Retrenchment after the pandemic

An outstanding report by Isabel Ortiz and Matthew Cummins explains what’s been happening to welfare around the world as the pandemic recedes.  A disturbingly large number of countries – 143, covering 85% of the world’s population – have been introducing ‘austerity’ measures, aiming to scale back the role of the state.  More than 50 countries are planning to cut services back to less than they were before the pandemic.

For many of these countries, the policies which seem most vulnerable have been introduced relatively recently – notably expenditure on health care and cash benefits.  A commitment to health care seems to have been maintained in most, while changes to cash benefits or ‘social protection’ have tended to focus on ‘targeting’ (or limiting entitlement) rather than the wholesale abandonment of such policies.  It’s worth considering, too, that in the past the legacy of managing major crises – famously, through the impact of war – has been to increase, not to reduce, expectations and the role of the state.  On that basis, I don’t believe this retrenchment represents a long-term trend – but it is a major setback.

The Natcen report on disability benefits is disappointing

The DWP declined to publish the Natcen report on The uses of health and disability benefits.  It’s now been released to the Work and Pensions Committee, and is available here.  The report is presented as a qualitative study; wisely, the authors have avoided numbers.  However, the form of the report is disappointing, and I cannot suppose that it is an adequate reflection of the work that was done.

Qualitative social research works, or needs to work, on two guiding principles.  The first is that what people tell you is evidence.  That is often derided by people in love with quants, but it is fundamental to the nature of evidence.  Courts of law judge evidence by looking for corroboration – probabilities and statistics aren’t enough.  As a broad proposition, evidence is corroborated when two or three witnesses  say the same things, confirming what the others have said.  This report doesn’t do that. It consists very largely of the researchers’ summaries of what people told them.  In a 79-page report, there are 15 ‘case illustrations’, and only 27 direct quotations from respondents.  That means, simply put, that while there are plenty of judgments, there is hardly any evidence given for those judgments.

The second principle is voice: what people tell you, and the way they tell it, matter.  Direct quotations, right or wrong, have a purpose and a moral authority.  Researchers have an ethical duty to report what people are telling them.  The way the respondents express themselves is fundamental to any adequate qualitative social research.

It may well be that this format was demanded by the DWP.  (I’ve been asked by other commissioners, in the past, to dump direct quotations and to just say what I think instead – and I’ve refused to do so.)  It’s very likely that the researchers intend to provide the evidence for this report, and to reflect the voice of the respondents,  in a separate publication.  However, they will need the DWP’s permission for this.  Their report, as it stands, does not do what it needed to do.

The TUC proposes a ‘replacement’ for Universal Credit

It’s been obvious for many years that Universal Credit is failing. On this blog, I’ve considered a long series of critical reports.  When I first made criticisms of the benefit – that was done on the same day that Iain Duncan Smith announced the measure – my concerns were about the concept and its practicability.  Then the criticisms moved on to its implementation, and the impact of further complexity to make up for the deficiencies.  Nowadays, the areas of concern are more likely to be focused on the abundant empirical evidence of failure – for a benefit that has still not fully been rolled out.

The TUC has realised that Universal Credit is a ‘disaster‘, and a new report makes proposals for its ‘replacement’.  The detailed report covers six main areas:

  • making work pay
  • increasing the level of benefit
  • changing rules about conditionality and the initial waiting period
  • changing the process
  • altering the assessment periods, and
  • changing rules for payment.

These are all ways to improve the benefit.  I don’t think this goes anything like far enough.  The fundamental problems will remain:  a tapered benefit, a central focus on getting people to work  when most of its claimants are either already in work or aren’t going to be in the labour market, and a reliance on information that can’t be supplied or managed. The TUC’s proposals are well meant, but they leave all of those elements in place.

 

 

 

What kind of support can be offered to people on low incomes?

Many people in the UK are facing destitution; at least 2.4 million people are there already. One of the complaints we hear most about proposals to cope with current threats to household income is that the proposals are not adequately targeted.   What that usually means is that some people on higher incomes will benefit.   The call goes up, repeatedly, for any benefits to be confined to people on low incomes.

It’s not easily done. Introducing a new means test would be complex, hard to roll out and liable not to reach large numbers of the intended population. There are ways forward, however.  The mechanism used for Cold Weather Payment, for example, gets the benefit to recipients of Pension Credit and to a range of recepients of Universal Credit, including those with children under 5 or people with a range of disabilities – there doesn’t have to be cold weather to call that mechanism into play.

If the aim of benefits is to redistribute income in general terms, there’s an  argument for doing something like this.  That’s true because overall, the effect of making payments on this basis is to improve the average income of people in the lowest parts of the income distribution, generally at the expense of those on higher incomes.  What it can’t do, however, is to protect the full range of people who stand in need of protection.  More than a third of all pensioners who should get Pension Credit don’t.  Official figures claim that Universal Credit goes to 80% of those entitled, but that is highly implausible  – Jobseekers’ Allowance had a takeup of less than 60% and Universal Credit has subjected hundreds of thousands of people to sanctions, exclusions and delays.  And that, of course, only takes account of the people who are supposed to get the benefit.  More people are on very low incomes, but not entitled because they have some savings, because they have theoretical or imputed income attributed to them, or because they fail to meet other conditions such as availability for work.

Any process which calls for a selection to be made has to be subject to some kind of test, and any test is likely to exclude the people who we are supposed to be helping.  The situation has been made worse, however, by the progressive limitations on the scope of benefits that have been imposed by successive governments.  We might have been able to argue, forty years ago, that we had a safety net – an effective minimum income, even if there were some gaps.  We no longer have the same.

That, then, leaves the outstanding question: what can we do to help the people who are most at risk now?  Coming back to the figures on destitution, we know there are three factors which come up repeatedly about destitute people.  They are people with complex needs, migrants, and they are likely to be single.  Any scheme which does not cover those three contingencies is not going to protect others from becoming destitute; and we know that this coverage is not on offer within the scope of the existing benefits system.

There are two main options.  One is to address the specific issues which are causing the current crisis – in particular, the costs of fuel, food and housing.   Labour has proposed a temporary cap on energy prices.  A cap on energy costs, certain foods or rents would would imply direct interference with the market.  We have done all of these in the past – the control of milk, eggs and meat in the 1950s and 60s, the use of rent control, and the current price cap on energy – so we can say that this is feasible.    This would, however, require a fundamental change in the way that governments manage the economy, and indeed on how they think.

The alternative is to think about ways that people can manage in a market-based economy, increasing their command over resources overall.  That can be done both by removing limitations which work particularly against people on low incomes (such as the pernicious effect of laws on debt and debt recovery, or the price discrimination against prepayment meters) and by finding alternative ways for essential costs to be met – such as child care, general needs housing and travel passes.  What wouldn’t work, in this context, is simply giving people more money to pass to the energy companies. Giving people generic money will not cope with the pressures that specific commodities are creating – it will just put up the prices of those commodities.

Additional material, 25th August

The Resolution Foundation has just published a careful and considered approach to targeting.  They recognise that supplementing people on means-tested benefits would fail to reach 40% of everyone in the lowest income quintile – that is, the bottom fifth.  Their suggestion is for a social tariff, more broadly based than current means-tested benefits, covering benefits, pensioners and low earners; but that still suffers from the outstanding problem that it is not possible to target people on lower incomes without introducing ‘a new means-tested benefit outside the benefit system’.   Coverage of people with complex needs could be improved by extending this to cover disabilitiy benefits, and coverage for migrants by removing restrictions on claiming after entry to the country, but there would still be gaps.

A Charter for Tax Cuts

The contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party has been focusing on the issue of tax cuts.  The case for these cuts has been made by economist Julian Jessop, in a pamphlet for Conservative Way Forward.   (The format of the online version makes it exceedingly difficult to read, but the author has sent me a clean copy I can work from, for which thanks are due.)

The first step is to consider whether or not we need to take measures, at this point, to stimulate the economy through an injection of resources.  I was uncertain about this a year ago.  We’ve moved on from then. We were facing a clear threat of an economic recession at that time, which argues for some kind of stimulus, but now we also have the immediate prospect of rampant inflation.  Injecting money into the economy would fuel inflation – simply put, too much money chasing too few goods. This paper talks about a ‘dash for growth’.  That would be risky, and previous experience argues against it.  The ‘Barber Boom’ (1971-73) destabilised the economy and left us in a parlous position when further problems arose.  The Conservative government of the time had believed that the obstacles to sudden growth were self-imposed, and that if they rushed at the barriers hard enough, the economy would break through those barriers. The conventional economic analysis of the time suggested, on the contrary, that the effect would lead to ‘overheating’ – generating a demand that couldn’t be satisfied, fuelling inflation and forcing money abroad because the domestic economy couldn’t meet the demand.  That is exactly what happened.  By the end of 1973, we had the three-day week; and then there were the deflationary terms dictated by the IMF, which made a bad situation worse.  The problems of the 1970s weren’t caused by the unions, who only responded to the situation, or even by the oil crisis, which only took hold when we we already facing a slump.  They were created by economic mismanagement. There’s every reason to think that pumping money into the economy will have the same effects as it did in the 1970s: fuelling inflation and diverting money abroad.

The second part is the question of what tax cuts will do.  The idea that a modest tax cut of one or two pence from income tax will shield people from rising prices in any meaningful sense is, frankly, preposterous.  There’s a good argument for reforming much that goes on in our tax system – it’s too complex, and there are too many anomalies, and in so far as it creates perverse incentives, the most destructive is the incentive to load companies with debt (because that is tax-deductible) rather than building  viable structures for the long term.  Fiddling with corporation tax or VAT won’t address these problems; both measures are indiscriminate.

Third, there’s the question of values.  The demand for tax cuts is linked here with a set of familiar claims:  that the frontiers of the state should be rolled back, that people should keep more of their ‘own money’,  and that the ‘formula for success’ is (in a short appreciation by Lord Frost) ‘free markets, low taxes and personal freedom’.   The idea that people’s income before tax is ‘their own money’ is spurious (salaries and wages are largely  based on social conventions, including tax rates) and there is no evidence to support the contention that low taxes promote more successful economies.

There are points in the argument which I’d agree with.  The tax system is too complex, there’s been far too much of an obsession with debt, and we should be looking for ways to support effective demand.  However, if we are talking about government using national resources differently, tax cuts are just about the worst possible choice -ill-directed and primarily beneficial only to those who don’t need it.  If we really wanted to inject money into the economy, we should do it at the other end of the income distribution. Let’s get the money to people who can’t afford food or heat.

Further thoughts, 31st July

Since this initial blog, the arguments have been gathering pace.  Some of them seem to me, frankly, half-witted.  One really stupid argument is based on the ‘Laffer Curve’, which claims to demonstrate (as a matter of theory, not practice) that there are circumstances in which lowering the rate of tax will increase the amount of revenue a government receives from tax.  There are two problems with that.  One is saying that there are circumstances where this could happen is not the same as saying that it happens in every case: clearly, it doesn’t.  The other relates specifically to its application to Corporation Tax.  It seems abundantly clear that offering people the option to pay one kind of tax rather than another will lead to those people, especially if they have a competent tax advisor, to choose to pay the lower rate of tax available to them.  That is done, of course, at the expense of revenue from the higher tax.  Corporation Tax is already set at a rate which is lower than the upper rates of income tax, and accordingly those who have a choice will put the money through the Corporation’s books rather than their personal income.  That is not evidence of getting higher revenue – the opposite is the case.

The other daft argument is that tax cuts don’t alter the money supply, and so aren’t inflationary.  That is daft partly because tax cuts (as opposed to cancelling proposed changes in taxation) clearly would inject money into the economy – unless they are paid for by reduced government spending, which would be disastrous for millions of people – and partly because it’s a misunderstanding of inflation.  Inflation depends not just on how much money is going round, but on what that money can buy – it’s a matter of balance.  In current conditions of high inflation, which are already leading to higher production costs and higher wage demands, that balance is at best precarious.  I see no good reason for the current optimism that inflation will fall of its own accord.

The way out of poverty is not to be found ‘holistically’

I attended a session the other day that was intended to discuss the Scottish Goverment’s current plans for tackling child poverty.  A word that was used repeatedly in that document, and so in the presentations, jarred with me.  The word is ‘holistic’.  The plan promises a ‘holistic’   response at many points, and in a range of different contexts – such as employability, support, income generation.  What could be wrong with that?

To my mind, there are three great flaws in this approach.   The first is the implicit assumption, in much of this, that the appropriate way to respond to poverty is ‘person-centred’, personal or individualised.  Here are some examples:

We will invest [in] Whole Family Wellbeing Funding … This will help transform services that support families to ensure that all families can access preventative,
holistic support which is wrapped around their needs, and provided when they need it and for as long as they need it.

Through direct efforts to get more cash in the
pockets of families now, alongside a genuinely holistic, person-centred package of family support, we can help to ensure families receive the right support at the right time, for as long as they need it, creating the  conditions for families to navigate their way out of poverty.

It takes all of us, across Scotland, working together – united in focus  and purpose – to deliver the change to  how public services are delivered, moving to a person-centred holistic approach to supporting families.

In the published document, there are more than thirty similar phrases to choose from.  It should be recognised, however, that the circumstances that lead people to be in poverty are not, for the most part, specific to the individual or of the family.  The central purpose of the strategy is not to deal with the individual circumstances of poor families, but to reduce overall the numbers of people who are falling into poverty.   To do that, the focus has to be, not just on those who are poor currently, but on the throughput – the very large numbers of people, actually most of the population, who will pass through poverty for an extended period.  That calls for a structural perspective, not an individualised one.

There are strong hints in the figures where the problems are likely to be concentrated.  Why, for example, are most children of young mothers likely to be poor?  The answer has little to do with personal or individual factors.  It’s because the capacity of women to earn is critical to household income,  the children of young mothers  are far more likely to be young, and young children have to be looked after.  The situation calls for higher income for people with responsibility for children, and extensive, affordable  child care – ours is almost the most expensive in the OECD.

The second problem about the claim to be providing ‘holistic’ services is that it’s not true.   It doesn’t happen, anywhere, ever.  The reason why we have medical practices delivering health care, schools providing education and social security providing money is that these are all things that matter, that need to be done, and require specific routes and channels to be delivered.  We often hear the complaint that Scottish services are based in ‘silos’.  Of course they are. The doctor doesn’t teach your children to read, the social security officer doesn’t allocate houses  and the social worker is not there to take your appendix out. It’s true that specific services can be transformative, changing every part of a person’s life. Decent housing can turn someone’s life around in days, but that doesn’t happen because of an holistic assessment; it happens because housing is so important for people’s lives. The most effective strategies for  dealing with poverty have generally worked by focusing on one of the elements that lead people to be deprived – elements such as health care, education, income support or housing – and removing part of the burden from poor people.

The third issue is about policy. Targeting resources on  poor families has a clear value here and now, but it is not the only  way to deal with the problems.  We could do much more. To safeguard people now and in the future, we need to change the conditions which underlie the experience of poverty.  I have already given the  example of  child care; that needs to be done as a universal basic service, not a process targeted on poor families.  Let me take another: the case for free school meals.  That contributes to poverty reduction precisely because it is universal and basic.  Neither  child care support, nor free school meals, are ‘holistic’ policies. The same arguments extend to a wide range of services – energy, communications, transport.  Public services can make a major contribution in improving the command over resources of people on low incomes.

Designing the National Care Service

Common Weal has offered a blistering critique of the process for designing the new National Care Service in Scotland.  They argue that it’s been designed for top-down governance, rather than service delivery, and that pledges to ‘co-design’ the service with users and carers have proved empty.  Their criticism seems to me justified. The design, and the patterns of governance which are being proposed, are both centralised and corporatist.

I don’t know, to be honest, whether a service that is ‘co-designed’ is likely to be better than one that isn’t.  People who have experience of the system are often conditioned by that experience to look for tweaks and minor improvements, rather than thinking how things might be done differently. The needs of older people with limited mobility, adults with mental health problems or people with developmental disabilities are rarely the same, the interests of ‘carers’ and ‘service users’ vary hugely, and we cannot imagine that one set of service users can speak for others.

I have written recently about some of the long-standing problems in social care: fragmentary, insecure and expensive services, the misplaced attempt to create ‘markets’ in disparate fields and the treatment of ‘personalisation’ as if it meant a selection of services from a shopping list.  I argued there that people need flexible forms of provision based on personal relationships, rather than a commoditised response. If a National Care Service is going to work, it needs to be conceived in terms very different from the old models.

How to fix the welfare state

How to fix the welfare stateI’ve just received the first copies of my new book, How to fix the welfare state.   The brilliant cartoon on the cover, showing Beveridge’s Five Giants and their plus one, is by Dave Simonds.

The book reviews a series of problems and issues in British social services.  If you think the Welfare State hasn’t changed, in the course of nearly 75 years, think again.  Social security was meant to be based on insurance; increasingly, it’s based on means testing.  Social care hardly existed in its present form; nor did child protection. Health care has seen the closure of long stay hospitals and the development of group medical practices in the community. Education now is mainly delivered in comprehensive schools and mass universities.  Council housing has largely been supplanted by a system of means-tested benefits intended to pay for rents. And other areas of activity are newly established, notably equalities and employment support.

Each of the chapters in the book outlines the structure of services, the impact of some false and misleading narratives, and the real problems that need to be addressed. The book outlines where approaches to the services have gone wrong, and makes suggestions about what they need to do to get things right.  Attempts to make services more personal, to offer more choice or to make them run more like businesses have distracted us from what welfare is meant to do.  The Welfare State should be aiming to provide decent standards for everyone. In the book, I make the case for services that are more predictable and offer greater security: more universal and less reliant on commercial markets.

The reviewers have commented:

“An honest and realistic appraisal of the current state of welfare. The analyses and insights are illuminating and thought-provoking and should be required reading for a wide range of professionals.” Steve J. Hothersall, Edge Hill University

“Spicker draws upon his four decades of writing to analyse the current position of ‘the welfare state’. An unmissable contribution written in the best traditions of social administration.” Bob Hudson, University of Kent

This is a personal take on the welfare state; I had things to say, and thought it was time to say them.

Additional note, 27th January: An irresistible review from Ms Bennett Junior!

The Scottish Census of Health and Wellbeing: inept and possibly unethical

There’s some controversy in Scotland about a census of ‘health and well-being’ that’s being asked of schoolchildren of different ages.   This questionnaire seems to have been put together by a committee, all of whom wanted their particular issues to be included and addressed.  It’s  one of the worst designed questionnaires I’ve seen in years.

The area that’s attracted most concern relates to questions about children’s experience of sex. I found a copy of the census questionnaire from a local authority website, and was taken aback not just by the most controversial questions, but by the whole exercise.  I have no particular expertise relating to children’s health, but I taught research methods for more than 25 years, and this is not the way to do things.

First question: why is this a census?  Censuses are intended to give a comprehensive, precise count of issues.  There are well-known problems in doing this, because systematic non-response leads to systematic biases in the results.  Several local authorities have opted out, and many pupils will. The count will be meaningless.  What matters – the same as any other quantitative questionnaire – will be the relationship between answers: for example, whether there is a relationship between educational experience and negative body images.  We do not need a census to do this. It can be done at least as well, and probably better, by a series of smaller-scale social surveys.

Second question: in what circumstances does it make sense  to put together a questionnaire that is this long?   There are 61 questions, but because there are sub-questions,  pupils are actually being asked to answer, by my count,  126 distinct questions.  The rubric claims that the questionnaire should be completed in 20 to 40 minutes. To do this in 40 minutes a pupil could have to answer one question every 20 seconds.  Even if the questions weren’t sometimes difficult, this is wildly unrealistic, and it raises questions as to how valid the exercise can be: the exhausted respondents will skip, fabricate answers to finish or simply give up.

Third question: has the questionnaire been piloted and validated? There are indications it might not have been: the length of the questionnaire, the complexity of the language used, and the validity of responses to deeply personal questions.  Pupils are supposed to know what ‘intimate touching’ means (q 49) and whether an experience amounts to ‘penetrative vaginal sex’ (qs 50 and 51).

Fourth question: what measures have been taken to protect vulnerable respondents?   Some children will be distressed by the questions.  Some of that distress is predictable – for example, from those who have been subjected to sexual abuse.  Every school administering a questionnaire should have someone with specialised competence standing by to offer support in the event of distress – and that cannot be the teacher tasked with supervising children using computers, because it would not be possible for that teacher to break off for a distressed pupil before the questionnaire is complete. The FAQs issued by the Scottish Government say this:

What happens if a child or young person needs help, or wants to discuss something, after taking part in the Census?  At the beginning and end of the questionnaire, children and young people will be informed that if any of the Census questions have made them think of any problems, or has raised any issues they are having, then they are advised to speak to someone in relation to the information they have provided in the Census.  For example, if pupils are having problems with other pupils (e.g. feeling that they are being bullied), they are advised to talk about this with their parents / carers / teacher / support worker, etc.

That is not good enough.  This project should not have passed ethical review.

So, you may reasonably ask, what should the government have done instead?  That’s easy enough to answer:  a series of much smaller questionnaires, based on proper samples, administered by people with a competence in the field, and supported by people capable of responding to any distress.  It should include a proportion of open, qualitative questions. Good social research starts with listening.

“Experts by experience”?

A group of ‘experts by experience’ have developed a series of proposals for the reform of social security.  I’ve just been listening to their presentations.  They claim that

“Commissioners as Experts by Experience cut through organisational and interest group silos and fragmented debates about poverty, instead providing a holistic perspective, with an ability to focus on fundamental core issues and anchored in lived experience of the system.”

I don’t think that’s borne out in practice.  The Commisson’s principles, asking for dignity, respect and adequate benefits, are unexceptionable.  The point which set the alarm bells ringing for me, however, was the proposal to replace PIP with a different benefit to meet the costs of disability. If we look now at the rules for PIP, or at the previous rules for DLA, we should be able to see that the assessment is not an assessment of costs; that the levels of benefit are not related to the costs, but to the severity of the disability; and that another service which does consider the costs, as part of the social care system, has a different reach and scope to these  benefits.  The idea that PIP was meant to meet extra costs largely began with the introduction of DLA, 1993-94.   But the benefits it was based on – Attendance Allowance and Mobility Allowance  – weren’t there to meet extra costs.  Attendance Allowance, despite the name, was always a benefit for severe disability rather than attendance as such, and it was explicitly introduced (in 1970) to supplement the depressed incomes that people with disabilities had to suffer over the long term.   That’s an important principle, that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

When people claim to be ‘experts by experience’, it seems to chime with a lot of the ideas that have informed participation and diversity in the development of policy.  The central claim, which I have  no problem with, is that people with disabilities have expertise relating to their own disability.  That squares with one of the core propositions that has guided social care policy in recent years: Nothing about me, without me.  There’s an influential literature about user participation in policy-making.  Over the years, I’ve done a certain amount of work, as a researcher and policy analyst, based on the principle of empowerment.   A lot of qualitative research consists of listening and recording what people say, and I’ve mentored groups of people in poverty undertaking participative research projects, so that they can do as much.  That’s less a matter of expertise than of attitude: valuing what people say, treating it seriously, conveying people’s feelings and experiences in their own words.   

The claim to be ‘experts by experience’, however, goes some way further than that.  The group  which has formed these proposals had drawn on a combination of people with disabilities and community activists.  The idea that they are “expert” appears to stake a claim that people with  personal experience  have an expert’s general understanding of people with different personal experiences from theirs.  And there, with regret, I must beg to differ. There are three evident problems.  The first is that a group of this kind can’t conceivably represent the range and diversity of experiences out there.  Most benefits go to pensioners: this is a group which is largely of working age. Most unemployment is transitional. Most people with disabilities don’t identify themselves as disabled: they’re ‘managing’, or ‘not really disabled’, or disabled ‘sometimes’. The claim to ‘expertise’ dispenses with the need to cover the range of experience.

Second, activists are different.  This is well-known in political research, where the views of activists are always a bit more pronounced than the mainstream – that’s why they’re activists.  Activists in social security are more likely to be long-term recipients, from which it follows that they’re also in situations that change less rapidly than many others, in more unpredictable and precarious situations.

Third, the kind of ‘expertise’ that people develop is typically formed in relation to current policies and politics.  Claimants’ understanding of the arcane systems they’re being asked to comply with are conditioned by the current shape of benefits.  Very few people will know or remember that there were once earnings-related Unemployment Benefits, or higher rates of Invalidity Benefit for people who suffered disability at an earlier age, or a One Parent Benefit, or a Non Contributory Invalidity Pension; this kind of option disappears from view.

We need, of course, to take the voices of claimants seriously.  They have a right to be heard, and information we can’t obtain without engaging them.  Calling them “experts by experience”, however, is not the way either to get the greatest level of participation, or to get to the meat of a policy.