Labour: time to rethink benefits policy

The Labour party – or, to be more accurate, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor – has now come slowly to the conclusion that Universal Credit doesn’t work: it is not sustainable and it “will have to go”.   An article last month in the New Statesman blamed  the state of Labour’s policy on social security on the lack of vigour shown by their previous social security representative, which left them with no spending plans to pay for changes in policy.  The problems run much deeper.

A large part of UC is a legacy of ‘welfare reform’ in the last Labour government: the belief in ‘personalisation’, the dependence on means-testing in Tax Credits,  the policies on overpayments, and most of all the muddle between the role of benefits and the task of preparing some people for work.   The last Labour manifesto, in 2017, didn’t challenge any of that. They included a clutch of measures to switch the system back to what it was a short time ago – sanctions, the bedroom tax,  Housing Benefit cuts and the like.  Then there were tweaks to make disability benefits and UC work a bit better.  And there were a few aspirations, such as improving the culture or removing barriers for people with disabilities, which weren’t tied to specific policies at all.  The shift in relation to UC is a welcome move in the right direction, but Labour needs to think rather more thoroughly and deeply about what social security is for and how it might be changed.

The Scottish Government can’t mitigate all the effects of ‘welfare reform’

In the comments to my previous post, Ian Davidson drew attention to the Scottish Government’s report on ‘mitigating’ the effects of welfare reform.  It’s beyond the scope of the SG; they lack the powers and the resources.  I was asked by Common Weal journalist David Jamieson  yesterday to pick out a couple of leading issues, and I couldn’t oblige: my comment was that every one of the issues was a tragedy for the people affected, and that’s pretty much what he ran with.   His report is here.

I’m privileged to have perceptive, well-informed comments to the blog – thank you all.

 

Social Security Scotland lays out its stall

The Corporate Plan published by the new agency, Social Security Scotland, is brimming with good intentions.  Under the agency’s name is the motto: dignity, fairness and  respect.  The key to this rests in how the agency deals with mistakes, and there will be mistakes: introducing complex systems for people with complex problems to resolve makes that inevitable.  There are some good signs: a commitment to resolving issues “resolved quickly and at the point of contact”, listening, and ‘continuous improvement’, using feedback to improve the quality of services.  The problem, however, rests in a bitter legacy of conflictual, adversarial approaches to managing agency mistakes.  Several elements of the new system create hurdles to overcome:  mandatory ‘re-determination’ (the decision should have been checked anyway on first complaint), referral out to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (another hurdle), and heavy reliance on the appeals structure.  This may all work work against speedy and effective resolution.

Thinking collectively

Deadline day, and I’ve just sent off the final script of my next book to the publisher; it will be my nineteenth.  Barring catastrophes, Thinking Collectively: social policy, collective action and the common good will be out next spring from Policy Press.  (My original title was, “The Common Weal”, but the publisher didn’t think that would make sense to people outside of Scotland.)  In Reclaiming Individualism, I made a case for social and government action in order to protect and enhance the conditions of individuals. Thinking collectively comes from a different direction, looking at the issues from the perspective of groups, communities and the wider society.  As often happens, I’ve had to develop my own framework and approach because most of the existing literature doesn’t do what’s needed.

Writing books, of course, gets you nowhere.  Academic institutions like to give the impression  that they want people to publish, but they don’t really – publications are way down the list of priorities, and books aren’t taken seriously anyway.  My advice to young academics: don’t do what I did.

 

 

Social care has deeper problems than migration

The Migration Advisory Committeee’s report on migration is mainly focused on economic impacts.  It stresses that much of the concern about migration is misplaced, simply because immigration does not have that much effect on the underlying structures.   The rather dismissive comments made about Scotland’s pleas for more migration rather misses the point.  The issue is not about how the Scottish economy is performing proportionately to England; it’s about managing the effects of depopulation across a vast geographical area.

There was another set of comments, however, that set me off on a different tangent.  This concerns the problems of social care.  The MAC report notes:

Social care is a sector that struggles to recruit and retain workers which is a cause for concern as demand is rising inexorably. Its underlying problem is a failure to find a funding policy that allows the payment of higher wages.

That’s half right.  There is major problem in finding the labour to provide social care, and low pay is part of the problem.  Polly Toynbee has some cutting things to say about this, to great effect.  But the problem runs much deeper than that.  The issues are also about what kind of provision  is being made.  Social care has developed on a market model that attempts to commodify the time that carers spend with the people being cared for.  So, we get people being given a series of time slots – 15 minutes, 30 minutes or the like – which are met ‘flexibly’ by workers on a rota.  The poor conditions experienced by workers are not just a matter of low pay: it’s also that working on these terms, flitting from one slot to the next, is not a good  way to work.

More importantly, the whole approach is bad for service users.   Personal services depend on personal relationships.  It matters whether or not the person who comes to care is the same person as it was last time, if that person can recognise that the person they’re looking after is having a worse time than before, if that person knows what to do in different circumstances,  has time to talk,  is trusted by the person who’s being cared for, and so on.  A commodified, time-limited approach simply doesn’t fit most people’s needs.  Even if we improve pay, conditions and the numbers of people engaged in care, this is the wrong model, and the wrong way to do things.

Discussions of Universal Basic Income

I’ve written several background papers for a series of seminars on Universal Basic Income, and the first of them has been put online by Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland.   The series will include specific discussions about employment, rights and equalities, housing,  care and implementation; I was asked to do papers for three of them (rights, housing and care).  (The seminar series is organised by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute at Strathclyde University; details are available on request.)  In due course, after the seminars are finished, I’ll be revising the papers for an integrated presentation.

I’m still sceptical.  While I’ve always been sympathetic to arguments for more universal benefits and services, there are lots of key problems that need to be thought through before a scheme could be introduced.  Too many of the published schemes either wave those problems aside or try to manage them by making poor people worse off.  As things stand, the best possible schemes would not offer anything like an adequate, secure income.

The problems of Universal Credit aren’t just about transition

I looked at the report of the Resolution Foundation on Universal Credit when it came out, but wasn’t particularly excited by it.  It seems to say that the system can still be made to work given time and effort, and I’m not convinced that it can.  I referred to a number of the “teething” problems, so-called, in a previous post: they included

  • the difficulties people have in making digital claims
  • the lack of reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities
  • requiring claimants to make claims in order to migrate, and using mistakes or omissions as a reason to demand  fresh claims
  • insufficient levels of ‘universal support’
  • obstacles to cooperation with welfare rights advisers
  • the DWP’s apparent inability to engage with the process by which claimants report changes, the electronic ‘journal’, and
  • the inappropriate use of sanctions.

But there are many more problems, where the system simply cannot operate as intended.  Those include

  • the muddled system for verification, which cannot be done online
  • the demand for instant assessment, rather than basing claims on previous, known income
  • the unpredictability of a system where entitlements can be revised at short notice before payment date
  • the use of individuated payment dates
  • the lack of effective coordination with taxation
  • the confused treatment of self-employed people
  • the alterations to work allowances, which mean among other things that contact will no longer be maintained
  • the effect of fluctuating entitlement on household management, particular evident in the treatment of rent
  • the impact of the system on housing finance, and
  • arrangements for transition that  lead to major income loss.

Beyond that, in terms of the overall design of the benefit, there are several systemic flaws:

  • the complex means test
  • the reliance on digital systems
  • the reliance on immediate access to information that people cannot know about
  • the high taper rates
  • the failure to individuate claims
  • the lack of flexibility, and
  • the central confusion about employment and job-seeking – once the system is fully rolled out, most claimants on Universal Credit will not be seeking work.

The operational problems are all difficult, requiring a rethink of policy and administration to make the system work .  However, even if they were all to be resolved, the fundamental defects in the system would remain.

Peru has provided everyone with national ID

The things we take for granted often look very different from the perspective of other countries.  In Peru, it’s being proudly reported that the nation has at last provided identity documents to everyone – a smart card that covers people for grants and benefits as well as ID.  Civil war had displaced 600,000 people, and three million had no documentation.  Now everyone does.  It’s being represented as a major step towards social inclusion.  “IDs open doors to opportunities.”

In the UK, ID cards were abolished post-war after people refused to cooperate with the system, and their reintroduction has been fiercely resisted.  It’s seen as the action of a domineering state and “Big Brother”.  In India, the Aadhaar card has been used to impose controls on issues including tax evasion and terrorism, and it is being challenged as an invasion of privacy.

It’s clear that the problems of being without documentation are a major blight on the lives of many people, most obviously in the USA and more recently in the treatment of Caribbean immigrants in the UK.  But processes which include some people can exclude others, and there are concerns from India about people who have been left out.  The lesson for public administration ought to be that no system is perfect, and the test of a good system is how it deals with mistakes, omissions and exclusions.  This is not so much about a sophisticated technology as about how services relate to ordinary people.

A Citizens’ Initiative on European citizenship

I’ve raised the question of European citizenship several times on this blog, and have previously both raised a petition and supported a crowdfunded legal case to argue against British citizens being stripped of fundamental rights.  There is a new citizens’ initiative with the same objective and I’d urge those who wish to maintain European citizenship to support it.

 

Problems in migrating to Universal Credit

The National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) has made a submission to the Social Security Advisory Committee about ‘managed migration’ to Universal Credit.  They point to a series of problems:

  • the difficulties people have in making digital claims
  • the lack of reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities
  • requiring claimants to make claims in order to migrate, and using mistakes or omissions as a reason to demand  fresh claims
  • insufficient levels of ‘universal support’
  • obstacles to cooperation with welfare rights advisers
  • the DWP’s apparent inability to engage with the process by which claimants report changes, the electronic ‘journal’
  • the inappropriate use of sanctions.

All of this implies a need to “pause and fix”.  But even if that happens, the fundamental problems in the design and delivery of the benefit will still be there.