; some funerals are left to public authorities to arrange.  Others find themselves with a large bill, about £3600 on average.  Abolishing fees would not be cheap; on these figures, the bill would come to something like £56m a year, less £3m saved on Funeral Expenses Payment.  And it would not be completely straightforward, because there are 15 private crematoria and numerous private cemeteries in Scotland.  Many of the true beneficiaries would be people who are inheriting from an estate.  But this is an area which affects everyone, and where it’s in everyone’s interests to make collective arrangements to manage a major foreseeable expense.

Unifying benefits is hardly a new idea

In the comments to a previous posting, Andrew Hatton asks when the idea of first unifying benefits was seriously considered by a UK Government. I started to respond within the comments, and then thought it might stand as an entry on its own.

It might reasonably be argued that governments in these islands have always thought in terms of unified systems. The Tudor poor law  of 1536, inspired by the model of Ypres, created national law for responding to poverty. The statutes of 1598 and 1601 – the “Old Poor Law” – instituted a national scheme, at least in principle. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act – the “New Poor Law” – was designed to implement a uniform regime within that scheme, treating for example older people and unemployed people on the same terms. The Beveridge scheme was supposed to create a unified national administration based on insurance – popularly described as a system to cover people ‘from the cradle to the grave’. National Assistance initially included income and welfare services for every group not covered by insurance. And Supplementary Benefit, its successor, incorporated a range of provisions into a single means-tested benefit: income, unemployment, disability, rent, mortgages, sickness, old age, residential care for older people and child support among them. Universal Credit is not a great, original idea; it revisits the portmanteau benefits of the past.

Marina Hyde, writing in the Guardian, puts her finger on one of the key problems with Universal Credit.  “The most dangerous type of politician”, she comments, is “the sort who thinks that very complicated things are actually very simple.”  And I wrote something similar in the Guardian myself shortly after Universal Credit was first mooted.

Benefits deal with millions of people, and recipients’ lives are diverse and complicated. If universal credit responds to their needs, it will also be diverse and complicated – and therefore expensive. If it does not, it will cause hardship – and it will look unfair.

There have been, of course, other types of unifying scheme, and currently the one which is most discussed is Universal Basic Income – an idea which has been around since the eighteenth century.  Some of the models for UBI are utopian, but if we take UBI to mean an all-singing, all dancing answer to every human problem, it will fail for the same reason that all the other combined schemes fail: people’s lives are too complicated to be covered neatly and simply in a uniform way.  It’s more important to focus on the idea that Basic Income is meant to be basic – a springboard, an element of income that can be mixed with other income – and forget the idea that it will then be possible to junk everything else about the benefit system, because it won’t be.

Labour: time to rethink benefits policy

The Labour party – or, to be more accurate, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor – has now come slowly to the conclusion that Universal Credit doesn’t work: it is not sustainable and it “will have to go”.   An article last month in the New Statesman blamed  the state of Labour’s policy on social security on the lack of vigour shown by their previous social security representative, which left them with no spending plans to pay for changes in policy.  The problems run much deeper.

A large part of UC is a legacy of ‘welfare reform’ in the last Labour government: the belief in ‘personalisation’, the dependence on means-testing in Tax Credits,  the policies on overpayments, and most of all the muddle between the role of benefits and the task of preparing some people for work.   The last Labour manifesto, in 2017, didn’t challenge any of that. They included a clutch of measures to switch the system back to what it was a short time ago – sanctions, the bedroom tax,  Housing Benefit cuts and the like.  Then there were tweaks to make disability benefits and UC work a bit better.  And there were a few aspirations, such as improving the culture or removing barriers for people with disabilities, which weren’t tied to specific policies at all.  The shift in relation to UC is a welcome move in the right direction, but Labour needs to think rather more thoroughly and deeply about what social security is for and how it might be changed.

The Scottish Government can’t mitigate all the effects of ‘welfare reform’

In the comments to my previous post, Ian Davidson drew attention to the Scottish Government’s report on ‘mitigating’ the effects of welfare reform.  It’s beyond the scope of the SG; they lack the powers and the resources.  I was asked by Common Weal journalist David Jamieson  yesterday to pick out a couple of leading issues, and I couldn’t oblige: my comment was that every one of the issues was a tragedy for the people affected, and that’s pretty much what he ran with.   His report is here.

I’m privileged to have perceptive, well-informed comments to the blog – thank you all.

 

Social Security Scotland lays out its stall

The Corporate Plan published by the new agency, Social Security Scotland, is brimming with good intentions.  Under the agency’s name is the motto: dignity, fairness and  respect.  The key to this rests in how the agency deals with mistakes, and there will be mistakes: introducing complex systems for people with complex problems to resolve makes that inevitable.  There are some good signs: a commitment to resolving issues “resolved quickly and at the point of contact”, listening, and ‘continuous improvement’, using feedback to improve the quality of services.  The problem, however, rests in a bitter legacy of conflictual, adversarial approaches to managing agency mistakes.  Several elements of the new system create hurdles to overcome:  mandatory ‘re-determination’ (the decision should have been checked anyway on first complaint), referral out to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (another hurdle), and heavy reliance on the appeals structure.  This may all work work against speedy and effective resolution.

Thinking collectively

Deadline day, and I’ve just sent off the final script of my next book to the publisher; it will be my nineteenth.  Barring catastrophes, Thinking Collectively: social policy, collective action and the common good will be out next spring from Policy Press.  (My original title was, “The Common Weal”, but the publisher didn’t think that would make sense to people outside of Scotland.)  In Reclaiming Individualism, I made a case for social and government action in order to protect and enhance the conditions of individuals. Thinking collectively comes from a different direction, looking at the issues from the perspective of groups, communities and the wider society.  As often happens, I’ve had to develop my own framework and approach because most of the existing literature doesn’t do what’s needed.

Writing books, of course, gets you nowhere.  Academic institutions like to give the impression  that they want people to publish, but they don’t really – publications are way down the list of priorities, and books aren’t taken seriously anyway.  My advice to young academics: don’t do what I did.

 

 

Social care has deeper problems than migration

The Migration Advisory Committeee’s report on migration is mainly focused on economic impacts.  It stresses that much of the concern about migration is misplaced, simply because immigration does not have that much effect on the underlying structures.   The rather dismissive comments made about Scotland’s pleas for more migration rather misses the point.  The issue is not about how the Scottish economy is performing proportionately to England; it’s about managing the effects of depopulation across a vast geographical area.

There was another set of comments, however, that set me off on a different tangent.  This concerns the problems of social care.  The MAC report notes:

Social care is a sector that struggles to recruit and retain workers which is a cause for concern as demand is rising inexorably. Its underlying problem is a failure to find a funding policy that allows the payment of higher wages.

That’s half right.  There is major problem in finding the labour to provide social care, and low pay is part of the problem.  Polly Toynbee has some cutting things to say about this, to great effect.  But the problem runs much deeper than that.  The issues are also about what kind of provision  is being made.  Social care has developed on a market model that attempts to commodify the time that carers spend with the people being cared for.  So, we get people being given a series of time slots – 15 minutes, 30 minutes or the like – which are met ‘flexibly’ by workers on a rota.  The poor conditions experienced by workers are not just a matter of low pay: it’s also that working on these terms, flitting from one slot to the next, is not a good  way to work.

More importantly, the whole approach is bad for service users.   Personal services depend on personal relationships.  It matters whether or not the person who comes to care is the same person as it was last time, if that person can recognise that the person they’re looking after is having a worse time than before, if that person knows what to do in different circumstances,  has time to talk,  is trusted by the person who’s being cared for, and so on.  A commodified, time-limited approach simply doesn’t fit most people’s needs.  Even if we improve pay, conditions and the numbers of people engaged in care, this is the wrong model, and the wrong way to do things.

Discussions of Universal Basic Income

I’ve written several background papers for a series of seminars on Universal Basic Income, and the first of them has been put online by Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland.   The series will include specific discussions about employment, rights and equalities, housing,  care and implementation; I was asked to do papers for three of them (rights, housing and care).  (The seminar series is organised by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute at Strathclyde University; details are available on request.)  In due course, after the seminars are finished, I’ll be revising the papers for an integrated presentation.

I’m still sceptical.  While I’ve always been sympathetic to arguments for more universal benefits and services, there are lots of key problems that need to be thought through before a scheme could be introduced.  Too many of the published schemes either wave those problems aside or try to manage them by making poor people worse off.  As things stand, the best possible schemes would not offer anything like an adequate, secure income.

The problems of Universal Credit aren’t just about transition

I looked at the report of the Resolution Foundation on Universal Credit when it came out, but wasn’t particularly excited by it.  It seems to say that the system can still be made to work given time and effort, and I’m not convinced that it can.  I referred to a number of the “teething” problems, so-called, in a previous post.   But there are many more problems, where the system simply cannot operate as intended.  Those include

  • the muddled system for verification, which cannot be done online
  • the demand for instant assessment, rather than basing claims on previous, known income
  • the unpredictability of a system where entitlements can be revised at short notice before payment date
  • the use of individuated payment dates
  • the lack of effective coordination with taxation
  • the confused treatment of self-employed people
  • the high taper rates
  • the alterations to work allowances, which mean among other things that contact will no longer be maintained
  • the effect of fluctuating entitlement on household management, particular evident in the treatment of rent
  • the impact of the system on housing finance, and
  • arrangements for transition that  lead to major income loss.

Beyond that, in terms of the overall design of the benefit, there are several systemic flaws:

  • the complex means test
  • the reliance on digital systems
  • the reliance on immediate access to information that people cannot know about
  • the high tapers
  • the failure to individuate claims
  • the lack of flexibility, and
  • the central confusion about employment and job-seeking – once the system is fully rolled out, most claimants on Universal Credit will not be seeking work.

The operational problems are all difficult, requiring a rethink of policy and administration to make the system work .  However, even if they were all to be resolved, the fundamental defects in the system would remain.