Funeral support payments: how much information is too much?

When I’ve written about social security payments before, I’ve at times referred to  Funeral Payments as a example of where the system goes wrong – as in my blog, here.  It has too many moving parts to be workable.  I was interested, then, and pleasantly surprised, to see that applicants have few complaints about the application process. You can see what’s asked here,  because the Scottish Government has understood that people need alternatives to on-line processes.  It’s still a convoluted process: applicants are asked about themselves, whether they get benefits,  their relationship to the deceased person, the estate’s resources and the funeral arrangements.

Most complaints in the  claimant feedback, however, are about something else entirely: the details on equalities, which account for the last five pages of the form.  People resent those questions, it seems, because they’re not really about the process at all – and the questions are consequently seen as intrusive, in a way that the earlier questions are not.  People should be able to bury their mother without having to tell a government agency that they’re gay.

Thinking collectively

Policy Press have contacted me to say that three of my books are now available on their online service, Policy Press Scholarship online.  This is subscribed to by many institutions – I have access by way of the National Library of Scotland.  The books are, in order of publication, Reclaiming Individualism (2013), Thinking Collectively (2019) and The Poverty of Nations (2020).

If the books were being written now, I’d need of course to take account of the current pandemic; but oddly, there’s little in the intellectual content that would need to be changed.  In Thinking collectively, I review a range of moral arguments for collective action, and competing conceptions of the ‘common good’.  The common good might be understood as the sum of particular interests, such as economic development; on interests which are shared with other people, like the arguments for clean water; on interests which we share as members of a collectivity, such as defence or foreign policy; and, beyond that, the process of collective action, such as democratic participation.  The response to Covid-19 is – or should be – an example of aiming for the common good in every sense.

Mandatory Reconsideration is “a disproportionate interference with the right of access to court”.

Eighteen months ago, I made a case on this blog that the process of Mandatory Reconsideration demanded by the DWP was unlawful, that it was designed to prevent claimants from access to justice,  and that it stood clearly in breach of the principles enunciated by the Supreme Court in the Unison case.  Now the  High Court has heard a case about MR as it affects Employment and Support Allowance.  Justice Swift demurred from the case I argued for in one important respect:  that even if MR was an “impediment or hindrance” to access to justice, it did not actually deny people the right of access altogether.  Nevertheless, the judge decided that the process was “a disproportionate interference with the right of access to court”, and found in favour of the claimant.

Decisions of the High Court are not necessarily decisive, and it is likely that this judgment will be assumed to apply only to ESA claims.  But the grounds for the judgment are matters of general principle, and they apply  across all benefits to which the process has been applied.   That prompts some questions.   First, what does it take to get rid of regulations that are transparently  unlawful?   Second, why did the process of independent scrutiny, undertaken by the experts of the Social Security Advisory Committee, not raise concerns when these regulations were being introduced?  And third, what on earth was the Scottish government thinking of when it decided to mirror “a disproportionate interference with the right of access to court” in the design of the Scottish social security system?

 

 

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.

Some thoughts on Citizens Assemblies

The Scottish Government has opted for using a Citizens Assembly as a means of addressing some of the complex issues around devolution and independence.  Citizens Assemblies have been proposed as a way of resolving lots of thorny issues, such as Brexit, social care and reviewing legislation.  I can see that some people are enthusiastic about the mechanism, but I’m agnostic.  There are lots of existing mechanisms by which complex issues can be discussed and reviewed in some depth: there are inquiries, commissions, Royal Commissions.  There are reservations to make about them all, but I’m not convinced that  a Citizens Assembly can resolve the issues in a way that they can’t.

The first problem is the issue of capacity.  Commissions are commonly limited by the terms of reference they are given, their membership and the resources they can command.  The process matters, too; I’ve been critical of inquiries led by lawyers, whose training is not necessarily appropriate to the exploration and synthesis of complex issues where a selection needs to be made.

The second concerns the validity of the positions that people come to.  Any worthwhile inquiry will draw on a range of evidence, including both primary evidence and information from experts, and Citizens Assemblies can do this, too. Some commissions are led by experts; some aren’t. The expertise of a commission is no guarantee that they will get the judgements right, and there are certainly plenty of commissions who might be said to have gone off-track.  (For example, there are still many people in Scotland who commend the Christie Commission on public services, which I think got things radically wrong.)   I’ve served as adviser to a couple of parliamentary committees, and found that they were able to address issues in remarkable depth simply because they were able to draw on submissions and testimony from a wide range of witnesses, often completing work that compares well with academic research in much less time.

There may be a specific problem with the decision-making process in Citizens Assemblies, reflecting the large number of people involved. Group thinking is vulnerable to a tendency to conformity, potentially reflecting the vocal representations of a minority.  There is also potentially the phenomenon which psychologists refer to as a ‘shift to risk’, where groups will take collectively decisions that are riskier than any of the individuals in that group would accept.

Third, there is the question of ownership.  Inquiries that take a short time are often treated as if they were doing the bidding of particular political masters; inquiries that take a longer time are then abandoned by their political successors. People who agree with the conclusions will support the recommendations; people who disagree will say that the process was not representative, or not authoritative, or that conditions have changed.The Northern Ireland Citizens Assembly has struggled to have an impact in the absence of active political representation in the province.  One has to ask about Citizen’s Assemblies whether they will have more authority, or carry more commitment, than any other mechanism, and it is not clear they will.

An apology: something strange happened when I posted this entry, and what was posted was not the entry I’d finished, but an early draft.  This full version had to be reconstructed, because there was no trace left of all of the work I’d done on it.

What’s wrong with the idea of opening the NHS to US traders? Plenty.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the potential for a trade agreement with the USA and its possible impact on the NHS.  “I think everything with a trade deal is on the table,” Donald Trump has said.  “When you’re dealing in trade everything is on the tabl,e so NHS or anything else, a lot more than that, but everything will be on the table, absolutely.” The response of those who want there to be such an agreement has been to say that it won’t matter – a “storm in a teacup”, one IEA spokesperson commented. US firms are already providing services in UK health care.  Services can be provided by a range of providers; what matters for the consumer is that the NHS continues to offer services that are free at the point of delivery.

This view may be disingenuous, because there is a strong financial incentive not to see the problems.  It is certainly mistaken.  The usual complaints from the left are that profit-making firms are extractive, and that competition consumes resources.  Either might be true, but the problems run much deeper than that.  There is now abundant evidence of what happens to public services when ‘competition’ or part-privatisation is introduced.  I have just had a paper rejected which makes the arguments in some detail – admittedly it’s too tendentious for an academic journal – but I can sketch out a couple of points here.

There is no system, anywhere, that is wholly public, any more than there is a system that is wholly private.  The NHS has had an uncomfortable relationship with the private sector, but its successful functioning relies mainly on two pillars: that the private sector is small and select, and that the services are sufficiently integrated to ensure that really serious cases can be taken over by the national service.  Both of those are at risk from creeping commercialisation.

The fundamental problem in any mixed system is that commercial providers get to choose what they cover; public providers, committed to meeting the needs of a population, do not.  Commercial providers select those areas of operation which they are undertaking to provide – that is how markets work.  That means that in general they will select those activities which deliver the best return per unit.   It follows that some things will be left out; when they are, the public services will have to deal with them as provider of last resort.  (Take a simple illustration, delivering post and parcels.  If private firms can subcontract for the profitable bits, they choose the easy runs – between major cities, or within busy areas.  In the case of private health care, that has generally meant a preference for relatively low-risk elective surgery, while long term psychiatric or geriatric care don’t attract the insurers or the services.)

Taking those points together, that must also mean that public services have a higher cost per unit than the private services – the difference is built into the process.    Politically, there are constant complaints that public services don’t work as well as private ones.  Of course they don’t; they have to take on the bits that private providers leave behind.

That’s the unavoidable part of the problem.  Some other things follow in the wake of that structure.  They may be avoidable, but they are still difficult.

  • There is a continuing incentive for private providers to cut corners – skimping on service, paying less, holding to the letter of complex contracts.
  • The public sector has to develop processes for sub-contracting and compliance, which are expensive and uncertainly effective.
  • When private providers get it wrong, and services collapse, the public services have to pick up the pieces.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about competitive structures, but that’s why I started out trying to write a paper on it rather than a blog entry.

A levy on workplace car parking is a bad idea

As part of the price for the cooperation of the Green Party in the Scottish parliament, the Scottish Government has agreed to give local authorities the power to introduce a levy on workplace car parks.  “Plans to give powers to councils to introduce a workplace parking levy, as already allowed in England, will come forward via an agreed Green Party amendment to the Transport (Scotland) Bill. ”  This is intended to reduce the numbers of people who travel to work by car.  It’s been tested in Nottingham, where it’s been claimed to reduce congestion and raise revenue.

Both of those claims may be true, but it’s still a rotten idea.  It falls into the same category as a raft of proposals, and sometimes actual policies, which try to regulate behaviour by using price as the main lever.  Policies of this type have often been favored by market economists, because the most basic economics courses tell us that the way to reduce demand is to raise the price until the market is cleared.  There have been loads of suggestions about policies where the same principle could be applied:  they include congestion charges, road pricing, charges for GPs, water metering, and charges for rubbish collection by weight.  (Often they go hand in hand with some kind of gee-whiz technology that just happens to be sold by the companies that are pressing for the policy, but that’s not the main issue here.)

The key objections to rationing by price are threefold.  First, the demand for any activity depends on the resources that people have, and the people whose behaviour are most likely to be affected are those on the lowest incomes.   Almost by definition, people on lower income have to be more sensitive to marginal cost than people on higher incomes can be –  and the introduction of a flat-rate levy takes far more from the incomes of lower paid workers than it does for higher paid workers.  It’s important to consider for any policy what the distributive implications are. Second, it’s essential to understand what the effect on behaviour might be, and changing the price of an activity is a blunt instrument.  Some substitutions may be desirable – such as cycling to work instead – but it can lead to people substituting different, less desirable  behaviours instead – for example, parking on residential streets instead, driving more and longer while looking for parking places, absenteeism or resignation.  Third, it may conflict with other policies – recruiting specialist staff such as nurses and teachers, encouraging people to take up work at a distance, getting people to take longer hours by flexible employment practices.

I’ve argued before on this blog that there is a wide range of rationing measures, and rationing by price is markedly inferior to some of the alternatives.  None of that means that rationing by price is never appropriate – there may be exceptions (reducing the demand for cigarettes by price could be one) – but it does mean that it’s hard to justify, and there are usually better ways to achieve the ends.   Before penalising people for turning up to work, try some of the alternatives: encouraging collective transport such as employer-funded buses; provide rail season tickets and bus passes; tilt the balance towards remote working; tie site development planning to transport provision.  It’s odd to see the Green Party advocating a set of market-driven measures that would sit more comfortably with the Institute for Economic Affairs than they do with the people-centred economic policies that the Greens claim to support.

 

Universal Credit: the monster staggers on

It’s being reported that Universal Credit is to be delayed again.  There are also suggestions that a small number of minor tweaks will be made – allowing legacy benefits to run on for two weeks, changing direct payment rules and altering rules for self-employment.  None of that really gets to the heart of the problems.  The system is simply not designed for the variety and complexity of conditions it is supposed to deal with.

The BBC offers this graph of delays, citing the National Audit Office as source.  It’s kind to the record, because it waves aside the failed attempts that led to the system being “reset” in 2013.  The original deadline for the completion of the rollout was not 2019, but 2017.  The planning has, of course, been going on since 2010, and at no stage has it ever seemed likely that UC could be delivered, as Iain Duncan Smith repeatedly claimed it would be, on time and within budget.

Universal Credit delays graphic

I’ve been blogging about the problems with Universal Credit since October 2010, and complaining about the bogus claims made for it since the first glimpse of a business case in 2013.    The Treasury failed altogether to follow its own procedures, undertaking massive expenditures before any plan had been submitted.  The lack of routine scrutiny has been scandalous; but not as scandalous, I regret, as the way that claimants have been treated in the hope of sparking life into the monster.

Social Security Scotland lays out its stall

The Corporate Plan published by the new agency, Social Security Scotland, is brimming with good intentions.  Under the agency’s name is the motto: dignity, fairness and  respect.  The key to this rests in how the agency deals with mistakes, and there will be mistakes: introducing complex systems for people with complex problems to resolve makes that inevitable.  There are some good signs: a commitment to resolving issues “resolved quickly and at the point of contact”, listening, and ‘continuous improvement’, using feedback to improve the quality of services.  The problem, however, rests in a bitter legacy of conflictual, adversarial approaches to managing agency mistakes.  Several elements of the new system create hurdles to overcome:  mandatory ‘re-determination’ (the decision should have been checked anyway on first complaint), referral out to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (another hurdle), and heavy reliance on the appeals structure.  This may all work work against speedy and effective resolution.

Peru has provided everyone with national ID

The things we take for granted often look very different from the perspective of other countries.  In Peru, it’s being proudly reported that the nation has at last provided identity documents to everyone – a smart card that covers people for grants and benefits as well as ID.  Civil war had displaced 600,000 people, and three million had no documentation.  Now everyone does.  It’s being represented as a major step towards social inclusion.  “IDs open doors to opportunities.”

In the UK, ID cards were abolished post-war after people refused to cooperate with the system, and their reintroduction has been fiercely resisted.  It’s seen as the action of a domineering state and “Big Brother”.  In India, the Aadhaar card has been used to impose controls on issues including tax evasion and terrorism, and it is being challenged as an invasion of privacy.

It’s clear that the problems of being without documentation are a major blight on the lives of many people, most obviously in the USA and more recently in the treatment of Caribbean immigrants in the UK.  But processes which include some people can exclude others, and there are concerns from India about people who have been left out.  The lesson for public administration ought to be that no system is perfect, and the test of a good system is how it deals with mistakes, omissions and exclusions.  This is not so much about a sophisticated technology as about how services relate to ordinary people.