Category: Social Policy

This occasional blog discusses issues in Social Policy.

Is housebuilding “at record levels”?

I was puzzled to receive a note from Full Fact, the fact-checking organisation, that seemed to accept Theresa May’s claim that housebuilding was at “record” levels.  Her specific claim was that with a net gain of 217,000 units, more properties had been added to the English housing stock than at any other time in the last thirty years, apart from one year.  That may be true, but it’s a funny sort of “record”.  The second-best result during a period of deeply inadequate policy is hardly something to crow about – a bit like celebrating April’s higher rainfall in the Sahara.  August in the Sahara is wetter than April anyway, but it’s still a desert.

Housebuilding figures used to figure regularly in Social Trends; I’ve taken this figure, showing GB figures, from the 2000 edition.  Between 1950 and 1979, the average number of net additions to the housing stock in the UK were never less than 230,000, and at the highest point (1960-69) the average was 259,000.  This was at a time when both population and household numbers were significantly lower: the old measure, the number of units added per 1000 persons in the population, fell starkly after the 1970s.  It also makes a difference where the properties are – we long ago gave up moving work to where people actually lived.

The numbers matter.  If there are not enough houses, then people just have to live where they can, including property that is unfit or managing in someone else’s household.  Usually in a market the people who get left out in the competition for resources are the ones who are least able to pay, but housing doesn’t work as a pure market – people in prior occupation get to keep out people who don’t yet have what they need.   Ultimately, however, it’s a matter of maths: if there are more households than houses, someone, somewhere has got to be homeless.

Progress on the Social Security Bill

The  Social Security Committee’s first stage  report on the Social Security Bill says a lot of the right things about the draft:

  • the status of the principles needs to be clarified
  • the balance between the framework and secondary legislation needs to be redressed
  • there has to be a mechanism to review regulations – the committee recommends an independent Scottish Social Security Advisory Committee.

They have an accessible summary here.

Additional note, 15th December:  The Scottish Government’s Response has also been published; in general, the response seems to be made of warm words rather than a commitment to do anything differently.

Soviet Russia was not kind to benefits claimants

At a session about social security yesterday, one of the speakers invited us to celebrate the inspirational anniversary of the  Russian Revolution.  As someone mainly concerned with security rights and dignity in social security, there’s some incongruity in that request.   Soviet Russia was not wholeheartedly supportive of people who needed benefits to survive.  The laws against “parasites, tramps and beggars” varied between the different republics of the Soviet Union, but they included penal policies and fora for public humiliation. There are three articles about it by Beerman in the journal Soviet Studies:  “A discussion on the draft law against parasites, tramps and beggars”, 1958, 9(2), 214-222; “The law against parasites, tramps and beggars”,  1960 11(4), 453-455, and “The parasites law”,  1961, 13(2), 191-205.  No doubt a similar law would go down well with certain sections of the UK press, but it’s not a model to be followed.

A session in Haifa

I’ve been in Israel for the last couple of weeks, and yesterday I gave a presentation on the relational elements of poverty to a delightful group of academics, students and practitioners at the University of Haifa.    I’m shamefully incompetent when it comes to managing Hebrew at even the most basic level, but fortunately most of the academics I’ve met in my field don’t share my limitations.  They are being driven to publish academic journal articles in English in order to get tenure (15 articles in 5 years is apparently the norm, and book chapters and Hebrew articles don’t count).  The problem with that sort of direction in academic writing is that it tends to shape the character of the work that academics can engage in, and it’s not always to the benefit of the subject.  Good theoretical work needs time and variation; critical development that might influence policy in practice might tend to be repetitive.  Empirical research, by contrast, can often be divided up into meaty chunks and written up quickly, so that’s what people on the treadmill will be forced to do.

I’m a firm believer in a cooperative approach to academic discussion; I have been asked to think about making my work more accessible in Hebrew.  My work has previously appeared in Farsi and Arabic, and it’s intriguing that the same elements and approach seem to appeal across such different (and apparently divided) cultures.  We can only gain from dialogue and exchange, and it’s regrettable that some of my contemporaries have closed the door on that.

A report on Universal Basic Services

The Institute for Global Prosperity has produced a report proposing the introduction of a range of universal basic services.  The principle is the same as the principle of the National Health Service, education in schools, or the road network: providing universal services would offer a foundation for everyone in the society.  The fields in which they are proposing basic services are shelter, food, transport and “information”, which includes phone, television and the internet.

The schemes are not all worked out in the same way.  The proposals that would be genuinely universal are for public transport (extending the equivalent of pensioners’ bus passes to everyone) and communications.  The food service they propose is essentially a residual network for poorer families, replacing food banks and soup kitchens; the model for housing is an extension of existing social housing stock.  Neither would be universal.

They also compare the costs of their scheme with Universal Basic Income.   It’s not a completely fair comparison, because the provision they are proposing for housing and food is not provision for everyone; if they were genuinely offering either of those on a universal basis, the costings would look a lot different.  It is fair, however, to remind people of the alternative to Universal Basic Income.  People need an income so as to buy goods and services on the private market; it may be possible to take those services out of the market altogether.

Both the universal schemes they propose, and the underlying arguments, are interesting and thought-provoking.  I’m persuaded by the ideas of the universal bus pass and a universal infrastructure for the internet; I think others may need more work; but it’s a debate that’s well worth engaging in.

 

 

The Future of Social Security in Scotland: views from within the system

After a little delay,  PCS, the  Public and Commercial Services Union, has published our report on the views of DWP officers administering social security in Scotland.  The report is based on group interviews and questionnaires done earlier this year with 228 DWP officers.   This is not the first report ever to ask social security officers what they think, but it’s a rare and rather special event.  The officers generally showed an acute and detailed understanding of current problems in the benefit system, and expressed their frustration that they were not being permitted to set things right when they could.  They complained about constant micro-management, with inadequate staffing levels, poor training and failing  IT systems.  Many of them wanted to be able to provide a more personal service, following people’s cases through from start to finish.

The picture shows Helen Flanagan and myself at the launch in Glasgow in November.

The prospect of rent control

I was expecting Jeremy Corbyn’s call for rent control to be met with the usual litany of ideological nonsense, so it’s been refreshing to discover that there is actually a nuanced debate about it.  The nonsense comes mainly from the political right, who have pointed to the supposedly destructive effects of rent controls: cutting prices, they argue, must cut supply.  The assumption is supported by a long string of economists, many of whom have been told it’s true during their first year of study.  Empirical evidence on rent control shows just the opposite: the supply of rented housing is generally larger where rent control is in force.  (See R. Arnott, 1995, “Time for revisionism on rent control?”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 9(1) 99-120.) There’s a balanced review of evidence in a recent Parliamentary Briefing.

Many writers still accept the questionable argument that ‘first-generation’ rent control in the UK made the sector shrink.  In fact, rent control in the UK slowed the decline of a sector whose best-paying tenants were becoming owner occupiers or council tenants, leaving a poor residual population of tenants.  When rent controls were lifted in 1957, the movement out of the sector became a waterfall.  It happened partly because rent is not the main determinant of investment decisions, and partly because “rent control” is not just about rent; it’s about the protection of tenants, security and regulation.  Cutting those protections is likely to reduce the supply of housing, as  landlords sell up.   The recent revival of the private sector reflects not the slow expansion after the deregulation of 1988, but a much more rapid expansation after 2001, reflecting a favourable combination of capital values and interest rates.   That has been reinforced by the balance since 2008; as and when interest rates increase again, capital values will suffer and other investments will be more attractive.

Shelter’s position on rent control has attempted to look at a range of different policies which come under the general banner of rent control: some, they suggest, would be harmful, some would be beneficial, and some would make very little difference.   While there’s obviously a need for tenant protection, the fundamental problem with the housing market is not about rents as such; it’s about access to housing, and that depends on supply.   As long as there aren’t enough houses, and those that there are are in the wrong places, some people are going to be left out.  Some people will be squeezed – high rents, poor conditions – and others will be left out altogether.  Britain has millions more people than it used to have, and it needs millions more houses.

 

Self-directed support makes little headway

Self directed support in Scotland hasn’t exactly shaken the rafters – a report in 2014  called the system “nebulous” – but an Audit Scotland report suggests it “shows many examples of positive progress”.  The vague welcome is hardly justified; this is a system that’s hardly stirred into life at all.  The Social Care (Self Directed Support) (Scotland) Act offers four  “options” for self-directed support:

  • Option 1  Direct payments
  • Option 2  The individual chooses the support and the authority manages it
  • Option 3  The authority chooses the support and arranges it
  • Option 4  A mixture of options 1, 2, and 3.

It’s highly debatable whether option 3 can be thought of as self-directed support at all, and it’s far from clear what qualifies as option 4.

An Audit Scotland report claims that  “at least” 53300 people, out of 208,000 adults receiving non-residential support, are getting SDS.    Of that figure,

  • 11% chose option 1
  • 9 per cent chose option 2
  • 75% chose option 3, and
  • 5% chose option 4.  (para 24)

So out of that 53,300, something between 10600 and 13330 people chose an option.  Direct payments have increased, from 3680 to 7530 people 2010-16,  but as a proportion of more than 200,000 people it’s a very long way from the ‘total control’ supposedly offered by SDS.

It’s also troubling that at this stage the evaluation has not been able to show any clear advantage in personal budgets, even for the selected few who receive them.  A few qualitative comments show that some people support the idea in principle; other comments point to difficulties in knowledge, implementation, resources, restrictions from the local authority and a lack of choice.  My own experience as a carer has been that assessment came cursory and late, with no effective choices at all.  I’ve previously expressed some scepticism about personalisation; developments to date have done nothing to change that view.

Is the NHS the best health care service?

An international ranking of health services in 11 countries rates the UK NHS at the top.  The Commonwealth Fund, an American think-tank, ranks health systems on five main criteria:  Access, Equity, the Care Process, Administrative Efficiency and Health Outcomes.  Each of those criteria is based in turn  on a range of subordinate indicators:  the “Care Process”, for example, takes into account prevention, safe care, coordination, and patient engagement.  It’s backed up further by more detailed assessment;  for example, the US does badly on infant mortality and premature death, but relatively well in relation to doctor-patient relationships and the management of stroke.  But speaking as a carer, I find it hard to believe that the state of our mental health services really represents the best that anyone can do.

The main purpose of the report is to give a critical perspective on health care in the US, which is outstandingly expensive as well as being the least effective of the systems; but there are questions to raise about other countries, too.  For the UK, we might wonder how it is that the health care system is ranked top of the league while the UK’s health outcomes are the second worst in the table.   The neo-liberal Institute of Economic Affairs commented, acerbically: “the NHS’s provision of care is equally poor for everybody, irrespective of income.”

 

My doubts about ‘food sovereignty’

I was asked to act as a discussant for a paper on ‘food sovereignty’.  Food sovereignty is an idea being promoted by Via Campesina.  Via Campesina “defends small-scale sustainable peasant agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity based on food sovereignty.” They describe food sovereignty in these terms:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. … Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations.

It sounds very warm and human, but it’s a muddled, ill-considered set of claims.  The core problem with it is that food sovereignty doesn’t protect food security – people’s right to have food to eat.  It protects the interests of producers, not populations.  The second problem is that it can’t offer a response to significant vulnerabilities, such as civil war, drought or climate change; if (or when) such things happen, the localities where they happen will be not be protected by a system that is relatively localised.  Third, providing healthy diets locally and on the small scale must mean less food.  That’s true partly because it’s only possible to provide varied diets locally by growing things that grow less well locally as well as those that grow better, and partly because comparative advantage is lost – less specialisation and less trade means less food.  Fourth, for what it’s worth, there’s absolutely no reason to assume, as this declaration assumes, that local production will be ecologically sound.  Why should it be?  Finally, food sovereignty can’t deal with the distributive issues within societies.  There’s reason in some aspects, such as gender relations,  to believe it won’t.

More troubling still is the ranting, anti-capitalist wrapping this comes in. This is from the Via Campesina website:

For too many years, we have witnessed with deep pain the systematic plunder and destruction of our precious natural resources and the oppression of our people. We know that our African elites in the public and private sectors have been for many years colluding in corruption with the evil transnational corporations which today represent the new face of imperialist neo-colonialism. We are appalled by this and demand an immediate end to immoral and irresponsible behaviour of many of our leaders.

This is the authentic voice of populist demagoguery.  Populism has been defined as

an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.  (C Mudde, 2004, The populist zeitgeist Government and Opposition 39 (4), 541–63.)

an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.  (D Albertazzi, D McDonnell (eds) 2008, Twenty first century populism, Palgrave Macmillan, p 34)

The examples I heard about today manipulate people’s concerns to push forward an authoritarian, collectivised, exclusive model.   This doctrine is not just foolish, but sinister.