The DWP consultation on disability benefits: read it and despair

The DWP’s new Green Paper, Modernising support for independent living, could well be the most alarmingly  misconceived document on social security I have witnessed during the tenure of the Conservative government, which in the era of Universal Credit is saying something.  It displays a basic lack of understanding of how benefits for disability work and what they are there for.

Personal Independence Payment (PIP) was introduced in 2013 to provide non-means tested cash payments to disabled people and people with health conditions to help them live independent lives.

A brief history is in order.  PIP was not a fundamental replacement of the previous system.  It was a rebranding of Disability Living Allowance, or DLA, which itself brought together two existing benefits for people of working age: Attendance Allowance and Mobility Allowance.

None of those four  was designed to promote independent living.  That was the job of a completely different set of systems, initially pioneered by the Independent Living Fund,  subsequently incorporated into the Griffiths reform of community care, and currently taking the form of personalised or ‘self-directed support’.   There is a limited overlap, to the extent that people who are supported by community care may also get financial benefits, but most of the users of either system are not covered by the other.

PIP … is often described as an ‘extra costs benefit’. It is paid at various rates depending on the level of functional impact of a person’s disability or health condition.

Well, that was how both DLA and PIP were presented politically – but it’s not what they do, or what they were designed to do. The criteria for awards do not, and never have, depended on extra costs.  They focused on the severity of the disability, which is something quite different. (The tenuous link to costs is explained in the DWP’s  Equality Analysis on PIP, undertaken in 2017:

“PIP is a payment that is intended to be broadly proportionate to the overall need of a claimant. The greater someone’s need, all else being equal, the greater the cost they will face as they go about their daily lives.”)

If the benefits were not about costs, what were they supposed to be doing instead?  That was made  explicit at the time of the introduction of benefits for people with disabilities in the 1970s.  It had become clear that people with disabilities, regardless of their status in other respects, suffered disadvantage throughout their working lives – not necessarily because they had additional costs, but because they were disabled.   Alf Morris explained in Parliament:

“It is not only a question of finance we are discussing, but also the dignity of disabled people. … This is only one stage towards improving the financial status, and therefore the dignity, of every one of our severely disabled fellow citizens.”

The logic of not means-testing the benefits was that this disadvantage affected everyone with a disability.

In the United Kingdom, we have had a predominantly cash transfer system for extra costs since the introduction of Attendance Allowance and Mobility Allowance in the 1970s.

These were not ‘extra costs’ benefits, and no assessment was made to relate them to costs.  (I should perhaps add that despite the name, Attendance Allowance was not given for attendance, but for severe  disability.)  In the past, there were two ‘extra costs’ benefits attached to Supplementary Benefit and Income Support: those took the form of “Exceptional Circumstances Additions” and “Exceptional Needs Payments” when they were part of Supplementary Benefit, and became ‘premiums’ when Income Support was introduced. Things have moved on since; the ‘legacy benefits’ are being eradicated, and these provisions are going with with them.

We know from research that people often use their PIP payments on core household expenditure (such as utility and housing costs). We also know that some disabled people view their PIP award as compensation for being disabled rather than as an award for extra costs.

This is one of the few statements in the review that recognises how social security actually works.  Benefits are delivered as cash so that people can choose how to use them, and cash is ‘fungible’ – it gets lumped together  with other cash.

We also know a certain amount  about what applicants think about the disability benefits.  One of the primary findings about DLA, shortly before it was renamed, was that applicants didn’t have much idea of what the criteria were, and if they were receiving other benefits were likely think they ought to have  a crack at it.  The takeup of these benefits has been weak; people with disabilities do not necessarily think of themselves as ‘disabled’, and some say that they are disabled ‘sometimes’.  It has not  helped that the benefits have been lumped into a single, supposedly ‘working age’ benefit, and that assessments have often focused inappropriately on someone’s ability to work.  There is a good case for smaller, more clearly defined benefits that might actually make some sense to the people who receive them – and, given the level of incomprehension that this DWP paper reveals, to the people responsible for delivering them.

We would like to understand whether some people receiving PIP who have lower, or no extra costs, may have better outcomes from improved access to treatment and support than from a cash payment.

This is disingenuous.  If there is no cash payment, those people will be worse off financially, as the evidence mentioned in the previous quotation makes clear. That will be true regardless of whether their health care is enhanced.

We want to hear how the welfare system could be improved by exploring new approaches to providing support. These include:

  • Moving away from a fixed cash benefit system so people can receive more tailored support in line with their needs.
  • Moving towards a better join up of local services and a simpler way for individuals to access all forms of support and care, whilst reducing duplication, to better meet the needs of people with health conditions and disabilities.
  • Exploring alternative ways of supporting people to live independent and fulfilling lives. This could mean financial support being better targeted at people who have specific extra costs, but it could also involve improved support of other kinds, such as physical or mental health treatment, leading to better outcomes.

In every particular, this refers to the objectives of the system of social care, not benefits for disability.  The thorough-going replacement of the objectives of the existing benefit system by the system of community care could potentially imply an expansion of community care – but it also implies, no less, the virtual abolition of the system of social security benefits for people with disabilities.


The Resolution Foundation loses sight of what Universal Credit is really like

I listened on Monday to a discussion at the Resolution Foundation of a new report, In Credit.  The participants seemed on the whole convinced by the proposition that UC has simplified the system, that the process of digitisation has worked well (especially in the pandemic) and that the central issues now concerned the adequacy of the benefits rather than the design of the system.  At the same time, reports from other organisations  point to serious structural problems with the benefit.  An outstanding report from CPAG  goes methodically through the processes of claiming, decision making, official communications and failures in the management of disputes. And research from Bath University’s Institute for Policy Research  criticises the rigidity of the assessment system and the drastic volatility and unpredictability of the income that is being provided.  “Monthly fluctuations in UC were ubiquitous, frequent and sometimes very large. ”

Someone has to have got this wrong, and in my view, it’s the Resolution Foundation.  They acknowledge that there were ‘teething problems’ at the outset.  It’s much worse than that.  The early years were a complete disaster, which is why the programme had to be ‘reset’ and massively overspent, but the system failed then, and has failed ever since, to meet any of its declared objectives.   I’m not going to go through everything I’ve said about this on this blog, but here are a few salient points.

The declared aims of Universal Credit have shifted frequently over time, but in general they were claimed to be:

  • the simplification of the system
  • reducing fraud and error,
  • reducing worklessness, and
  • improving work incentives.

Other objectives have included:

  • reducing the cost of the welfare system
  • rewarding work and encouraging personal responsibility
  • reducing poverty
  • smoothing transitions in and out of work
  • improved efficiency through automation
  • personalising benefits through a tailored response.

Every one of those objectives has been a failure. I’ve previously presented evidence about each of them. There have been critical reports from the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the National Audit Office, and specific rebuttals of the positive spin put on them by the DWP.

The main thing to add since I made that argument  has been the question of how things changed with the pandemic.  According to the Resolution Foundation report, “the system garnered praise during the pandemic for its ability to cope with a huge increase in claimant numbers with minimal delays.”  I seem to remember something different.  The first thing  is that the social security system had  coped before with massive increases in claimant numbers.  The second point is that in the early stages of the pandemic, the system didn’t cope: it locked up. Here’s a reminder.

When UC eventually did catch up, it was at the cost of substantial delay, uncertainy, error and fraud.

So – how has UC fared?  It has failed to simplify. Its digitisation has been  clumsy and inappropriate to claimants’ circumstances.  As for ‘incentives’, the policy-makers have lost sight of the main purposes of the benefits system, which have little  do with work.  And, in the process, we have lost sight  of the need for a basic benefit that can at least ensure that people are not malnourished,  destitute or in despair.

Universal Credit: the gift that keeps on taking away

I’ve been ploughing through a long, complex but very worthwhile report from CPAG, which examines the effect of the digital administration of Universal Credit  on the way that people experience the system.  It focuses on the scheme’s serious deficiencies in transparency, procedural fairness and lawfulness.

First, there are the problems relating to claims.  Thje system absolutely insists that people fill it in perfectly and in line with the expectations of administrators.  It can’t cope with incomplete information, such as people not having a bank account, and doesn’t have the options the process needs for people to get round the blocks.  Standard additions, exemptions and exceptions aren’t considered.  The system can’t manage backdating or claims made in advance (for example, for someone leaving care).

Second, there is the problem of decisions. The DWP has sailed ahead regardless of the notices it is supposed to give or the need to fix problems that come from clearly incorrect assessments.  The absurd pretensions of tracking income in ‘real time’ are still subject to wildly inconsistent arbitrary calculations based on calendar dates – the courts have repeatedly taken the DWP to task about this.  There are widespread problems  of claims being closed without due consideration, obstructing further action or the ability to revive and correct the details.

Third, there are the issues of communication: incomprehensible calculations, failure to inform people of their entitlements, and frequent failure to give the information required by law.

Fourth, there is the management of disputes.  The process for “mandatory reconsideration”, itself a deliberate obstacle to access to justice, is protected by stonewalling, where DWP officials refuse to register requests or let claimants ask for redress.

It seems all too clear that, nearly thirteen years after the scheme was adopted, the many deficiencies of the computer programme have still not been sorted, and the benefit continues to fail in many major respects.



In praise of the triple lock

The ‘triple lock’ is the name given to a commitment to maintain and improve the value of state pensions.  The table comes from a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Table 1. Triple lock indexation since its introduction

In the course of the last twelve years, this has meant that pensions have increased by a nominal 60%, while if they had only increased by inflation, they would be up 42%. Putting that  another way, pensions have risen by 12.7% over inflation (that is, 160/142), which in real terms is 1% a year.

One might suppose that ratcheting pensions up, however slowly, was a praiseworthy thing to do, but the principle has come under fire from those who claim that it represents an unsustainable commitment. The criticism has been fed by the IFS report, which argues that it creates ‘uncertainty’ about the future value of state pensions, and that if it is left in place till 2050, it will increase the value of the state Pension from about 25% of median earnings to something between 26% and 32%.

The first of these arguments is, frankly, codswallop.  The benefits  system is in a parlous state: the main ‘uncertainty’ it is creating is whether or not people will be able to eat.  Improving the value of the pension does not increase uncertainty; it reduces it.   If we are genuinely concerned about the narrower problem of how people plan their pensions for the future, the main ‘uncertainties’ come from the govenment’s eccentric reliance on means-testing and the desperate problem of paying for social care.

The second argument invites the obvious retort – so what?  A modest increase in the value of pensions, relative to the median wage, is surely a good thing.  The UK’s treatment of pensioners is, by international statndards, parsimonious.  Consider this graph from the OECD.  It puts the percentage of GDP spent on pensions in the UK at 5.1%.  The Office for Budget Responsibility, which works on a slightly different set of definitions and takes into account a few extra benefits,  estimates that this year, the percentage will be – try not to be too shocked – 5.3%.

The  State Pension provides, at best, a modest basic income.  The (somewhat limited) success of the triple lock is something to applaud, not to denigrate.  One might wish that the the same approach could be taken for the painfully inadequate benefits offered to people of working age.

My submission to the Work and Pensions Committee on the adequacy of benefits

The Work and Pensions Committee has issued a call for evidence about benefit levels in the UK.  My response to that call is here in a PDF or on the Committee’s website here.

There are some common confusions in the discussion of adequacy, which this submission seeks to clarify.

  • The purposes and functions of benefits are complex.
  • The adequacy of benefits depends on how they work in combination with each other, and with other sources of income.
  • Benefits have not been set at a level that reflects the costs of subsistence.
    Universal Credit in particular is not designed to provide a basic minimum
    income and does not do so.
  • Most benefits are designed to be delivered regardless of work status. The
    emphasis on the centrality of work is a major distortion of their role and
  • The operation of the benefits system is frequently penal and fails to provide
    adequate avenues of redress.
  • Assessments of people’s  financial position which attempt to identify all possible income streams and household circumstances are unavoidably complex, difficult to administer and liable to error. The alternative is to offer a range of less comprehensive benefits which can be combined in different ways.

The proposed abolition of benefits for long-term sickness is staggeringly stupid.

When I posted about the reform of the Work Capacity Assessment before, I had no idea that what was being contemplated was an abolition of benefit for  long-term sickness.  That, however, appears to be what the government actually intends to do.  They are so fixated on disability that they have forgotten what sickness benefits are supposed to do.

The Beveridge reform included, initially, only a Sickness Benefit.  This wasn’t enough, and in 1971 a longer-term benefit called Invalidity Benefit was introduced, largely to cope with people who otherwise would have to make demands of the system for unemployment.  Subsequent changes gave us Incapacity Benefit, then Employment and Support Allowance, now being swallowed by Universal Credit.  It’s already the case that benefits for people who are ill are now set at the same level as benefits for people who are unemployed.  The difference rests in the situation of people who have ‘limited capacity for work related activity’ or LCWRA – people who (in the terms of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act) it is not reasonable to expect to work. Those people are largely exempt from the requirement to be actively seeking work.

Transforming Support, the White Paper on Health and Disability, has been published at the same time as the 2023 Budget.   The bulk of the White Paper is taken up, unexceptionably, with the situation of people with disabilities, and how they might be supported into work.  The problem is, straightforwardly, that sickness benefits are supposed to do something quite different.  They are there to support people who are sick.  The government, it seems, is incapable of making the distinction. Most people who are sick are not disabled.  Many people who live with disabilities are not ill.  There are conditions which overlap, but these are different circumstances calling for a different approach.  I’ve explained the difference between sickness and disability benefits in my previous work; here is a quick summary.

Benefits for people with disabilities people are given on a number of principles.

  1. Compensation for disability. Industrial disablement or action in the courts assume that people should be paid if something unpleasant happens to them. This does not extend to those who simply become ill or to those born with disabilities.
  2. Special needs. Allowances can be made for example for personal care, transport, and medical goods.
  3. Desert. In some cases compensation depends on a moral evaluation of the
    reason for disability. War pensions are the obvious example.
  4. The protection of carers. People caring for a disabled person may be limited in their capacity to seek work and to earn.
  5. Rehabilitation. Benefits may be concerned to change the status of the disabled person – for example, through training or the provision of special equipment.
  6. Promoting employment. A number of benefits are geared specifically to the promotion of employment for disabled people, as a desirable end in itself. They do so principally by altering the calculation of costs and benefits made by disabled people or by employers.
  7. Improving low income. Low income may reflect incapacity or disadvantage in the labour market. Many disabled people on low incomes rely on forms of social assistance benefits, for others who are poor. Support for disabled people on low earnings is another example.
  8. Equal opportunity. Rehabilitation and the promotion of employment can both be seen as means to further equality of opportunity for people with disabilities.
  9. Participation in society. This encompasses rehabilitation, employment and income support; it is also a justification for a range of benefits in kind intended to promote social inclusion for people with disabilities, including housing, transport, leisure, cultural and educational benefits.
  10. Market-based and voluntary provision. With the exception of insurance-based social protection, the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in this field is overwhelmingly geared to disability, not to incapacity. The voluntary sector has a wide range of objectives, including humanitarian, religious, mutualist and commercial aims. State intervention which is based on support of the voluntary sector necessarily reflects those principles to some degree.

Benefits provided to deal with sickness are based on different criteria.

  1.  Social protection. The principle of social insurance is intended to cover changes of circumstance and needs which might arise. This extends to cover for medical care, the incurring of unexpected costs and income maintenance.
  2.  Income maintenance. People wish to protect themselves from circumstances in which their income might be interrupted. This is sometimes done through social assistance but more typically it affects people who have previously been earning.
  3. Economic efficiency. Part of the rationale for incapacity benefits is based, not in the circumstances of the incapacitated worker, but in economic processes. Employers wish to maximise the productivity of the workforce. Rules relating to short-term incapacity allow for restoration of full capacity; rules relating to long-term incapacity allow for removal of less productive workers from the labour market. (Note that there is a potential tension between this principle and the desire, in relation to people with disabilities, to promote increased participation in the labour market.)
  4. Early retirement. A scheme for incapacity benefits may become in effect a
    surrogate scheme for early retirement. Because it legitimates withdrawal from the labour market, it makes it possible for those who hope to retire a means of doing so.
  5. The functioning of medical services. The balancing of medical priorities has
    been an important element in the administration of incapacity benefits: part of the purpose of sickness benefits has been to facilitate and encourage medical consultations, but the routine certification of sickness has proved burdensome and (in some systems) ineffective as a means of prioritisation.

Although there is some overlap between the two issues, it mainly happens in so far as disability implies incapacity, or incapacity includes disability. A person who is disabled does not need social protection or income maintenance solely on account of the disability; a person who is incapacitated without disability does need social protection, but is not necessarily disadvantaged in terms of equality of opportunity or participation in society.

What the government proposes is to confine health benefits solely to people who pass the assessment for Personal Independence Payment – that is, people with disabilities, who have a long-term, functional limitation in capacity.  The key proposal in the White Paper is this:

145. We are therefore proposing to replace the current UC LCWRA element with a new UC health element. The new element will be awarded to people who are receiving the UC Standard Allowance and any PIP element.

146. This new element will abolish the need to be found to have limited capability for work and work- related activity, as is the case with the current UC LCWRA element. This will remove barriers in the system that can prevent people who would like to, from entering or remaining in employment.

So – what happens to people who are not disabled, but sick?  The answer is that they will be treated simply as if they were unemployed.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out that “The 1 million people who are currently on incapacity but not disability benefits could potentially lose out from this change – with a typical health-related UC claimant losing £354 per month.”  They are going to be expected to engage in job-seeking for 35 hours a week.  They are going to have to report for meetings, and be sanctioned if they are too sick to get to them. People with conditions such as heart disease or cancer are going to have to undertake a PIP assessment on the off-chance, when they have no reasonable prospect of qualifying  – a situation that was recorded in some detail when in the past a million people who applied for Disability Living Allowance had to be rejected. This is going to be an administrative nightmare.  The CEO of the charity Mind has commented that the policy represents “a one-dimensional, overly-simplistic approach to a complex, systemic issue.”  The proposed reform  disregards everything we know about this sort of benefit.  It is staggeringly stupid.



Changing the Work Capability Assessment

It’s been announced, in various fora, that the government will propose in a forthcoming White Paper to abolish or reform the Work Capability Assessment.  This is the pro-forma points system used to determine whether or not a person has limited or no capability for work.

The  government’s priorities lie in ‘supporting’ people into work, rather than determining whether or not it is reasonable for people to work – which is supposed to be the legal test.  We can probably all agree that the WCA is not a good test.  It is slow, bureaucratic and rather bad at identifying what people’s circumstances actually are.  Torsten Bell has suggested, on Twitter, that the actual plan is to replace the WCA with the test for PIP – a different kind of test, but still one which has little to do with capacity.

Calling for reform doesn’t imply, as some might think, that the process of certification should go back to GPs, who have quite enough on their plate already.  In my 2017 book, What’s wrong with social security benefits?, I made a series of proposals about how the WCA could be refomed. Here’s an extract.

As things stand, nearly everyone who claims is being assessed.  …  Although repeated checks on people with long-term conditions have now been acknowledged to be ‘pointless’, most of the assessments that remain are little better.   They either confirm the obvious or they duplicate information that is already held.  Some assessments are necessary: many people with disabilities cannot say whether they are disabled or not, and have no idea whether or not their disability fits the criteria for benefits. Any general rule, no matter how sensitively it is administered, is going to have to deal with some grey areas.  But the same approach does not have to apply to everyone.
First, it is possible to identify certain conditions which should imply automatic entitlement, offering benefits on minimal or secondary evidence – either accepting on sight that the person has a qualifying disability (double amputation, severe disfigurement) or passporting benefits on the basis of provision by other agencies (congenital disability, blindness).
Second, there are conditions which will have led to prolonged long term contact with health services, and certification from a consultant is sufficient to establish that the condition is there without requiring further detailed examination of personal circumstances. Examples are terminal illness, multiple sclerosis, MND, malignant neoplasms or brittle bones.
Third, there are conditions where existing services in long-term contact with the individual are far better placed to judge the impact of a condition than an independent assessor could be, and it would be appropriate to accept medical certification. Examples are continued psychosis, epilepsy, dementia and learning disability.
Only after these three categories are considered is it appropriate to think in terms of further individual assessment. The points scheme currently used in a range of benefits was initially developed from work to establish the range and severity of disabilities in the UK. That research validated the approach through a range of tests, but it pointed to an important conclusion: that once the primary disabilities had been identified, it was very rare for further disabilities to make any notable difference to the findings, and that information served no useful purpose. It follows that it is neither appropriate nor necessary to ask most claimants whether they can go to the toilet unaided.  The question is embarrassing and the information obtained is for the most part irrelevant. The assessment process should begin by asking people to identify their most important disabilities, ask questions about those, and go further only in marginal or complex circumstances.
Finally, there will be a residual category of people who are not adequately dealt with by any of the four stages above, and who will require or ask for a more thorough comprehensive assessment. This category should be small.

Overpayments – challenged through judicial review

An important case has been decided against the Department for Work and Pensions, calling into question at least three long-standing, major elements in social security law. R v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2023] EWHC 233 (Admin), which can be read here, concerns the operation of the relatively recent overpayments policy, which makes it possible for the DWP to reclaim overpaid benefit despite the fact that the claimant has done nothing wrong and may have had no reason to suppose that the payment was not legitimate.   (This pernicious rule has, regrettably, been replicated in the Scottish Parliament’s recent law on social security.)

The first concerns the DWP’s use of discretion.  For decades – at least since the 1960s – the DWP and its predecessors have limited its use of discretion by the development of national rules, intended to ensure that there is no inconsistency between judgments made in different parts of the country.  (See  M Hill, 1969, The exercise of discretion in the NAB, Public Administration, 47(1) 75‑90; J Bradshaw, 1981, From discretion to rules, in M Adler, S Asquith, Discretion and welfare, Heinemann.)  The court, in this case, emphasised that notwithstanding that principle, the DWP always had a duty to make an individual assessment in the particular case that presented itself – explaining how its discretion would be exercised, rather than choosing not to exercise it.

The second element concerns the publication of guidance.  Since 1980, when I started teaching welfare rights, I’ve visited  social security offices irregularly – the last time was in 2019 – and like many old-timers in this field, I’ve been required to sign the Official Secrets Act, because (for example) publication of the fact that social security officers are sometimes asked to use screens with impossibly small print might threaten the security of the nation.  The Supplementary Benefit rules were contained in a loose-leaf binder, and then a set of binders, called the A code, and that was superseded by even fatter guidance documents called the S manual, also treated as an official secret.  This case cites a previous judgment, which says this, in terms:

It is axiomatic in modern government that a lawful policy is necessary if an executive discretion of the significance of the one now under consideration is to be exercised, as public law requires it to be exercised, consistently from case to case but adaptably to the facts of individual cases. If – as seems to be the situation here – such a policy has been formulated and is regularly used by officials, it is the antithesis of good government to keep it in a departmental drawer.

The third major point concerns the appeals procedure.  The present procedure requires claimants to ask first for Mandatory Reconsideration, and then to appeal to a tribunal.  After that, the claimant’s options have been held to be exhausted.  This case makes it abolustely clear that this is not, and cannot be, the end of the road.  A DWP official had written to the claimant:

“Regarding your request to have your overpayment waived, as I have stated previously the routes for you to challenge an overpayment with Universal Credit are Mandatory Reconsiderations and a tribunal following an upheld Mandatory Reconsideration.  Neither myself or anyone working for Universal Credit can reconsider your overpayment as you have exhausted all appeal routes with us. The legislation you have quoted does not apply directly to the processes that we have here.”

That response is described here as ‘manifestly unlawful’ (para 73).

I regret that so few social security cases come to judicial review.  If they did, I think it likely that other important rules – including the requirement to seek mandatory reconsideration and the imposition of sanctions without the possibility of a hearing – would also be found to be unlawful.

How much should income be cut by?

The government claims to be concerned about ‘inflation-busting’ settlements.  Public sector wages have generally ‘risen’ by 2.7%; private sector wages by 6.9%.  Many benefits (not all) have ‘risen’ in line with inflation.

I have put ‘risen’ in inverted commas because incomes have not risen at all.  As a simple matter of maths, a rise ‘in line with’ inflation is not an increase in income; it is a reduction.

Initial income 100
Inflation 10.7%
Value of income after inflation 89.30
Increase of:
2.7% (recent public sector awards) 91.71
6.9% (recent private sector awards) 95.46
7% (NHS in Scotland) 95.55
10.7% (‘in line with’ inflation)
12.32% (break even) 100
19% (the claim made by the RCN) 106.27

Increasing benefits ‘in line with inflation’ implies a cut in real income. It would take an increase of 12.32% before that did not happen.  And the supposedly unaffordable claim by the RCN for 19% is actually a request for an increase in real terms of 6.27%.  Since 2010, the real wages of nurses have fallen by 8%.  The RCN claim would not restore that level of income.

Not quite Universal Basic Income: the new selectivity

UBI is universal when it provides for everyone in a category, without further conditions; basic, when it is only the starting point, and people are free to add income from other sources; income, when it is paid periodically.   The Basic Income Earth Network identifies five main points:

1. Periodic—It is paid at regular intervals (for example every month), not as a one-off grant.
2. Cash payment—It is paid in an appropriate medium of exchange, allowing those who receive it to decide what they spend it on. It is not, therefore, paid either in kind (such as food or services) or in vouchers dedicated to a specific use.
3. Individual—It is paid on an individual basis—and not, for instance, to households.
4. Universal—It is paid to all, without means test.
5. Unconditional—It is paid without a requirement to work or to demonstrate willingness-to-work.

There is more to being ‘unconditional’ than not having a work test – benefits that are restricted to people with disabilities or care needs have to impose a test, and to that extent they are selective.  UBI tries to avoid the pitfalls of selective benefits, which have three great problems: complexity, the difficulty for claimants of knowing whether  or not they will be entitled, and potential stigma.  Selective benefits commonly fail to reach many of the people who ought to be receiving them.

Arguments for Basic Income have captured the imagination of many people.  I have my reservations about them, and those reservations are serious, but I’m sympathetic to the core objectives: providing people with a foundational income that is consistent, reliable,  and as simple as possible.

It seems, however, that some recent programmes have departed somewhat from the script. In Wales, a ‘basic income’ experiment is being conducted for 500 young people leaving care.  The programme is linked to advice and support relating to financial management, education, employment and welfare.  That’s the right way to go about supporting vulnerable people, but it’s three steps removed from ‘Basic Income’: it’s selective, time-limited and not just a cash payment.  In San Francisco, there are three such programmes.  The first is the “Abundant Birth Project“, which offers a ‘Basic Income Supplement’ to pregnant women who are African American or Pacific Islanders, mainly for the duration of their pregnancy and shortly afterwards.  Next is the Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists, supporting two cohorts of 60 artists, nominated by partner organisations.  The third, and most recent, is the Guaranteed Income for Transgender People, offering both cash support for 55 transgender people and ‘wrap-around’ support (including medical care, case management and financial advice).  Again, these initatives are time-limited.

These programmes don’t have much in common with the idea of Basic Income.  They’re selective, short-term, and eligibility is highly restrictive; they are linked, beyond cash, to other forms of support; and their target groups are highly visible.  I don’t think we can draw any lessons from them about how Basic Income might work, or how people might adapt to a UBI.  It’s interesting, however, to see that arguments for UBI have influenced the development of highly targeted, selective benefits – for example, this paper on supporting transgender people.  We’re seeing, not a commitment to universality, but a new selectivity.