Category: Social security

This blog includes discussion of issues in British social security policy, along with new material to complement my book, How Social Security Works.

Terminating a Basic Income experiment tells us something, too

The decision to terminate the Basic Income Experiment in Ontario is a sort of finding, too.  The design of related experiments has usually been based on short term economic or behavioural effects – because that, after all, is all one can hope to pick up from an experiment for two or three years.  However, the arguments around Basic Income, on both sides, are about something different – about social and cultural change.   That kind of change can take a generation or more, and it’s simply not going to appear in the way that economists usually model such effects.  I’ve previously drawn the parallel with the introduction of old age pensions, where the effects in the UK weren’t fully resolved in sixty years.  It’s not possible, more than a hundred years after the introduction of pensions, to be certain what the implications were for older people at the time – and people considering retirement would have been right to be uncertain.  The costs of the 1908 scheme led the UK government to threaten retrenchment, and after massive post-war cuts in other services (the “Geddes axe”, applied 1921-22, cut spending worth 10% of GDP), in 1925 pensions were fundamentally reformed to raise money through contributions instead.   Most older people were retiring by the 1940s, but many people who were retiring in the 1970s were still deferring their pension claims.

The decision in Ontario comes shortly after a (somewhat less brutal) decision in Finland not to extend their experiments.   The message coming over is clear and strong: Basic Income is pushing at the limits of what politicians are prepared to consider.

What does this imply for Basic Income?  First,  politicians won’t leave Basic Income alone – they just can’t stop themselves from tampering.  Look at Child Benefit, which was working really well before the Coalition government decided to create special conditions for wealthy people. If Basic Income comes, it won’t be forever.

Second, there’s no such thing as an unconditional benefit.   Issues which may seem relatively minor now, such as the treatment of migrants, prisoners or religious communities, are going to surface eventually.   Some of the conditions are more liberal, some are less intrusive, but there will be conditions – tax exemptions to “send a message”, rewards for virtue, or whatever.  People advocating for Basic Income have to argue for conditions to be kept to a practical minimum.  That’s hard to do when politicians and the press will convert it into “benefits for paedophiles” or “benefits for members of ISIS”, with specific instances.  Be prepared.

And that leads to the third point: whatever people use their Basic Income for, they’d be unwise to bank their long-term security or future life-plan on it.  How long would it take before the system is so strongly embedded that the future becomes certain?   I can’t be sure, but it’s not going to happen in a three year experiment.

McVey’s vision is the wrong direction for benefits

In a speech to Reform, Esther McVey has outlined her vision of a reformed system of welfare benefits.    It is almost exactly the opposite of what I have argued for over the years, most recently in What’s wrong with social security benefits?  Ms McVey explains:

Our vision is one of a personalised benefit system, a digitised system.

Mine is for a system that is simple for claimants, less intrusive and less presumptuous.

We’re rolling 6 benefits into one, that means that people now have a better oversight of their income and can spend accordingly.

The government has produced a benefit which delivers an unpredictable outcome that is subject to change at very short notice.  Withdrawal of all the elements of benefit all at once invites catastrophe.

We are developing a personalised system that gives a 360 degree view of an individual’s needs to provide bespoke tailor-made support.

The government has developed a benefit which is too complex for the administrators to manage, or even to pay on time, and too complex for claimants to understand..  People can’t work out whether they’re entitled, what they’re entitled to, or when entitlement stops.

Part of the problem, of course, is the misplaced faith in technology to resolve complex  personal circumstances.  Part is the emphasis on employment, which is simply irrelevant to most of the projected population that the benefits are intended to serve.   But a larger part is the arrogance of a government department that assumes that it will be capable  of responding to complex situations if only it asks for more, processes more and does everything more thoroughly.    There are limits to what governments can do, and Ms McVey’s vision of a personalised, comprehensive digital system goes far beyond them.

Universal Credit still fails to deliver

The DWP has just released statistics that tell us that

83% of new claims to Universal Credit Full Service received full payment on time.
94% of new claims received full payment within 4 weeks of the payment due date.
97% of new claims received full payment within 8 weeks of the payment due date.

This is an improvement.  According to the NAO report, in 2017 a quarter of new claims were not paid on time, and in March it was 21%.  However, it’s still woefully sub-standard.  The DWP has five weeks to process claims; the complexity of the system means that many claimants have already suffered delays before they get that far; by this account, some of them will not have received payment within three months.

Is it possible to do it faster?  Supplementary Benefit, a complex benefit delivered to cover more than six million claims a year without the benefit of computers, used to have a target of 14 days.  The Conservative minister Linda Chalker told Parliament in March 1980:

I should like to say a few words about our intentions. Regulations will be made to put the supplementary benefit position broadly on a par with the similar provisions for national insurance … That means that benefit officers will be required to determine new and repeat claims as far as is practicable within 14 days of the time when they are in possession of all the information necessary to make a determination. I emphasise that, as my right hon. Friend said in Committee, the vast majority of new and repeat claims for supplementary benefit are cleared well within the 14-day period. But I accept that regulations along the lines that I propose will serve as a useful reminder of the need for speed in resolving claims.

 

A few new books on social security

One of the disadvantages of being abroad has been that it’s been harder to get access to some recent books, and I’ve been taking the opportunity of the last week to catch up, using the resources of the National Library of Scotland.  First off is Welfare conditionality, by Beth Watts and Suzanne Fitpatrick (Routledge, 2018).  This is a short, insightful consideration of  conditionality,   distinguishing different kinds of conditions, attached to status, need and conduct.  The book’s main focus is in on behavioural conditions,  not just about social security but in other areas including social housing and homelessness; it also has a welcome discussion of the ethical issues.

Next is Understanding social security, a third edition edited by Jane Millar and Roy Sainsbury (Policy Press, 2018).  Like the earlier editions, it’s a collection of essays that fill in background information around the system, but it wouldn’t be much use to someone who did want to understand about social security, because doesn’t cover most of the main benefits, client groups or methods of distribution.  It woke up with an essay on ‘everyday life’ on benefits.

Then there are two books on Basic Income.  Malcolm Torry’s Why we need a Citizen’s Basic Income (Policy Press, 2018) is a second edition of Money for Everyone (2014)I think it’s much improved from the earlier edition, which reflects the depth of reading, the widening range of evidence and some practical proposals for how it might be introduced.  My reservations about the argument remain, however; I don’t think we can transfer evidence from countries where people are getting benefit for the first time to justify a scheme which proposes to take benefits away from many people.

The other book on UBI is a collection edited by Amy Downes and Stewart Lansley, It’s Basic Income (Policy Press, 2018).  This at least has some arguments against Basic Income, even if they get rather less treatment that the case for.  By comparison with the massive (and very expensive) anthology of essays collected by Widerquist and his colleagues, it’s rather less authoritative, but it’s accessible and wide-ranging, and it would be a good place for many students to start.   There are lots of gaps in the argument, about distribution, opportunity costs and universal services – Iain Gough’s explosion against the scheme from the Guardian is duplicated here – it would be helpful if some of the advocates addressed them.

I remain resolutely unimpressed by proposals for experiments that can’t possibly tell us what’s going to happen in the course of the next seventy years.  However, as Malcom Torry recognises in his book, we have already had basic income for families with children in Britain for forty years, and we already know  what the practical issues are (it works) and what the incentive effects are (none to speak of).

The fifth book is the bible, so to speak, or something slightly fatter: the new CPAG book, which I had delivered to Fife so I wouldn’t have to carry it back from Poland.  The first page covers the benefit rates, and I had a strong sense of déja vu; I’d seen this somewhere before.  Yes, it was the same as last year.

More evidence (if you needed it) that Universal Credit is failing

It’s not been a good month for Universal Credit.  Hard on the heels of the release of the Full Business Case, there has been a critical report from the National Audit Office and a troubling review of the operation of Universal Credit based on the experience of claimants.  Neither of them shows the system in a good light.  The NAO report casts doubt on the efficiency of service delivery and questions whether any of the claimed advantages of the reform can be realised.  They write:

We cannot be certain that Universal Credit will ever be cheaper to administer than the benefits it replaces.

There is no clear reason to suppose that the system will save money or that fraud and error will be reduced, and the impact on employment  is unknown and unknowable.  The review of the system’s operation finds that the system is complex, difficult to access and the support is inadequate.   Only half the claimants managed to claim without help, and the NAO found that rather less than half managed to get through the verification procedures online.  A quarter of claimants couldn’t submit a claim online at all. There were particular problems for older claimants and people with health conditions.  Then, after claiming. getting on for half the claimants were falling behind on bills or experiencing major difficulties.

One of the points that the NAO picks up on is timeliness in payment.  This little gem offers  the DWP’s reasons for late payments:

2.20  … The Department has told us that the performance had
declined because payment timeliness is sensitive to staff availability. It believes the lower performance can be attributed to:
• poor weather leading to office closures;
• February being a shorter month and therefore incorporating fewer working days to administer payments; and
• the Easter bank holidays.

Who could have guessed that there would be bad weather during the winter, that February would be shorter than other months, or that there would be a bank holiday at Easter?

Depressingly, the NAO  thinks we’re committed – this has gone on too long to be unwound again.  But there were still only 815,000 claimants in March, 325000 of them on ‘live service’ using legacy systems; that means that there are half a million people on full service, when the system is supposed to deal with 8.5 million.  It still makes sense to pause the rollout and fix what can be fixed.

Additional note, 15th June:  This is not so much an additional note as a reminder.  We’re being told, yet again, that Universal Credit was a great idea and everyone liked it.  I first objected to the ideas behind Universal Credit in October 2010, starting on the day that Iain Duncan Smith announced the scheme.  I argued then that the proposal was simplistic and impractical.  “There is no reason to believe that this scheme will increase incentives to work. There is no reason to suppose it will reduce fraud or error – quite the contrary. And there is no real basis for supposing it will make any difference in getting people to work instead. The government’s hopes for the new scheme look like wishful thinking.”  More than eight years later, there’s not a word of that I need to change.

I might add, though, an objection to the silly argument that UC is a success because more people receiving Universal Credit are getting into work while on the benefit.  The Resolution Foundation comments on the basis that 110,000 more people are in work; the DWP says that 200,000 will be.  The NAO has already commented that we can’t know whether this has anything to do with benefits at all, but let’s assume for a moment that it’s true.  This is a scheme intended to cover eight and a half million people (the figure is on page 4 of the  NAO report).  If 200,000 more people work, that covers less than one person in 42.  If it’s 110,000, it’s one person in 77.  For every person who gets more work than before, there are something between 40 and 75 who don’t. Universal Credit is  a scheme that introduces confusion and hardship for  roughly  half of all claimants.  Does it really make sense to make twenty or thirty people suffer to get one of them – just one – into a job? 

If governments seriously wanted to get people into work, it would be cheaper, fairer and easier to make jobs instead.

 

The DWP has published the Full Business Case for Universal Credit.

I have to confess to a weakness for fantasy fiction, but there are times when the willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t come easily.   The DWP’s Full Business Case for UC, Neil Couling’s entry for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, scores well for imagination but lacks conviction.

There’s been a fairly dedicated attempt to avoid direct comparison with the equally unbelievable business case published in 2014.  At that time, the DWP was claiming that  Universal Credit would bring benefits of  £35.9 billion, consisting of  £9.1 bn for reduced worklessness, £21.1 bn in distributional improvements, higher takeup and entitlement, £1.5 bn in reduced fraud and error, £3.7 bn in reduced admin costs,  and £0.5 bn in improved health.  Now the claim is that UC will gain £24.5 bn in people choosing to work more, £10.5 bn in distributional improvements, and £9.1 billion in reduced fraud and error.

We’re being asked to believe that a system that has greatly reduced work allowances, and gets withdrawn much more rapidly than originally envisaged, will do vastly more to get people into work than was claimed last time.  And (given that the error figures have jumped across categories) we’re also supposed to believe that savings on fraud are six times greater than they were before, at a time when all the indications are that UC is more vulnerable to fraud than the previous system was.  What is supposed to make this plausible?

 

Proxy means tests don’t work

A review of the effectiveness of proxy means tests by Brown, Ravallion and van de Walle finds that they are not an effective way of concentrating resources on the poor. The process is simply not accurate enough.

“Standard PMTs help filter out the non-poor, but exclude many poor people, thus diminishing the impact on poverty. … The prevailing methods are particularly deficient in reaching the poorest.  … The most widely-used form of PMT in practice does only slightly better on average than an untargeted universal basic income scheme, in which everyone gets the same transfer, whatever their characteristics. Even under seemingly ideal conditions, the “high-tech” solutions to the targeting problem with imperfect information do not do much better than age-old methods using state-contingent transfers or even simpler basic income schemes.”

Proxy means tests are being used because poor countries just don’t have the quality of information to make fuller assessments work.  As many critics of means testing have pointed out, richer countries don’t have the capacity to do it either.  People’s incomes fluctuate, boundary problems are intrinsic, people don’t understand what should be included and what should not be, and take-up is consistently poor.

There is however one large reservation to make about this study’s findings.  There have to be doubts as to whether any country, rich or poor, really has the capacity to produce the kind of information that detailed quantitative studies of this kind call for.  This study points to the difficulty that any test has in determining whether or not specific individuals are poor.  The standard they use to verify the connections, household consumption, is not absolute proof of poverty; it’s an indicator.  It’s probably more valid than some other indicators, but it isn’t perfect and it is just as difficult to collect as income.  I happen to agree with the paper’s conclusions about proxy means tests, because they happily coincide with my own judgment, but nothing can be supposed to be proved beyond doubt; the core information that the analysis is built on is not good enough, and it cannot be.

A consultation on the claimant count

The DWP has issued a consultation about changes to the claimant count.   Once upon a time, we used to have a count of the numbers of people who were unemployed.  That count was persistently too high, despite a long series of downward revisions.  In the 1980s the government started to use the ‘claimant count’ instead, focusing on benefit receipt and excluding many people who were looking for jobs but who weren’t claiming benefit.  The claimant count series goes back to 1971; it correlates with unemployment figures, but it is usually lower. Now, all too predictably, the claimant count has been rising.  It’s happened because the rules of JSA, ESA and Universal Credit demand that people are treated as looking for work.  The two options in the consultation are both intended to massage the figures so that things don’t look quite so bad.

There is another option, of course.  The ONS already keeps figures from the Labour Froce Survey, which counts unemployment in the terms of the international definition used by the ILO.  The series goes back to 1984, when the government dropped the old count of unemployment.  It has also stopped using the claimant count from its Labour Market Statistics, because it’s meaningless as an economic indicator.   Indicators are not particularly useful when the conditions they’re kept under change.  So why are we using the claimant count at all?

Experiments with Basic Income were never going to settle the arguments

Many advocates of Basic Income will be disappointed at the decision in Finland to discontinue the experiments.  The decision seems to have far more to do with a change in the political climate than with any concern about how Basic Income operates; but moral judgments about rewards or disincentives are not the sort of issue that can be resolved with a proof of concept.

The experiments were always likely to be inconclusive. There are things that tests can show – for example, whether there are issues in the mechanisms of payment – and things they can’t, such as the impact of basic income over a person’s life cycle.  If anyone imagined that two years of Basic Income would resolve arguments about work incentives, they haven’t been paying attention.  In the first place, Basic Income is designed to be neutral as to whether or not people work; in the second place, previous income experiments have generally shown incentive effects to be feeble (and the economists who are convinced there have to be such effects have had to work hard to isolate them).  There’s a more substantial problem.  We know, from the introduction of pensions after 1908, that pensions have materially changed the way that older people engage in the labour market; but we also know that the effects took seventy or eighty years fully to materialise.  What that demonstrates, in economic terms, is that not that labour supply is something that responds directly to economic stimuli, but rather that, over time, the curves are liable to shift, reflecting changing patterns of behaviour, norms, expectations and the economic context.   (Two world wars and a health service might have had something to do with it, too.)   A two year programme can’t possibly replicate or predict such effects.

I’ve not seen any evidence to  support the view that Basic Income materially changes work incentives; while there is reason to think that some people will take the opportunity to disengage from work, there will be others who will be encouraged into casual work or self-employment.   The principal concerns I have about BI are quite different – related to the distributive implications and the relationship to existing benefits.  Those issues won’t clearly be addressed by experiments, either.