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.

 

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.

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.)

The government could take advantage of Brexit to do things differently. It probably won’t.

Over the course of the last 20 years, the EU has made a series of bad calls about the management of national economies, dominated by neo-liberal thinking on issues such as public spending, state based economic activity and social support.  Once the UK is no longer governed by common regulations, these restrictions no longer need to apply.  I have to accept that it is unlikely that the British government will do much about this, because if we look at where many of the EU’s most ill-judged restrictions have come from, it’s often reflected the free-market ideology  of British governments.  Here, nevertheless, are some of the things that a UK government can do after leaving, which members of the EU cannot.

  1. State enterprise.  Mariana Mazzucato has made out an overwhelming case for state enterprise: many of the  major economic developments of the post-war period have been made, not through the operation of an unrestricted private market, but through state action to identify, build and support new development.
  2. Sales tax.  The structure of tax in this area has been subject to EU rules on VAT.  VAT is not a sales tax, because it is not uniformly levied on sales – the way it works tends to focus on stages in the manufacturing process.  This hasn’t worked for financial or digital sectors, and the current controversy about a digital sales tax is taking place because there’s nothing there.  The US-based digital giants, and their defenders in the US administration, can hardly  reasonably object to ‘local’ sales taxes taken at the point of distribution, because that is just what happens in the states of the USA.
  3. Regionally managed immigration.  The Scottish Government’s proposal to do this has been met with incomprehension.  The approach of successive UK governments has been to focus on border control, whereas the bulk of management relies on different mechanisms entirely – housing, employment, education and public services.  There is no intrinsic reason why immigration cannot be differentiated regionally.
  4. The taxation of UK nationals abroad.  The USA taxes its citizens abroad, and the UK could do the same.  There is a good argument against dual taxation, but that is not an argument for advantaging people who move resources or profits from the UK to more favourable tax regimes.  Moving money off shore or to more favourable tax regimes should have no effect on a tax liability to pay any balance of liabilities within the UK.
  5. Procurement  contracts that meet social objectives.  Public procurement contracts that guarantee employment to locally unemployed people.  The general advice to local government has been than this is incompatible with European law; that should no longer apply.  The same should be true of locally negotiated minimum wages, such as the living wage – that runs directly counter to ECJ judgments.
  6. Moving work to the workers.   The process of regional development in the EU was based on different premises – encouraging market specialisation while cushioning the impact of that specialisation on the regions.   That hasn’t worked.  The UK government needs to return to the policies of the 1960s, moving the jobs rather than moving the people.  There is no hope for many British towns unless it is done.
  7. Freeing public expenditure.  The control of public expenditure is based on a myth, that it is government spending that drives the money supply.  It isn’t – private finance does that.  Local government needs to be able to raise funds through  its own bonds, as it did in the 19th century – along with the capacity to default (as local government can do in the USA).  There is no obvious economic case for setting global limits that apply only to the public sector.

None of this qualifies my disappointment with the deeply unsatisfactory settlement –  I am no less troubled by the disregard for citizen’s rights shown by both the British government and the European Union than I was three years ago.  Tonight, as Britain leaves the EU, I will be in Brussels.

Universalising French pensions

It’s not the first time that a French government has tried to inject a greater element of universality into its arcane system of welfare provision.  The Juppé plan, in 1995, tried to curb rising costs partly by imposing spending limits, and by trying to bring the pension rights of miners and railway workers into line with other groups.  It also proposed universal rights to health care and guaranteed access. One prominent trade unionist called that idea “the biggest rip-off in the history of the French Republic. … the end of the Sécurité Sociale.”

The current system of pensions is costly – it’s long been the case that pensioners in France are on average better off than workers.  Clearly, part of the government’s agenda over time has been to cut the cost, and that is the source of many of the protests.   If cost was all it was about, there are other things that the government could have done – raise the pension age, increase contributions, increase the number of contribution periods required, and so on.  But there are lots of other problems in the system.  The shift to precarious labour and the problems of switching between different pensions rules can shut people out. With 42 distinct pensions regimes, the system is horrendously complicated.  It takes years (literally) to work  out what someone’s pension is going to be; often the calculations begin long before a person reaches 60 and are not finished until after the person retires.   As the government plan says,

personne ne sait exactement ce à quoi il a droit. Le système est illisible, complexe, et crée de la défiance.

[Nobody knows exactly what they’re entitled to.  The system is incomprehensible, complex and it creates distrust. ]

The proposed alternative is outlined in the government plan (the link is in French). The main elements are:

  • a universal scheme for everyone – one of the principal aims is to remove inequities between people currently under different regimes
  • a points system, in place of contribution periods, to determine entitlement
  • an increased minimum pension
  • retention of retirement at 62 (that is early by European standards, but  worse than some French regimes currently offer)
  • credit for every hour for which contributions are paid  (seriously!)
  • improved protection for people whose contributions have been interrupted through care, unemployment or sickness
  • full transparency, through a personalised record of contributions and linked entitlements
  • a commitment to balance the books – the current system runs perennially in deficit
  • transitional arrangements for current workers
  • a new system of governance.  There is a commitment to consult about the value of points, but overall the new system will reduce the role of the ‘social partners’ including trades unions.

Something that isn’t explicit in the plan is the distributive element.  It’s been reported that the proposals are regressive:  the contributions required of very high paid people will be 2.8% above 120,000 Euros a year, whereas under that level the contribution will be 28%.  However, the 2.8% is purely redistributive; it will yield no benefits for the contributions.

Both sides of the argument are right.  On one hand, the government is proposing a scheme that should be less complex, fairer and  more inclusive.  On the other, the objectors will be trying to defend a scheme which, for all its irrationality and complexity, has delivered far better benefits than  a more orderly set of schemes could ever have offered.  There will, of course, be vehement protests  – it’s the French national sport, and they do it so well. But the protestors, mainly from the left and the trades unions, are  protesting against the idea of universality and state welfare, and from a British perspective, that’s a difficult position to hold.

The realignment of UK politics

What happened last night is more than the eclipse of Labour.  The Conservatives won on a populist platform: representing the will of the people in opposition to a venal political class.  The core problem with that formulation is that the Conservatives are simultaneously seeking to appeal to both of those factions at once.

This could lead  in the long term to a new  political alignment, as a class of people with no obvious political home look for different ways to have a voice.  Our political system militates against that.  It is more likely that the vote will change the Conservatives.  In the course of the next two or three years, they will be trying to appeal to their new electorate, and recruiting new members, very different from the rural and suburban heartlands they have made their own.

In the course of the next five years, then, I think we can expect to see the redefinition of coalitions of interest into two rather different main  parties, looking rather more like the parties in the US.   On the right, there will be something more like the US Republican party: mixed, angry, uncertain whether it’s  more in favour of free markets or the pork barrel.  On the left, there will be something like the US Democrats: an uneasy combination of liberals and conservatives, with a marginalised left wing.  Neither of these combinations leaves much room for social democrats, trades unions, traditional Tories or the old political centre.

Boris Johnson: in his own words

Most of the criticisms of Boris Johnson focus on the things he says that he obviously doesn’t believe.  Here are some of the things it seems he does believe.

Greed is a valid motivator of economic progress.(Source)

The real divide is between the entire class of people now reposing their fat behinds on the green and red benches in the Palace of Westminster, and the bottom 20 per cent of society – the group that supplies us with the chavs, the losers, the burglars, the drug addicts and the 70,000 people who are lost in our prisons and learning nothing except how to become more effective criminals. (Source)

A combination of economic misfortune …  and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians.(Source)

Single parents are responsible for “a generation of ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”. (Source)

It must be generally plausible that if having a baby out of wedlock meant sure-fire destitution on a Victorian scale, young girls might indeed think twice about having a baby. And yet no government – and certainly no Labour government – will have the courage to make the cuts in the safety net of the viciousness required to provide anything like such a deterrent. (Source)

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 … while 2% have an IQ above 130 … And the harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.(Source)

I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential …  (Source)

Ipse dixit.

British democracy faces an existential crisis.

The government of the  United Kingdom has always had an unwritten constitution, and that position has been defended on the basis that it allows governments a degree of flexibility in dealing with complex situations.  That position has been tested to breaking point in recent months.  Here are a few concerns.

1.  The Conservative Party is standing on a manifesto which commits them to change the basis on which laws are made and reviewed.  The Manifesto states:

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords  …

2.  At the same time as Britain withdraws from the governance safeguards imposed by the European Union, it is proposing to weaken  other safeguards (such as human rights and judicial review) which derive from other sources.   The Manifesto again:

We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review … is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

3.  The present government is firmly committed to legislation on Europe that will give Ministers extensive ‘Henry VIII powers’ – the power to change laws without scrutiny or the prior approval of parliament.  The election was called, not because Parliament had failed to agree the EU Withdrawal agreement, but because it had demanded the rights to scrutinise the bill that enacted those powers.

4. The government has responded to criticisms in the media, the courts and in Parliament by threatening to close them down – most recently threatening Channel 4’s licence to operate.

5.  Members of the government have no scruples about lying about its aims, objectives, situation, process or outcomes.  There is a depressing catalogue of falsehoods listed by Peter Oborne.  It is probably no less dangerous, however, that so many government ministers don’t do detail, and say things that are false simply because they don’t know any better.  Recent examples are the confusion between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the mistaken statements about state aid and the EU, or the ill-informed statements made by Johnson and Patel, in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, about the release of prisoners on licence.

These things threaten three key elements of any democracy.  They are the rule of law, public accountability, and open discourse and deliberation.  The threat to democracy is chilling.

The election campaign has been marked by a flurry of lies

Lies are a rarity in British public service.  Most public servants know to avoid them, for a simple reason: they will be found out.  The nature of modern government means that everything is somewhere recorded (usually in writing), subject to exposure or liable to be the subject of legal action.   Public servants, in the best tradition of Sir Humphrey, can prevaricate, obfuscate, divert or distract, but if they’ve got any sense, they don’t say things they know to be untrue.

The Brexit campaign was bizarre, and alien to our political culture.  There were not only deliberate lies (for example, about Turkey’s entry to the EU), but deliberate and flagrant breaches of electoral law.  It’s not going too far to describe those breaches as ‘corrupt’ – the first legislation on electoral spending was, if I have it right, contained in the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883.  Now, two elections on, we’ve seen a repetition of many of the same practices. 40 new hospitals and 50,000 nurses belong with the lie on the Brexit bus.

The cavalcade of lies is spearheaded by Boris Johnson.  The Conservative journalist Peter Oborne, horrified by what’s going on, is maintaining a tally at https://boris-johnson-lies.com/ .  I suspect he’s finding it hard to keep up.  Only this morning, the Guardian reports preposterous things being circulated about prostitution, immigration and spending,  and less preposterous (but false) statements about state aid, trade unions, tax and defence.

The main offenders are the Conservative party, but the Labour opposition is not exempt.  Accused of a ‘mendacious fiction’ in saying that the Labour Party had deal with all cases of antisemitism, Jeremy Corbyn did not try to say (in his interview with Andrew Neil) that the statement he’d made was true; he said only that the accuser would have to prove that it was ‘mendacious’, or deliberately untrue.  So the statement was false, but not intended to deceive?  Politicians really ought to be aware that people will on occasion listen to the words they use and judge them accordingly.

 

The last of the main manifestos, from the SNP

The Scottish National Party’s manifesto is the last of the main manifestos to appear.  It’s a reflective document, explaining the SNP’s work in opposition, their role in Westminster and some of the things they hope to lobby for.  In the field of social security, that includes ‘halting’ Universal Credit – presumably that means halting the roll-out, scrapping the two-child limit, ending the freeze on uprating and protecting the WASPI women.   That platform brings them quite close to Labour, who are similarly trying to reverse some of the negative policies of recent years.

I have to accept, reviewing the clutch of election manifestos, that I’d been looking for something that none of the parties is really ready to consider: some thinking about what government should be trying to do for its citizens, what might be done with benefits, what principles we would want to uphold.  I had imagined, after the great splash on social care in 2017, or the continuing problems in health care marked by the troubles of A and E, that some party would have run with something more innovative – for example, what should be done by contributions (the German approach to social care), what by different social arrangements (such as the Kerr reforms of urgent health care) or what by redistribution.  However, these are not the sort of things that our political system is engaging with.  It’s easy to blame Brexit for monopolising everyone’s attention, but I think it goes deeper than that.  After decades years of neoliberalism, marketisation and ‘austerity’, there’s little appetite for solidarity, redistribution  or the expansion of public service.