The length of claims

Results from the Work and Pensions Longitudinal Study are now available; the full spreadsheet is in a table. This shows the length of time of claims of different benefits for people of working age. The key figures are:

All claimants 1 year or less 10 years or more
All 4,744,510 1,770,930 1,019,620
JSA 1,328,910 1,111,110 1,050
ESA and incapacity benefits 2,586,420 421,790 922,930
Lone Parents 648,300 171,370 65,910
Carer 110,490 26,500 23,130
Others on income related benefit 70,390 40,150 6,600

Most claimants claim for less than two years. About a fifth of working age claimants are there for the very long term and about 90% of them are on incapacity benefits, which includes long term chronic disability. There is very little evidence of longer-term dependency if that group is excluded – there are very few long term claimants who are not incapacitated. There is no support in these figures, then, for the idea that people are being trapped in long term dependency by lack of incentives.

Universal credit: interim developments

The pattern of Univeral Credit is slowly taking shape, though there are still large gaps. A series of briefing notes have been published, with the latest batch on 10th October – getting on for a year after the scheme was announced. Recent announcements have told us, for example, that Carers Allowance will be paid separately, rather than being integrated into UC; that child care costs will continue to be paid, on something like the present basis (though reduced); and that there will be higher suppot for some long term claimants.

An important new departure, however, is that there will sanctions, for the first time, applied to people who are working but not earning at least the equivalent of a full time minimum wage. Those people will be encouraged to look for additional work, and may be required to accept it. This provision is likely to affect women in particular, who are more likely to be on low part time earnings. The details are in Briefing Note 13.

The Christie Commission

The Commission on the Future Delivery on Public Services in Scotland has reported. In a time of major cuts in public services, the Commission’s reponse is an unreflective recitation of all the things that Scottish public services have been trying to do for the last few years anyway: partnership working, holistic responses, personalisation and early intervention. And, just because we have been doing them for years, we know what is wrong with all of them. Partnership working is all very well, but services need a division of labour to work effectively. The main impact of partnership has been to refocus attention on the boundaries – often issues of that affect the interfaces between services (such as the environment or community safety) rather than the things which most matter (like health, education and housing). The problem with everyone trying to be holistic is that is means that everyone is responsible for everything; services duplicate effort and spend time dancing on each other’s feet. One of the silliest proposals in the report is that public agencies should all have the power of welfare: so the local NHS trust will have legal power to build a railway? Be serious. Personalisation is administratively cumbersome and wasteful; it depends on there being choices and options, which are drying up; it individualises responses (like employment provision) which should be generalised. And early intervention, which has been tried repeatedly for nearly fifty years, is fuelled by a myth of integenerational continuity, something that doesn’t happen; depends on us having effective models of development, which we don’t have; and assumes that early gains are maintained, which they’re not. The fundamental problem is not continuity, but long-term insecurity; and the route to a secure social framework is not focused early intervention, but a continuing framework of access to the services and support people need.

"Government cannot create jobs"

I am puzzled by the repeated mantra that government in general, and the Scottish Government in particular, cannot create jobs. Of course they can; for example, every job in Parliament is created. Nor is it true that public jobs are not “real” jobs. Real jobs we need more of include, for example, police, cleaners, teachers, janitors, carers, street and park wardens, or guards. If we invested more in builders, plumbers, painters, gardeners or people to mend roads, it would do a power of good. Part of the argument was made by Keynes: it makes more sense to pay people for doing something than it makes to pay them for doing nothing, and the economic benefits of engaging people in paid employment will be considerable. But there is also a social benefit in ensuring that people are integrated into the economic structures and have the basic entitlements that work brings. If we judge certain activities only by the standards of costs, then it will often seem cheaper to use heavy machinery to repair holes in the road than it is to get human beings to do it – but we cannot afford the machines, and we have labour to spare. (I do not understand the case that CCTV is more cost effective than a street warden; CCTV is very expensive, and a camera cannot actively intervene during an incident.) Creating jobs is often worth doing in its own right. We need to start thinking about costs and benefits across the wider economy.

Kiss and tell

This is, admittedly, just a little out of my usual field.  However, I cover issues relating to human rights as part of work on principles in social policy, and privacy is also a vexed issue in social research, so the recent furore about privacy injunctions has piqued my interest. The central issue concerns a footballer who had obtained a “superinjunction” preventing a girl from revealing secrets about an affair, or even the name of the footballer from being revealed. There are two striking issues. The first is the issue of secret justice, which is no justice at all; the prospect of anonymous, unreported enforcement and legal sanction is repellent, and John Hemming MP was absolutely right to raise it in Parliament. The other issue is the interpretation of privacy by the courts.

Privacy is usually understood in one of two senses. The first, which is the interpretation given to privacy in legal cases in the USA, is that people have an intimate sphere of life which other people are not able legitimately to intrude on. The second, which is more prominent in social science, gives people control over information that relates to them. In the context of social research, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council explains:

“Individuals have a sphere of life from which they should be able to exclude any intrusion … A major application of the concept of privacy is information privacy: the interest of a person in controlling access to and use of any information personal to that person.”

The idea of consent in research is based on the idea that information is private, and that it needs the consent of the person who reveals it – the research participant. It’s not usually the case, however, that researchers are asked to get the consent of everyone mentioned in research. That, by contrast, is what journalists are now being asked to do.

Let me offer a little scenario: a man’s girlfriend goes to his wife and says, “I am having an affair with your husband”. If the husband has an intimate sphere which no-one can impose on without permission, the girlfriend has breached it – admitting the girlfriend to intimacies is not a licence to reveal those intimacies later. If he has a human right to control the information, the girlfriend has breached it. I find it hard to believe that either outcome is what the advocates of privacy laws intend; privacy may be a right, but it does not follow that secrecy is. An individual may retain control over information only in so far as that information relates solely to his private actions. A couple, a group, an association, may control aspects of information that relate to that couple – but they exercise that control jointly, not severally, and if they do not agree, neither retains the right. If one partner in a couple wishes to reveal all, the right does not pass to the control of the other person. The attempt to curb revelations by those who want to “kiss and tell” may be many unpleasant things, but it is not a breach of human rights. The courts have got it wrong.

Reassessing people on Incapacity Benefit

One and a half million claimants of Incapacity Benefit are currently being reassessed prior to transfer to the Employment and Support Allowance. On 27th April, a DWP press release explained that most claimants who were being reassessed were either being found fit for work, or failing to complete the assessment process. Neither finding should be taken to imply that claimants are malingering. Incapacity Benefit is a provision for long-term sickness; it is not confined to people with permanent conditions, and many do get better over time. The statistics can be viewed at http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/workingage/esa_wca/esa_wca_25012011.pdf. There are high rates of non-completion of the process, for example, for people with infective diseases, injuries, or pregnancy. That is exactly what we should expect. More worrying is that many people are being found fit for work when they have serious medical problems, such as cancer, incontinence or degenerative diseases. Part of the problem here is the process of reassessment, which has been criticised for being impersonal, mechanistic and insufficiently informed by medical evidence; but part is the nature of the work test, which looks not at whether a person’s ability to work has been impaired, but at whether that person is deemed to be able to do any sort of work, anywhere. People who contract serious disorders need protection – time, space and support. All the emphasis in the new system falls on pressing people to return to work.

It is disturbing, too, that the release of this information should have been managed deliberately to paint benefit recipients in a negative light. A government statement on 21st April criticised the 80,000 claimants whose main reason for incapacity was alcoholism, drug use or obesity. It seems that people who do these things sometimes become ill as a result; the only noteworthy thing about that finding is that the government should want to draw particular attention to it. The information released on 28th April had been previously released in a press release in January, when it was announced in similar terms. This is beginning to look like a propaganda campaign.

Capacity for work

I have been in correspondence with Carer Watch, a network of carers which has raised concerns about the tests used for Employment and Support Allowance. ESA is available for people who cannot reasonably be expected to work – the issue of reasonableness is part of the statutory definition of the benefit. Nevertheless, the legislation has introduced a series of tests, including work-focused interviews and “action plans” related to work seeking, which make work-related demands on people who cannot be expected to work.

I think there is a discrepancy between the Welfare Reform Act 2007 and the regulations. People who have limited capacity for work are supposed to be given help in moving towards employment, for example by preparatory and supportive actions. However, the regulations focus on actions that are directly related to work, rather than on actions that will increase people’s capacity where that capacity is limited. They are specified in terms of either getting people to obtain work, or of keeping people in work. Either of those options, by definition, is not reasonable for ESA claimants.

A failure to consult

The government produced its Welfare Reform Bill on 17th February, containing provisions for Universal Credit, the extension of sanctions against unemployed people, and the abolition of Council Tax Benefit and Disability Living Allowance. It is now clear that Universal Credit will be a portmanteau benefit rather than a true simplification, with distinct rules for Jobseekeer’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance and Housing Benefit.

Most of this had been signalled, in advance, though for the second time the Secretary of State has jumped the gun on a consultation. Universal Credit was announced in November before the consultation on the proposals had closed; the abolition of Disability Living Allowance was announced with two days left of the consultation period.

The government’s disregard for the process of consultation means that it has been making avoidable mistakes. In the case of Universal Credit, it has left several loopholes and ambiguities unclosed: it is still not clear what will happen to childcare costs or how council tax rebates will be taken into account. In the case of the replacement of Disability Living Allowance by Personal Independence Payments, the position is vaguer still. The government was particularly concerned about the increase in claims for DLA. Most of that increase reflected its growing use by people with psychiatric problems, but the proposals for replacing the care component with an allowance for daily living fail to consider the issue of psychiatric problems at all. The consultation returns would have warned the government of what it still needed to tackle. The rush to judgment is foolish, and the reform looks ill-considered.

Reforming Disability Living Allowance

The government is reforming Disability Living Allowance, replacing it with a Personal Independence Payment. It is probably fair to say that DLA has lost its focus. The component elements were initially intended to cover care needs and mobility needs. The benefit is increasingly used by people with mental illness. People over working age, who now account for third of the costs of the benefit.

The proposed reform, however, is based – like several other proposed reforms – in the belief that the appropriate approach is to improve assessment, to make the tests more sensitive to individual needs, and to make the system more responsive to changes in circumstances. This is the opposite of what the government ought to be doing. Personalised assessments are administratively complex, cumbersome, and often unfair. People find it difficult to descrIbe their circumstances, and impossible to place their needs in a scale relative to others. They do not understand why their condition is assessed as severe or less severe, and it is not reasonable to expect them to do so. Many conditions fluctuate; conditions like multiple sclerosis, or arthritis do not have a consistent effect on capacity over time and cannot sensibly be responded to as if they did. The direction of movement should be towards greater automaticity, not less. The benefits assessment should offer fixed awards for specific conditions for set periods.

See Cm 7984, Disability Living Allowance reform, London: The Stationery Office