Summer is always a lean time for news, but it’s been made worse by the media’s obsession with sport in general, and the Olympics in particular. The coverage in newspapers and TV in particular has been packed with drivel – celebrity interviews, speculation and journalists saying how they feel watching people play games. As someone who generally throws away the sports pages of the newspapers unread, I have never really understood why sports results are treated as ‘news’ at all. It’s not that there is never any news about sport – in the last week there’s been the story of the man who cheated at pigeon racing, and the reinstatement of a jockey who pulled back his horses to lose has all the makings of a film script – but these are out of the ordinary: man bites dog, rather than dog bites man. The existence of a sporting contest, and the inevitable outcome that someone will win a competition, is a regular part of some people’s leisure activity. I just can’t see why the results of competitions between elite sports stars in fields like archery or dressage are assumed to have any more interest than competitions between leek growers, video games players, sheepdog trials or the rankings of artists in the Country and Western Charts. And no, I don’t want the news media to tell me more about those things either.
The Register reports a small glitch in the Universal Credit scheme. Access to the online system was closed for more than 24 hours after an upgrade went wrong. A DWP spokesperson described this as a ‘minor issue’.
When the Royal Bank of Scotland crashed access to cash for its customers with a botched upgrade in 2012, it led to a flurry of political statements, consideration by the Treasury Select Committee, the intervention of the regulator and fines for banks. I might have asked, rhetorically, if there was any prospect of treating the DWP in a similar way, but we all know there isn’t.
A fiscal stimulus financed by central bank money creation could be used to fund essential investment in infrastructure projects – boosting the incomes of businesses and households, and increasing the public sector’s productive assets in the process. Alternatively, the money could be used to fund either a tax cut or direct cash transfers to households, resulting in an immediate increase of household disposable incomes.
There is a way to get cash usefully to certain people, a little less randomly than the image of the helicopter dropping money suggests. The benefits system has three main routes that might be used to distribute one off payments:
- The Christmas bonus (forget the name, it’s usually paid in early December anyway) goes to recipients of 18 benefits, including pensions, disability benefits and ESA.
- Cold Weather payments are special payments made to claimants of pension credit, ESA, JSA. The cold weather is irrelevant here – the DWP computers aren’t regulated by a thermometer: what matters is the capacity to make one off payments.
- The Winter Fuel Payment (again, forget the name – it’s not about fuel, or cold weather) mainly goes to those above pension age – there are exceptions but those are defeasible.
There may also be scope to supplement Child Benefit with one-off payments, though that is less clear.
Any of these would be much more beneficial than a tax cut. The problem with tax cuts, apart from the work they create, is that they go to better off people. People on lower incomes tend to spend more proportionately on essentials (food, energy and housing), so at least the first use of the money will be in the domestic economy. It may also do a little for poverty, and that is no bad thing.
The Scottish Government has released a consultation on the use of its new social security powers. I’ll be looking to respond in due course but it’s a lengthy document and I thought people would appreciate having the link before I started to work on it.
In the meantime, I have previously discussed the kinds of things that the Scottish Government might be doing in a paper for the Common Weal, What can the Scottish Parliament do with new social security powers?
The Social Security Advisory Committee has published a review of Mandatory Reconsideration. It is a much better report than the press release suggests, because it reviews in detail the problems and issues that claimants have in getting decisions reviewed and corrected. However, the headline element in the Conclusion, picked out by the press release, is that “Properly conducted, Mandatory Reconsideration could be an efficient process that provides opportunity for timely review, the admission or reinterpretation of evidence and the avoidance of costly tribunals.” That is very questionable. Support for the principle of MR confuses the arguments for internal review – which is always necessary for quality control and management of mistakes – with the new, failing system, which delays and obstructs the opportunities for internal and external review.
There are three very fundamental problems with MR. The first is that decisions made against a claimant are implemented before any response or contrary case has been considered. The second problem is that MR does not offer claimants the opportunity to know of and respond to information relating to their case. This is a basic breach of ‘natural justice’, one of the core principles of UK law. The third is that because MR is a mandatory process for claimants, there is necessarily a delay in correcting unlawful action: barriers to access are obstacles to justice, and justice delayed is justice denied.
It is debatable, then, whether the system of Mandatory Reconsideration is lawful. Because judicial review is only available when other recourse has been exhausted, MR would have to be complete before a judicial test would be possible, and the long delays in implementation make this a considerable obstacle. But it does stand in breach of long established principles of administrative law. That is why the UN Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights has just condemned the UK system for “the absence of due process”, in breach of its obligations under the UN Charter. Mandatory Reconsideration cannot be ‘properly conducted’ – it is designed to be improperly conducted.
Audit Scotland has published a report on the operation of the “National Fraud Initiative”, which is mainly concerned with the operation of big data in order to detect fraud by searching for anomalies. The central assumption of the report seems to be that improving the consistency of data will save money by limiting opportunities for fraud.
There is a central confusion at the heart of this approach. Following the reports of the DWP, and by extension the tests applied to local government in benefits administration, the report muddles three overlapping, but quite distinct issues: fraud, error and selectivity. Using data to review inconsistencies identifies potential sources of error. It does not necessarily identify, or relate to, fraud – which depends on deceit.
- measures to refine selectivity are liable to increase error (the more conditions there are, the more there is to go wrong. That is why the rates of error in Pension Credit are fifty times those for State Pensions.) Equally, they and they create opportunities for fraud. They do not, then, improve the efficiency of the system.
- measures to protect systems against fraud are likely, for the same reason, to increase error.
- measures to protect against error may reduce opportunities for fraud, but do not necessarily do so – it all depends on what kind of error is being addressed.
There may be opportunities to save money through big data; but anti-fraud measures are often expensive, and in a situation where many people do not receive the benefits they are entitled to, smoothing out inconsistencies might cost more.
There have been glowing tributes to David Cameron, somewhat at odds with his record of blunders and misjudgements while in office. We ask less of Prime Ministers than the press often supposes. Premiers don’t ‘run the country’ in any meaningful sense – they can’t, for example, sensibly say that next year there’ll be more food or warmer housing. Their principal job is to appoint a government and speak for it. As a PR man Cameron was well able to do the second, but he fell rather short with on management. He left people in jobs far too long; egregious mistakes (health service reform, the Borders Agency, penal reform, school governance, Universal Credit and two omnishambles budgets ) were introduced clumsily with too little consultation, defended for far too long, and the perpetrators encouraged to go on; issues were ignored, and recurrent problems were left to fester before being dealt with in panic. Government too often looked like a pastiche of The Thick of It. Theresa May’s record in government has been distinctly patchy (see e.g. this broadside from the Spectator) – and on some occasions, shockingly bad – but in the wreckage of the last government she has been seized on as the only thing still afloat that might stop us going under.
The new Cabinet is more noteworthy for its personalities than its administrative track record or sense of purpose. I suppose it’s conceivable that the new team will make it through to November without scandals, resignations or replacements, but it will be a surprise if they do. The direction of policy is much less clear. It’s all very well to say that the new priorities will be to forge new international agreements, but we don’t actually have the power to do that – not just because these things depend on negotiation with third parties, but because the European Union (for anyone who hasn’t noticed) has exclusive competence on trade, and will continue to have exclusive competence until the UK actually ceases to be a member. So we’re starting out with a government that has no definable international agenda apart from giving notice to the EU. Add to that the gaping void in domestic policy that was revealed in the last Queen’s Speech. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum; there is some reason to be apprehensive about how that void is likely to be filled.
The criticisms of UK social policy I have just reviewed raise further questions about the way we identify political issues. It’s remarkable that while problems of hereditary privilege and persistent social exclusion have been nodded to by a Conservative Prime Minister, the political ‘left wing’ does not seem to see problems of poverty, inequality and public action as major issues. An article in the Independent last month identified public support for eight “left wing” policies proposed by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn:
- Rent controls
- Increased taxation of very high earners
- Renationalising the railways
- The minimum wage
- Banning nuclear weapons
- Cutting tuition fees for students
- Opposing the Iraq War
- Not bombing Syria
It’s possible to read bits of this as opposing the free-market principles of the political right, but it’s a long way from a radical agenda. There is nothing intrinsically left wing about pacifism or environmentalism; people can and do hold positions which support privilege or condemn the poor at the same time as they argue for military restraint. While I have plenty of reservations about Britain’s recent military adventures, I’m deeply unimpressed by Momentum’s attempt to use Corbyn’s record on the Iraq War as a touchstone of his socialist principles. (I seem to remember that the principal political opposition at the time came from the Liberal Democrats.)
Socialism used to be thought of as standing for liberty, equality and collective action. Whatever happened to them? There may be a few issues knocking about that might reasonably be thought to have some claim for consideration by a supposedly left-wing party:
- rights in insecure employment
- security out of work (most obviously threatened by ‘conditionality’ and sanctions)
- access to urgent health care
- affordable and decent housing
- child care
- places in schools where people live
- the rights of the dispossessed
- promoting public employment, and
- collective action to deal with public squalor.
It’s been noteworthy, and disappointing, that neither of the principal candidates for leadership of the Labour Party has shown much inclination to engage with that agenda.
I have been away for a week, and I have a little catching up to do. David Webster has drawn my attention to a report by the UN Committee on Economic and Cultural Rights. David draws particular attention to the criticism of the sanctions regime, which refers to “the absence of due process and access to justice for those affected by the use of sanctions”, but the criticisms of current UK government policy go well beyond that, including its actions on poverty, inequality and people whose status is marginal in society, such as travellers and migrants. It points to the lack of a regulatory framework for business, the failure to consider distributive impacts and the lack of legal protections. These are all points which opposition parties in the UK have persistently failed to address.
An independent review for the Home Office has appealed for evidence about the application of sharia law in the UK. While Muslims may reasonably expect a balanced report from the Chair, Mona Siddiqui, and the inquiry is beginning with evidence from people with experience of sharia in practice, the terms in which the inquiry is framed are extraordinary. It does not begin by asking how sharia law or how the courts work, but whether sharia law isn’t dangerous and liable to misuse.
“Individuals with experience of sharia law are being urged to take part in an independent review examining whether the religious code is being misused within Britain. The government-commissioned sharia law review is exploring whether the application of sharia is incompatible with the law in England and Wales. It will also examine the ways in which the practice may be being misused, or exploited, in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values or cause social harms.”
I have no direct interest in sharia law, but I grew up in a world where people could always go to a rabbinical court if they chose; while I have may lots to say about the unreasonable bits in my own community’s law, I can’t see any fundamental objection to a system of mediation based in shared principles and voluntary consent. In the febrile and sometimes toxic atmosphere surrounding the current clash of cultures, a less tendentious brief might have been better judged.