On Thursday 17th, I was part of a group of academics giving verbal evidence to the Social Security Committee of the Scottish Parliament, concerning the future development of social security in Scotland. The verbal record of the proceedings is here, in the section headed ‘Work Programme Priorities’ (that’s about the future work of the Committee, not the Work Programme). There is also a full video of the committee (our discussion starts at 1:03). As I can be fairly sure that most of you won’t read or listen to that discussion, here’s a shortened version of my opening statement:
… there is often a tendency to respond to the current set and diet of benefits as a laid table. The terms on which benefits are delivered always determine what it is possible to think about for the future, and it becomes extremely difficult to adapt to change or to anticipate change because of the huge pressure to make up for what has gone before. We saw that in relation to the bedroom tax … [and] tax credit cuts … however, I am afraid that it will not be possible to deal with most of the cuts. Quite simply, there is too much water coming through the dyke and you do not have enough fingers. …
It is important to look to the future and future priorities for the ways in which benefits are to be delivered in Scotland. There are some very large issues of huge importance coming at Scotland at great speed. The Scottish Government will take responsibility for what is, admittedly, a minor part of the total social security system but one that, nevertheless, represents a huge administrative, practical and financial challenge. That must be the priority for future work over the next five years.
In some ways, it is a minefield. Whatever happens—no matter how well the system works—we all know that, with a large system with multiple iterations that deals with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will get the blame when it does. We have to accept that as being part of the enterprise that we are engaged in. It is clearly important to try, as far as possible, to promote the kind of agenda that the Scottish Parliament has previously adopted relating to respect, dignity and fairness to ensure that the system works properly.
I know that it is tempting to focus on specific policies… I would argue that, rather than trying to adapt specific policies on each and every thing, the focus should be on something that is fundamental to everything, and certainly to dignity and respect: developing the administration and mechanics of benefit delivery.
There’s lots more in the full verbal report.
The Times has reported the prospect of “all out war between the Sturgeon administration and Scotland’s local authorities.” (Councils to be stripped of powers in local government revolution, 11th November 2016, p 19). It may be a little difficult to think of any field where councils have many powers left to be stripped. Local authorities are a shadow of their former existence: after 1945 they have lost powers relating to social security, health, public utilities, and more recently they have lost most of their functions relating to housing or social work. Education has been boxed in by a national curriculum. Planning and licensing have been strangled by the imposition of a quasi-judicial framework, requiring councillors to behave as if they were judges rather than representatives. Residual powers relating to police and fire have been centralised. So current proposals to take out still more functions, or to shift responsibilities for bin collection to ‘towns’, would leave little more than a shell behind.
Some years ago, I asked a group of councillors for their views. Many were deeply resentful of the Scottish parliament, which in their view claimed a democratic legitimacy which they thought they had in equal measure. The current system of local government is already remarkably centralised by European standards – Highland Council, to take the most obvious example, is responsible for a geographical area the size of a small country. I don’t think there is any way to resolve the conflict within the current framework, but there is at least a way to put reform in a positive light. There’s a powerful case for real decentralisation – locating services at a level where communities can get much greater control of the affairs that matter to them. To do that, there needs to be a system of local government that is based on existing communities – towns, villages, and traditionally recognised areas – as a centre for schools, housing and public amenities. That would call for reform both at central and at local government levels.
The Scottish Welfare Fund, for those who hail from other pairts, is the national scheme that replaced the Social Fund when England moved to local welfare assistance. The headline figures for the Fund look, at first, as if the process of budgeting has been almost ideal. 26% of the budget for 2016-17 was spent in the three months April-June. That could give the impression either that the system is being controlled with a rod of iron, or that it’s being run by Scotland’s most proficient clairvoyants.
Looking at the figures in more detail, however, the neat precision disappears. There are 32 local authorities, each administering both Crisis Grants and Community Care Grants on the basis of national guidance. The total budget is an amalgam of all of those elements. That makes for a grand total of 65 moving parts. And while there are some general trends, not all of those parts behave predictably. The numbers of Crisis Grant claims have fallen off, but there is still a wide variation in acceptance rates – 49% in West Lothian, 94% in East Renfrewshire. While the general picture for Community Care Grants is more stable, A few local authorities have made substantial adjustments in the rate at which they distribute CCGs. An underspend has been carried forward which smooths out some of the aggregate differences. I don’t see any reason to question the figures as they’re presented, but by the same token I am far from convinced that there is any underlying pattern or consistency which will guarantee conformity with central budget limits in time to come.
I’ve drafted a response to the consultation: here is a link to the document. I’m aiming to submit the response in the next couple of weeks, but I’d be grateful for comments before I do that. The main points I’ve made are these:
- The aims of benefit systems are complex. Oversimplification threatens to compromise important principles. (paras 5-7)
- Terminology can be tested to see if it has unexpected implications. (para 11)
- Benefits are only one form of support; sometimes direct provision is preferable. (para 13)
- If benefits are to get to the right people, entitlement needs to be clearer and the terms on which benefits are delivered need to be less sensitive to personal differences. (para 22).
- It should not be assumed that citizens must register claims before they can receive benefits. (paras 3, 21)
- Aspects of administration can be delegated to third sector agencies (paras 14, 15)
- There have to be systems for independent scrutiny, rapid review and redress. (paras 17, 18, 23, 24)
- Interactions with other benefits should be avoided. (paras 7, 8, 25, 26)
- Transitional arrangements create complexities. They can be avoided by buying out rights. (paras 19, 20)
It’s not helpful to go on too long in a consultation response, and what I’ve sacrificed are comments on particular benefits – I’ve already been at sessions discussing disability benefits, maternity and funerals, and no doubt there’ll be others.
Further note: Responses to the consultation are all now online; this response is number 500312666 and available here.
I’ve blogged less this month, partly because there’s not been much news, but because I’ve had a load of other things on, including caring responsibilities, painting windows, this submission and book contracts. I’m also finishing off two short books to meet deadlines: Arguments for welfare will be published by Rowman and Littlefield, What’s wrong with social security benefits? by Policy Press. Both should be out in 2017.
The Scottish Government has released a consultation on the use of its new social security powers. I’ll be looking to respond in due course but it’s a lengthy document and I thought people would appreciate having the link before I started to work on it.
In the meantime, I have previously discussed the kinds of things that the Scottish Government might be doing in a paper for the Common Weal, What can the Scottish Parliament do with new social security powers?
The Scottish Law Commission has issued a lengthy consultation paper on the reform of defamation law in Scotland, but I’ve only just seen it and the deadline for responses is set for tomorrow. This is not my expertise (it’s forty years since I studied torts as part of English law, and I never used it) and I’m not proposing to make a submission, but there are issues of concern. I don’t share the view of the Libel Reform Campaign that “Corporate bodies do not have a private life, personal identity or psychological integrity.” Clubs, societies and charities do have identity and integrity and may well depend very heavily on their reputations. The law privileges financial damage over other kinds of reputational damage, and that by comparison with the protection given to commercial traders there is a relative lack of protection for smaller, non-commercial groups, such as a mosque.
The main issue affecting the academic community is the potential suppression of scientific debate or criticism, most notoriously in the action taken against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association. There is an exemption made in the 2013 Defamation Act, but it only allows for material in peer-reviewed academic journals or conference proceedings. (For those who don’t know it, academic books are peer-reviewed too – 13 of my books have been peer reviewed anonymously, 2 others were subject to an editorial board.) The restrictions mean that academics have to rely substantially on defences of public interest and fair comment, and they are likely to be forced to fold long before they get that far.
The Scottish Government’s proposals for appointing a ‘named person’ for children have come under heavy criticism. I was puzzled at the discussion on Question Time last night, which seemed to treat the idea as a strange invasion of alien ideas. (One of the discussants compared to the intrusive behaviour of Italian police. Imagine – foreigners, and European foreigners at that!)
The idea of the named person comes from the 1978 Warnock Report on special educational needs, later prominently supported by Margaret Thatcher (who had set up the Warnock Commission while education minister). Warnock wrote:
We believe that there is a clear need for one person to whom the parents of children with disabilities or incipient special needs can turn for advice on the different services available to meet their child’s needs. This should be someone who is well known to and accepted by them. The principle holds whether the children are under five, of school age or making the transition from school to adult life. We therefore recommend that one person should be designated as Named Person to provide a point of contact for the parents of every child who has been discovered to have a disability or who is showing signs of special needs or problems.
The Named Person was supposed to offer continuity throughout a child’s lifetime. As the Warnock report argued, however, needs can occur at many points in a child’s lifetime and there is no clear, constant distinction to be made between children who have special needs and others. Extending the principle to other children is unsurprising.
It’s not a bad principle, but after more than 35 years we can say something about how the idea actually works. The system of the Named Person doesn’t, in practice, provide continuity through childhood. Some professionals, such as Health Visitors, may have a prominent early role which reduces in importance later; others, such as teachers, may take on responsibilities for a few years before the child moves on. So from an early point, the practice has been to nominate a generic official, such as the Director of Social Work or Director of Education, and any idea of continuing personal contact becomes meaningless. This is a pleasing idea that was tried and didn’t really work.
Tricia Marwick, the retiring Presiding Officer, has been making again a case for a review of the structure of committees in the Scottish Parliament. Because there is no second chamber (unless we count the UK parliament in Westminster as one), the scope for initiating, revising and monitoring legislation is limited. In principle, the Committees have that role. Marwick argues that there are too many committees for the number of members, committees have been dominated by supporters of the government and the role of committees has often been reactive.
There is a real problem here, but her proposed solutions have not attracted much support. Reducing the numbers of committees leads to some topics eating time from the scrutiny of others – Health and Sport, Education and Culture, Rural Affairs and Climate Change. Besides, extra committees are still needed in Parliament for the scrutiny of particular legislation, so there is no way of ensuring that MSPs only serve on one committee. There just aren’t enough of them to go round.
There are several alternatives which might be considered. One might be to appoint a body, like the French Conseil d’Etat, to consider the technicalities of legislation. (The French model combines that function with the judicial branch, which is not wise – it violates the separation of powers, and it gives too little attention to the substance of policy. The principle to take away is that legislation can sensibly be reviewed by an appointed external body, reporting back to elected officials.)
Another option would be to create an external support structure for the committees, allowing committees to delegate the process of evidence gathering, monitoring and expert judgment to appointed sub-committees, whose reports and work would then be scrutinised by the elected politicians. At present, that kind of scrutiny and support is not available to the Committees; it is only available to the Scottish Government through the civil service.
The results of the parliamentary elections on Thursday have confirmed the position of the SNP. SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens were largely happy to hold their own; the biggest change is the reduction of the number of representatives from Labour, and the increase in the representation of Conservatives. Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats put a lot of emphasis on the show-business end of politics, including performances with children and animals. That may, I fear, mislead future campaigners into believing that what matters is the razzmatazz.
What the SNP and the Conservatives had, and what Labour notably lacked, was a broader narrative. For the SNP, the principal points were about self-government and competence; for the Conservatives, it was about the strength of the union and mounting effective opposition. Labour, by contrast, tried to emphasise a series of policies. None of the parties was short of policy. Nor was this, as John McTernan would have it, about right and left: all the parties in Scotland are to the left of the UK government. The simple truth is that offering people a shopping list is just not enough to counter a good story. If Labour wants to appeal, it needs to restate its own narrative. It can do that by focusing on its principles – equality, empowerment, solidarity and the common weal.
Following discussions about the potential for extending universal pensions in Scotland, I’ve been putting together a few back-of-the-envelope calculations about costs. The figures I’m drawing on aren’t reliable, for all sorts of reasons: the sample surveys can mislead when the numbers are very low, the figures aren’t consistent, it’s not clear how many people would actually receive their entitlements and we’d still need to consider the implications for Pension Credit.
The universal pension for people over 80, Category D of the State Pension, goes to people whose pension entitlement is less than the level of the pension, currently £69.50 a week. I’m going to call that 50% of the basic pension, though actually it’s a bit more than that. At present there are 2,700 recipients of Category D Pensions in Scotland (though if you look at the breakdowns you’ll get an inconsistent count which suggests that there might be more than 3,200 claims). If we wanted to increase Category D Pensions for people over 80, more people would be entitled; I reckon that topping up the existing Category D pension to 75% of the basic state pension could cost the Scottish Government about £44m, topping up to a full pension might cost up to £78m. It should cost much less if we got back the savings to Pension Credit under the ‘no detriment’ principle, but I’m not sure I believe that the DWP and the Treasury will honour that principle.
Beyond that, there’s the option of extending the universal pension to people who are younger than 80. Extending the existing category pension to people aged 75-79 wouldn’t cost much – in Scotland there are only about 500 people in that age group who get less than 50% of the state pension, and the top up should cost less than £2m. Bringing them in to a more extended scheme at 75% of the basic pension would cost a lot more, probably £47m, because there are nearly 40,000 people in that income bracket, and taking it up to a full pension would cost up to £87m.
The point of all this is, of course, to say that Scotland now has the chance to do things with benefits that are about much more than transferring administrative responsibility. I’m hopeful that they will.