Universal Credit leaves more people destitute

How to bring the Brexit negotiations to a conclusion

There are several possible conclusions of the Brexit negotiations.  This could all could finish with no deal, or with acceptance of the deal that Parliament has already objected to.  A second referendum might even finish with the UK deciding to stay in the EU, but that is unlikely.

The fundamental problem with the existing offer is a simple one:  it is incomplete.  Article 50 made provision for both a withdrawal agreement and an agreement about the future relationship.  The second part is missing.  There is a “political declaration”, but there isn’t a legally binding agreement about the future.  And that’s why the withdrawal agreement had to come with a ‘backstop’.  The backstop is only necessary because nothing has been firmly decided about the future.

We arrived at this situation through a combination of ill-considered procedural decisions.   The EU should not have insisted on postponing discussion of the future relationship until after the withdrawal agreement had been negotiated; that was inconsistent with its treaty obligations.  The UK government should not have consented to the timetable.  Nevertheless, that is what happened.  The way out of the dilemma now is to conclude the unfinished decisions about the future – in other words, negotiating the trade agreement that should have been on the table two years ago.

It might not be possible to make this agreement in the remaining time; that argues for an extension of the notice period.   But a final agreement would not require anyone to revisit the withdrawal agreement, it would have the advantage of saving face for both the EU and the UK government, and it would avoid a situation which none of the parties wants.

A levy on workplace car parking is a bad idea

As part of the price for the cooperation of the Green Party in the Scottish parliament, the Scottish Government has agreed to give local authorities the power to introduce a levy on workplace car parks.  “Plans to give powers to councils to introduce a workplace parking levy, as already allowed in England, will come forward via an agreed Green Party amendment to the Transport (Scotland) Bill. ”  This is intended to reduce the numbers of people who travel to work by car.  It’s been tested in Nottingham, where it’s been claimed to reduce congestion and raise revenue.

Both of those claims may be true, but it’s still a rotten idea.  It falls into the same category as a raft of proposals, and sometimes actual policies, which try to regulate behaviour by using price as the main lever.  Policies of this type have often been favored by market economists, because the most basic economics courses tell us that the way to reduce demand is to raise the price until the market is cleared.  There have been loads of suggestions about policies where the same principle could be applied:  they include congestion charges, road pricing, charges for GPs, water metering, and charges for rubbish collection by weight.  (Often they go hand in hand with some kind of gee-whiz technology that just happens to be sold by the companies that are pressing for the policy, but that’s not the main issue here.)

The key objections to rationing by price are threefold.  First, the demand for any activity depends on the resources that people have, and the people whose behaviour are most likely to be affected are those on the lowest incomes.   Almost by definition, people on lower income have to be more sensitive to marginal cost than people on higher incomes can be –  and the introduction of a flat-rate levy takes far more from the incomes of lower paid workers than it does for higher paid workers.  It’s important to consider for any policy what the distributive implications are. Second, it’s essential to understand what the effect on behaviour might be, and changing the price of an activity is a blunt instrument.  Some substitutions may be desirable – such as cycling to work instead – but it can lead to people substituting different, less desirable  behaviours instead – for example, parking on residential streets instead, driving more and longer while looking for parking places, absenteeism or resignation.  Third, it may conflict with other policies – recruiting specialist staff such as nurses and teachers, encouraging people to take up work at a distance, getting people to take longer hours by flexible employment practices.

I’ve argued before on this blog that there is a wide range of rationing measures, and rationing by price is markedly inferior to some of the alternatives.  None of that means that rationing by price is never appropriate – there may be exceptions (reducing the demand for cigarettes by price could be one) – but it does mean that it’s hard to justify, and there are usually better ways to achieve the ends.   Before penalising people for turning up to work, try some of the alternatives: encouraging collective transport such as employer-funded buses; provide rail season tickets and bus passes; tilt the balance towards remote working; tie site development planning to transport provision.  It’s odd to see the Green Party advocating a set of market-driven measures that would sit more comfortably with the Institute for Economic Affairs than they do with the people-centred economic policies that the Greens claim to support.

 

Brexit is set to deprive UK citizens of basic rights

I’ve repeatedly argued in this blog that trade with the EU is not the main issue: social rights are.  I wrote before the referendum that

If the UK leaves, UK citizens will lose their rights as European citizens. Those rights include rights to representation within the EU, the right to move and live freely throughout the EU, reciprocal rights to public services, and consular and diplomatic protection from other EU countries when outside Europe. There is something deeply flawed about a process that claims to be democratic but implies that a majority decision would deprive a minority of their rights.

Last March, the House of Commons passed this motion:

this House supports the maintenance of European Union citizenship rights for Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English citizens, notes that the range of rights and protections afforded to individuals as European Union citizens are integral to a person’s European identity; further notes that many of those rights are closely linked to the UK’s membership of the Single Market; and calls on the UK Government to ensure that the UK’s membership of the Single Market and UK citizens’ right to European Union citizenship are retained in the event that the UK leaves the EU.

Yesterday, despite that, it emerged that if Britain leaves the EU without an agreement, reciprocal arrangements for  health insurance will be withdrawn from UK citizens living in other European countries.  None of the main protagonists in the Brexit debate is focusing on the things that really matter.

 

The Social Security Charter promises a different kind of service

There are a couple of days left to comment on the draft Scottish Social Security Charter, but I’m not going to do that, for a simple reason: it’s excellent, and I have no criticism to make.  I’m going to pick out just five points:

  • the Charter promises that the agency will listen to people and to trust them.  There is long-standing evidence that threatening people with prosecution during the process of claiming is simply destructive.
  • the Charter promises that the agency will learn from its mistakes.  I commented during the passage of the Bill that while the UK system treats complaints, rectification and review as a quasi-judicial, adversarial process, “other public services attempt to learn from complaints and use them as feedback to improve their processes.”  They’re on it.
  • Payments will continue while people are appealing a decision.  In the UK system, penalties are routinely imposed without a hearing.
  • People will be told about their entitlements, including services delivered by other agencies. 
  • People will not have their time wasted.  They promise to “recognise that your time is precious and handle your application and enquiries as quickly as we can.”

This may be a challenge, but can anyone spot the difference between this and the DWP?

PIP is costing more than DLA did. Why is the OBR surprised?

Personal Independence Payment has proved to be more costly than the system it replaced.  If only we had realised, the Office for Budget Responsibility complains, we shouldn’t have accepted that PIP would deliver the savings that the DWP was predicting.

“At the time of its use in our December 2012 forecast, the results from [the DWP survey] appeared the best available guide to the assessment process. But hindsight has revealed several issues with the nature and use of the results …  including: the voluntary nature of participation; the hypothetical nature of the assessment; subsequent changes to assessment criteria; and a sample that was unlikely to be representative of new PIP claims. It is now clear that the results were biased rather than merely uncertain.”

Among the excuses, the OBR notes that the forecasts are subject to changes in the composition of the population which is making claims, legal challenges about the scope of the benefit, and changes in the way that benefits are delivered.

Oh, my: who’d have thought it?  Well, as it happens, I did.  I wrote in this blog on 15th December 2012:

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.

 

A second referendum is not the way out of this mess

If there is a second referendum, there is no good reason to suppose that it will deliver the result that remainers hope for.  I’m basing that view not on opinion polls, but on some old-fashioned political science.  There is no such thing as ‘the will of the people’.  What there is, instead, is a mish-mash of different opinions.  Some people voted ‘leave’ because they were unhappy with the EU; some because they were opposed to immigration; some because they were against capitalism; some because they wanted to return to the 1950s; some because they wanted to give the government a kicking.  Some people voted remain because they like the EU; some because of self-interest; some to avoid disruption; some because of their judgment about the economy; and so on.  Lies or fear may have played a part, on either side, but that’s not decisive; nor is the fact that some people will feel empowered to vote leave, or that other people will strain themselves to get a different result this time.  The more complex an issue is, the more likely it becomes that people with different motivations and preferences will cancel each other out, and the closer the result moves to what you’d expect from a random distribution – a 50-50 split.

Once we start from that position, the result is statistically likely to be decided by a relatively small group of people with a strong, settled opinion, if there is no equivalent group on the other side to oppose them.  The source of this argument is L Penrose, The elementary statistics of majority voting, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 1946.    Bartholomew and Bassett wrote, in Let’s look at the figures, that  “2,000 resolute voters in a population of just over one million can almost always get their way.”   (p 125)  And that’s what happened in 2016.   (There might well have been an equivalent group on the other side – Britons in Europe – but they were largely barred from taking part.)     It’s not the polls that count; it’s the mechanism by which the issue is to be decided.  And without very strong reasons to the contrary, we should expect the same mechanisms and the same process to produce the same result.

Monthly assessments for Universal Credit aren’t working

The High Court judgment on Universal Credit payments has implications beyond the immediate issues.  It condemns the DWP for simply following through an automated process for income testing rather than considering the actual circumstances of the claimants – in this case, the early payment of monthly salary.

When the idea of making assessments in ‘real time’ was first mooted, in 2010, I was critical of the idea.  In the course of the last eight years – yes, it’s that long – I’ve posted a range of comments about the effect of assessing income on the basis of the current month.   I’ve just been reading through my old posts to make a list:

  • it deals with uncertain information
  • it requires the system to process information that it doesn’t have  access to
  • it deals with information from diffuse sources
  • it’s not applicable to the circumstances of self-employed people
  • it puts claimants into default when things go wrong
  • the system can’t cope with irregularities in the calendar, like bank holidays or Februaries
  • it provides an income that is fluctuating, unstable and unpredictable.

To this, we can now add another point: mechanical calculation yields arbitrary and unreasonable results.

Surely, people in favour of means-testing might reasonably ask, there’s no real difference in principle between monthly assessment and the assessments we used to have?  That may be true.  Many of the problems we’re seeing are problems that we’ve known about for years.  They include:

  •  the problem of offering fluctuating incomes to people on very low incomes – a system, the Ombudsman commented about Tax Credits, fundamentally unsuited to the needs of low income families
  • the problems caused by tapers, which mean that people can’t tell when they’re entitled to benefits and when they aren’t
  • the problems posed by changes of circumstances, and
  • the devasting effect when changing entitlement to one benefit (such as Income Support) spills over into suspension or recalculaltion of another (such as Housing Benefit) .

Universal Credit, I’ve previously written, “brings together every major feature that has caused administrative meltdown in the course of the last forty years … It is as if the designers had painstakingly identified all of the elements of the benefit system that are known not to work and built the new benefit around them.”

 

The ‘rethink’ of Universal Credit doesn’t go very far

A couple of recent announcements suggest that planning Universal Credit has been subject to a “rethink“.  The actual changes amount to something less than that.  There is a delay in the rollout, which will affect those people currently being transferred from existing legacy benefits.  The largest group of people affected by the decision are those who are currently on Employment and Support Allowance, because that is the largest group of people of working age who receive benefits for longer periods.  Most people who were unemployed and in receipt of JSA have already been transferred, and anyone who signs off benefits and then needs to make a claim will have to claim through the Universal Credit.  Amber Rudd has said that even with the ‘pause’, the numbers of people receiving Universal Credit is expected to grow to three million in the normal course of events – more than double the existing figure.

The other major change has been the revision to the two-child policy, which limits support to the first two children.  That does not mean that two children will get fed when the third doesn’t; it means that every child in a larger family gets less support, and that is why the policy is exepcted to have such a large effect on child poverty.  The change is confined to children born before April 2017, which is why it will only benefit 15,000 families.

The treatment of Universal ‘Credit in the press has become increasingly critical, but I’m not sure that most have yet appreciated just how deep the hole is.  It doesn’t help that benefits are paid monthly, that it expects people to be online, or that strict and lengthy penalties are being applied for non-compliance, and the idea that people with no other income can have their benefits stopped for 5 weeks or more is simply outrageous.  Any of those could be stopped in short order. That would still leave us with all the other problems with the scheme.  MPs are well aware of those problems – their constituency surgeries are inundated with them.  The government is trying to offer enough tweaks to defuse the discontent.  It will take more than a few tweaks.

The NHS long-term plan for England is not really a ‘plan’

I’ve not been close to work with the NHS for some years, and I’ve been away from England rather longer; but I think I know what a plan looks like, and the NHS Long Term Plan isn’t it.  The supposed plan is a long, rambling shopping list, lacking in structure, priorities or the means of achieving any aspirations people might have.  It’s all very well to say that the service will “dissolve the divide between primary and community health services”, or that people will have “more personalised health care when they need it”, but we need to know why, how, and how we will know if it’s happened.

One of the implications of the lack of structure is that there will be no way to tell whether or not this document has made any difference.  Being told, in bold lettering,  that “The health  service will continue to support implementation and delivery of the government’s new five-year action plan on Antimicrobial Resistance” or that “every trust in England with a maternity and neonatal service will be part of the National Maternal and Neonatal Health Safety Collaborative” tells us nothing at all – and if those objectives aren’t achieved, the gaps will be covered up by the rubble from hundreds of other equivalent objectives which might be achieved on the whole, or in part, or not at all.    The problem with long lists of policies,  Aaron Wildavsky wrote in Speaking truth to power,  is that they become a way of burying the things that don’t get achieved – “mechanisms for avoiding rather than making choices”.  The NHS Long Term Plan doesn’t identify problems, aims, methods, process, outcomes, or how to get value for money.  That doesn’t inspire confidence for the future.