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.
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.
My work in Poland is coming to an end. As I write, the University where I’ve been is engaged in a dispute with the Polish government about new legislation which will change the way that universities are organised. The constitution guarantees the autonomy of universities, and so does the disputed bill; but the three references to autonomy in principle are somewhat outweighed by more than 200 substantive references powers being given to the Minister. They range from relatively minor powers (for example, that the Minister can direct a university to appoint someone to teach sports) to rather more important ones. “Law 2.0” is framed in the belief that it is up to government and the parliament to determine how universities are run. The constitution and operation of universities is subject to the government, including how the university should be organised and run, whether the university can undertake research (the classification of universities as vocational is explicitly subject to the administrative power of the minister in article 15) and who they can appoint to be their professors. As I read it – I have to rely on my computer for detailed translations – the Minister determines what is a university and what is not (art 35), and art 40 suggests he can refuse if a university is ‘grossly in violation of the law’. The Minister apparently has the power to order a university to close (art 36), as well as the power to dispose of any remaining assets (art 37). There are clauses governing what subjects can be taught and even what the curriculum should be.
The context in which this is taking place is one where the government has been determinedly taking power to itself. The European Commission has expressed concern in strong terms:
the constitutionality of Polish laws can no longer be effectively guaranteed. This situation is particularly worrying for the respect of the rule of law since, as explained in the Commission’s Recommendations, a number of particularly sensitive new legislative acts have been adopted by the Polish Parliament, such as a new Civil Service Act, a law amending the law on the Police and certain other laws, laws on the Public Prosecution Office, a law on the Ombudsman and amending certain other laws, a law on the National Council of Media and an anti-terrorism law.
The central problem, as far as I can make it out, is not that the government is determined to undermine the rule of law; it’s that they don’t believe the Constitution really matters that much, that all it offers is a series of principles, that it’s open to the Sejm (parliament) to pass whatever laws they think fit, and that as a government they’re the people in charge. In the case of the universities, they think that universities are public institutions and that public institutions have to be kept under public control. There’s a very fundamental misunderstanding there. A constitution is a ‘basic’ law, not a set of guidelines, and it underpins everything that follows.
A billion people in the world defaecate in the open, largely because they have no toilet. Half of them are in India. The graph below comes from an atlas of the Sustainable Development Goals produced by the World Bank.
The government of India hoped, five years ago, that it could end open defecation by 2019. It is well behind that target, but claims that 72.3 million toilets have been constructed, out of a target of 110 million. Reports from India number such things in lakh, a unit of 100,000; 72.3 million is 723 lakh. The position was slightly confused last month by the Prime Minister’s claim that the state of Bihar had constructed 8.5 lakh, that is 850,000, toilets in a week – it seems that the toilets have been constructed, but not so quickly.
The Economist is sceptical about the figures more generally; some of the toilets that were supposed to be constructed appear not to exist, the claims of one state to have ended the practice have been shown to be false, and besides some people continue to defaecate in the open even though they have a toilet. In Bangladesh, improved sanitation has been linked to education about hygiene, to great effect. Regardless, the government deserves some credit for the priority it has given to issues that are intended to make people’s lives better – including housing, electricity, financial inclusion and sanitation.
The DWP has issued a consultation about changes to the claimant count. Once upon a time, we used to have a count of the numbers of people who were unemployed. That count was persistently too high, despite a long series of downward revisions. In the 1980s the government started to use the ‘claimant count’ instead, focusing on benefit receipt and excluding many people who were looking for jobs but who weren’t claiming benefit. The claimant count series goes back to 1971; it correlates with unemployment figures, but it is usually lower. Now, all too predictably, the claimant count has been rising. It’s happened because the rules of JSA, ESA and Universal Credit demand that people are treated as looking for work. The two options in the consultation are both intended to massage the figures so that things don’t look quite so bad.
There is another option, of course. The ONS already keeps figures from the Labour Froce Survey, which counts unemployment in the terms of the international definition used by the ILO. The series goes back to 1984, when the government dropped the old count of unemployment. It has also stopped using the claimant count from its Labour Market Statistics, because it’s meaningless as an economic indicator. Indicators are not particularly useful when the conditions they’re kept under change. So why are we using the claimant count at all?
The Aadhaar card is an electronic system for managing the identification details of the population of India. The current case against Aadhaar in the Indian Supreme Court is principally concerned with issues of privacy and data management; the main argument in the court is that the card is unconstitutional, and creates the mechansims for a ‘surveillance state’. From the point of view of social administration, it is a greater concern that people have to have a card before they can receive benefits and services. That issue was being flagged more than a year ago, with people being denied access to rice rations because of problems in the system. A recent report in the Washington Post adds many more examples – access to schools, food or pensions.
One of the advantages claimed for the Aadhaar card was that it was going to reduce welfare fraud. It has had the opposite effect: people who supply the services may be able to pocket the resources that people have not been able to access. This looks like a classic case, of imagining that the arguments for a particular IT process are universal, and disrearding the conditions where the system has to operate. There’s a further problem, too: that even if the process seems straightforward in its own right, mistakes are very difficult to correct. This system is supposed to deal with the largest population in the world of people who can’t read or write.
I have made a donation to Oxfam. While I have some reservations about Oxfam’s stance on a range of issues, I have none about its integrity. I’d like to endorse Richard Murphy’s defence of the organisation, and his follow-up. Oxfam took swift and serious action in relation to its staff in Haiti in 2011. It reported that there were problems at the time; the offenders were fired; and since then it has publicly reported on its actions relating to child protection (most of which concerned its charity shops). Oxfam’s main failing was that its disclosure was not full; I am not sure that it could have been.
Oxfam also claimed in its annual report to have helped help more than half a million people in Haiti in 2011/12. This is from their web page on their work in Haiti:
Oxfam’s 100 strong team, including 15 emergency specialists, was on hand to respond with provision of clean water, shelter and basic sanitation, as well as by helping community canteens provide daily hot meals.
By providing paid employment to the people in the camps; to keep the camps clean, build latrines and clear up their destroyed neighborhoods, we put money in the pockets of those who needed it most and helped them improve their living conditions. We reached 300,000 people with aid in the first three months.
The level of destruction and logistical challenges were among the worst Oxfam had ever faced. The Oxfam office and a key warehouse full of vital water and sanitation equipment were destroyed when the quake struck. Like thousands of others in Haiti Oxfam staff were not left untouched by the disaster.
Despite personal losses, including two Oxfam employees, a day after the quake most Oxfam staff were back in the office and they managed to salvage some of the stock from the destroyed warehouse. Oxfam Country Director, Yolette Etienne told her staff there was “no other option but to work and to work harder since we have the privilege of still being here and we can help people to overcome their desperation.”
Before we join the chorus of criticism about Oxfam, let’s remember what really matters.
The government has reaffirmed a commitment to introduce a Universal Service Obligation for broadband, rejecting an offer by BT Openreach that fell short of that objective. On the Today programme today, the minister responsible for digital policy, Matt Hancock, seemed to me to be saying that the way to achieve universal coverage was to encourage competition and more diverse providers. Competition, in its nature, can’t and won’t do that. Competition depends on firms finding an advantage, and choosing what to do and what not to do. The basic comparison to make is with the postal service; universal services mean that everyone should get mail delivered, regardless of location, at a specified price.
Earlier this year, Ofcom looked at the technical issues involved in extending broadband services. Among other things, they noted that none of the main providers would be interested in competitive tendering to administer a UniversalService Obligation. BT Openreach had proposed a rollout where a small proportion of households – 0.8% – would be diverted towards satellite links or asked to meet the costs of connection. That’s a bit like saying that postal services to remote areas will be suspended unless people pay a premium (they already do for parcel deliveries.) Commercially and economically, it always makes sense to unload costs on to the consumer; after all, people in the Western Isles could pick up their post in Inverness. That misses the point of having universal services. The costs of serving remote communities can’t be met without pooling of resources between those communities and others.
In a recent blog, Jonathan Bradshaw has suggested that limiting Tax Credits and Universal Credit to two children is the “worst social security policy ever”. There’s a lot of competition for the title. As Jonathan writes,
There are many competitors for this accolade in our history — less eligibility in 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Board household means-test, the 1991 Child Support Act, the 2017 lower benefit cap and, probably forthcoming, Universal Credit. But the two-child policy is just morally odious.
That set me to wondering: aren’t there worse examples? Here are a few other contenders.
Settlement and removal. The effect of the settlement laws under the Poor Laws meant that the local parish had to support certain people, and that if they were in need elsewhere they’d be “removed” to their parish of origin. That meant both that parishes did their utmost to avoid illegitimate children being born on their patch – if necessary, picking up a pregnant woman and dumping her on another patch – and that people in need were transported back to their original parish, regardless of their reasons for leaving.
Housing Benefit. The Housing Finance Act 1972 set about demolishing the system of housing subsidies, and trebled rents in the process. Housing Benefit was introduced initially in the form of Rent Rebate and Rent Allowance, supposedly representing a shift from subsidising bricks and mortar to subsisising people. The benefit was staggeringly complex, the costs and management span out of control. The effects were catastrophic, especially when they were combined with the costs of rent from Supplementary Benefit. The first stage might be thought of as a blunder – the theory said that it would be more efficient to direct resources to people. The second stage, introduced when it was evident that the first stage hadn’t worked, was a fiasco. We’re still suffering from the consequences: a destruction of housing subsidies, a diversion of resources to private landlords, a horrendous poverty trap, and the introduction of restrictions (including the benefit cap) because the system is unworkable.
The Griffiths report. Creating a quasi-market system in social care was widely welcomed by many people who ought to have known better, and the system still has its defenders. The system depends on intrusive personal assessment, penal means tests, market distribution (which always leaves gaps) and lengthy delays in service delivery. Some of the defences begin with feeble excuses, such as the claim that it would all have worked if only there was more money and the thing had happened more; some try to deny that we’ve been trying to do this for nearly thirty years and it’s never worked. (It’s a social security policy, because it directs cash towards a test of need rather than providing a basic service. A large part of the funding came from the resources for residential care that were being paid for in social security benefits. )
Reclaiming overpayments. The practice saddles people on low incomes with long-term debts. It used to be the case that claiamnts could only be directed to repay money if they had misrepresented or failed to disclose a material fact. That was overturned with the Tax Credits system, which presented people with demands for repaying thousands of pounds they had no reason to suppose they weren’t entitled to. The Ombudsman laid into the system as being fundamentally unsuited to the needs of the low income families it was supposed to help. Now the same principles are being rolled forward into Universal Credit – and, it seems, the new Scottish system of benefits, including benefits for disability.
Disability assessments. I’ve already referred to personal intrusion. Why is every person who is sick required to undergo an assessment? Why are medical records disregarded? Why is everyone being asked about going to the toilet? Why are most of the people who are too sick to work being required to attend sessions to indicate a readiness to work?
Suspending benefits. When the “four-week rule” was applied, research (by Molly Meacher) reported that about a third of the people subjected to suspensions were convicted of their first criminal offences afterwards. Now lengthy, indiscriminate suspensions have become a major aspect of the social security system, with getting on for a quarter of all claimants having benefits sanctioned for a period, and some having benefits cut off for three years. There are no circumstances where leaving people without enough to buy food is ever justified.
These policies have something in common. In every case, it’s not just that the policies didn’t work; it’s that after they had been tried out and were shown to have bad effects, the responsible governments ploughed on regardless, and rolled them out more generally. That’s the point at which incompetence crosses over into immorality. And that’s why Universal Credit is such a horror: it takes every element in recent years that has been shown not to work (tapers, sanctions, delays, assessments, obstructions to redress, transfers of process across agencies, multiple moving parts, and so on), and builds a whole system round them.
In February, Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, was suggesting that tribunals were likely to move into online hearings, and that social security tribunals would be pioneering the approach. That announcement was received with some apprehension, because the experience of digital communication and systems supposed to be “digital by default” has not been good for claimants; it assumes access to resources and a level of competence with IT that many people would find challenging. The technology for managing group meetings is improving, but it’s still buggy and difficult to access; the added security needed for tribunal hearings is liable to add to that.
In a recent talk, however, Sir Ernest has been offering more insight into his thoughts about the conduct of social security tribunals, and it may not be what the critics expect. He has been complaining that the incompetence of the DWP has clogged up the tribunal system. Mandatory Reconsideration is no help – the number of bad decisions has been mounting. In most of the cases submitted by the DWP, “there could be no argument in law or on facts that the appellant wouldn’t win.” Ryder would like to give tribunals the right to reject the DWP’s papers without wasting time on a hearing.