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.

Flying a kite: a convertible personal tax allowance

This is a partly-baked idea, based on reform of the Personal Tax Allowance.  It would allow people to take the allowance in cash rather than by setting it against their liability for tax.  The current allowance of £11500 is worth £2300 (that is, 20% of the allowance) to everyone who pays income tax.  If it was possible to convert it to a cash payment, it could benefit many more people.

In round numbers, there are about 65 million people in the United Kingdom.  30 million (24 million people of working age, 6 million pensioners) of them get the personal tax allowance.  For most of these taxpayers, tax and allowances are calculated at source, so the benefit is invisible.  The cost to the Treasury is something in the region of £70 billion.

If 30 million people receive the allowance, 35 million don’t. 15 million of them are 19 or under, so there are roughly 20 million adults (both pensioners and people of working age) who don’t currently get the benefit of the Personal Tax Allowance.  The proposal is simple:  to make it possible for those people to elect to receive the equivalent cash value of the allowance (that is, £2300 pa, just under £200 per month).

The idea may be off the wall, but it’s not outlandish: it asks for nothing better than what is already received by the other 60% of the adult population.  The only net beneficiaries would be people with incomes lower than the tax threshold.  About 6 million of them are people over 65 on lower pensions, 7 million are adults of working age receiving benefits, and the remaining 7 million are either people on low pay or non-workers.  There is no obstacle to people in work receiving the same option – there would be no net cost, apart from the mechanical administration of the payment – but there is no financial advantage for people who are already in receipt of secure incomes to make the switch.

The basic model should be easy to operate.  A tax year runs roughly from April to March.  Records of tax allowances are already kept for everyone with a National Insurance number.  People who wanted to convert their tax allowance into a cash payment would need to make their election in good time before the tax year – the obvious deadline is the time of the submission of tax returns by the end of January.  A person who made that election would then have a tax allowance for the forthcoming year of zero. No further administrative test is necessary.

Many Basic Income schemes have suggested that the Personal Tax Allowance should simply be abolished.  I think it’s important that there should be a choice, for three reasons.  First, PAYE works, and it works for millions of people.  Getting rid of it would complicate people’s lives and breed resentment; it would also more than double the administrative burden.  Second, there are some people, especially self-employed workers, for whom a zero tax allowance would be difficult to manage or live with. Third, choice matters in its own right. If the choice proved popular among workers, it could pave the way for other, more ambitious schemes; we can cross that bridge if we come to it.

This scheme could all get more complicated, but it’s important to avoid that.  Changing back and forth between PAYE and cash payment, week by week or month by month,  would be complicated and could be error-prone.  Disregarding the payment in means-tested benefits would be inequitable, because if the benefit is allocated continuously for at least a tax year, some people would have the payment and others wouldn’t; and if it’s not allocated continuously, there would have to be a complex set of mechanisms to cope. People who owe back tax typically get an adjustment in their tax allowance; if people do not have a full personal tax allowance they should not be eligible.

In principle this scheme could cost up to £46 billion (20 million times £2300), but there are reasons why it wouldn’t.   First, anyone who is currently getting more than the tax threshold in the course of a year already receives the equivalent benefit.  Most people would remain on PAYE – the main reason for electing for a change would be to secure a more stable income.  Most people who become unemployed pass through unemployment: about half the people who drop out of the PAYE system return within six months.  They will typically keep their tax allowance in PAYE.  So not everyone who receives benefits will be getting a converted allowance.  Second, those who earn but are below the tax threshold already receive part of the equivalent benefit.  Third, most important, the cash payment will have to be offset against benefits for about half the relevant population – that is, pensioners and adults of working age on means-tested benefits.  I’m not going to pretend that the interactions with benefits are straightforward – far too many pensioners who are entitled to Pension Credit don’t actually get it – but it should all mean that the net cost is likely to be in the region of half the maximum, something over £20 billion.  That’s still not cheap, but it’s both practical and much less expensive than many alternative proposals that have been canvassed.

This is a proposal, then, for a relatively small, limited benefit that would be unconditional and easy to administer.  It would mainly work in favour of people who are not well protected in the current system: people on unstable incomes, students, people who are not receiving benefits, people with home responsibilities. The argument for a scheme like this is that it would make a difference, not that it would answer every problem.  It would not settle the problems of the benefits system, and it is not big enough to make any very large difference to poverty.  However, money from one source can be mixed together with money from other sources, and a small benefit like this would make sense alongside other benefits.  It would offer a limited but stable source of supplementary income to many people on insecure incomes, and it would offer some support to people who currently have none.  What set me off on this week was a challenge made by Kathy Mohan to Theresa May in the street: “I can’t live on £100 a month”.  She’s right; she can’t.  We need to make sure that part of the benefits system, at least, is stable, secure, guaranteed and permanent.

The cost is the main reservation.  It’s much less than the cost of many Basic Income schemes, and it’s better targeted – getting money to just the people that Basic Incomes are supposed to reach, and doing it without making any of them worse off.  But there is always an opportunity cost.  I’ve not run the figures, but I suspect putting the same money into Child Benefit would have a much greater impact on poverty than this proposal, which offers more to pensioners with moderate incomes, students and women with home responsibility. On the other hand, it probably compares favorably in distributive terms to current proposals for supporting university students and FE, which will cost over £14bn, but have other arguments running for them.  It’s all a question of priorities.  Nor is this the only half-baked scheme I’ve canvassed on this blog.  Think of this as the glimmer of an idea, rather than a personal recommendation.

I also have to admit to a certain apprehension about putting potentially dangerous ideas into the public domain.  One of my first supervisors, Della Nevitt, once scribbled a back of an envelope calculation in the Ministry for Housing and Local Government and it mushroomed into the Rate Rebate,  Rent Rebate and Housing Benefit schemes, the last one in its day described as the greatest administrative fiasco in the history of the welfare state.  I need to think more about this, and it’s possible that other people can see a lurking catastrophe in the idea I’ve not thought about yet.  I’d be grateful for comments.

The new Scottish Social Security Agency

The Scottish Government has published an Outline Business Case for its new Social Security Agency.  They are opting for

a central agency with enhanced phone and online support, which incorporates face-to-face pre-claims and support services locally in existing public sector locations and with assessments undertaken in a manner that is appropriate for policy choices that will be made as the final business case is progressed.

This is not a great surprise, because the Scottish Government has had a long-established preference for working through centralised agencies, and the case for doing this in a rights-based social security system is stronger than it is in fields which depend more heavily on professional judgment or local adaptation.  The Business Case says something about the kind of system they want Scottish social security to be, but the document is still vague about many of the specifics:  who the agency will be run by,  what the new benefits will be, or how the rules will be decided.

Spring, and a new CPAG handbook

April is the cruellest month, marked by the sound of the latest CPAG Welfare Rights Handbook thumping on the doormat.  I scan it every year to see what I’ve missed this time; I realise to my horror that this must be the fortieth year I’ve been doing this for.  In 1978, the National Welfare Benefits Handbook  had 103 pages, and the Guide to Contributory Benefits and Child Benefit  had 80.  The current edition of the handbook has 1,756.  I know less every year.

The main changes this year were telegraphed some time ago:

  • denying key benefits to the third child (the notorious rape clause is a by-product of that)
  • confining bereavement benefits to 18 months – ending one of the remaining strands of the Beveridge system
  • closing down class 2 National Insurance contributions – unpicking another part of the legacy
  • reducing support for people with long-term sickness to the level of the (short-term) JSA: this is a final reversal of a bipartisan policy to recognise long-term disadvantage, adopted with the introduction of Invalidity Benefit in 1971.

Most other changes are continuations of previous policies:

  • shifting new claims for several benefits to Universal Credit
  • closing down DLA for people of working age, so as to transfer people to PIP – the process should be complete by next year, and
  • the gradual introduction of entitlement under the new State Pension.

It’s only in the field of pensions that it’s possible to identify any real improvements in the system in the course of the last 10 years; but  that is not negligible, because it’s the largest single element in the benefits systems.

The Irish Department of Social Protection is clamping down on people with false beards

There are times when the surreal breaks through the curtain to engulf our dull grey world, and a note from Ireland gives me the sense that another such moment is upon us.  A new fraud initiative based on facial identification promises to cut off the presumably lucrative trade in disguises and false beards.  According to the Irish Independent, the minister for Social Protection has reassured an apprehensive public that “Welfare cheats using make-up and fake beards to get benefits won’t beat the ID software.”  That must be a relief.  I do not know how many cases there have been of theatrical imposture undermining the integrity of Irish benefits, but given the expense of introducing such a system I am sure the threat must have been substantial.

New research: listening to social security officers

For the last three months, I’ve been working with Helen Flanagan of PCS to listen to the voices of social security officers about the social security system.  PCS is the civil service union representing people working for the DWP, HMRC and others.  Helen’s explanation of the work can be seen here, but it will be mid-May before we’re able to publish the findings in detail.  Yesterday’s meeting made liberal use of the things said by DWP officers, in three contexts: a pamphlet issued by PCS on the Future of Social Security in Scotland, a film by Jennifer Jones, and initial findings from our report – we still have statements from fifty or more people to process.

This is from Helen’s summary.

  • Over 200 staff have participated so far, in their own time, from a range of DWP workplaces in Scotland.
  • Discussions were not limited to the devolved powers, we wanted input on policy, structure, working conditions, the experience of service uses, and what goes wrong with service delivery.
  • What we have with DWP is a system in chaos: the constant change and reorganisation of work, with inadequate staffing levels, poor training and failing off-the-shelf IT systems.
  • What we have also found is a real desire from staff in DWP to be able to serve people better, and for a system that treats those applying for help with humanity.

And, although I can’t really do justice to the range of issues, or the sincerity of people’s voices, in a short soundbite, let me pick out a couple of things that people have told us:

Really senior leaders are saying that we’ve never gone through the scale of these changes, but then on the other hand, things are just pushed through without planning. They expect staff to be ‘calm amongst the madness’, but then staff are then  hit about the head by management if they don’t adapt to the changes properly.

Segmentation plays a big part in bad service. Cases bounce about. It’s really difficult to embed with it or own it yourself. You can’t take ownership of anything.

The current robotic system fails to take much notice of the human factor and the fact we are dealing with real people

Morale is appalling. The deskilling that goes on in this place is appalling. I … was no more skilled than anyone else when I came in. All the changes that have come in over that time, I’ve had skills and training, but they’ve picked away at all that specialisation and skill, so you’re demoralised and run down. You have to put you in menial tasks and deal with small stuff rather than deal with proper work.

P.S: This was my 800th posting on the blog.

 

Benefit administration: some lessons from the United States

The UK may have some claim to distinction in its efforts to transform the benefits system, but we are not alone.  In the United States, revisions to health care have been taken as a stimulus to States to introduce new computer systems that will solve all the problems, typically covering Medicaid (health care for people on low incomes), food stamps and other benefits such as help with maternity.  Kentucky was early off the blocks: they hired Deloitte Consulting to introduce a new system.  50,000 people suffered ‘massive disruption.’  The Kentucky Courier-Journal reported:

“State workers, bewildered by the complicated new Benefind system, find themselves obstructed from helping many clients by errors, glitches and programming flaws.”

When Deloitte moved on to their next big contract with Rhode Island, covering 30,000 people a month, they were determined not to repeat the same mistakes.  A spokeswoman explained to the Providence Journal in Rhode Island:

“The design, development, testing and implementation of this new system is unique to Rhode Island and the people we serve. Kentucky used a different approach on all of these things.”

Instead, they found new ones to make. The Governor of Rhode Island complained that

“We paid them a lot of money, we didn’t get what we paid for. And they represented to us that it was in much better shape than in fact it was: defective functionality, incomplete interfaces, engines that still aren’t working.”

The formal  Assessment of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project  (it’s quite short, and worth reading) reports that

  • the IT system was not functioning properly
  • despite reassurances from the contractor, the system was not ready to go live when it did
  • too much was taken on trust because of the contractor’s experience in industry
  • staff had not been properly trained
  • “Basic user functionality and important interfaces … have significant defects or have been deferred, requiring extensive manual workaround processes”
  • benefits were not processed when they should be, and not withdrawn when entitlement had ceased; there were “errors in eligibility determination, benefits issuance, and
    provider payments”.

To those engaged in Universal Credit, it all looks eerily familiar.

Nothing daunted, Deloitte is now engaged in an even bigger project, providing a new system for income testing and assessment for the state of Georgia, expected to cover three million people.  A spokeswoman for Georgia’s Department of Human Services has reassured Georgia Health News that “We had the benefit of watching other states.”   As do we.

John Slater explains the thinking behind the project management of Universal Credit

John Slater has been responsible for a series of Freedom of Information requests about the Universal Credit fiasco.  Yesterday he sent me a copy of the project management plan  introduced by Howard Shiplee, who was responsible for the development of Universal Credit from May 2013 until his departure, following illness, in September 2014.  Shiplee had previously been responsible for building construction for the 2012 Olympic Games.

I was puzzled by the plan, and wrote back to John:

I’m baffled – I can see no relationship between the steps to be taken and the design of a social security system. It looks more like a plan for building a McDonalds outlet, where all the groundwork’s laid and you know exactly what you want to do, so it’s all about delegating tasks. … I think you’re a project manager, John – – can you explain it to me?

I found John’s response so marvellously clear and helpful that I asked him if I could share it on the blog.  Here it is.

“Hi Paul,

You are right my background is programme and project management (my first degree was IT so I understand that aspect as well). You aren’t far off with your McDonalds analogy.

The plan is a classic case of an organisation focusing on the IT side of a major change programme. UC is one of the biggest change programme ever undertaken and nothing I’ve ever seen produced by the DWP reflects this.

The 100 day plan is a classic example of people that have been on a training course (e.g. Prince2 or Management Successful Programmes) but have never done the job for real. If you look down the left hand side of the ‘plan’ you’ll see the following headings:

  1. Key dates & decisions
  2. BT – Business (I suspect BT means business transformation)
  3. BT – Service Design & Build (I suspect BT means business transformation)
  4. BT Interfaces (I suspect BT means business transformation)
  5. Pathfinder Day 2
  6. Programme Approach
  7. HR
  8. Finance
  9. Assurance
  10. Security
  11. Comms (Communications)
  12. Stakeholder
  13. Supplier

With the exception of point 1 these are typically referred to a work streams. The idea is that each of the workstreams goes along their merry way cooperating with each other to deliver the programme. The reality of this approach with any complex programme is that it always goes horribly wrong.

If you look at points 2 to 5 then it is utterly focused on the IT. The plan looks like something to produce a software product of some sort. There is no mention of culture change, process engineering (this should be done before any software is produced) and the biggest issue of all people! This covers the claimants, DWP employees, Council Employees, Welfare Advisors and so on. They are just expected to magically learn and make it work. The trouble is human beings don’t work that way.

Part of the issue is that the DWP employees working on UC at the time hadn’t ever done anything like this before so didn’t have a clue. The put people in roles (e.g. programme manager, programme office manager etc) but they hadn’t done it before and had just been sent on a training course.

I’ve been doing this stuff for 30 years and I would have struggled to get UC up and running (and I’m very good at this aspect of complex programmes). Bringing in someone like Howard Shiplee was always going to fail. I’ve run programmes involving a lot of construction and it’s a different world and a totally different mindset. I suspect if you looked at the approach used for construction during the London Olympic build it wouldn’t look dissimilar to this plan. With construction the focus is generally on design and then build (known as D&B). The key factor is the supply chain and can the main contractor get the materials and people on site on time and in the right order. If you look at the plan again I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see the left hand side of the dark vertical as ‘design’ and the right hand side as ‘build’. This is what Howard Shiplee understood and it was so deeply ingrained I doubt he could have done anything else.

In respect of the pathfinder system released at Wigan it was a cobbled together lobotomised version of the IT that would ultimately be required for the complete UC. At this stage of the programme IDS knew the IT was fundamentally flawed, hence the talk of large sums being written off at the time. He also knew that they had to start over again but couldn’t admit that as it would be politically disastrous. Therefore, they rolled out the lobotomised version that only covered a small subset of people claiming JSA and claimed success. While this version was being rolled out painfully slowly the DWP was working desperately to produce a brain new IT system that ultimately will be the UC IT System.

Personally I think the new IT system will also fail. The methodology (Agile) as it’s been used by the DWP means that too much has been done in isolation. The system is going to be extremely complex and as bugs appear I’m not convinced the DWP will be able to find out the cause and then develop a solution that doesn’t result and another problem.

Kind Regards

John”

 

A debate on Universal Basic Income

From one point of view, I ‘won’ a debate in the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference on Tuesday, when I was sounding a sceptical note about the idea of Universal Basic Income.  After hearing the arguments, people were much more critical of the idea.  There’s a short (and not very balanced) report on a CIH blog here.   If you read it, you might get the impression I had swayed people with my fiery rhetoric and compelling oratorical powers.  But the truth is that the case was largely won for me before I opened my mouth.  At the outset the CIH Chair asked people to vote electronically.  The first question was whether or not people were generally in favour of the idea; 75%, of an audience of about 200 said they were.  Then he asked if they would still support it if they had to pay more in tax, and approval fell to 51%.   Laughter in the hall.  Job done.

Reforming PIP

The Government’s proposals for the reform of PIP make for curious reading.  The DWP press release explains that the purpose of the proposals “is to restore the original intention of the benefit which has been expanded by the legal judgments.”  The fullest account of the rationale for the policy is however given in the Equality Analysis, which covers the detailed arguments without saying much about equalities.

The problem that the proposals are supposedly addressing is that a couple of legal decisions have accepted that people with a range of disabilities might reasonably be said to qualify for support under the rules as passed.  Those disabilities mainly relate to people who have to manage a medical condition or therapy, which is expressly provided for in they regulations, and people who suffer from mental disorders that interfere with their capacity to travel.   The responsible minister has explained that

The Government continually monitors the effectiveness of PIP to ensure it is delivering its original policy intent and supporting those who face the greatest barriers to leading independent lives. Two recent Upper Tribunal judgments have broadened the way the PIP assessment criteria should be interpreted, going beyond the original intention.

The Equality Analysis goes into more detail about the apparent intention.

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.

The analysis argues that  the tribunals’ interpretations of the points schemes go further than the DWP intended.

There are three problems with this account.  The first is the question of what PIP is supposed to be about.  If PIP is really supposed to be an extra cost benefit, it makes little sense to offer it without reference to people’s ability to pay.  The truth is that when the non-means tested benefits were introduced, they had a very different objective.  The Disablement Income Group had been campaigning for a recognition that the incomes of people with disabilities were consistently lower than for others.  Alf Morris explained, in Parliament (10th and 15th Jul, 1970):

“It is not only a question of finance we are discussing, but also the dignity of disabled people. … This provision must be seen as only part – a very minor part – of an entirely new financial deal for the severely disabled. … This is only one stage towards improving the financial status, and therefore the dignity, of every one of our severely disabled fellow citizens.”

The point of the non-means tested benefits was to introduce a   general income supplement, recognising that the incomes of people with disabilities were consistently lower than for others.

The second problem lies in using an assessment of functional activity as the basis of an assessment of costs.  This makes no sense – and the Equality Analysis explicitly acknowledges that it doesn’t work.  Testing people’s activities is “a proxy for their overall need”, but then it goes to explain that assessing costs is not practical:  “it would not only lead to inconsistent outcomes but would also be expensive and difficult to administer.”  If there was a direct relationship between need and cost, this would not be true – and the outcomes wouldn’t be inconsistent.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t such a relationship, or at least not one at the level there would need to be to make it the basis of an individual assessment.

The third problem concerns the Government’s intention.  It’s clear that the Government thought that introducing PIP would save money, and that the benefit would be more restrictive than the Disability Living Allowance.  I challenged that assumption more than four years ago, when I wrote this:

the target is a reduction of 600,000 people taken off benefit by 2018. I am not sure how a cut in numbers of that size is supposed to be achieved, but it is most probably made up of three elements: people who will lose the lower rate for the care component, people who fail to turn up for assessment, and people whose conditions have improved sufficiently not to qualify. (There is a fourth element, which is the attempt to individualise assessments more closely – blind people, for example, will no longer qualify automatically for higher rate mobility – but that can work both ways.)

On general principles, I think the predictions are likely to be wrong. The common experience of selective benefits has been that when governments try to impose firmer boundaries, they are liable to discover that needs are deeper, more complex and more difficult to reject than they imagine. The distinction between the lower and middle care rates on DLA has always been confusing, and many people can argue persuasively for higher banding. There are new opportunities to include people with psychiatric disorders. And the PIP rules do not exclude the growing numbers of older people claiming DLA.  Short term reductions have to be offset against the general trend, and as time goes on, inexorably, there will be pressure to extend protection. That happened with Single Payments, it happened with Incapacity Benefit, it has happened with DLA, and it will probably happen here, too.

And so it has proved.

Basic Income continued

It’s a problem with social media that there are so many ways to respond, so people following this blog won’t necessarily get to see the comments that people make on Twitter and in other ways.  Some of the criticisms that people made yesterday were directed at my Evil Assertion that the best way to deal with the loss of jobs was to make jobs.  Another  person challenged my argument that Basic Income wouldn’t leave poorer people better off if it got knocked off their benefits – we’ve seen this before, because it’s what used to happen to Child Benefit.  “I’d like to see Professor Spicker’s basic income proposals that leave poor people no better off, as I have seen none-such that do that.”  So here are a few.

Reed and Lansley, authors of the Compass schemes, do their best to hold losers to the minimum (7% of the second income decile for their Scheme 1, while about a third are no better off.) They explain:

“it is not possible to design a scheme that is revenue neutral, pays a decent sum and withdraws most means-tested benefits without significant numbers of losers.”

Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizens Income Trust, and the author of a clutch of recent books on Basic Income.  He has produced three schemes for the CIT, labelled A, B and C. (The RSA scheme is also based on the CIT models.) He acknowledges that there will be losers:

“A feasible way to implement a Citizen’s Income showed that in 2012/13 a Citizen’s Income of £71 per week (with less for children and young people, and more for elderly people) could have been largely funded … but that at the point of implementation such a scheme would have imposed losses of over 10% of disposable income on 21.12% of low-income households (defined here as households in the lowest disposable income decile). … In relation to schemes A and C, while it is true that the high losses imposed on households at the point of implementation are the result of the complexity of the current tax and benefits scheme, and not of the Citizen’s Incomes, such losses would make the schemes impossible to implement.”

Scheme A would leave 28% of the lowest paid households worse off by more than 10% of current income, Scheme C would leave 29% worse off. Scheme B is the one that leaves existing benefits in place, and takes BI off them; while scheme B largely avoids losers, the poorest who currently receive benefits will remain in the means tested system.

That’s six schemes so far. Neither Reform Scotland nor the Green scheme do the same kind of modelling, but while they aim to be more generous, which is one of the ways of reducing dependence on means-testing, both abolish Tax Credits. There will be losers as well as gainers.