Category: Politics and economics

Why France is going to reform its housing benefit system

The French government has announced that their system of housing benefit will be reformed this autumn.  The minister, Jacques Mézard, is reported in Le Monde as saying:

We have a budget for APL (Aides personnalisées au logement) of 19 billion euros, a budget for all housing benefits of 30 billion euros, the highest in Europe, with a corollary: not enough housing and rents that are too high.  … For one euro more spent on APL, 78 centimes goes on higher rents.  We have to get out of this perverse system.

When housing benefits were first introduced in the UK, in the form of “Rent Allowance” and “Rent Rebate”, policy makers had been impressed by the French argument for subsidising low incomes rather than bricks and mortar – “aide à la personne” instead of “aide à la pierre“.  As in France, it’s led to higher costs, more complex administration, higher rents and often the exclusion of low income families from decent housing. It was a mistake then, and it’s still a mistake now.

Preventing terrorism

In heath care, it’s long been conventional to refer to two or three classes of prevention.

  • Primary prevention is about implies stopping a person from developing a problem in the first place.  It can be done by
    • changing the environment, which has been been the approach of public health services;
    • changing people’s behaviour.  This is attempted through health education; advertising; legal restrictions, like licensing of pubs; and financial disincentives, like taxation on cigarettes and alcohol; or
    • changing people’s physical condition.  Vaccination is the obvious example.
  • Secondary prevention.  This implies identifying a problem in its early stages to prevent its progression, for example through screening of women for breast and cervical cancer.
  • The third class, tertiary prevention, is not used as widely  as the others, because the category is difficult to distinguish from treatment; it aims to reduce the impact of an illness that has happened, or treating diseases so as to stop them from spreading.  To stop cancer recurring, for example, treatment has to be thorough and comprehensive.

It ought to be possible to extend this classification to other things we need to prevent.  I don’t claim to know much about terrorism, but it seems to me obvious that we cannot describe policing of any kind as the “front line” dealing with the problem.  The front line is primary: the people who occupy it include teachers, religious leaders and the broader public.  Primary prevention would aim to change culture, attitudes and behaviour at the source, through social inclusion, education, and civic engagement.  Community policing and early detection by the security services – the focus of much of the present debate – are forms of secondary prevention.  Control orders or the  “Prevent” programme, which respond to stop committed terrorists from acting on their convictions, are tertiary. The response of successive governments in the UK has been heavily geared to tertiary prevention, and that means that while it can limit the damage, it comes in too late for effective prevention.

The SNP manifesto is out (at last)

The SNP have published their manifesto today.  They don’t pretend that they’re going to be the next government, but they do represent themselves as an active opposition – more, they suggest with some justice, than might be said for some other parties in Parliament.   The principles are clear and strong: they’re opposed to austerity, they want to take action on poverty and inequality, they want to safeguard Britain’s position in the single market and they want to support public services.  They’re unusual in treating social security as a major issue  – sanctions, the rape clause, pensions, the bedroom tax and the benefits freeze.  And, despite the hollow accusations from opposing parties in Scotland about the SNP’s supposed ‘obsession’, there’s nothing here about independence.

The main point of criticism is a matter of style rather than substance: there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been said within three days of the election announcement.  Waiting so long to put out the manifesto tends to imply that it wasn’t seen as much of a priority, and that is a misjudgment.  People need something positive to vote for, and this manifesto has something to offer.

More manifestos

Manifestos are out from two more parties, neither of which had any seats in the last Parliament.   One was from UKIP, offering a combination of policies designed to appeal to readers of the Daily Express:  lock up criminals, support for “beleaguered” drivers and self-employed people, get rid of foreign aid, more police, criminalise breast ironing (I didn’t know what that was, either), stop funding devolution and how dare anyone say we’re little Englanders?  The other was from the Women’s Equality Party, whose eight point plan for a ‘caring economy” is presented as “challenging the myth that social justice and equality  are somehow separate from our economy.”  They want equal pay, universal child care, integrated health and social care, more accountability for inequality and lots of policy reviews.  It all seemed well-reasoned and very sane,  but maybe that’s because I read it immediately after the UKIP one.

The Green Party manifesto

While the Green Party manifesto is not likely to make much of a contribution to British government in practice, there are two big things to say in its favour.  In the first place, it’s mercifully concise.  Second,  it doesn’t just give us a shopping list of policies: it starts off each section with a statement about general direction and principle.  A manifesto isn’t just a list of policies: voters want to know, and are entitled to know, how a prospective government would go about judging and making decisions on the matters it doesn’t yet know about.  That, realistically, covers far more decisions than any manifesto could possibly anticipate, and that’s what the Greens are telling us.  Other parties take note.

There’s a commitment to a greener economy, but I think we’re supposed already to know what that means.  The specific policies  on ‘the economy’ are mainly concerned with tax and benefits (the foundations of a Basic Income), but the manifesto doesn’t have much to say about how the economy works or how it will change.  Apart from membership of the EU, the main commitments are to public services in health, housing and education, public engagement, environmental protection, human rights and ethical foreign policy – mostly policies that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Labour party manifesto in the days before Blair.



The Liberal Democrat manifesto

The Liberal Democrat’s manifesto is out.  It has the shape and feel of a traditional manifesto, laid out in nine sections, with a shopping list of policies in each.  The sections cover Europe, health and social care, education, the economy, families and communities, green policies, international policies, rights and (of course) constitutional reform.   Housing policies are buried in family and community, but include the significant, and welcome, aim of expanding house building capacity to 300,000 a year.  Benefits are also part of family and community.  Most of the measures, as in the Labour manifesto, are about trying to repair recent damage: reversing cuts to Universal Credit and ESA, unfreezing benefits, abandoning the two-child policy, restoring Housing Benefit and JSA to 18-21 year olds, and of course the bedroom tax.  Among new policies are to separate out employment support from benefits (a good idea) and withdrawing the Winter Fuel Payment from people with higher incomes (a bad one – they should have learned from the fiasco with Child Benefit).  Possibly the most depressing line is that they will “ensure that those using food banks are aware of their rights”.  Food banks are here to stay, then.

Some thoughts on Labour’s costings

The official release of the manifesto has been supplemented by outline costings, identifying, in terms similar to a budget, both expectations of tax revenue and projected expenditure.  (I made a general comment about the Labour manifesto last week.  I had initially thought to write only one comment as each of the manifestos came out, but I’m not the BBC and I have no duty to offer equal time to all participants.  Labour deserve points at least for turning the election campaign to thoughts of policy.)

In relation to tax, most of the money raised is to come from corporation tax, a tax on very high incomes and tax avoidance.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies has commented that tax revenues are uncertain, and that people will change behaviour to reduce their tax liability.  Those points are certainly true, but the same uncertainties infect Treasury budgets, which in recent years have been increasingly fantastical – thumping great savings on benefits like PIP supposed to materialise out of thin air.  The best we can hope for are indicators, and for the most part Labour’s costings are neither unreasonable nor unsound.

The projected expenditure on social security is £4bn, mainly devoted to reversing existing cuts.  The main list of measures is this:

increase ESA by £30pw for those in the work-related activity group, scrap bedroom tax, implement the PiP legal ruling, restore Housing Benefit for under 21s, scrap Bereavement Support Payment reforms, £2 billion of additional funding for  Universal Credit for review of cuts and how best to reverse them, uprate Carers’ Allowance to the level of JSA

I’ve commented on the timidity of these proposals; it’s not about making benefits better, but stopping them getting even worse.  There are seven measures there:  five of the seven imply not new commitments, but reversion to former patterns, and the ‘cost’ is based on the removal of intended savings from the Treasury’s plans.

There is one element in the spending proposals which I’m sceptical about: that is the assertion that increasing the minimum wage will come in at zero cost.  In terms of the economy overall, there’s good reason to think  that increasing the minimum wage generates as much economic activity as  it suppresses.  In terms of the public sector, however, raising the minimum wage has two more specific effects:  it raises the cost of public service employment, because the public services in general and local government in particular are notoriously stingy employers, and it raises the cost of outsourced contracts, because many local authorities have ducked the first problem  by engaging external firms which pay even less for essential services.

Plaid Cymru’s manifesto is based in opposing current policy.

The second manifesto off the stocks comes from Plaid Cymru.  They hope to raise educational standards by paying teachers more, they want more doctors, and the main policy for housing I could see was to improve the situation of armed forces veterans.  They suggest that social security powers could be devolved – as indeed they could, because Northern Ireland has had full nominal control for nearly a hundred years.  They’re a little less ambitious as to what they might do with the new powers: they’re against private contractors, the bedroom tax and the rape clause, but that’s sketched out in a few words.

There’s no sense, then, that Plaid Cymru believes it can offer a new settlement.   They explain:  “this election is about an immediate threat to our nation, our economy and our people”, and complain that “People in Wales are facing a tidal wave of attacks from the Conservatives.”  They’re stronger on complaining about the inundation than they are on offering measures to deal with it, but in fairness, there aren’t enough buckets to cope.


Manifestos matter

Policies matter.  In the absence of the political manifestos, the election campaign to date has been reduced to either a focus on personalities, or  on a generalised sense of trust.  Neither of those can be relied on.  People who voted in 2015 in the belief that they were choosing between David Cameron or Ed Miliband – or, for that matter, Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage – were wrong to think that.    In formal terms, the party leaders aren’t on the ballot papers; the names of prospective local MPs are, with their party (and the party might change afterwards).  In practice, the party leaders aren’t what matters – those parties are.  And that’s why there didn’t need to be an election after all of those party leaders had resigned.

By contrast, the policies announced in manifestos have a serious impact.  The reason why pensions have continued to increase was because the winning party manifesto had promised it.  The reason why the government had to change its mind about National Insurance contributions wasn’t because they’d had a change of heart; it was because the policy contradicted their manifesto.  And one of the key reasons why the Liberal Democrats suffered so heavily at the polls in 2015 is that they broke a key manifesto promise.    We’ve had, up to now, a phony war on the doorsteps; candidates who are standing for office haven’t really been able to say what their  party hopes to do, and that means that they have to bang on instead about character or tribal loyalties.  Let’s hope that the belated publication of the first manifesto changes the tone.

On the Labour manifesto

I had hoped that by now all the party manifestos would be available for review.  It seems that in our new, populist politics that policies don’t really matter that much, and everyone is waiting for a more opportune moment to reveal their plans.   The first manifesto off the stocks turns out to be the Labour Party’s, and that’s only because the manifesto has been leaked:  I read it via Guido Fawkes’ site.  It’s wordy, and there’s a lot of detail on some areas – just not the ones I usually get worked up about.

The main policies on social security are to

  • keep the triple lock on pensions
  • ‘review’ pension age
  • ‘review’ the two child policy
  • scrap sanctions
  • reverse a series of cuts, such as the bedroom tax and recent cuts to ESA
  • replace assessments with a “personalised, holistic assessment process”, and
  • restore Universal Credit work allowances.

That looks, then, like a commitment to retain Universal Credit, and indeed most of the current structure of benefits; the biggest commitment is to roll back benefits to how they were five years ago.

On housing, Labour will build more.

On health, the main commitment is to spend more and to cap waiting lists at 18 weeks. For mental health, the main  commitment is to spend more proportionally, and to do more about children’s mental health. For social care, care workers will be paid more.

The summary may seem sketchy; so, in my view, are the proposals.  There is rather more on transport, business and energy. Nor is there much about general principles, such as liberty, equality, solidarity or democracy.  The old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy stuff that excites me is just not what Labour is most concerned with.