The European Union and the new social policy

The Journal of European Social Policy has launched a blog, intending to consider some of the implications of the coronavirus pandemic for Europe.  The first entry is a dialogue between some leading scholars about the prospects for the EU, in what Frank Vandenbroucke calls an ‘existential moment’.  Unfortunately, the editors haven’t quite grasped yet two of the most basic principles of blogging: put the blog where people can find it, and keep things short. The link to the site is here , and as that link is 379 characters long, here is a shortened form to pass on: https://bit.ly/3eNzEge

The dialogue did set me  thinking about the role of the EU in this crisis, and that of course is its purpose.  I think it’s fair to say that the experience of Brexit has shifted my view of the EU, and the answers I might give to several key questions are different from those I would have given in the 1990s (my 1996 article on “Social Policy in a Federal Europe” is accessible here).

First: what is the EU?  25 years ago, I would have said that it was a set of political institutions aiming to establish common laws and principles across nations.  The EU had asserted ‘exclusive competence’ in a range of areas, and its member states had acceded to the general principle that some things were beyond their power or capacity.  Now, I would describe the EU as little more than an association of states, where every joint action, regardless of the nominal powers of the Union, has to be negotiated and is liable to be locked in limbo.

Second: what responsibility does the EU have to its citizens?  In the 1990s, the answer seemed clear: the EU had made a commitment to offer to each and every citizen of the Union a set of rights and statuses that were distinct from, and not dependent on, the actions of its member states.  That is what the European Charter of Fundamental Rights said.  It has become clear, from the process of Brexit, that this guarantee was worthless: the EU has simply abandoned its commitments to sixty million European citizens.    The Union, it seems, is nothing more than a club, and if a member state doesn’t wish to subscribe to the rules of the club, the citizens who live there can’t expect to have access to the facilities.

Third:  what does it mean to say the EU works on a principle of solidarity?  The idea of solidarity is central to the arguments made by the contributors to the JESP dialogue –  Bea Cantillon, for example, complains that “The lack of solidarity is a shameful mockery of all the great principles enshrined in the Treaties.”  The European view of solidarity was always, I think, more nuanced than this.  European solidarity would be built, not by the adoption of universal European rights and policies, but through the establishment of networks of mutual responsibility, both within and across national borders; generalisation happens slowly and incrementally.  In the context of the current crisis, however, Vandenbroucke argues, I think rightly, that the EU already has the powers it needs to act.

 In the current context, solidarity requires large-scale ‘disaster relief’. The European treaties not only make this possible, they even demand it: Art. 222 TFEU stipulate that the Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the victim of a natural or man-made disaster; Art. 122 TFEU makes financial assistance to members states threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters….

If this is not happening, it is only another mark of the unwillingness of the EU to accept direct responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.   The contributors to the dialogue are fearful that the EU may not survive this crisis, if it remains inactive.  If it does nothing, it may not deserve to survive.

 

Will the current crisis be the ‘making’ of Universal Credit?

A thoughtful blog by Fran Bennett asks whether Universal Credit will come into its own now that more than a million more people have claimed it.  She argues that the benefit has been changed in important respects as a result of the current crisis.   The biggest changes have been the extension of the benefit to cover self-employed people, the abandonment of work requirements, and the reluctant acknowledgement that the benefit is no longer primarily concerned with long term dependency on welfare – if it ever was.

Many of the complaints about Universal Credit focus on mean-spirited, ill-considered rules  rather than the essentials.  The benefit cap, the two child limit and the five-week wait for benefits are all high on the list. But the flaws in the benefit run much deeper.

The central failing of Universal Credit reflects a failure to appreciate that people cannot live on thin air.  Benefits have to provide for financial need; they have to secure essentials;  they have to allow people whose income is interrupted to meet essential commitments, such as housing costs or fuel bills, even if those commitments are higher than a person living on a minimal subsistence income would need.  Universal Credit does not secure even a minimal income.  In normal times, benefits have routinely been stopped arbitrarily. The rise of the food banks is not an accident of nature.    Even with all the changes that the government has made in the current crisis, there are some obvious problems.  People have to go without for weeks before they receive money.  If they  receive an ‘advance’ payment, it is treated as a debt which they must repay, guaranteeing that their future income will be inadequate.  Some people are excluded altogether.

The next set of problems relate to the benefit’s unpredictability.   Universal Credit adjusts to income, and income is intermittent.  The attempt to adjust benefits on a ‘whole month’ basis means that the amount of entitlement can be changed very shortly before its actual payment.  Unless people are completely destitute (and growing numbers of people are), they cannot reasonably be expected to know whether or not they will be entitled, how much benefit they should receive, and when they might cease to be entitled. It is a prescription for confusion.

The third, and possibly the most fundamental flaw in the scheme is its dizzying complexity.  It tries to deal with far to many disparate circumstances, and it does most of them badly.  The treatment of disability, divorce, chronic sickness, housing subsidies, low income and care have been rammed forcibly into a template that was intended to deal with a tiny number of people who were continuously unemployed for long periods.  It inflicts injustice on all of them.

Universal Credit has wrought disaster at every point of its development.   We cannot just stop delivering it, but we push it to the sidelines – putting more money into benefits that can offer a reasonable degree of social protection.  This one never will.

Viscount Palmerston on ministerial accountability

In the absence of a proper work schedule, I’m more inclined to read for pleasure, and at times that takes me in the direction of a  well-written history.   I came across this comment by Lord Palmerston, and was rather taken with what it might tell us about contemporary politics. Palmerston wrote to the Queen, in 1838:

in England the Ministers who are at the heads of the several departments of the State are liable any day and every day to defend themselves in Parliament; in order to do so they must be minutely acquainted with all the details of the business of their offices, and the only way of being constantly armed with such information is to conduct and direct those details themselves.

Palmerston might have seemed at times to be a loose cannon; he often made it up as he went along.  (I can forgive him a lot, for his characterisation of the opponents of public health legislation as ‘the dirty party’.)  By his lights, however, accountability forced ministers to pay attention to detail, and attention to detail called for them to be fully engaged with practice.   During the current crisis, ministers are visibly adrift and out of their depth.  The Prime Minister, notoriously, doesn’t do detail.  His ministers frequently get the details wrong, or make them up – pledges on testing and equipment are illustrative – and they bitterly resent any attempt to call them to account, whether from parliament, committees, politicians or the press.    But of course, things have moved on since Victorian times.

Coronavirus: another week of mismanagement, misleading statements and mixed messages.

There are good things to say about the response to the pandemic.  The response of health service staff is beyond reproach.  Many people in hazardous occupations – cleaners, refuse workers and police – have carried on despite an almost complete absence of appropriate protections.  The public have behaved wonderfully.  The central response to a plague  is not to ensure 100% compliance from every individual: it’s for enough people to change their behaviour to make an impact, and that’s certainly been happening.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for government or for the public authorities.   The most obvious problems have been about preparedness – it’s not as if there were no warnings – and procurement.  This comes from The Lancet:

February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions. The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS. Patients will die unnecessarily. NHS staff will die unnecessarily. It is, indeed, as one health worker wrote last week, “a national scandal”. The gravity of that scandal has yet to be understood.

Then we have a series of misleading statements from the government about what is happening.  Some are prevarications – that discussion of strategy is impossible at this stage, that there is consolation to be drawn from the horrifying figures, and so on.  But some have been downright lies: that the Prime Minister was in good spirits and actively engaged at the point where he was about to go into hospital, that 19 members of NHS staff had died when the government already knew there were 36, or that there is a full supply of personal protective equipment when the ministry has deliberately degraded the acceptable standard of that equipment.  The government is behaving as if it had a monopoly of information, which it doesn’t, and that it is not open to scrutiny or discussion, which it must be.

And then there are the mixed messages, usually preceded by the fatuous claim that ‘we have been perfectly clear’.  Confusion is easy: two prominent public figures have been pilloried for taking steps that were within some guidelines and not within others.  For the avoidance of doubt, social distancing (or physical distancing) is not the same as staying at home, and staying at home is not the same as isolation or quarantine.  Having a ‘reasonable excuse’ for travelling is not the same as ‘travelling only for expressly permitted tasks’.  The government seems to favour ‘stay at home’ as a message, thinking (disputably)  that it is straightforward, but it is a message with exceptions; it’s really not clear why they think this is more likely to be effective than ‘keep your distance’.

There’s a bitter lesson to be drawn from France, where the rules have been much stricter but the spread of the disease has been at least as bad and arguably worse.  What matters is breaking connections that lead to cross-infections.  The current strategy may be having an effect, but what we can’t tell in the absence of decent information is how large that effect is, or whether it’s enough.

That leads us back, in a circle, to the mismanagement of the problem – the failure from the earliest days to test and trace.  We have few usable indicators: verified hospital admissions and deaths (the ONS is adding in deaths not in hospital).  I very much doubt that the government does not have stats for notifications of COVID-type illness made to NHS 111 – it is, after all, a notifiable disease – and they should be pressed to release them.   There may, too, be another indicator that we have the capacity to obtain: the presence of COVID-19 in sewage. The purpose of indicators is not to obtain a precise and accurate individual count: it’s to see the general direction of movement when taken along with other indicators.  Indicators travel best in convoys.  Given the lack of general community testing, it’s the best we can do.

Towards an exit strategy

The government and its advisers have fobbed off repeated queries about an exit strategy.  There was not enough information about the progress of the pandemic; it was too early to say; they didn’t want to distract from the message of social distancing.

I don’t know what our exit strategy should be, but I know what a strategy looks like, and none of those answers is relevant. A strategy, in this context, is a review of information, priorities, options and possible choices.  It’s not an action plan – that’s what you come up with after the approach has been agreed.  And if there’s only one option, and the choice has been made, it’s not a strategy –  it’s a policy.  Claiming that this is no time to consider an exit strategy is basically announcing that the government hasn’t thought about  what the priorities, options and choices might be.

I doubt that this is true.  The government almost certainly has a strategy; it just doesn’t want to tell us what its priorities, options and choices are, in case we, the public, should happen to disagree.  Their way is the only way.   It’s a fortress mentality – the same approach that they have taken to social protection, to Brexit, and to recent measures to help business.  And invariably it leads to worse decisions than there would be if the matter was opened to informed discussion.

One of the defining characteristics of a democracy, Joshua Cohen argues, is that it is ‘deliberative’: people are able to engage, to discuss and to disagree.  For any strategy to work in the current crisis, the government has to bring people along with it.  If they don’t consult about their options and choices, it puts compliance in jeopardy.  Imposing a single, authoritative policy is not ‘leadership’; it’s arrogance.

Additional note, 8th April I am feeling the same sense of irritation at statements that the government cannot ‘review’ its policy, as the Prime Minister promised.  It is too early to end the lock-down, they say.  ‘Review’ does not mean ‘bring to a close’; it means that one looks at a policy to see how it is working.  And it’s pretty clear that while some parts of the policy are working very well, others aren’t. 

The bits that are working:

  • there has been excellent compliance from the bulk of the population, slowing the spread.  We don’t need full compliance; we just need there to be enough.
  • time has been bought for the NHS to cope – we have reasonable hopes that what happened in Italy will not happen here.
  • food distribution – the supermarkets have done brilliantly.

The bits that aren’t:

  • social care provision – the model that depends on multiple visits by peripatetic staff doesn’t work
  • the protection of front line workers
  • the protection of people’s incomes 
  • management of access to public spaces, such as parks – closing them is bad practice
  • restrictions which have nothing to do with the spread of the disease – the ending of legal transactions, stopping people going to allotments, visits to second homes (the test is social distancing, not travel) and over-zealous policing.  Whatever happened to ‘reasonable’ grounds  for going out?
  • policing of abuses.  Where is the heavy equipment that was supposed to be used for major construction projects today?   (I ask because I already know it’s not where it’s supposed to be.)

After the lockdown, will we be a better society? I doubt it.

Some accounts of the social changes taking place are highly optimistic about what they can mean for society.  We won’t make the same mistakes again, the argument runs.  We won’t pare public provision down to the bone.  We won’t close down social protection.  The response to the virus shows a sense of solidarity, of mutual responsibility, of common purpose.

I wrote my book, Thinking collectively, about this kind of issue.  The book runs through a series of arguments for community and collective action.  But the starting point for that argument was a consideration of collectivism as a substantive reality.  Everything we do is conditioned by our relationships with other people, and organisations and groups are fundamental to the way we live.  Given that position, I’m not about to express surprise about the degree to which people have tried to help others in their community, or put themselves forward as public servants or volunteers – that’s exactly what we should expect.  It’s basic to who we are, and what we are.

The current process of social distancing is a threat to the social fabric.  It implies a degree of solitude, or isolation.  It implies a degree of dissociation from other people.  It depends on ‘atomisation’ – turning us into separate, distinctly individual units, centred on the household.   That threatens our engagement  with other people – how we do things, how we think about ourselves, and how we interact with other people.   It would be nice to think that all this will lead to everyone wanting to do the opposite when the restrictions are lifted, but there’s little reason to suppose that will be the case.  There are famous accounts of the atomisation of American society – David Riesman’s book, The lonely crowd, or Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  That was the world we were heading towards before this crisis happened.  The problem with social distancing is, bluntly, that people may well get used to it.  The longer it lasts, the more likely it is to accelerate the process of individualisation, putting us at a distance from everyone else.   We should all be concerned.

 

The UK’s response to coronavirus has been marked by incompetence.

It’s a difficult situation for any government to manage, but the problems  produced by coronavirus have been marked by muddle and incompetence in the response from the government.  I think we can exonerate them of three serious charges.  It was not inappropriate to delay the initial response: they judged, that people would not comply with instructions until they were convinced of the seriousness of the situation, and so it proved.  It was not obviously wrong, before the numbers became apparent, to ask whether the disease could be allowed to run its course with with only moderate social distancing.  (An illuminating set of simulations, published online by the Washington Post,  suggests that this strategy would still have been more effective than quarantines.)  And it is not wrong to impose restrictions that cannot be adequately enforced.  The nature of the disease’s spread is that every reduction in social activity limits the potential of the disease to spread.  It cannot be stopped, but it can be delayed, and delay makes it more possible for services to cope and ultimately to the availability of a vaccine.

Having said that, there have been several marked problems in the government’s response to the situation. The problems include:

    • Preparation
      • The lack of testing means that the government has not been able to keep track of what is happening, let alone manage public health issues such as contact tracing.
      • The failure to provide personal protective equipment for medical staff is utterly disgraceful.  Hospitals have become a danger zone.
    • Protection
      • The government’s first response was to protect business; its second response was to protect employees.  There are still major problems evident in the protection of people in precarious employment and those on benefits.  I have covered those issues separately.
    • Process
      • Contradictory and inconsistent advice.  There have been frequent, repeated, muddled statements from different government ministers and advisers about what is required, what the rules are, and who is affected.  Instructions are imprecise.  For example, there is still prevarication about what is essential work, such as whether or not construction can proceed.  And if the aim is self-contained households with minimal interaction, what is wrong with individuals working alone on an allotment?
      • Announcements have been sudden and immediate, making it difficult for people to close business or even to move physically to the right location for isolation.
      • Over-reaction.  The police have criticised the public for going to isolated places to walk and exercise.  I am in the middle of a house move – my furniture left on the van on Friday – but the registration of  property transactions has stopped,  and the Law Society has advised solicitors not to conclude business.  I don’t claim any medical expertise, but I think I can say with confidence that coronavirus cannot leap down the circuitry of internet communications to emerge at the other end and eat you.

The social protection system is failing. We have to find ways round the problem.

We have moved into lockdown, and the government has still given little thought to how to protect the situation of people on very low incomes.  The main concessions relate to the failing system of Universal Credit: work allowances and benefit levels have been increased, the presumptive income of self-employed people no longer applies, and new sanctions have been suspended.  Universal Credit is not, however, equipped to respond to people’s circumstances even in normal times, and it cannot cope with the surge in applications.

First, people have to apply.    This is a clip posted on Twitter by an applicant looking to verify his identity:  it will take nearly a month for the position to rise to the point where it can be dealt with and then there is a 45-minute window to respond.  After that, there is a five week wait for benefit delivery. Claimants are offered loans to fill in the gaps, which means a long-term reduction in the future amount of support available.

What are the alternatives?  There is a strong case being made currently for something like a Universal Basic Income.  UBI only provides people with cash, but that meets the present situation: there are plentiful supplies of goods, and what we need to do at present is to make sure that people have the resources to buy them.  I’ve objected to the idea in the past, mainly on two grounds: the distributive impact, which is likely to exclude people on existing benefits, and the opportunity cost.  Neither of those reservations really applies to the present situation.  The government could do worse than offering a flat rate payment to everyone.

However, the mechanisms to deliver a universal income don’t currently exist, and in a crisis, we need to be considering what can be done quickly and immediately.  There are three benefits which have widespread coverage, making it possible to make special payments using mechanisms that are already in existence.

    • The Xmas bonus currently goes to 17.5 million people, mainly pensioners, carers and people with disabilities.
    • The Winter Fuel Payment, which might be more adaptable to special one-off payments, goes to 12 million pensioners.
    • Child Benefit goes to 12.7 million children in 7.3m households.

It should be possible, then, rapidly to make arrangements to make special payments,  with minimum fuss and no additional verification, to up to 37.5 million people (17.5 + 12.7 + 7.3).   It’s not ideal, but we need to find mechanisms that are practical and effective; this would cover a lot of the ground that needs to be covered.

This still leaves a large hole: the position of adults of working age who have no children.  The government obviously hopes that employees within the PAYE system can be supported through businesses, using roughly the same mechanism as Statutory Sick Pay – it won’t work, unfortunately, for the most precarious workers, or self-employed people.    I’ve canvassed in the past another option: make the tax allowance convertible, so that people can claim the equivalent in cash.   That should, in principle, cover most of the people left out by the first proposition, with the added advantage that people who already have sufficient taxable income will be paying it back in tax.

Covid-19: a few questions about the government advice

I was asked once to examine a sick sheep.  What I know about the diseases of sheep and other animals wouldn’t cover the head of a pin, but I manfully walked up to the sheep in question.  It promptly got up and ran away.  I was able at least to call back, “It’s alive”.  It’s always nice to find oneself in a position to make definitive pronouncements, and it seems to me that many of the statements coming from government have at least as much authority as I did with the sheep.

The strategy of the UK government is to normalise the illness, as we have done with other killers such as influenza: allow for large numbers of healthy adults to be infected, reserve special defences for people who are particularly vulnerable, and accept that some people will die.

This position is out of step with the WHO advice, which is to contain the illness.  It is not indefensible, but there are a few holes to fill in the policy.

Question 1:  How will we know if the government’s strategy is working?  If there is no routine testing, we cannot say much if anything about numbers – and so, we will find it difficult to say whether or not the policy is working.

Question 2: What is the cost of telling people not to seek help?  The recommendation to self-isolate and soldier on through the course of the disease depends heavily on people contacting services in due course when problems become serious.  That involves more than self-isolation: it depends on self-assessment.  How many people will this kill?

Question 3:  What happens to people who can’t self-isolate?  The advice that is being given asks people to isolate themselves within their home, to keep a distance and not to make contact with others.  That is feasible for about two-thirds of the UK population.   The others don’t necessarily have a space they can isolate themselves in.  Some have no home; some share their bedrooms with others.  And we might point out that the UK government has issued various edicts requiring poorer people to share rooms.  It is the policy of the UK government not to permit people on benefit to be supported if they have spare rooms, and to penalise them financially  if they do.

Question 4: What happens to people on benefits?  As things currently stand,  there are severe penalties for non-compliance with benefit regulations, including the requirement to seek work, to attend meetings and appointments, and to be available.  Benefit claimants have limited room for manoeuvre – there are limits on how many periods of sickness and how long a person can be excused.

Question 5.  Where, in a society in lockdown, will people’s income come from?  In the short term, the problems identified in questions 3 and 4 could be dealt with in part by two immediate measures:  stop the bedroom tax, and stop all sanctions.  There is a more severe underlying problem, however: our economy and our labour market do not deliver regular, stable incomes for many people.   Under the old system of Unemployment Benefit, people reduced to short-term working or interruption of earnings would receive direct help, based not on a personalised means test but a simple question, about whether or not they had worked on that day (any day where someone had earned £2 was deemed to be a day at work).  We no longer have that system.  Successive governments have undermined the principle of social protection.  We need it more than ever.

My new book is out: The poverty of nations

The print copies of my latest book, The Poverty of Nations, have just arrived.  I can’t physically lift the parcel at the moment, because yesterday I fell off a ladder and after a trip to A and E I’m currently shuffling around with an NHS-supplied walking stick.  Getting the books is nevertheless invigorating enough to merit a trip to the keyboard.

The book develops an argument I’ve been building over the last few years about the relational elements of poverty – understanding poverty, not as a lack of resources or income, but as a set of social relationships. The contents list looks like this:

  • Introduction: Representations of poverty
  • Part I ~ Poverty: economic and social relationships
    • Poverty
    • Poverty and the economy
    • Economic development
    • Inequality
    • Exclusion
    • Poverty and rights
    • Poverty and social policy
  • Part II ~ Rich and poor countries
    • Poverty in national perspective
    • Poverty and the state
    • Poverty in rich countries
    • Poor countries
    • Rich and poor countries
    • Responses to poverty
  • Conclusion: Poverty and social science

I’ve previously put out some explanation about my line of thought.  Here’s an earlier summary of the central argument:

Poverty is at root a relational concept, which can only be understood by locating the experience of poor people in the social and economic situation where they are found. This is not just saying that poverty is ‘relative’. Developments in policy and practice are increasingly focused on dynamic, relational and multi-dimensional understandings of poverty; our conceptual frameworks have failed to keep pace.

Much of the consideration of poverty in the course of the last hundred years, relative or absolute, has found it convenient to rely on three fallacies. The first is that poverty is a condition or state of being, which can be considered exclusively from the perspective of the individual who experiences it. The second is that can be understood solely in terms of resources, when resources themselves have to be understood in terms of social and economic relationships. The third is that there is a clear and decisive threshold below which people can be said to be poor, and above which they are not poor.

All of these positions are tenable – they are supported by many of the most eminent writers in the field – but they are not adequate, either as a way of describing the positions that people hold, or as a conceptual tool to analyse the issues. Discussions of exclusion, a concept which is self-evidently relational, come closer to the idea of poverty than much of the academic literature on poverty in itself, offering a way to escape from the limitations of conventional models of poverty.

I know that there are many people in the field in the UK who will disagree with me.  When I put put a short piece on the Social Policy Association website, one response looked like this:

Why is it so difficult for so many people to grasp that the concept of poverty itself is the serious lack of the necessary and adequate resources …? What Paul Spicker and thousands of others describe is the consequential deprivations, as if accumulating descriptions will clarify the conceptual point….. That suggests ideological bias.

I’m encouraged, however, by the reaction of people who work in the global South, whose reviews are on the Policy Press website.  Michael Noble, who I’ve not worked with, wrote this:

For those of us working in developing countries where minimalist monetary measures of poverty dominate, this book provides a welcome enjoinder to place social relationships centre stage in poverty discourses and when considering policy solutions.