Category: Social Policy

This occasional blog discusses issues in Social Policy.

The Conservative Manifesto speaks to the shade of Edmund Burke

The Conservative Manifesto, Forward, together, is quite an unusual document.  Yes, there’s a  lot about strong and stable leadership – the word ‘strong’ or ‘stronger’ comes in there 86 times, I counted them in and I counted them back again  – but there’s a lot more, including some ringing declarations of principle.  We are told that

“We believe in the good that government can do.”

“Conservatism is not and never has been the philosophy described by caricaturists. We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.”

“Our National Health Service … is founded on the principle that those who have should  help those who do not. It is a system of solidarity to which we all contribute, not just to help us and our families when we are in need but to protect others in our community when they need help too. This not just expediency: we do it because the support we give each other ties us together.”

“We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals. We know that we all have obligations to one another, because that is what community and nation demands. We understand that nobody, however powerful, has succeeded alone and that we all therefore have a debt to others. We respect the fact that society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born.”

(The last bit of that sentence, unattributed, is nearly a quotation from Burke – Burke wrote ‘the dead’ rather than ‘those have lived before us’, but presumably they didn’t want to imply that the National Health Service was a partnership with the dead.  The first part of the sentence is nearly a quotation from Jacques Delors, but that’s another story.)

In relation to policy, there’s a long list but a  little less meat.  There are ‘no plans’ for further changes in benefits; things will go on as they have.  More money will be spent on the NHS.  There will be a million more homes 2015-20 (that’s 200,000 an year) and half a million more by 2022 (250,000 a year).  All pledges are carefully tied to the life of forthcoming parliament.   But there are also tantalising hints that there might be more coming.  There will be a reform of medical education.There will be a review of taxation, aimed at simplification.  There will be a review of university funding.  They will review access for disabled people.  They will review the operation of the NHS internal market.  I don’t know what any of those actually means, but they could come with a cartful of surprises.  Perhaps the policy makers might take another lesson from Burke:  “the deliberations of calamity are rarely wise.”



The Scottish Conservatives have changed their mind about prescriptions.

The Scottish Conservatives have abandoned their long-held opposition to free prescriptions, and now accept  that free prescriptions are popular and practical.  A Conservative spokesman explained:  “There is no doubt people in Scotland value the idea of free prescriptions. We have listened to them and changed our policy.”

The case for free prescriptions is straightforward.   As things stood before the policy, and as I believe they still stand in England, five out of six prescriptions were exempt anyway – for pensioners, for children, for people on low income, for prescriptions issued by hospitals and for a wide range of specified medical conditions.  There is already a means-test to make sure that richer people pay; it is called ‘taxation’.  Introducing a further means test for people on lower incomes simply adds to the administrative burden.  So people were being subjected to an awkward, complex and sometimes intrusive process which raised relatively little money.

The Conservative announcement has been met with howls of derision by the opposing parties.  The change in policy has described the change of heart as ‘opportunistic’, ‘untrustworthy’, ‘shambolic’, ’embarrassing’ and ‘humiliating’.  I suppose that that reaction might make sense to politicos of a tribal disposition, but credit where credit is due:  the new policy should be welcomed.  This is a triumph of reasoned argument over political prejudgment, and if it is a reflection of the fact we’re now in an election campaign, it’s also a triumph of democracy over ideology.  There is joy in heaven for the sinner who repents.

The IEA condemns the “Nanny State”

The Institute  of Economic Affairs has published an index ranking European countries on a “Nanny State Index”.  The index is based on their ratings on four issues:  the  freedom to smoke, to drink alcohol, to eat junk food and to use e-cigarettes.   Finland is the “least free”; the UK comes second.  The Czech Republic is “most free”.

Many people on the neo-liberal right take a peculiarly restricted view of freedom.  Freedom is usually defined in terms of non-interference.  Hayek argues, in The Constitution of Liberty, that someone does not cease to be free if they are trapped on a mountain (it’s an odd example, but he was Austrian).  On the other hand, their freedom might be infringed if someone sent mountain rescue to help them out without getting their permission first.

The main justification neo-liberals accept for intervention is to protect the freedom of others.  It doesn’t seem to matter that smoking threatens non-smokers, that alcohol fuels violence and accidents or that junk food is aimed at children.  Those arguments might be persuasive in themselves – we hear them a lot – but none of them gets to the heart of the reason why we need public health measures.   Smoking, alcohol and sugar have together been responsible for much of the premature death and disability in the UK – far more dangerous than terrorism, roads, HIV, pollution or anything else we might name.   The freedom that the IEA is defending is the freedom to die early, to be subject to crippling disease, and to have firms pass off poisonous junk on the public because the only freedom that matters is the freedom of the producer.   Public health is not the threat to freedom.  The people who peddle this stuff are.

On the Labour manifesto

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

The main policies on social security are to

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

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

On housing, Labour will build more.

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

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


Criticism of a complacent Fabian

Apparently I’m a complacent Fabian.  I’ve just got round to reading Peter Beresford’s book, All our welfare (Policy Press, 2016).  Throughout his career he’s argued consistently for greater participation and empowerment for user services.  This is not his best work – I wanted to see more about what he’s proposing – but it continues to make the case.  He doesn’t like conventional studies in Social Policy (he lays into Peter Townsend at some length), and he certainly doesn’t like what I’ve written.  He cites this section from my text on Social Policy.  To keep the comments in context, I’ve bracketed off some bits he’s left out.

[The recipients of social services are not only disadvantaged in terms of their relationship with producers … The stigmatisation of recipients, their lack of resources and status, and their vulnerability pose important problems for the social services.  The development of formal mechanisms for protection, and substantive rights, offers a means by which the people who receive services are not solely dependent on decisions made by the producers of welfare; these rights represent one of the most important means through which recipients can be empowered.  But the social disadvantages remain;] people who are poor, disabled, mentally ill or unemployed cannot be expected to overcome the problems they face simply because they have more effective control over services.  [There are then limits to what it is possible to achieve in the narrow context of service delivery.]  It is important, too, not to overestimate the potential effects of this kind of procedure.  Dwyer lists some of the key objections to user-based approaches.  There are conflicts of interest between users of different types; users are often in competition for scarce resources with others; user groups can lose touch with their grass roots; and the process as a whole can contribute to the exclusion of marginal groups.

Last year I posted some material from a text that was complaining that I was part of a left-wing conspiracy.  Now it seems I’m part of another one, to suppress people who are marginalised.  Beresford writes (pp 355, 363):

It is difficult … not to detect some degree of complacency in social policy academic writings.  These have shown a reluctance to take on the bold new ideas and arguments developed by welfare user movements.  A strong sense of Fabian ‘business as usual’ lingers.  … [This] leads to one, more privileged, group offering its prescriptions for another, marginalised and devalued, group.  How else can we explain the routine exclusions that books like Spicker’s seems to rest on?

Review: B Greve (ed) Handbook of Social Policy Evaluation, Elgar 2017

This is a review of a book I’ve been sent by the publisher, Edward Elgar. I’ve explained the terms on which I review books here.

Bent Greve, the editor, explains that this book is intended to cover “methodologies, cases and how and when to make evaluation in social policy, and its possible impacts”.  Part 1 offers six chapters on the techniques, most of the chapters in part 2 discuss issues in evidence based policy making, mainly offer discussions of evidence on sixteen policy areas (though two of the seven chapters are really case studies rather than discussions of that sort), and part 3 has ten further chapters of case studies.  That really means that half this book is about evaluation and evidence, and half is discussion of specific policies.  The more interesting case studies, to my mind,  were on medicines, long term care and interventions for children, but none is exceptional.  A couple of the other case studies are discussions of policy, not centrally about evidence or evaluation at all.  This does not add up to either a book on evaluation, or a handbook for people who want to do one.

The real place to start, unfortunately, is the price.  This book, 520 pages plus index, costs £195 – that’s not a misprint.  (NB: Since I posted this review, the publishers have told me there is a cheaper e-version at £36 on Google Play.)   The price might be defended for a library purchase if this was an irreplaceable, essential read, but it’s hard for any collection of papers to meet that standard.  Like most collections, it has a mix of good and not so good, and there’s a lot of competition out there.  On evaluation, Parsons’s short book on Demystifying Evaluation (Policy Press, 2017) is a relatively  accessible and practical guide.  I still like Michael Scrivens’ Evaluation Thesaurus, even if it was published in 1991; his evaluation checklist is available free on line.  On evidence and policy, there have been several recent books; I’d recommend Justin Parkhurst’s The politics of evidence (Routledge, 2016) an insightful and well-written book that explains a lot of what’s wrong with the main approach in this one.  Parkhurst’s book is available in a free Open Access version.

There’s other stuff out there for free, too.  The World Bank offers a virtual library of methods and case studies in evaluation, along with guides such as P Gertler et al,  Impact evaluation in practice (World Bank, 2011).  There are problems with the  World Bank’s approach; it’s technocratic and liable to be uncritical.  The objections are

  • theoretical – evaluations, especially RCTs,  often look at the wrong things in the wrong way;
  • political: aims, methods and outcomes cannot be understood in a political vacuum;
  • statistical: the variables are interdependent, the methods heavily sensitive to the statistical assumptions  and results are unlikely to be replicable; and
  • evidential: the available data don’t support the main methods.  Garbage in, Garbage out.

Some of the writers for the Handbook refer to some of these points, but neither the criticisms nor the practicalities are dealt with thoroughly.   A reader has to dig for the objections, because they are referred to in the context of the paper where they occur, not systematically – you have to get through a hundred pages, well into the chapter on systematic reviews, before you even catch the sense that the “evidence hierarchy” introduced on page 6 is contentious.  There may be room for a state-of- the-art review of evaluation and policy, but this isn’t it.

Arguments for welfare

Arguments for welfareI’ve received today the copies of my new book, Arguments for Welfare.  It’s a short book at 117 pages, published by Rowman and Littlefield at the hefty price of £19.95.  From the cover:

This book makes the case for the welfare state. Nearly every government in the developed world offers some form of social protection, and measures to improve the social and economic well-being of its citizens. However, the provision of welfare is under attack. The critics argue that welfare states are illegitimate, that things are best left to the market, and that welfare has bad effects on the people who receive it. If we need to be reminded why we ought to have welfare, it is because so many people have come think that we should not. Arguments for Welfare is a short, accessible guide to the arguments. Looking at the common ideas and reoccurring traits of welfare policy across the world it discusses: the meaning of the ‘Welfare State’, the moral basis of social policy, the limits of markets, public service provision and the role of government.   With examples from around the world, the book explains why social welfare services should be provided and explores how the principles are applied. Most importantly, it argues for the welfare state’s continued value to society.


Why the Bible disapproves of Obamacare and suchlike

I’m always slightly nonplussed by the postures of the American right, and one of the items flagged on on my regular alerts took me into a different world: an article in Conservative Review entitled, Is God in favor of a welfare state?  First, I should say something about Conservative Review.  The positions  they adopt are not what you’d get from an academic book on Conservatism; they advocate a confection of Tea Party, Republicanism and neoliberal ideas, such as

  • “Americans should be free to conduct business free from government intervention or control.”
  • “Congress should work to devolve federal spending and control of education to the state level.”
  • “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
  • “Americans must be allowed to purchase health insurance on a free and open market.”

The article on God’s view of the welfare state talks a fair bit about the Bible.  It argues:

you cannot make a valid argument that God supports a welfare state, redistribution scheme imposed by a secular government without either distorting, or outright ignoring, His Word.

I’m grateful for the correction.  I might otherwise have been confused, for example, by the suggestion that the Bible told us to protect the needy.

For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide to thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in the land. (Deut 15:11)

I’m not a Christian myself, but Christians seem to be pretty hot on redistribution. The early Christians went so far as to hold property in common:

And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul. Neither did any one say that ought of the things which he possessed was his own: but all things were common unto them. (Acts 4:32)

Admittedly, on the strict construction of the words, the Bible doesn’t say anything about the welfare state.  It doesn’t say much about modern statecraft, sewers or telecommunications either. But it does say quite a lot about moral responsibility and social organisation – rather more, as it happens, than it has to say about the Creation, which should tell you something about God’s priorities.

Many religions have developed strong communal institutions founded on that.   Jews have formal mechanisms for the management and distribution of charity; Lutherans support the principle of a common chest; Catholics teach the central value of solidarity; Islam has zakat.  Apparently they’re all wrong.

There is absolutely no wealth redistribution, coerced and implemented by the state, either advocated or modeled anywhere in the Bible.

That contention is backed up by the claim that the organisation of biblical Israel was entirely theocratic and ordained by God, so that it doesn’t count as advocating or modelling a system.   I’m not sure I follow the reasoning there.  Besides, it wasn’t either exclusively theocratic, or ordained by God: God expressed his dislike of the people’s request to install a king,  but decided that the issue was up to them (1 Samuel 8).  Absolutely no wealth redistribution?  Try the Jubilee (Leviticus 25), when debts and claims were cancelled and people in servitude were freed.  Nothing in a premodern society compromised liberty as fundamentally as debt.  That’s coupled with the injunction not to oppress each other in trade (Lev 25:14)   No coercion of resources by the state?  The Jewish tradition was that every nation had a duty, commanded of Noah, to establish a system of laws, and understood that people would have to comply with it – an important doctrine for a people with the experience of subjection or exile.  Jesus, who would have known that tradition, was more direct about it:

[They asked] Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?  … And Jesus, answering, said ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s …’  (Mark 12:14,17)

But perhaps I’m reading the wrong sort of Bible.

Resilience and welfare reform

Thursday was a conference on Resilience and Welfare Reform, with Citizens Advice Scotland.  The idea of resilience is often misunderstood in Scotland, where it’s seen as a characteristic of someone’s personality; it’s up to individuals and poor communities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and the emphasis is duly put on removing barriers rather than providing the services they need.   However, in the literature on development, as put e.g. by Robert Chambers, resilience has a more more relevant meaning.  People are at risk when bad things might happen; they are vulnerable if, when bad things happen, they are likely to be harmed by them.  Resilience is the opposite of vulnerability.  People are resilient if they are not likely to be harmed by adverse risks.  Their capacity to recover depends their resources,  on other people around them and on the framework of services.    One of the most effective ways of making people resilient has been to develop social protection, and many of the problems we currently have are because that protection has been removed.

The Maseres scheme for life annuities

I found a copy of Nicholls’ History of the English Poor Laws in a second hand shop, and it’s taken me a few months to get round to it.  My attention was caught by a couple of references to schemes for avoiding the Poor Law, which I hadn’t come across before.  One was Acland’s Universal Benefit Society, effectively a proposal in 1786 for  a scheme of National Insurance.  Another was proposed by Baron Maseres, who attempted in 1772 to create a universal savings plan which would deliver a lifetime annuity of between £5 and £20 a year for men over fifty, and women over 35.

Maseres worked out the costs scrupulously on the basis of actuarial tables of life expectancy.  He argued that

 The design of this bill was to encourage the lower rank of people to industry and frugality, by laying before them a safe and easy method of employing some part of the money they could save out of their wages, or daily earnings, in a manner that would be most strikingly for their benefit. …  if they saw an easy method of employing the money they could spare in such a manner as would procure them a considerable income in return for it in some future period of their lives, without any such hazard of losing it by another man’s folly or misfortune, it was probable they would frequently embrace it: and thus a diminution of the poor’s rate on the estates of the rich, an increase of present industry and sobriety in the poor, and a more independant and comfortable support of them in their old age than they can otherwise expect, would be the happy consequences of such an establishment.

The measure, watered down to allow for reluctant parishes to opt out,  passed the House of Commons,  but it was blocked in the Lords.  It’s not a Citizens Income scheme, but it has some of the characteristics and aspirations of a partial basic income, nearly twenty years before Thom Paine’s more radical and more universal approach.

Additional note:  I’ve appended an extract from Maseres’ text, where he explains the scheme,  in PDF form here.