Computer says ‘no’

It’s admittedly difficult to get resources to people given the state of the benefits system.  The Chancellor has pleaded that it’s difficult to get higher benefits paid to people, because so many benefits don’t run on the shiny new systems introduced for Universal Credit.  Many people are still on legacy benefits, which rely on older computer systems.

A focus on Universal Credit may seem the best option available, but there are two large deficiencies in that.  The first is the deliberate exclusion of so many people from Universal Credit itself.  The coverage of UC is limited by design: the limitations are produced by

  • work requirements
  • people excluded from recourse to public funds
  • sanctions (the largest number being for people who have missed a meeting)
  • limited entitlements because of notional (or imaginary) income
  • capital rules
  • the arbitrary changes in entitlement coming from fluctuating incomes, and
  • Inaction/suspension because information required

At slightly higher income levels, people may also drop out of the UC system because of the benefit cap or the two child limit.

The second problem, of course, is that people may not have claimed UC although they were entitled to it. The government seemes to be working on the wholly implausible assumption that takeup is about 83% – which would mean that the takeup of UC was markedly better than the previous takeup of Pension Credit, Job Seekers Allowance or any disability benefit, and that that would be true despite UC’s special blend of all the factors identified as deterring takeup in previous research (PDF file).

There are other ways of getting money to people on the lowest incomes.  Cold weather payments  (ignore the weather bit) provide one obvious mechanism: they make it possible for the government to transfer money automatically to  recipients of Pension Credit, UC, Income Support, income-based JSA or ESA.   Or, if that’s too finicky, Winter Fuel Payments (which aren’t actually assessed in winter anyway) go to every pensioner, and Child Benefit goes to every child – that covers, in a simple and practical way, a substantial majority of people on lower incomes.   Putting money into pensions and Child Benefit as well as UC would be hugely more helpful than UC alone.  The targeting is not perfect, but it’s practical and a more effective than tax reductions could ever be.

Designing the National Care Service

Common Weal has offered a blistering critique of the process for designing the new National Care Service in Scotland.  They argue that it’s been designed for top-down governance, rather than service delivery, and that pledges to ‘co-design’ the service with users and carers have proved empty.  Their criticism seems to me justified. The design, and the patterns of governance which are being proposed, are both centralised and corporatist.

I don’t know, to be honest, whether a service that is ‘co-designed’ is likely to be better than one that isn’t.  People who have experience of the system are often conditioned by that experience to look for tweaks and minor improvements, rather than thinking how things might be done differently. The needs of older people with limited mobility, adults with mental health problems or people with developmental disabilities are rarely the same, the interests of ‘carers’ and ‘service users’ vary hugely, and we cannot imagine that one set of service users can speak for others.

I have written recently about some of the long-standing problems in social care: fragmentary, insecure and expensive services, the misplaced attempt to create ‘markets’ in disparate fields and the treatment of ‘personalisation’ as if it meant a selection of services from a shopping list.  I argued there that people need flexible forms of provision based on personal relationships, rather than a commoditised response. If a National Care Service is going to work, it needs to be conceived in terms very different from the old models.

Macron wins

I voted for Emmanuel Macron today.  Macron’s programme is less than compelling.  In the first round, there wasn’t much to bite on, with the main exception of tax cuts.  That’s the clue that Macron has been tacking to the right, a strategy which hasn’t played well with those concerned about public services.  But perhaps he was wise not to signal too much: Anne Hidalgo, for the socialist party, offered more than forty policies in her main campaign leaflet, and that got her nowhere. In his second-round campaign leaflet – I didn’t get it until after the vote had taken place – there was more: help with expenses and benefits, preventative health measures and help with home adaptations for care.

The choice between Macron and Le Pen wasn’t difficult. I don’t think it’s right to describe Marine Le Pen as a fascist, because she’s not bought in to the corporate authoritarianism that distinguishes fascism. (Contrast Golden Dawn, in Greece – that’s what fascism looks like.) It may be safe to say that Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the Front National, was  a torturer  (he lost a libel action against a former prime minister on that point), but that part of the status isn’t passed down from father to daughter.  However, the Front national, sorry the Rassemblement national, is still repulsive: nakedly populist and racist. The pledges to stop immigration, ‘arreter la submersion migratoire’ and close ‘radical mosques’  were quite enough reason not to vote for her. After that, the promise of higher wages and animal welfare legislation really couldn’t do much to swing it.

I didn’t get to vote in the first round, because the rather late notice I received while in Fife told me I’d have to vote in Glasgow, a round trip of more than seven hours. The Consulat absolutely refused to let me vote in Edinburgh instead – none of this nonsense about reasonable adjustments, this is French bureaucracy in all its glory.  For the second round, I arranged to be in Edinburgh, and went on to Glasgow by train.

 

The DWP is a people business. Treat it like one.

The DWP has announced the closure of several of its offices in Scotland, apparently intended to reduce the size of its ‘estate’ – that is, the buildings and offices it uses.  It’s true enough that many people working in the system found it impersonal – to that extent, location isn’t what matters most.  The estate is about more than buildings, however: it’s also important for people – where they work, how they get there, and what it’s like when they are there.

One of the last research projects I undertook, before the Great Shutdown, was a project listening to the views and experiences of social security officers in Scotland, some of whom were in places that are about to be closed down.  We had 228 qualitative responses, 142 from staff in group meetings and 86 written submissions.

My only interaction with other DWP departments is whatever contact our computers have. There’s very little with actual people. Staff move about between roles but once you’re in you’re chained to your desk and don’t get to know any other parts of the business.

There are serious delays, but staff have been clocked from dealing with them by a system that is fragmented and inflexible.

There is no staff to process claims, and there is a backlog of claims. We’re now at a stage where you’re going through your own cases and there’s ones going back … –and they’re vulnerable customers – and there’s no staff being allocated to deal with it. There are skilled staff who could address that, and process claims, but they’re put on the phones. People are put on the wrong jobs.

At its core, the DWP is a people business: it relies on people (its staff) talking to other people (the service users).  And service users have lots to say to a human being, if only they can find one.

The fact that you have a time frame at all shows they don’t have a clue – some might take two minutes, but others take 25 minutes, it takes as long as it takes and sometimes you just need to listen to them.

 You find yourself cutting them off, trying to wrap it up so you’re under time and they just don’t get the service they should.

 (On the phones) I was told (by a manager) to get to the point quicker. The woman was bereaved and crying and I wasn’t prepared to rush her off the phone.

We’ve lost that human touch.

Over the years, there’s been a recurring problem.  The central administration of the Department is convinced that  the  reason why the system doesn’t work is that the boneheads in the offices can’t do it right.  The people in the offices, meanwhile,  do everything they can to make things work, despite their instructions.

Benefit Officers should be able to help people and use initiative. The current system is too rigid.

They (managers) just look at whether you are following the script and not if you’ve helped the person.

The officials know what needs to be done.  They want to be able to sort people’s problems out.  Lots of them say that they want to be able to follow problems through until they’re dealt with properly.  It’s the system that stops them from doing it.

The Way to Work … won’t work

I didn’t respond immediately to the Government announcement of new rules for unemployed people, because I can’t actually make sense of those rules.  All I’ve found to go on is a press release, which tells me that unemployed people will be expected to find work in any job, regardless of skills, after four weeks.  More specifically, the press release says this:

 those who are capable of work will be expected to search more widely for available jobs from the fourth week of their claim, rather than from three months as is currently the case. … Under existing rules claimants have 3 months to find a job in their preferred sector before facing the prospect of sanctions. New rules will mean that sanctions could begin 4 weeks after their initial UC claim, if they’re not making reasonable efforts to find and secure a job in any sector or turn down a job offer.

The way the system is supposed to work is this.  People make a claim for Universal Credit when they become unemployed.  They are then invited to a meeting with a work coach who gets them to sign a claimant commitment.  They do not receive benefit before five weeks.  So it seems that

      • the claimant commitment will be established and signed at a point where the obligations allow them to specify what their expertise and competence makes reasonable.
      • After four weeks, the claimant commitment will have to be torn up and replaced with other obligations.
      • The renegotiation is going to happen before claimants are actually paid anything.

I may have this completely muddled – I can’t tell from the details that have been made available – but if this is right, what I’d expect to happen is this. Some work coaches will  jump the gun – if they don’t, it would double their workload. People with skills will not bother claiming at all, because the extreme economic prejudice of taking any job will outweigh the potential benefit. Others will be sanctioned because they don’t turn up to a second meeting with the work coach. Employers will be flooded with inappropriate applications.

Stepping back from the details, there’s much more wrong with this policy.  The first misconception is that sanctions encourage people to get into work.  There’s no evidence to back that up.  The main use of sanctions in practice is to ensure compliance with the benefit rules – the vast majority of sanctions are given for not coming to meetings – and it’s not clear that they even do that.  Second, there is the myth that unemployed people won’t work otherwise.  Before the government started messing about, about 90% of unemployed people were back to work in a year.  That figure has fallen to about 80%, I suspect largely because of the forced transfer of many people from Incapacity Benefit or ESA – those who are too sick to work.  And the third is the ridiculously misconceived position that Universal Credit is mainly a benefit intended to get people into work.  It isn’t. It covers people on low wages, and as the transfer is proceeding there are increasing numbers of people without jobs who  are chronically sick or caring for young children – people who would previously have been receiving Incapacity Benefit/ESA  or Income Support.  The numbers of long-term unemployed people are relatively small, but policies have been driven by the myth that dealing with them is the main purpose of the benefits system. No wonder it’s a mess.

 

How to fix the welfare state

How to fix the welfare stateI’ve just received the first copies of my new book, How to fix the welfare state.   The brilliant cartoon on the cover, showing Beveridge’s Five Giants and their plus one, is by Dave Simonds.

The book reviews a series of problems and issues in British social services.  If you think the Welfare State hasn’t changed, in the course of nearly 75 years, think again.  Social security was meant to be based on insurance; increasingly, it’s based on means testing.  Social care hardly existed in its present form; nor did child protection. Health care has seen the closure of long stay hospitals and the development of group medical practices in the community. Education now is mainly delivered in comprehensive schools and mass universities.  Council housing has largely been supplanted by a system of means-tested benefits intended to pay for rents. And other areas of activity are newly established, notably equalities and employment support.

Each of the chapters in the book outlines the structure of services, the impact of some false and misleading narratives, and the real problems that need to be addressed. The book outlines where approaches to the services have gone wrong, and makes suggestions about what they need to do to get things right.  Attempts to make services more personal, to offer more choice or to make them run more like businesses have distracted us from what welfare is meant to do.  The Welfare State should be aiming to provide decent standards for everyone. In the book, I make the case for services that are more predictable and offer greater security: more universal and less reliant on commercial markets.

The reviewers have commented:

“An honest and realistic appraisal of the current state of welfare. The analyses and insights are illuminating and thought-provoking and should be required reading for a wide range of professionals.” Steve J. Hothersall, Edge Hill University

“Spicker draws upon his four decades of writing to analyse the current position of ‘the welfare state’. An unmissable contribution written in the best traditions of social administration.” Bob Hudson, University of Kent

This is a personal take on the welfare state; I had things to say, and thought it was time to say them.

Additional note, 27th January: An irresistible review from Ms Bennett Junior!

The Scottish Census of Health and Wellbeing: inept and possibly unethical

There’s some controversy in Scotland about a census of ‘health and well-being’ that’s being asked of schoolchildren of different ages.   This questionnaire seems to have been put together by a committee, all of whom wanted their particular issues to be included and addressed.  It’s  one of the worst designed questionnaires I’ve seen in years.

The area that’s attracted most concern relates to questions about children’s experience of sex. I found a copy of the census questionnaire from a local authority website, and was taken aback not just by the most controversial questions, but by the whole exercise.  I have no particular expertise relating to children’s health, but I taught research methods for more than 25 years, and this is not the way to do things.

First question: why is this a census?  Censuses are intended to give a comprehensive, precise count of issues.  There are well-known problems in doing this, because systematic non-response leads to systematic biases in the results.  Several local authorities have opted out, and many pupils will. The count will be meaningless.  What matters – the same as any other quantitative questionnaire – will be the relationship between answers: for example, whether there is a relationship between educational experience and negative body images.  We do not need a census to do this. It can be done at least as well, and probably better, by a series of smaller-scale social surveys.

Second question: in what circumstances does it make sense  to put together a questionnaire that is this long?   There are 61 questions, but because there are sub-questions,  pupils are actually being asked to answer, by my count,  126 distinct questions.  The rubric claims that the questionnaire should be completed in 20 to 40 minutes. To do this in 40 minutes a pupil could have to answer one question every 20 seconds.  Even if the questions weren’t sometimes difficult, this is wildly unrealistic, and it raises questions as to how valid the exercise can be: the exhausted respondents will skip, fabricate answers to finish or simply give up.

Third question: has the questionnaire been piloted and validated? There are indications it might not have been: the length of the questionnaire, the complexity of the language used, and the validity of responses to deeply personal questions.  Pupils are supposed to know what ‘intimate touching’ means (q 49) and whether an experience amounts to ‘penetrative vaginal sex’ (qs 50 and 51).

Fourth question: what measures have been taken to protect vulnerable respondents?   Some children will be distressed by the questions.  Some of that distress is predictable – for example, from those who have been subjected to sexual abuse.  Every school administering a questionnaire should have someone with specialised competence standing by to offer support in the event of distress – and that cannot be the teacher tasked with supervising children using computers, because it would not be possible for that teacher to break off for a distressed pupil before the questionnaire is complete. The FAQs issued by the Scottish Government say this:

What happens if a child or young person needs help, or wants to discuss something, after taking part in the Census?  At the beginning and end of the questionnaire, children and young people will be informed that if any of the Census questions have made them think of any problems, or has raised any issues they are having, then they are advised to speak to someone in relation to the information they have provided in the Census.  For example, if pupils are having problems with other pupils (e.g. feeling that they are being bullied), they are advised to talk about this with their parents / carers / teacher / support worker, etc.

That is not good enough.  This project should not have passed ethical review.

So, you may reasonably ask, what should the government have done instead?  That’s easy enough to answer:  a series of much smaller questionnaires, based on proper samples, administered by people with a competence in the field, and supported by people capable of responding to any distress.  It should include a proportion of open, qualitative questions. Good social research starts with listening.

Evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on Universal Basic Income

I gave oral evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee at a session on November 3rd, and have only just got round to reading the transcript, which is here. I made three important reservations about Universal Basic Income: the distributive impact, especially if it was to be funded by closing down existing benefits; the impossibility of defining a level that would be ‘adequate’; and the many other purposes that benefits have.

There are two points in the transcript at which the MPs misconstrued what I was saying, and while the format of the session wouldn’t allow me to go off on a tangent to explain, I can clarify the points here.

Q116 was not addressed to me – it was answered by Jonathan Williams.  Q117 was, and Geraint Davies MP seems to have taken me to mean that people should be forced to work. I can’t see where he got that from, which makes it difficult to answer; I said no such thing, and wouldn’t.  I did say that conditionality does not work and was counter-productive.

In Q143, Robin Millar MP thought I was arguing to ‘tweak’ the system. This, at least, is an understandable misapprehension; I should have been clearer. I have argued, here and elsewhere, to break up big benefits into smaller ones.  However, I don’t think that’s a ‘tweak’ – it would be a fundamental reform.  See, for example, my blog on How to abolish Universal Credit.  The rationale for redesigning the system about simpler,  smaller benefits with common pay-days is that then ‘income packages’ – the money people finish with – can be adapted to their needs without massive intrusion or putting everyone on the same conveyor belt.

 

Universal Credit never fails to confuse

A research report from the IPR at Bath University began by trying to examine the impact of the £20 uplift on claimants, but hit a snag; many claimants haven’t a clue about how the uplift works, or even if they were receiving it. “Of the 56 participants, less than half said they were aware of the uplift (25/56); over half (31/56) were either not aware (28/56), or not sure (3/56).”

I didn’t even notice to be honest … because it doesn’t say that on the statement I don’t think … because his wage … can be different every
month, I never really know what we’re going to get UC, it doesn’t stay the same …

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Over time I’ve reported a catalogue of problems with the design of the benefit, and this one comes up repeatedly. More than ten years ago, I was complaining that “It can be hard for claimants to know whether they are entitled, how much they are entitled to and – just as important – when they should stop receiving the benefit.” The same point has been made by an All-Party Parliamentary Group.  The IPR report concludes:

We hesitate to call these effects ‘unintended’ or ‘design flaws’ because, in the main, they reflect how UC is intended to work.

“Experts by experience”?

A group of ‘experts by experience’ have developed a series of proposals for the reform of social security.  I’ve just been listening to their presentations.  They claim that

“Commissioners as Experts by Experience cut through organisational and interest group silos and fragmented debates about poverty, instead providing a holistic perspective, with an ability to focus on fundamental core issues and anchored in lived experience of the system.”

I don’t think that’s borne out in practice.  The Commisson’s principles, asking for dignity, respect and adequate benefits, are unexceptionable.  The point which set the alarm bells ringing for me, however, was the proposal to replace PIP with a different benefit to meet the costs of disability. If we look now at the rules for PIP, or at the previous rules for DLA, we should be able to see that the assessment is not an assessment of costs; that the levels of benefit are not related to the costs, but to the severity of the disability; and that another service which does consider the costs, as part of the social care system, has a different reach and scope to these  benefits.  The idea that PIP was meant to meet extra costs largely began with the introduction of DLA, 1993-94.   But the benefits it was based on – Attendance Allowance and Mobility Allowance  – weren’t there to meet extra costs.  Attendance Allowance, despite the name, was always a benefit for severe disability rather than attendance as such, and it was explicitly introduced (in 1970) to supplement the depressed incomes that people with disabilities had to suffer over the long term.   That’s an important principle, that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

When people claim to be ‘experts by experience’, it seems to chime with a lot of the ideas that have informed participation and diversity in the development of policy.  The central claim, which I have  no problem with, is that people with disabilities have expertise relating to their own disability.  That squares with one of the core propositions that has guided social care policy in recent years: Nothing about me, without me.  There’s an influential literature about user participation in policy-making.  Over the years, I’ve done a certain amount of work, as a researcher and policy analyst, based on the principle of empowerment.   A lot of qualitative research consists of listening and recording what people say, and I’ve mentored groups of people in poverty undertaking participative research projects, so that they can do as much.  That’s less a matter of expertise than of attitude: valuing what people say, treating it seriously, conveying people’s feelings and experiences in their own words.   

The claim to be ‘experts by experience’, however, goes some way further than that.  The group  which has formed these proposals had drawn on a combination of people with disabilities and community activists.  The idea that they are “expert” appears to stake a claim that people with  personal experience  have an expert’s general understanding of people with different personal experiences from theirs.  And there, with regret, I must beg to differ. There are three evident problems.  The first is that a group of this kind can’t conceivably represent the range and diversity of experiences out there.  Most benefits go to pensioners: this is a group which is largely of working age. Most unemployment is transitional. Most people with disabilities don’t identify themselves as disabled: they’re ‘managing’, or ‘not really disabled’, or disabled ‘sometimes’. The claim to ‘expertise’ dispenses with the need to cover the range of experience.

Second, activists are different.  This is well-known in political research, where the views of activists are always a bit more pronounced than the mainstream – that’s why they’re activists.  Activists in social security are more likely to be long-term recipients, from which it follows that they’re also in situations that change less rapidly than many others, in more unpredictable and precarious situations.

Third, the kind of ‘expertise’ that people develop is typically formed in relation to current policies and politics.  Claimants’ understanding of the arcane systems they’re being asked to comply with are conditioned by the current shape of benefits.  Very few people will know or remember that there were once earnings-related Unemployment Benefits, or higher rates of Invalidity Benefit for people who suffered disability at an earlier age, or a One Parent Benefit, or a Non Contributory Invalidity Pension; this kind of option disappears from view.

We need, of course, to take the voices of claimants seriously.  They have a right to be heard, and information we can’t obtain without engaging them.  Calling them “experts by experience”, however, is not the way either to get the greatest level of participation, or to get to the meat of a policy.