Somewhere, in a world quite unlike our own, Universal Credit is working brilliantly

Universal Credit has its defenders, and the Daily Express has come out fighting:

“disruptive” proposals could hammer 30 million Britons, cost tens of billions of pounds and send taxes soaring.

The middle bit of this could be true, because all major reforms have a price tag; introducing Universal Credit had cost more than £2bn by last year, though that figure ignores the false start and ‘reset’.  The very belated Final Business Case claimed 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.  The National Audit Office has told us that “We cannot be certain that Universal Credit will ever be cheaper to administer than the benefits it replaces”; their 2018 report said that

 the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven.

We now know that the figure on fraud and error is wrong, and that Universal Credit has made fraud and error  much worse; and ‘distributional improvements’ don’t save money, they move it to a different place.  So the only possible saving could be by encouraging people into work, and given that only a very small proportion of claimants are continuously unemployed – the majority of claimants are too ill to work, carers, short-term unemployed or already working on low incomes –  it isn’t going to be anything like £24.5bn.  If I had to guess, I would estimate the net gain, by comparison with the previous system, at something closer to zero.

That leaves us with the extraordinary claim that 30 million benefit claimants will be affected.  Yes, that really is what the Express article says:

It would immediately impact around one million people currently on Universal Credit, but it would likely also have an impact on the 30 million-plus people receiving some form of benefits.

To get anywhere near 30m, that has to include all pensioners, and every child where the families receive Child Benefit.  It seems that the lives of children and pensioners have been turned around by the prospect of a benefit that neither group gets, and they can all look forward to a brighter future, if only this benefit remains in place.  But perhaps I  mistake the argument, and the Britons in question are the occupants of a parallel dimension, like the Man in the High Castle, where everything is subtly different.  Suddenly, everything in the Express starts to make sense.

The government’s counsel digs a pit for the government’s case to fall into

The challenge to prorogation is currently being broadcast. I’ve previously been critical of the way that the Supreme Court goes about its business, and the current hearing does not give me any reason to think differently about that.  The hearing has been punctuated by confusion about supportive documentation – misleading reference numbers, flapping between paper and electronics, and to cap it, Lady Hale’s computer failure this morning.

Having said that, I am going to take my courage in both hands and try to second-guess the outcome.  The government’s submission basically has been to say, ‘hands off’, and the most persuasive part of that case has been a series of previous instances where prorogation has been used politically.  And then, I think, the government’s counsel undermined his position, possibly fatally.  This is a clip from this morning’s hearing, as summarised in the Guardian briefing.

How democratic are the Liberal Democrats?

Not for the first time, I am perplexed by comments that have been made about ‘democracy’.  The Liberal Democrats have decided to put themselves forward for election on the basis that they will oppose Brexit, and that if they are elected into office they will seek to revoke Britain’s notice of leaving the EU.  Cue sound and fury.  Stephen Kinnock calls it ‘undemocratic’. David Starkey, never knowingly under-hyperbolized,  calls liberalism an “extremist, anti popular, undemocratic creed”, and throws in snobbery, contempt and intolerance for good measure.  Polly Toynbee, normally sensible, also describes the policy as ‘extremist’ and says this is ‘to hell with the will of the people’.   And a letter in the ‘i’ complains: “anyone who voted surely knows the principle of democracy is that whoever gains the majority in a vote is the winner! If we allow this to happen, where will it end?”

I wonder what we have wrought by not having civics lessons in schools.  First, as a matter of  general principle:

  • Democracies are systems of government that are open to argument.  The suppression of disagreement or opposition by a majority is no more consistent with democracy than the suppression of disagreement or opposition by a minority.
  • Neither majority voting nor the process of election is sufficient to produce a democratic outcome.  Many dictators in the world have been elected.  Many seek support through referenda – Mussolini, Franco, Marcos are illustrative.
  • “Winner takes all” is not a democratic principle.  That’s how you get Mugabe or Maduro.
  • The “will of the people” is not fixed.  People can change their minds.

Then, in relation specifically to the UK:

  • The UK has a system of representative democracy.  People vote for representatives, not for parties or leaders.  (Parties and leader can change.  If you voted in 2015 for a government led by David Cameron, or in 2017 for a government led by Theresa May, you were mistaken about what you were voting for.  If you voted in 2017 for Sam Gyimah, Sarah Wollaston, or anyone who joined the Independent Group, you are now represented by someone in a different party.  )
  • Referenda are not binding – the 2016 referendum was advisory.
  • Parliamentary elections, by contrast, are binding within the UK system.  Some of the advocates of Brexit believe that the referendum trumps parliamentary democracy; but the legitimacy of the parliament subsequently elected in 2017 is at least as great, if not greater, than the 2016 vote, and in due course the legitimacy of any parliament elected in 2019 or 2020 will supersede both.
  • Some  politicians work to the (debatable) principle that representatives receive a ‘mandate’ from the electorate to carry out their stated policies. The Liberal Democrat motion put the case that “the election of a Liberal Democrat majority government [would] be recognised as an unequivocal mandate to revoke Article 50 and for the UK to stay in the EU.”
  • Another view of democracy, put by Schumpeter, is that it is an institutional process where opposing parties compete for votes.  Failing all else, the Liberal Democrats are attempting to gain the votes of at least the 6 million people who signed a petition asking for revocation.

There is nothing remotely ‘undemocratic’ about standing for election on a commitment to change current government policy.  As to whether the position is popular, we’ll find out very soon.

My submission about benefits takeup

The Scottish Parliament Social Security Committee has issued a call for evidence on the takeup of social security benefits.  I’ve done lots on this in the past, so I’ve dashed something off based on a paper I presented in Belgium a little time ago.  Here, for the truly dedicated,  is the submission.  The key points:

  • Arguments about takeup have often centred on means-tested benefits, but the problems are much more extensive. Non-means-tested benefits are just as vulnerable.
  • The main explanations for non-takeup conventionally include ignorance, the complexity of benefits, limited marginal benefit, and stigma. More detailed accounts consider perceived need, basic knowledge, perceived eligibility, perceived utility, beliefs and feelings, perceived stability of circumstances, and the process of making a claim.
  • The benefits with the best takeup – Child Benefit and State Pension – are simple to access, have few conditions and are delivered for the long term. The benefits with the worst (including e.g. Pension Credit and DLA/PIP) are complex, poorly understood and have several moving parts. While there is scope for greater automaticity, the key problem rests in the design of such benefits.
  • Takeup reflects the complex relationship between people and the public services, and consequently it can be enhanced by outreach and support; but the problems are more fundamental.
  • Benefits should be understood as part of an income package. The route to security is not the integration of complex systems, which implies more complexity still, but the delivery of smaller, simpler, stand-alone benefits with a common pay day.

 

 

In praise of fixed terms

The Fixed-Term Parliament Act has not had a good press, and some commentators have condemned it either for making things worse or having no effect (those things can’t both be true at the same time).  If it was intended, as Mark Elliott suggested a couple of years ago, to curb the power of governments and increase the power of Parliament, it has just done rather well.

The fundamental premise of the Act is that the business of Parliament should carry on even if no-one has a majority. The Coalition government was evidence there there was an alternative, which was government by a majority coalition.  There is another alternative, which is a minority government that limits its programme and proceeds by negotiating with opposition groups; that is what happened in February 1974, when there was no majority, and it was thought of as normal practice in Scotland, where the electoral rules were initially believed to limit the possibility of anyone ever having a majority.  Neither Theresa May, nor Boris Johnson, has seemed to be able to grasp the basic idea that “the government” is not “in charge”.   The government is a legislative leader and executive, not an autarchy. People have to be won over, and everyone has to compromise.   That style of government may be beyond the capacity or wit of the Johnson administration.

Some snippets on the Scottish variations in benefit rules

I have spent a little time this week preparing for an evidence session of the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, which was reviewing the development of social security in Scotland.  The hearing, scheduled for next Tuesday, has now been cancelled, because everyone is currently more concerned with High Politics; the process may resume in due course, or it may not.

I’d been focusing on the back half of the committee’s remit, which was concerned with the relationship between the Scottish system and the UK system.  In the process, I’ve spoken with people from a range of organisations, including the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, Glasgow Welfare Rights, Citizens Advice Scotland, Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, Child Poverty Action Group and One Parent Families Scotland.  I’ve also seen the written submissions from Inclusion Scotland, Poverty Alliance and the Scottish Campaign on Rights to Social Security: the written submissions should be published more generally  shortly, but publication has to be approved by the Committee first.  Thanks to you all.  I also found a SPICE paper, on administrative costs and relationships with the DWP, particularly helpful.

There have been very positive things said about a couple of the new benefits that rely heavily on the cooperation of the DWP, particularly the Carers Allowance Supplement and the Best Start Grant.  There are more reservations about the operation of variations in Universal Credit, partly because the system from direct payment of rent to landlords isn’t adequately integrated,  and because there seems to be some hesitation about applications.  That may reflect advice from housing associations, and there have been some problems with some rent being paid monthly while income is bi-monthly; but I’d guess that it may also be because bi-monthly payments don’t get over the outstanding problems of an unpredictable, fluctuating level of benefit.

Additional note, 30th October: I have just received notice that, following the announcement of a General Election, the Committee’s review of the Scottish social security system will not now take place.

Is a Brexit deal on offer? I think it might be.

It’s been widely reported in the press that Boris Johnston has been given 30 days to come back with a solution to the Irish backstop.  This morning I was in a fascinating session, led by Mark Diffley and Steve Richards, which assumed that this was the case. I think Angela Merkel was saying something significantly different – but if the offer is not understood and acted on right away, the opportunity may be lost.

The Withdrawal Agreement is, and has always been, incomplete. It represents only the first stage of a negotiated settlement.  The backstop is an insurance policy – a red line, if you will – to cover the eventuality that there is no agreement on the second stage.  That raises the obvious  the question – why not get on with the second stage?

And that, as far as I can make it out, is the position just put by Ms Merkel.  She is well known for being careful with her words.  What she said in the recent press conference was not that she is looking for an alternative to the backstop, but that she is open to a resolution on the future relationship that would mean that the backstop will never come into effect.  This is the summary from the Guardian:

She said that the backstop had always been a “fallback position” and would only come into effect if no other solution could be agreed that would protect the “integrity of the single market”. She went on:

“If one is able to solve this conundrum, if one finds this solution, we said we would probably find it in the next two years to come but we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days to come. Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.”

She is not saying that Boris Johnson must offer an alternative to the backstop – if that was what she meant, she could have said so.  She is saying that the backstop is there because no other resolution has been made about the future relationship.  That is the solution which would have to be arrived at before Britain leaves.

There are three obvious problems here.  First, this is not a line agreed with the rest of the EU; it is in particular somewhat different from the line being taken by President Macron, who if I read the runes rightly just wants it all to end. Second, there is a lot to do.  But third, if the British government continues to play with alternatives to the backstop, this is not going to happen; what they need is a comprehensive agreement that will make the backstop redundant.  That could be done at speed – but for as long as the attention of the government is elsewhere, the time is being frittered away.

My own private Brexit

I have received today le Certificat de nationalité française, confirming that  I am a French citizen. I have no intention of renouncing my rights as a British citizen, but I have no intention of surrendering my rights as a European citizen either; and I do not think it reasonable to require any person to give up  the rights of citizenship, or democratic to suppose that their rights can be extinguished by the will of a majority.  My father and grandparents were refugees from France, my first wife was French and my children are dual nationals, but as we were all members of the European Union it didn’t seem important for me to do anything about my own status.  In November 2016, I realised I would have to. I obtained the necessary documents, arranged for formal translation of English documents and completed an application for the  in January 2017.  The process has taken most of three years, and I still don’t have the carte d’identité or a passport, but the question of legal status has been sorted.

I’m far from alone in taking such a step:  hundreds of thousands of British citizens have applied for citizenship from various EU countries, many from Ireland or Germany. It will protect my rights to live, work and travel in the EU – I’m more likely to work in Poland than I am in France – but the issues go much deeper than that.  I wrote this in March 2017:

There have been demonstrations over the weekend.  They’re not about tariffs. They’re about movement, contact, travel, education, work and family life.  The loss of European citizenship means that you won’t have the right to live or work across Europe without a permit, to study where you will, or to marry a European with the assurance that you’ll be able to live together.  And that directly and immediately affects the lives of millions of people – not just the 4 million already identified by Michel Barnier (that is, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU), but anyone in a mixed family, and anyone who might be. People like me; quite possibly, people like you.

Before the referendum, I tried to flag the issue when it wasn’t on the agenda; since the referendum, I’ve raised petitions on Change.org and in the European Parliament.  This is about the right to live in Europe.  We were told that right was fundamental, not just to what the European Union was all about, but to us; and for many of us, it is.

 

 

Postscript: This was my 1000th post on this blog.

 

The poverty of nations: a relational perspective

I’ve signed a contract to deliver my next book by the end of this month.  The working title is “The poverty of nations: a relational perspective”, and it develops an argument I’ve been building over the last few years about the relational elements of poverty – understanding poverty, not as a lack of resources or income, but as a set of social relationships.  I posted, two years ago, the abstract of a paper on this general theme. Here is that abstract again:

Poverty is at root a relational concept, which can only be understood by locating the experience of poor people in the social and economic situation where they are found. This is not just saying that poverty is ‘relative’. Developments in policy and practice are increasingly focused on dynamic, relational and multi-dimensional understandings of poverty; our conceptual frameworks have failed to keep pace.

Much of the consideration of poverty in the course of the last hundred years, relative or absolute, has found it convenient to rely on three fallacies. The first is that poverty is a condition or state of being, which can be considered exclusively from the perspective of the individual who experiences it. The second is that can be understood solely in terms of resources, when resources themselves have to be understood in terms of social and economic relationships. The third is that there is a clear and decisive threshold below which people can be said to be poor, and above which they are not poor.

All of these positions are tenable – they are supported by many of the most eminent writers in the field – but they are not adequate, either as a way of describing the positions that people hold, or as a conceptual tool to analyse the issues.  Discussions of exclusion, a concept which is self-evidently relational, come closer to the idea of poverty than much of the academic literature on poverty in itself, offering a way to escape from the limitations of conventional models of poverty.

The book will be out next year. It will be my twentieth, depending on how you count them, and the fourth since I left my post in 2015. People may be surprised at the short time between contract and delivery of the final copy.  It’s been my practice for many years to write a book before I submit it.  I started to do that early on, after working through the more conventional route of proposal and writing to order, only to find when I delivered the script at the end of two years the publisher thought that I should have written a different book.  This way, I can guarantee is that we all end up with what we’re expecting to get.

I wouldn’t, however, advise any young academic to follow in my footsteps.  The fact is that academic institutions don’t like books very much, or social policy, and don’t really rate either when it comes to counting the beans.  When I left my employment, I was making a choice; I wanted to do more on poverty, benefits and social theory, and going independent was the best way to do it.  I don’t regret it; in the last three years I’ve done four books, a few research contracts and a semester in Poland, which I loved. If anyone out there wants an academic career, however, you’ll all be better off writing bids for research funding.

Some thoughts on Citizens Assemblies

The Scottish Government has opted for using a Citizens Assembly as a means of addressing some of the complex issues around devolution and independence.  Citizens Assemblies have been proposed as a way of resolving lots of thorny issues, such as Brexit, social care and reviewing legislation.  I can see that some people are enthusiastic about the mechanism, but I’m agnostic.  There are lots of existing mechanisms by which complex issues can be discussed and reviewed in some depth: there are inquiries, commissions, Royal Commissions.  There are reservations to make about them all, but I’m not convinced that  a Citizens Assembly can resolve the issues in a way that they can’t.

The first problem is the issue of capacity.  Commissions are commonly limited by the terms of reference they are given, their membership and the resources they can command.  The process matters, too; I’ve been critical of inquiries led by lawyers, whose training is not necessarily appropriate to the exploration and synthesis of complex issues where a selection needs to be made.

The second concerns the validity of the positions that people come to.  Any worthwhile inquiry will draw on a range of evidence, including both primary evidence and information from experts, and Citizens Assemblies can do this, too. Some commissions are led by experts; some aren’t. The expertise of a commission is no guarantee that they will get the judgements right, and there are certainly plenty of commissions who might be said to have gone off-track.  (For example, there are still many people in Scotland who commend the Christie Commission on public services, which I think got things radically wrong.)   I’ve served as adviser to a couple of parliamentary committees, and found that they were able to address issues in remarkable depth simply because they were able to draw on submissions and testimony from a wide range of witnesses, often completing work that compares well with academic research in much less time.

There may be a specific problem with the decision-making process in Citizens Assemblies, reflecting the large number of people involved. Group thinking is vulnerable to a tendency to conformity, potentially reflecting the vocal representations of a minority.  There is also potentially the phenomenon which psychologists refer to as a ‘shift to risk’, where groups will take collectively decisions that are riskier than any of the individuals in that group would accept.

Third, there is the question of ownership.  Inquiries that take a short time are often treated as if they were doing the bidding of particular political masters; inquiries that take a longer time are then abandoned by their political successors. People who agree with the conclusions will support the recommendations; people who disagree will say that the process was not representative, or not authoritative, or that conditions have changed.The Northern Ireland Citizens Assembly has struggled to have an impact in the absence of active political representation in the province.  One has to ask about Citizen’s Assemblies whether they will have more authority, or carry more commitment, than any other mechanism, and it is not clear they will.

An apology: something strange happened when I posted this entry, and what was posted was not the entry I’d finished, but an early draft.  This full version had to be reconstructed, because there was no trace left of all of the work I’d done on it.