Nothing personal: a proposal to convert the personal allowance from tax to benefits

About ten months ago, I put an argument for a convertible tax allowance on the blog – here is the link. The New Economics Foundation has just floated a very similar idea, in a report called Nothing Personal. The main difference between their proposal and mine is that they are proposing not an optional conversion, but a universal one.  That would have the advantage of ensuring coverage, but it would also have two large disadvantages.  One is that it would call for much more extensive direct administration, because it doesn’t use the existing PAYE system in the same way. The other is that the personal allowance would be reduced to zero, requiring declaration of every penny earned.

The problems of people who beg

Shelter Scotland has published a noteworthy report profiling people begging in Edinburgh.  The report asked questions of 420 people; that’s unlikely to be everyone, but it’s a lot.

Addiction plays a large part, with nearly 90% misusing drugs or alcohol; more than 80% had mental health problems, mainly depression and anxiety, and more than 60% also had physical health problems.  It’s a population that overlaps with street homelessness – 43% said they slept rough – but the two things are not equivalent, and I was struck as much by the differences as by the similarities.  When I worked on the census of homeless people in Aberdeen, it was the support staff who tended to say that the problems were problems of life-style and personal issues; homeless people said that the main problems were that they were cold and they were hungry.  People begging in Edinburgh seem far more likely to say that it’s down to their personal issues.

I did wonder if people might have been steered in some directions by the shape of the questions asked.  One of the messages from the qualitative studies I’ve done with psychiatric patients in the past is that family matters; the people left without support to become homeless are mainly those whose relationships with the family have broken down.  This is hinted at, but overall it’s not a major factor here.  In fairness, though, it’s difficult to set up exploratory, discursive interviews with homeless people (been there, done that); the remarkable thing about the Shelter study is how much information they’ve been able to bring together.

Disability Assistance: the consultation paper opts for too many of the wrong answers

The Scottish Government has launched A Consultation on Improving Disability Assistance in Scotland, with a closing date set for the end of May. The consultation paper makes the important assumption that the design of Disability Assistance should be based broadly on the existing pattern of benefits.  In particular, it proposes

  1. A distinction between benefits for children and young people, for people of working age and for older people
  2. The continued use of a functional assessment, and
  3. The maintenance of components to cover ‘daily living’ and ‘mobility’

At three points (on pages 15, 16 and 17) the document suggests that they want to reduce the “risk of confusion risk of confusion between benefits being delivered by both UK and Scottish Governments”.

The risk of confusion  The existing system of benefits is already deeply confusing, and as a consequence it fails in many important respects to reach the people it is meant to help. The approach laid out in the consultation paper is designed to make sure it is at least as confusing as it was before.

I would point here to three pieces of evidence.  The first is from an ad hoc study done for the DWP.  Three-quarters of the people who benefits are supposed to support do not recognise themselves as being ‘disabled’.  Most of them do not think of themselves as being disabled; others answer that they’re disabled ‘sometimes’.   The second is that people do not understand the basic premise of a benefit that is supposed to cover daily living or care.  A study of unsuccessful claims for Disability Living Allowance found that people receiving Employment and Support Allowance – the long-term sickness benefit – did not understand that DLA was there for different purposes from ESA; that they sometimes made claims with no reasonable hope of success, thinking that they may as well have a crack at it anyway; and if they were refused, they put it down to luck rather than the operation of appropriate criteria.  The third issue is that takeup of these benefits is worryingly low.  None of these figures is certain, but the best guesses are that the mobility component of DLA is claimed by something in the region of 60% of the people entitled, Attendance Allowance by 50% and the care component of DLA (now the ‘daily living’ allowance of PIP) is taken up by 40%.

There are also serious inequities in the delivery of the existing benefits, and that leads to the second major issue: maintaining distinctions on the basis of age.

 Distinctions on the basis of age.  Wherever a distinction is made on the basis of age, there will be problems in managing the transition between benefits.  The suggestion that people of “working age” have different needs tends irresistibly to give the impression that the criteria have something to do with working, and one of the problems with PIP at present is the mistaken assumption that ability to work is somehow a relevant criterion in assessment – that is not what disability assistance is supposed to be about.

The most important problem, however, is that distinctions on the basis of age can lead to serious inequity, and anomalies in the operation of the benefit.  As things stand at present, people under the age of 65 get PIP, and people over the age of 65 are supposed to get Attendance Allowance.  That implies, on the face of the matter, that people under 65 can get help with mobility, and people over 65 cannot.  However, that is not what happens.  A person who becomes disabled before the cut-off date can continue to receive DLA/PIP after the date.  Fully a third of PIP and DLA claims are made by older people under this rule.  And that means that people with the same disability can get different benefits, depending on when their disability was incurred.  One of the most common causes of disability for people aged 50-70 is stroke; some people who have strokes recover, some others recover partially.  So a person who had a stroke at 63 and recovers partially may get help with mobility, while another person who has a stroke at 67 cannot, even if the functional limitation of the older person is more serious.

The use of a functional assessment. DLA was made by clumping together two rather different benefits: Attendance Allowance for adults below pension age and mobility allowance.   Mobility Allowance was based on a functional assessment – whether or not people could walk; Attendance Allowance was not.  While there have been many challenges to the mobility component, for example those related to conation, it is the care or daily living component which causes most confusion.

The points-based approach to functional assessment was initially based on work by the Office for Population Censuses and Surveys, when the scheme had a very different purpose.  There was no intention to develop a mechanism for individual disabilities to be precisely measured, and points were not the sole test: when the OPCS scheme was initially worked out, one of the critical points made about it was that disability reflected the nature of each person’s most serious impairments, not a cumulation of smaller functional limitations.  The points scheme has never worked well, and one of the reasons why entitlement to DLA and then PIP grew beyond the government’s expectations was that repeated challenges drew attention to groups of people who were simply left out – first people with learning disabilities, then mental disorders, then people with terminal illness and most recently people with fluctuating conditions.  The central problem is simply this: most disabilities do not have a strict, constant and precise relationship to functional capacity or daily activity.  People cannot clearly relate their circumstances to the tests.

There are alternatives.  I have made the case before on this blog, and it bears repetition here.  First, it is possible to identify certain conditions which should imply automatic entitlement, offering benefits on minimal or secondary evidence – either accepting on sight that the person has a qualifying disability (double amputation, severe disfigurement) or passporting benefits on the basis of provision by other agencies (congenital disability, blindness).  Second, there are conditions which will have led to prolonged long term contact with health services, and certification from a consultant is sufficient to establish that the condition is there without requiring further detailed examination of personal circumstances. Examples are terminal illness, multiple sclerosis, MND, malignant neoplasms or brittle bones. Third, there are conditions where existing services in long-term contact with the individual are far better placed to judge the impact of a condition than an independent assessor could be, and it would be appropriate to accept medical certification. Examples are continued psychosis, epilepsy, dementia and learning disability. Only after these three categories are considered is it appropriate to think in terms of further individual assessment of function, or a points scheme.

Daily living and mobility components. The other main issue to consider is whether there should be two components of a combined benefit, at least for people of working age.  The key problems have already been identified here.  People do not understand it, and ‘have a go’ instead; takeup is poor; there are serious inequities because of the treatment of the mobility component.  If there was a separate Mobility Allowance, its rules could be reconsidered to sort out which older people should get it, instead of the arbitrary current rules; and people do understand, more or less, what a Mobility Allowance is about.  Then we could have a reasoned discussion about the other component – whether it is supposed to respond to extra needs, or to provide extra income, some compensation for disability, or some other purpose.  (My own view is that we ought to revive SDA, rather than abandoning it, but I appreciate that that probably puts me in a minority of one.)

Whatever we do, we need to recognise that the current arrangements do not work, and that minor tweaks are not enough; it is time to bring them to an end.

Some thoughts on nationalism and social policy

Over the last few days, I’ve hopped round a series of apparently unconnected sources which seem, nevertheless, to have a common theme.  I’ve been looking, for example, at material about the experience of poverty in low income countries; at political arguments concerning Zionism and anti-Zionism; at arguments for a distinct Scottish currency; and a constitutional arrangements concerning the rights of European citizens.  The issue that they have in common is a sense of the nation as a body which defines the scope of public policy.

Some years ago, Daniel Béland and André Lecours wrote a fascinating book on the relationship between nationalism and social policy.  The key question they are concerned with is how far our communities, and our responsibilities, extend. The case examples they looked at, such as Belgium and Canada, are effectively multi-national states, but so are others which see themselves as having a unifying culture – look, for example, at the constitutions of Ireland or Poland.   (Those constitutions, for what it’s worth, show that there is nothing exceptional about Zionist nationalism.)  The link between nationalism and social policy isn’t just that nationalist movements tend to emphasis the importance of mutual welfare, though it makes sense that they should do so.  It’s that social policy itself depends on the construction of a political community – an identifiable group which defines the scope and limits of mutual responsibility and support. However, solidarity in a political community commonly extends across nations and ethnicities – and some political communities extend beyond territory, too, which is how a few hundred thousand people have recently been able to claim Irish citizenship.  To be legitimate, solidarity and citizenship have  to be reasonably inclusive: any such community needs to accept that there will be people from more than one nation within it. Scottish nationalism meets that test; I’m not sure that all the other contenders do.


Policies for devolved disability benefits

The Scottish Government has decided not to ask for the transfer of responsibility for Severe Disablement Allowance, which will continue to be managed by the DWP. I was asked by a journalist for a reaction, and what follows is my answer.

The decision is  understandable, because SDA was closed to new claimants many years ago, and the government does not want to create disruption for the small numbers of people who are currently entitled to Severe Disablement Allowance. Having said that, the power to deliver a benefit similar to SDA could be important for the future. SDA was always a relatively small, residual benefit designed to fill in the gaps when other benefits were not available. The distinctive feature of SDA was that it was the only benefit paid to people simply because they were severely disabled. Other benefits like Attendance Allowance, DLA and PIP have tied the conditions to people’s care needs, which usually means, for example, that people in residential care may not get them. I think it’s valuable to have a mechanism of the sort, and hope that the Scottish social security system will be able in the future to recognise needs that the current UK system doesn’t.

More generally, I’d also like to see benefits for people with disabilities to be made more accessible. The proposed reforms will make it possible for older people to continue to receive Personal Independence Payments without repeated assessments, and that’s a good thing. But the basic reason why older people are continuing to claim DLA or PIP, instead of moving on to Attendance Allowance, is that Attendance Allowance doesn’t cover mobility needs. This means, for example, that someone aged 63 can get long-term mobility support after a stroke, but someone aged 67 can’t, even if the restrictions the older person faces are more severe. It would make more more sense, and it would be fairer, to have a separate Mobility Allowance without the age restrictions that currently apply.

An old-fashioned approach to evidence? Guilty as charged.

I’m old-fashioned, and I’ve just been upbraided for it.  An article by Brian Monteith in the Scotsman made a number of claims which I thought rather far fetched, so I looked at some other evidence.  Monteith had written, at some length, that “the Euro currency project has been an economic catastrophe”, that since 1994 the growth of the US economy had far outstripped the Eurozone, and that if only the UK had not been within the EU we would all have been much richer. I checked some basic figures with the World Bank’s data and wrote this:

The idea that the Euro has been an ‘economic catastrophe’ is wishful thinking. Mr Monteith chose to start the clock in 1994. On the World Bank’s figures  income per capita in the Eurozone started in 1994 at $19516 and by 2017 had reached $43834, an increase of 125%. Income per capita in the USA started at $27350 in 1994 and finished at $60200 in 2017, an increase of 122%. It’s not a huge difference, but growth over time in the Eurozone more than kept pace with growth in the USA.

Growth in the UK, by contrast, was only 110% over the same period. If only our economic performance had been as good as the Eurozone’s.

This, I now know, was totally misguided, because it attracted this as a response:

You’re living in the past !….”Paul Spicker”
Any fool can quote PAST statistics !
Nothing to do with future prospects !

So there we are.  In the course of the last few years on the blog, I’ve tried to back up everything I say. The mistake I’ve been making all this time is to take statistics and evidence from the past, when they should have come from the future instead.  What I should have used is the crystal ball – I’m working on it.

Perhaps I should add that “Paul Spicker”, given inverted commas in the rebuke, is not an invented personality. I obviously lack the imagination that I need to contribute to social media.

Misunderstanding socialism

The Institute of Economic Affairs has just devoted a four-hundred page publication to proving that socialism doesn’t work.  But the book hardly refers to socialism at all; it’s about communism.  Their examples come from Russia, China, Albania, North Korea and so on, and as Tony Benn used to say sniffily whenever this sort of thing was repeated, “what has this got to do with us?”  Just in case they hadn’t noticed, socialism didn’t begin with Marxism, and by most lights it parted company with Marxism after about 1930.  Socialists and communists have followed different paths, and advocated different positions, for most of the period since the Second World War.

The basic rule is simple enough.  If you want to write a book about a subject, you need to find out something about the subject first.  This one doesn’t. In my website, I give a fairly straight description of the varieties of socialism:

There are many forms of socialism. The main models, which can be found in various permutations, include representations of socialism as

  • a movement for the improvement of society by collective action (for example, in Fabianism)
  • a set of methods and approaches linked with collective action, such as cooperatives, mutual aid, planning and social welfare services (e.g. the co-operative movement);
  • a set of arguments for social and economic organisation based on ownership and control by the community (e.g. in syndicalism, guild socialism and anarchism)
  • an ideal model of society based on cooperation and equality (e.g. Owenism and utopian socialism);
  • a critique of industrial society, opposing selfish individualism (e.g. Christian socialism), and
  • a range of values, rather than a particular view of how society works (e.g. the position of the Parti Socialiste Européen in the European Union).

… Marxism is irrelevant to much of the mainstream. Socialism in Europe grew from a range of religious, occupational and communal groups. Historically, socialism is strongly associated with working-class movements, and in much of Europe ‘socialist’ issues are closely linked with labour relations. The socialist group in the European Union identifies its role in terms of socialist values and principles rather than an ideal model of society.

The key socialist values are ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’. Some socialists would add to that issues of rights and democracy.

  • Liberty. Although many socialists refer to freedom as a basic right, liberty needs to be understood in social terms. Socialism calls for people to be enabled to do things through collective action, a principle sometimes referred to as empowerment‘. This principle has been central to ‘guild socialism’ and trades unionism.
  • Equality. Socialism is egalitarian, in the sense that socialists are committed to the reduction or removal of disadvantages which arise in society. The ‘Fabian’ tradition, a reformist movement, attempted to achieve greater equality through spending on social services.
  • Fraternity. Socialism is collectivist: people have to be understood in social context, rather than as individuals. Socialism is often represented in Europe in terms of ‘solidarity’, which means not just standing shoulder-to-shoulder but the creation of systems of mutual aid and support.

I’ve never had any sympathy for Marxism, but I’ve a lot of time for socialist and collectivist values.  [My next book, Thinking collectively, considers a range of collective positions – including conservative as well as socialist arguments; the proofs are done and it will be out by the summer. I’d welcome a review by the IEA.]


A protest about women-only events: can’t there be safe spaces for women?

A stushie in Edinburgh, with accompanying Twitter storm, has exercised my nearest and dearest.  The Audacious Women Festival, as the name implies, might be assumed to have something to do with women: find their tweets at @awfest.  Some of the events are open to all, and some are single-sex events intended for women.  But the idea of a single-sex event has exercised a particular lobby, claiming to represent trans and non-binary people, who have called for a boycott.  Yesterday, Glasgow Women’s Library (@womenslibrary) pulled out of two single-sex workshops they were due to conduct, leaving sixty people without an event at 30 minutes’ notice. Edinburgh Rape Crisis (@EdinRapeCrisis) has pulled a book launch planned for Monday.  Reactions on Twitter have been mixed; it seems to me that more people have condemned the organisations than have supported them.

The offence that the Festival has caused is that the organisers have stuck to the policy on gender recognition advised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: more or less, that they treat people as women when they present as women (the statement has been misread by the Twitterati who don’t understand the purpose of the word ‘or’ in a sentence).   The call for a boycott was circulated by @ClassicsQueer, who holds that that policy excludes “our trans and nb sisters”. [“NB”, for those lost in acronyms, stands for non-binary.]   She attached a document saying this:

I would urge you particularly if you are a cis woman to boycott … A few weeks ago I reached out to them as I was concerned by the ‘women only’ rhetoric and was disappointed to find their response laden with transphobia.  I was told that the events were for people who are ‘publicly accepted as women’ and that they urge me and my friends to consider if other audience members will feel ‘comfortable with your personal identity’ before attending any events.”

Sisters Uncut Edin (I think the word ‘uncut’ is meant to be taken literally)  posted:  “We stand in solidarity with the trans, nb, gender non-conforming and cis allies who have called for a boycott of the festival.”  (Cis, for practical purposes, refers people who still have the gender assigned to them at birth.)  So, on the face of the matter, it’s not good enough to accept trans women as women, which is what the Festival does; there also has to be space for non-conforming, non-binary, non-females, or it becomes the act of a “#terf” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).

The first question to consider is whether it is legitimate to ask for distinct spaces for people of different genders.  The need for women-only spaces is recognised in equality law.  As a man, I accept that women need safe spaces; for example, as a social work supervisor with a student working in Women’s Aid, I wasn’t permitted to set foot on the premises.  Women’s discussion groups have long established the principle that the presence of men changes the dynamics of group conversation. Men, and people raised as men, are socialised to engage in discussion in different ways (and often try to dominate).  The rationale for making a distinction in supportive groups is that people from different genders have different life experiences, and behave differently as a result.  Trans, non-binary and non-conforming people have different experiences again – and have just as good a case for a distinct safe space in their own right; but that experience will not be reflected either in a men’s group or a women’s group.

The second question concerns the criteria used for inclusion and exclusion.  It seems to me that if trans, non-binary and non-conforming can be treated as a unifying category (and that, rather than trans inclusion, is the substance of the protest) we are not talking about conventional distinctions between women and men at all.  Some people extend that to include LGBTIQ+ – but that lumps gender together with sexuality, and in any case we are running out of alphabet. The issue is surely, if I can borrow a phrase from Jonathan Sacks, about recognising and valuing “the dignity of difference” – a principle which applies much more widely than the issues of gender.  But you cannot hope to rely on that principle for yourself if you deny it for others; and that, regrettably, is what the critics of the Festival are doing.

The third question concerns the boycott.  I’m baffled that the people demanding to be included can imagine that this is the way to pursue an argument.  Boycotts are exclusive; they stand at the opposite end from tactics of discourse, argument and persuasion. They are beloved by trolls and bullies.  The trans-activists who made this call are behaving like Men.  This is not what feminism looks like.

The Independent Group wants us to click on “I Agree”. Unfortunately, I don’t.

The ‘Independent Group’, the seven MPs who have quit the Labour Party has posted a statement of principles on its website.  (Not only do they have a website, they’ve even got a Wikipedia page; not bad for a movement that is less than one day old. )  The site opens on a positive statement of values, which they invite people to agree with.  Presumably they think the principle have a general appeal and that the statement places them somewhere near the political centre.  That may be true, but if so, the centre is a lot further to the right than it used to be.

Ours is a great country of which people are rightly proud, where the first duty of government must be to defend its people and do whatever it takes to safeguard Britain’s national security.

The idea that the first duty of government is defence comes straight out of the neo-conservative playbook, and it’s highly contentious.  The first duty of government should be this: the welfare of the people is the highest law (or salus populi suprema est lex:  when it’s in Latin, you know the sentiment has been around a long time).   In the course of the last  thirty years we’ve seen a proliferation of new states, and while defence matters. it comes well down the list of priorities.  What people want from their governments is practical benefit, and that’s a long way from what any government in the UK has been trying to do in recent years.

A strong economy means we can invest in our public services.

This one has it the wrong way round.  Investing in public services, and investing in people, is the way to have a strong economy.

The barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination facing individuals should be removed and advancement occur on the basis of merit, with inequalities reduced through the extension of opportunity, giving individuals the skills and means to open new doors and fulfil their ambitions.

Meritocracy and an emphasis of opportunity – the platform of the Conservative Party in the 1960s – are arguments for an unequal society.  Even the United Nations has been able to sign up to something more promising than this, pledging that no-one should be left behind. Anthony Crosland, who many people think of as being on the right of the Labour Party, wrote:

“in Britain equality of opportunity and social mobility … are not enough.  They need … to be combined with measures, above all in the educational field, to equalise the distribution of rewards and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification, the injustice of large inequalities, and the collective discontents which come from too great a dispersion of rewards.”

Back to the Independent Group.

Individuals are capable of taking responsibility if opportunities are offered to them, everybody can and should make a contribution to society and that contribution should be recognised.

It seems that everyone should make a contribution to society.  But some people can’t.  Some are left out, some are shut out, some are pushed out; some will never be able to fill the gap.  When people are vulnerable and disadvantaged, it’s not a good time to look for a contribution.  Some of us believe that people should be protected.  Some of us even think that people might have rights.

I share many of the Independent Group’s concerns about the direction that the Labour Party has taken.  The direction they propose instead is not, however, the direction I’d want to take.


Making people work for their health care

The Economist this week carries an article and an editorial piece about what they are calling “The Arkansas experiment“.  In January 2018 President Trump announced that there would be federal waivers to allow states to introduce a test of ‘community engagement’ for entitlement to Medicaid.  Medicaid is the means-tested system offering support in the US for health care for people of working age; ‘community engagement’ means, more or less, a work test, requiring people to be working, ‘volunteering’, studying or responsible.  Arkansas is so far the only state to implement this, but the Economist notes that 14 other states have applied for similar waivers.

The Economist expresses some doubt about the policy: it is complicated, engagement is difficult to prove in a world of precarious work, and incentivisation is perverse.  The main thing that sick people need before they can work is to be healthy.  But they start with a rather questionable statement of principle:  “The theory behind tying cash benefits to work requirements is sound. Asking people to do something in exchange offer a payment can build political support for welfare programmes”.    Conditionality may well be the price that politicians have to offer to get a programme accepted; that’s not the same as saying that conditionality leads to greater support.  If anything, the polities where people are most determined to impose conditions on the poor are also usually the ones where support is most tenuous.

The “theory” behind work requirements, if it deserves to be called a theory,  is highly questionable.  ‘Activation’ policies, which are supposed to prod unemployed people into work, are based on a series of false premises – that benefits used to  promote unemployment ‘passively’, that the answer to unemployment is more vigorous job-seeking, and that people will not move into work without a spur.  Empirically, activation doesn’t improve job matching; there is some evidence that it can make lead to mismatches, or even slow down the rate at which people move in to employment.  ‘Activation’ for people who are sick – a policy we’re now seeing in the UK, reflected in the treatment of sick people on ESA and Universal Credit – is worse still.  People on these benefits have to ready themselves for work nevertheless – sickness is no excuse.  It’s only a small step from there to the extension of the same principle to health care.  Depression?  Ulcerative colitis?  Congestive heart failure?  Pull yourself together!