Belgium vetoes CETA; it’s about something more than meat

Many people in Europe, and some in the UK, will breathe a sigh of relief that the proposed Canada-Europe Comprehensive and Trade Agreement  (CETA) has effectively been vetoed by Belgium.  The BBC has reported the veto, in an irresponsible and lazy caricature, as being about meat:  “Walloon MPs say Ceta favours Canadian firms and they want more safeguards for Belgian farmers.”  Recent demonstrations in Poland admittedly made a big deal of the effect on meat,  but the objections which were discussed in Wallonia run much deeper.  Their concerns have have been reported as relating to the protection of investments, workers’ rights, public services and tendering for public contracts.   CETA (known as AECG in French) was intended to “end restrictions on access to public contracts” and “open-up the services market”.  There are particular concerns about health care. Public services would have been required to compete with commercial funds and liable to be sued by individual firms and forced to pay compensation if governments resist on the basis of public health.  The agreement comes with the principle of a ‘valve’, or lobster pot, as other trade agreements: once something has been marketised, it can never be decommodified again. These are the same terms that have caused such concern about TTIP, the US’s proposals for transatlantic trade, and there have been protests in several European countries against the proposals.  Some of the same objections have been voiced in Canada.

The Belgian decision is being extrapolated to the prospect for the UK’s negotiation of future trade agreements with the EU.  The cases are not equivalent, in three ways.  First, the Article 50 process is not subject to veto by a single country, but to qualified majority voting.  Second, the UK currently meets the demands of the acquis communautaire, as no country in NAFTA does.  The UK can comply directly and fully with European regulations, because it already does so.

Third, Canada is a member of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.  The terms of CETA would have effectively have fused the European Single Market with the terms of NAFTA by removing all barriers to American trade and services, which could then flow freely through Canada to Europe.  The UK is not a member of NAFTA, and does not trade without restriction in American, Canadian and Mexican goods and services.  If it did, or in its desperation to find trade partners it agreed terms with NAFTA that are as bad as those proposed for CETA or TTIP, then any agreement with between the UK and the EU would permit goods and services to flow on the same terms from NAFTA as from the UK.  This would have to be subject to the same reservations as those applied to Canada.

Questions are raised about the validity of the WCA

I’m intrigued, but not convinced, by Jonathan Hume’s analysis of the Work Capability Assessment in the new edition of Radical Statistics.  He identifies a significant bias against claimants in poorer and less healthy areas. “Counter-intuitively”, he writes,

healthier areas were finding claimants fit for work less frequently and placing claimants into the Support Group  more frequently. This is the opposite of what would be expected of an accurate test of disability.

I’m not sure that his expectations are right.  The numbers he’s been processing are not about what happens to people with disabilities, but what happens after claims for Employment and Support Allowance, which is a long-term incapacity benefit.  In areas of higher employment, there should be fewer people of working age with disabilities (because people with disabilities tend to suffer lower long term incomes and can’t afford to live in the more salubrious areas), but the disabilities which do lead to ESA claims will tend to be more serious, because people with lesser disabilities have more opportunities for employment than they do in poorer areas.

What he does establish, however, is that there are unexplained variations between areas, and clear biases in the outcomes of WCAs – for example, that more people are placed in the Support Group when more WCAs are done.   The WCA was developed on the basis of a population-based assessment, and if it’s producing inconsistent results at the level of the population, that does raise questions about its validity.

Troubled families: a programme without a rationale

The main evaluation report on the Troubled Families programme comes to a clearly negative verdict:  the scheme did not show any produce any significant or systematic improvement in the lives of the ‘troubled families’ it was supposed to help.

The two reports on the programme are difficult to decipher, however; it can be difficult to work out from them what the programme did, how it went about it or how the money was spent.  The basic questions that need to be asked about any programme are about its aims, its methods, implementation and outcomes.

Aims.  What were the aims of the programme?

David Cameron described the initial programme as dealing with ‘neighbours from hell’, but there was never any link established between the programme and the perceived problems.  The initial conceptualisation of ‘troubled’ families was confused, and the target numbers seemed to have been made up.  Claiming to ‘turn people’s lives around’ is pretty vague, and it would be difficult to tell what the effects were without taking a very long-term perspective – certainly longer than the period that this policy has been in operation.  There have been other very long-term studies  and they tend to suggest that the impact even of serious disadvantages tends to dissipate over time.

Methods.  What did the programme do?

The method is described in the evaluation synthesis report.  They were to include

  1.  A dedicated key worker
  2. Practical ‘hands-on’ support
  3.  A persistent, assertive and challenging approach
  4.  Considering the family as a whole;
  5. Common purpose and agreed action.

This is, more or less, a social work process.  It’s not a full professional example of social work with families, because that would have involved assessment, identification of needs and selection of appropriate responses, but it looks a lot like what many social workers would decide to do anyway.

Implementation.  What effect did the process of implementation have?

The report notes that this was happening at a time when resources for social work were being cut, so for the most part it looks as though what was happening for families in the programme was what might have been happening for years before.  If there was more information about specific interventions, I blinked and missed it.

What were the outcomes?

The evaluation focuses on five main factors:

  • benefit receipt
  • employment
  • educational participation
  • child welfare, tested by whether or not children were in care.
  • offending

There are obvious problems in treating benefit receipt as a sign of being ‘troubled’, and being in care is a long-term issue. If there were links to addiction or antisocial behaviour, they were not strong enough to be treated as criteria in their own right: addiction is not referred to and anti-social behaviour is a very minor category within ‘offending’.

There was no good reason in the first place to assume that the families being entered into the programme were ‘troubled’ or anti-social, and while there are good arguments for family social work in its own right, it’s far from clear how the methods were supposed to make a difference to the supposed problems.  Jonathan Portes, one of the report’s authors, has written that this is “the perfect case study of how the manipulation of statistics by politicians and civil servants led directly to bad policy and to the wasting of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.”

Michael Higgins speaks about the treatment of citizens in poverty

This is from a speech given yesterday by Michael Higgins, the President of the Irish Republic.  The full text is here.

There can be no doubt that how a society treats its more vulnerable citizens, how it deals with helping people into work and protecting those unable to work, is a critical reflection of its moral core. A society that creates a culture of suspicion or hostility towards those living below the poverty line; or that patronises and infantilises them; or that fails to view its citizens living in poverty as individual people with individual problems, preferring to dismiss them as homogenous members of an inadequate underclass, cannot easily lay claim to being part of a functioning democracy.  …

There are challenges too to our administrative systems.  When people living in poverty are treated as numerical units or administrative cases; when they are forced to jump multiple and difficult hurdles in order to claim financial benefits to which they are entitled; too many occasions when they are required to navigate their way around overly complicated procedures and layers of red tape in order to avail of vital services, we insult and demean those amongst us who are guilty of nothing except living, day in day out, below the poverty line.

When a citizen experiencing poverty is not enabled to exercise their voice, or to claim their rights and entitlements, not empowered to enter into informed dialogue about decisions which affect their lives, rendered unable to defend themselves or to assert their opinion or to speak up and object when they feel their rights are being violated or ignored, or obstructed from access to an education that would open up windows of opportunity, they have been failed by a society that claims to operate on the principles of a democratic republic.

It is hard to imagine any senior politician or dignitary in the UK delivering a similar address, and that is to be regretted.

Citation classics in social policy journals

At the beginning of this year I presented a list of the most cited works in social policy, which I’ve included on the website after recommended readings.  Martin Powell has just produced a paper on Citation classics in social policy journals (Social Policy and Administration 50(6) 648-672) in which he checks the citations of the five leading journals in the field.

Most of the most cited articles (50 out of 79) were conceptual, not empirical.  The highest rate of citation on Google Scholar for any single article was under 1200.  (That article was Arts, W. and Gelissen, J. (2002), Three worlds of welfare capitalism or more? , Journal of European Social Policy 12(2) 137-58.)  By comparison, there are books in social policy which have been cited twenty or thirty times more often; of the top 27 titles I’ve listed, only four refer to articles in journals.

There is a kind of snobbery in the field, however, which elevates empirical work above conceptual writing, and in any case looks down on books.  One senior researcher told me that when he was a student, his very eminent supervisor asked him which work had most excited him and engaged him about Social Policy.  He’d answered,  Paul Spicker’s book on Social Policy.  She said, “That’s a textbook – you can’t mean that.” The book in question is still unique – but it seems that refereed, original work doesn’t count if it’s also  written to be accessible to students.


The Tax Credits fiasco

I’ve spent much of the afternoon listening to the proceedings of the Work and Pensions Committee concerning Concentrix. HMRC had identified 1.5 million Tax Credit cases where they had concerns; they engaged Concentrix, a private firm, to process cases.  Concentrix was reported to have sent out a million letters fishing for information, challenging for example whether they were not living with an undeclared partner; the firm’s representative told the  Committee that they had sent out 324,000, though over a shorter period.  People who did not reply to the letters had their benefits stopped; 90-95% of those who asked for reconsideration had the decision overturned (that was Concentrix’s estimate – HMRC gave a lower figure, of 73%).  HMRC had terminated Concentrix’s contract, but they seemed much more concerned about the collapse of the phone line in August than about the huge number of wrong decisions that their policy had generated. Frank Field MP, the Chair of the Committee, told the Independent:

The Committee was astonished by the extraordinary evidence we heard. From Concentrix we saw a company desperately out of their depth and unable to deliver on the contract awarded to them by HMRC. From senior HMRC officials we saw a palpable disregard for the human implications of this gross failure of public service. From the tax credit claimants we saw dignity in the face of appalling and traumatic experiences.



Are there seven million adults of work age who have disabilities?

I listened to Damian Green’s first speech to the Conservative Party as the Work and Pensions Secretary in the hope of getting some clue about the direction of policy.   Green stated that benefits were there to provide ‘work for those who can, help for those who could, care for those who can’t, care for those who can’t.’  That statement would have fitted comfortably with anything said by the Labour government 1997-2010, but it has always been misconceived; benefits are about far more.  Likewise the claim that “doing a job is for  most people the best way out of poverty”.  Most poor people of working age are working.

The point that caught my attention was a little factoid: the claim that there are seven million people of working age with disabilities.  As Secretary of State, he ought to know what the latest figures are, and I immediately checked to see if there was a new DWP survey.  If there is, it’s not in the public domain yet.  The figure comes from a statement made by the Disability Rights Commission in 2004, which used the Labour Force Survey to come to a figure of 6.8 million people.  It’s very different from the main  government figures, published in 2014 and based in the Family Resources Survey, which put the figure for 2011/12 at 5.7 million.  Both figures mean that people of working age now substantially outnumber older people with disabilities – a reverse of the evidence for decades before.

Both these figures are however unreliable, for several reasons.

  • The first and most obvious problem lies in the difference between them. They were produced for different purposes, from different surveys  – the older figures were needed to identify disability discrimination, and some conditions might be subject to discrimination without necessarily implying any major limitation of capacity.  The lower  government figures are intended to refer to people who have significant difficulties with day to day activities, and they note that “these estimates do not reflect the total number of people covered by the DDA.”  The discrepancy in numbers is very large, however, and not explicitly accounted for.
  • It was observed in the mid-1990s that the figures are influenced by social and economic conditions around people – the counts have gone up during recessions, and do not seem to come down afterwards.  The numbers of people who do not recognise danger has apparently doubled – might that that be because the public perception and social definition of danger has changed?
  • Certain other categories have changed in ways that cannot be accounted for by changes in the status of the population.  Incontinence, and communication difficulties appear to have increased by 50% between 2002 and 2012.
  • It is not clear whether the answers to surveys can be taken at face value.  Other work has shown that fully three-quarters of people with impairments either say they are not disabled, or that they are disabled sometimes. Both sets of figures are based in survey evidence asking people about their circumstances, and most people with disabilities cannot answer those questions with confidence.

I don’t know what the true figures are.  I am concerned however that in policy terms, adopting an ever-broadening definition of disability has lost sight of the crucial role that benefits play in providing for sickness and incapacity, which are are not the same thing as disability and need to be identified and responded to in their own right.

The government climbs down on assessments

Heaven rejoices in the the sinner who repents, and the decision to suspend some of the absurd assessments for claimants of Employment and Support Allowance has to be welcome.  Damian Green, the Secretary of State, has acknowledged that repeated assessments of people with long-term conditions are ‘pointless’, coincidentally  a word I’ve also used.   Repeated assessments will still be made for the ‘vast majority’ of claimants, but any movement is an improvement.

I’ve made the case for doing something like this more than once, including an argument picked up earlier this year by the Daily Mirror,  and it would pleasing to think that public comments might have had some effect – but as we all know, they never do.  The most I can ever claim, as the Scottish Government announced after my submissions on the welfare fund, is that my analysis agrees with theirs.

The statistics for fraud and error wobble around

As part of my work on the new social security book, which will be out in February, I’ve been updating some of the figures I refer to.  I’ve just been revising figures related to fraud and error in the benefit system, and I’ve been struck by the extent of variation in the DWP estimates by comparison with previous figures.  Overpayments of JSA are said to have increased from 3.9% to 5.0%, both because of higher fraud and higher official error.  Overpayments of Pensions Credit came down from 5.9% overpaid to 4.6%, but have now apparently gone back up to 5.6%, even though claimant error seems to have fallen.  Over the last couple of years the figures for Housing Benefit have reapportioned blame from claimant error to fraud.   This is an uncertain area, and most of this can probably be put down to methodology rather than any underlying trends.

The HMRC figures, which refer to a previous period, avoid problems by a simple strategem: they don’t admit to making any mistakes themselves.  (Table 5 in their figures puts the damage at no more than £10m out of nearly £30bn).


More problems with EBT cards

EBT stands for ‘Electronic Benefit Transfer’.  The system has been used in several US States and the general approach has a fairly consistent record of messing up the administration.  It’s not astonishing, then, to read a report about an audit in Pennsylvania,  which found that 2324 dead people received benefits last year.  The audit is 114 pages long, much of it in repetitive appendices,  and it may not be your leisure reading of choice, but there’s a brief press report here.  The breach arguably isn’t that bad numerically, given that there are nearly two million cardholders – but this is only one possible category of misuse.  What this audit is really about is trying to devise procedures to plug the gaps that the discrepancy has revealed.

This kind of problem is fairly predictable – I’ve criticised the approach several times on this blog.  Financial institutions and banks generally know where the vulnerable points are in their security, and over the years they’ve developed familiar processes to reduce the problems.  Alternatives to money, such as EBT cards, come with none of those protections, and that’s why reports like this have to be written to develop them.