Terminating a Basic Income experiment tells us something, too

The decision to terminate the Basic Income Experiment in Ontario is a sort of finding, too.  The design of related experiments has usually been based on short term economic or behavioural effects – because that, after all, is all one can hope to pick up from an experiment for two or three years.  However, the arguments around Basic Income, on both sides, are about something different – about social and cultural change.   That kind of change can take a generation or more, and it’s simply not going to appear in the way that economists usually model such effects.  I’ve previously drawn the parallel with the introduction of old age pensions, where the effects in the UK weren’t fully resolved in sixty years.  It’s not possible, more than a hundred years after the introduction of pensions, to be certain what the implications were for older people at the time – and people considering retirement would have been right to be uncertain.  The costs of the 1908 scheme led the UK government to threaten retrenchment, and after massive post-war cuts in other services (the “Geddes axe”, applied 1921-22, cut spending worth 10% of GDP), in 1925 pensions were fundamentally reformed to raise money through contributions instead.   Most older people were retiring by the 1940s, but many people who were retiring in the 1970s were still deferring their pension claims.

The decision in Ontario comes shortly after a (somewhat less brutal) decision in Finland not to extend their experiments.   The message coming over is clear and strong: Basic Income is pushing at the limits of what politicians are prepared to consider.

What does this imply for Basic Income?  First,  politicians won’t leave Basic Income alone – they just can’t stop themselves from tampering.  Look at Child Benefit, which was working really well before the Coalition government decided to create special conditions for wealthy people. If Basic Income comes, it won’t be forever.

Second, there’s no such thing as an unconditional benefit.   Issues which may seem relatively minor now, such as the treatment of migrants, prisoners or religious communities, are going to surface eventually.   Some of the conditions are more liberal, some are less intrusive, but there will be conditions – tax exemptions to “send a message”, rewards for virtue, or whatever.  People advocating for Basic Income have to argue for conditions to be kept to a practical minimum.  That’s hard to do when politicians and the press will convert it into “benefits for paedophiles” or “benefits for members of ISIS”, with specific instances.  Be prepared.

And that leads to the third point: whatever people use their Basic Income for, they’d be unwise to bank their long-term security or future life-plan on it.  How long would it take before the system is so strongly embedded that the future becomes certain?   I can’t be sure, but it’s not going to happen in a three year experiment.

Kim Long: 24 hours

Councillor Kim Long has agreed I can share her full thread with you, but asked me to include links to donate to two causes:  the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.  Here’s what she wrote on Twitter, minus only a couple of (understandably furious) swear words.

RIGHT. i am so angry. We have established that Trump is a monster, yes? Let’s talk about my past 24 hours and what that says about our esteemed UK government.

So Tuesday night i got a call from a church minister in a total panic because one of her congregation had recieved a letter, out of nowhere, saying her she had 24 hours to vacate her accommodation because her asylum support was being stopped. Her support (a whole £35/week) plus accomodation, was being immediately removed because they did not believe she was destitute. One of their reasons was she had toys (handmedowns from a kind neighbour) & money in her account – money she had recieved from the home office.  So because she could not prove her destitution according to their insane criteria they decided to MAKE HER AND HER 4 KIDS HOMELESS AND DESTITUTE. With 24 HOURS notice. Before her 3 days to appeal rights were even close to up.The letter had no email address, no phone number, no way of contacting except to send said appeal by POST. Which would be impossible within 24 hours. She was advised to FAX an appeal to a number NOT ON THE LETTER. A FAX. I have never even TOUCHED a fax machine.

So there she was, out of her mind with worry. Oh yes also she’s a single parent, she has an 8 year old, a 5 yo who is severely autistic (& so incredibly sensitive to disruption) & twin toddlers (omg). She has also survived horrific domestic violence, sexual assault, & abuse. (As an interlude i need to say how in awe i am of this lady, her strength and courage and parenting skills are just out of this world. She used to run her own small business, she is articulate and clever and hospitable and kind. It was a pleasure to spend my day with her) … anyway i went to her home yesterday morning, to try to work out a support plan, so that if Serco showed up there was Cllr observing their behaviour, and so that if they were made homeless i could ensure immediate social work support.

let’s pause here to observe that Glasgow City Council would be picking up the bill if the Home Office made this family homeless. The UK government is literally pushing people through the cracks + local authorities are financially penalised for not being so inhumane – let us also observe that if there were no kids involved the council would not be able to give her accomodation. Also if she was (now) fleeing domestic abuse she would not be able to go to a shelter because she is not eligible for housing benefits. Yes, things are that bad.

So – long day of emails and phone calls and then a wonderful lady from her church was there to watch most of the kids while i took this lady & kid to @GovanCP , who were just incredible. They met us, applied for an emergency grant, gave £ for food + an appt for the next day.We went home with cake from the foodbank 😁 & via aldi for essentials. Lady has been through hell but thanks to the support she’ll now receive to fight for her £ to be reinstated, thinks she will be able to sleep. Meanwhile locks were unchanged, nobody showed. Scare tactics.

So that was yesterday. And THEN on my way home today i met our neighbour who was frantic that he’s not seen me around (i’ve been away) – what if i had moved and he had nobody? He is also an asylum seeker & is living in limbo, waiting for news that his case is being looked at. He has been living with toothache for maybe 7 weeks because he is waiting for a form from the Home Office to give him access to dental treatment. He was recently given a card to say he was allowed to work, but now they have sent him a new one saying he is not allowed to.

He is bored. Fed up. Hungry. His wife is the same – he tells me they have nothing to do but quarrel because they are under so much pressure. They have a kid – the cutest, smartest, daughter, who comes to ours to play with/terrorise our cat & laugh at our music choices.  Today he said he is struggling with school holidays. “There are free things to do – but what if, when we’re out, we see someone with a lolly? Or she wants some candy? How can i say i can’t afford it? I feel so ashamed. So perhaps it’s better for her to be inside & not see.”

And then he said that while we were away they had their big interview with the Home Office. (They had first been summoned months ago, went through sleepness nights, showed up, to find the wrong interpreter provided. Interview postponed – back home. More waiting.) So last week they went back again. He was grilled for 8.5 hours, with 1 hour break & one further 15 mins. His wife had 6.5 hours. No kids allowed, but no childcare. They questioned every minute detail. He was so exhausted when he got home he didn’t speak for 2 days. And then – after he explained the danger they fled from, after he explained that as both religious and cultural minorities they could not possibly be safe in their country of origin – he said that he had also brought his daughter away because of the threat of FGM. We were standing in the sunlight but suddenly the world went grey as i realised the gorgeous kid who made me a birthday card last month would have been mutilated as soon as she hit puberty – could still face this if they are put on a plane. And then – i don’t know if i can type this because i am shaking – the interviewers said:”But 98% of the people in your country do FGM. Why is this a problem?”It took me several minutes to understand. UK HOME OFFICE AGENTS ASKED HIM WHY HAVING HIS DAUGHTER CUT WAS AN ISSUE.

This is our UK government. This is what they are doing to people – people who live in your close, whose kids are pals with your kids, people who are just trying to live their lives and survive.

This has been ONE DAY.

Kim’s requests for donations again:  they were the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.

How our government is dealing with refugees

It’s being reported that Serco, which is responsible for providing accommodation for asylum seekers, has given 300 people in Glasgow warning of immediate eviction. Eviction from residential property without notice used to be illegal, but in 1999 the Labour government amended the Protection from Eviction Act to exempt accommodation provided on these terms.  Govan Law Centre has starting legal proceedings based on Scottish common law.

3rd August.  I’ve amended the original post because Kim Long has given me permission to include her full comments on her recent work with her constituents.

The Supreme Court is considering the Continuity Bill

The Supreme Court has retired to consider their verdict about the Scottish Parliament’s Brexit Bill, which rejoices in the title of the “UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill”.   The Bill does its best to make it look as if it’s all really, really difficult.  The issues are said to be complicated. They’re not as complicated as they might seem at first.

The basic principle of devolution is straightforward.  All legal authority stems from a common source.  In many countries, that source would be the Constitution; in the UK, it’s Parliament (well, technically the “Crown in Parliament”, but it’s the same thing).  When Parliament is described as  “sovereign”, it doesn’t mean that Parliament holds all the power; it means that all legal authority flows from Parliament.  So whenever a lesser body exercises power – which might be, for example, a local authority, a government agency, a private prison or a devolved assembly – its authority has to be traceable back to the source.

What that means, for Scottish legislation, is that all legislation passed by the Scottish parliament has to pass a basic test: does the Scottish Parliament have the delegated authority to make that decision?  I raised this issue in relation to the powers of local government when Scotland introduced the Scottish Welfare Fund.  In England, local government was granted a power to promote welfare by the UK parliament.  In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament passed the same legislation in the same words – but it couldn’t mean the same thing, because the Scottish Parliament couldn’t grant powers it didn’t have.  That’s why the Scottish Government needed additional UK legislation before it could set up the Fund.

The same principle applies to any and all legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Parliament’s authority only extends to those areas where it has devolved authority, or ‘competence’.   If it were to pass any rule in general terms – like granting powers to promote welfare, requiring public authorities to offer interpretation in Gaelic or BSL, managing harbour traffic,  requiring licences for energy production or whatever – that rule could only be valid in so far as it related to the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament, and invalid in so far as it related to anything else.  The Continuity Bill has been very careful to specify that this is the case, and that it only relates to matters of devolved competence: EU legislation is affected “if and to the extent that it makes provision that is (or would be, if it were contained in an Act of the Scottish Parliament) within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.”

The legal principle at issue is so obvious and so fundamental that I’m ready to take a pop at predicting what the Supreme Court is going to say.  They’re going to say that Scotland has the power to make decisions when they have the power to make decisions, and that they don’t have the power to make decisions when they don’t.  Politically, this could be seen as a defeat or a victory on both sides, depending on what people were expecting.  But it’s not relevant that the UK government might prefer the Bill not to be considered yet; either the law is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament or it’s not.

The basic principle may not be complicated, but the Supreme Court’s judgment almost certainly will be.  They’ve established the dreadful practice of allowing each judge to issue a lengthy judgment that is different in tone, emphasis, content and specifics from each of the others, and then they pretend that they’ve reached a joint decision.  If you’re not confused  yet, you will be.

McVey’s vision is the wrong direction for benefits

In a speech to Reform, Esther McVey has outlined her vision of a reformed system of welfare benefits.    It is almost exactly the opposite of what I have argued for over the years, most recently in What’s wrong with social security benefits?  Ms McVey explains:

Our vision is one of a personalised benefit system, a digitised system.

Mine is for a system that is simple for claimants, less intrusive and less presumptuous.

We’re rolling 6 benefits into one, that means that people now have a better oversight of their income and can spend accordingly.

The government has produced a benefit which delivers an unpredictable outcome that is subject to change at very short notice.  Withdrawal of all the elements of benefit all at once invites catastrophe.

We are developing a personalised system that gives a 360 degree view of an individual’s needs to provide bespoke tailor-made support.

The government has developed a benefit which is too complex for the administrators to manage, or even to pay on time, and too complex for claimants to understand..  People can’t work out whether they’re entitled, what they’re entitled to, or when entitlement stops.

Part of the problem, of course, is the misplaced faith in technology to resolve complex  personal circumstances.  Part is the emphasis on employment, which is simply irrelevant to most of the projected population that the benefits are intended to serve.   But a larger part is the arrogance of a government department that assumes that it will be capable  of responding to complex situations if only it asks for more, processes more and does everything more thoroughly.    There are limits to what governments can do, and Ms McVey’s vision of a personalised, comprehensive digital system goes far beyond them.

Academic sources can’t be relied on

I’ve never been keen on the dominant style in conventional academic referencing, represented by Harvard or Vancouver – the notes generally appear as the author’s name stuffed in brackets with a date, such as “Marx, 1990”.  (That’s from a book I was looking at which is citing Das Kapital.  Karl Marx didn’t write very much in 1990, being dead, but we’re all supposed to know what it means.)   The notes often disguise the original source, which will appear on a different page, and lots of people will stuff a small reading list into a note to support points. I’m used to my own stuff being dragged in like that.  Whenever I write an academic paper, I’ll usually try to include arguments for, arguments against and my own conclusion.  That gives people the chance to find three contrasting opinions in most of the stuff I do, and I’m pretty much used by now to having all sorts of weird, ill-founded or obnoxious views attributed to me, from both left and right.  To take a small example, I’ve recently read an otherwise rather good article which cites my work on covert research, saying that covert research generally relies on deception.  That’s a fairly direct contradiction of what I do say.

Lots of academic writing seems to rely on sources to convey the necessary gravitas, but people can be a bit cavalier about the way that names are dropped.  I’ve just come across this, which seems to have been put together by pulling the names of likely contenders from a hat:

There is a long-standing problematisation of impoverished individuals subverting the basis of state or charitable support (Rousseau, 1762) and a strong conservative tradition of individualistic and behavioural understandings of poverty (Hobbes, 1651; Burke, 1790; Smith, 1776).

Rousseau, Hobbes and Burke’s Reflections (the 1790 reference) didn’t have much to say about state support for poverty, and it could be argued that Smith said the opposite.  It would have made more sense to refer to Joseph TownsendThomas Alcock or the traditions of the Poor Law.  The misattributions just get in the way of what is, otherwise, a very creditable and solid bit of empirical research.  Peer review is supposed to protect against this sort of thing, but frankly most peer reviewers won’t pick them up when they’re commenting – inaccurate referencing is hard to spot, and it’s almost never the main issue requiring comment.

 

 

The Brexit White Paper is out

The Brexit White Paper is strong on aspirations but weak on the detail of how to achieve them.  The paper refers repeatedly to “cooperation” (226 times) and to “new” arrangements (153).  There’s a long shopping list of fields of activity which will require specific negotiation.   The main proposal for mechanisms is to create an institutional framework, a governing body, a joint committee, and then sub-branches dealing with the specifics such as fishing, security, data protection and so forth.

While it’s fine to propose cooperation, every one of the areas considered is going to need negotiation and agreement of terms.  In most cases, the document does not say what those terms should be, only that the issue has to be discussed.   For example,

 the Government’s vision is for an economic partnership that includes:

  • … a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement
  • … new arrangements on services and digital
  • …  new economic and regulatory arrangements for financial services
  • … a new framework that respects the UK’s control of its borders …

The White Paper is blunt, however, on at least two points.  One concerns mobility, and the civil rights of EU citizens.  The UK is happy enough for Brits to live abroad but EU citizens will be restricted, with the main exception of easy-going tourist visas.  The other is fisheries, where the document states baldly that access to UK waters will have to be licensed and negotiated annually.

There is of course hardly anything the issues that matter most to ordinary people, such as residence or family law, where the most that is said is that something will have to be agreed.

Universal Credit still fails to deliver

The DWP has just released statistics that tell us that

83% of new claims to Universal Credit Full Service received full payment on time.
94% of new claims received full payment within 4 weeks of the payment due date.
97% of new claims received full payment within 8 weeks of the payment due date.

This is an improvement.  According to the NAO report, in 2017 a quarter of new claims were not paid on time, and in March it was 21%.  However, it’s still woefully sub-standard.  The DWP has five weeks to process claims; the complexity of the system means that many claimants have already suffered delays before they get that far; by this account, some of them will not have received payment within three months.

Is it possible to do it faster?  Supplementary Benefit, a complex benefit delivered to cover more than six million claims a year without the benefit of computers, used to have a target of 14 days.  The Conservative minister Linda Chalker told Parliament in March 1980:

I should like to say a few words about our intentions. Regulations will be made to put the supplementary benefit position broadly on a par with the similar provisions for national insurance … That means that benefit officers will be required to determine new and repeat claims as far as is practicable within 14 days of the time when they are in possession of all the information necessary to make a determination. I emphasise that, as my right hon. Friend said in Committee, the vast majority of new and repeat claims for supplementary benefit are cleared well within the 14-day period. But I accept that regulations along the lines that I propose will serve as a useful reminder of the need for speed in resolving claims.

 

What the UK government wants, and what the EU will agree to

There is very little practical difference between the position recently agreed by the UK Cabinet and the position adopted by the EU.  Putting the positions side by side, we find this.  (Everything in the table is a quotation from a public statement.)

UK Government position EU negotiating position
A common rulebook for all goods including agri-food, with the UK making an upfront choice to commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation with EU rules on goods A framework for voluntary regulatory cooperation to encourage convergence of rules
Different arrangements for services, where it is in our interests to have regulatory flexibility, recognising the UK and the EU will not have current levels of access to each other’s markets. An open market for services, where companies from the other party have the right of establishment and market access to provide services under host state rules
A common rulebook on state aid, and establish cooperative arrangements between regulators on competition. Common ground on competition and state aid.
A joint institutional framework to provide for the consistent interpretation and application of UK-EU agreements by both parties. This would be done in the UK by UK courts, and in the EU by EU courts Adequate enforcement and dispute settlement mechanisms.
The phased introduction of a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and the EU as if a combined customs territory Customs cooperation to facilitate goods crossing the border

 

The main area of disagreement in that list concerns access for services, where it is almost certain that the UK government will give way – they cannot get UK access for financial services otherwise.

The high level of agreement does not, however, imply an easy resolution of the issues, because – yet again – the UK has largely failed to engage with the issues. The recent statement from the EU’s negotiating team identifies a host of priority issues where the UK has still not identified a position. They include:

  • access to public procurement markets
  • investments
  • intellectual property rights
  • coordination of social security
  • recognition of professional qualifications
  • guarantees against tax dumping
  • an air transport agreement, combined with aviation safety and security agreements.
  • participation in EU programmes, for instance in the field of research and innovation
  • rules on data protection and
  • social and environmental standards.

One might hope that the forthcoming White Paper will have something to say about these issues; but frankly, it should all have been laid out two years ago.