Alex Salmond suggests that a Scottish constitution could cover issues like weapons of mass destruction, homelessness and free education. I don’t resile from the policies, but they are not constitutional issues – once they are included, there is nowhere to stop. What should be left out – biodiversity, climate change, sustainability, EU membership, pensions, marriage, health care? When the abortive European constitution was under discussion, I wrote this:
A constitution is a foundational statement. It needs to be communicative, transparent, and justiciable. Every constitution needs to set out the basic institutional framework. It needs to state primary legal rules – rules of recognition, change and adjudication. It should probably state fundamental principles, like the Bill of Rights in the US constitution. But it should not include policy. Instead of confining itself to constitutional issues, the “constitutional treaty” sought both to consolidate the content of previous treaties and to include substantial elements of previously agreed policy – issues like the environment, agriculture and fisheries, and commercial rules. However important these may be, they are not constitutional principles; and whatever the merits of the policies may be, it is very questionable whether the policy which is appropriate now should be expected to be appropriate a hundred years from now.
My colleague Paul Arnell has argued against a constitution, giving the example of the right to bear arms in the USA as bad law that has proved impossible to change. That seems to me an argument against the inclusion of substantive law, rather than an objection to all constitutions. A constitution should confine itself to principles and the institutional framework. It should not include matters of policy or substantive law. And it must be short.
The Herald asked me yesterday to comment on whether we could afford universal services for older people; here is my response, as it appears. (The Herald website allows direct access to first-time users; after five views you have to register.)
The debate on free services for older people lumps three questions together. The first is whether we can afford to support services for growing numbers of older people. That question has been reviewed in many reports; the answer comes out, consistently, that the commitments are sustainable, but they will have to be paid for in higher taxes or contributions. Many people imagine that when they pay for pensions, that the money is being saved for their old age. In most cases, it isn’t. Contributions now largely pay for pensions now; the current generation of workers is relying on the next generation to pay for them in turn. The real test, then, is whether we’re willing to pay for pensioners now.
The second question is whether help should be free. The critical judgment is about what should be provided, and what should not. Some essential items we expect pensioners to pay for (food and telephones), some we don’t (personal care and prescriptions) and for some the signals are mixed (cleaning). The arguments for free services are partly about solidarity – services we want people to have and have a duty to provide – and partly self-interest, whether we’d want ourselves or our families to be charged in the same circumstances. Few people in Scotland would want everything to be paid for: it’s difficult to make the case that help with incontinence – an important component of health care as well as personal care – should not be free.
The third question is about universalism, whether benefits and services should go to everyone, or only those in most need. Services that test people’s needs are complex, difficult to provide fairly and can be expensive. Tests are often intrusive, burdensome, demeaning and many are put off from asking for help. Universal services use simple eligibility criteria, such as age, so are cheap to run. The basic argument for bus passes, for example, is that many older people need help, extending it generally allows those who need it to get help, and people who have alternative transport don’t use the buses. When money is short, simple generalised provision is often the way to go.
I didn’t learn about this as soon as it happened, but a draft Statutory Instrument has been put to Parliament covering the particular hole I’d identified earlier this year. The instrument makes it possible for Scottish authorities to make provision for
occasional financial or other assistance to or in respect of individuals for the purposes of —
(a) meeting, or helping to meet, an immediate short term need—
(i) arising out of an exceptional event or exceptional circumstances, and
(ii) that requires to be met to avoid a risk to the well-being of an individual, or
(b) enabling qualifying individuals to establish or maintain a settled home, and “qualifying individuals” means individuals who have been or, without the assistance, might otherwise be—
(i) in prison, hospital, a residential care establishment or other institution, or
(ii) homeless or otherwise living an unsettled way of life.
It’s always difficult to know how specific provisions will work out in practice, but it should prevent the kind of administrative lock-up that I feared might otherwise happen. I’m greatly relieved.
When the Scottish Government announced the plans to merge Scotland’s eight police forces into one, they complained: “Scotland can no longer afford to do things eight times over.” (There have been, actually, more than eight services – there was also the nuclear police, the transport police and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency). In parliament, however, a requirement was made to have plans for all the 32 local authorities, and today it’s been announced that there will be 14 policy authority areas, replacing the previous eight. So the main effect of a single police service is not to reduce the number of service divisions, but to centralise control.
Football bores me personally, but it’s hard to live in Scotland and not to be aware of the passion and commitment it arouses in Scottish communities. A tiny nation has been trying to accommodate a finance structure which belongs to an international entertainment industry, and has made local clubs the playthings of rich entrepreneurs. It doesn’t work. We’ve just had the announcement that a second major club faces imminent bankruptcy, and it’s the fans and supporters who have been asked to save it.
This posting, then, is flying a kite. Communal activities, which rely on communal support, don’t have to be organised communally, but they can be. Public organisations which promote “participation in sport”, recreation and culture are now able to register as charities in Scotland – provided they are not for profit, they offer substantial benefits to the broader community, and they are properly governed. (There’s no intrinsic bar to a professional sport. The English Charity Commission’s guidance is directed only at amateur sport, but that’s not the distinction here; other charities employ professionals, and some such as theatres put on professional shows.) The full list of criteria for charitable status is laid out at OSCR’s website. A football club could qualify. But it is going to call for a rethink of what football clubs do, and how they do it.
The Think Tank Demos has published a report about multiply disadvantaged families in Scotland. Families are described as “multiply disadvantaged” if they meet four or more of seven criteria:
- low income
- no educational qualifications
- ill health
- mental health problems
- poor neighbourhood.
There are 131,000 households who are multiply disadvantaged by this definition. Of those, 52,000 are pensioners, and 55,000 are households without children; 24,000 are households with children. The category of pensioners is based on 3 criteria of 6, because it excludes worklessness; overcrowding is not really a useful indicator either.
This is not the same test as the Westminster government uses for its definition of “troubled families”. That test is based on them meeting five of the following seven criteria:
- having a low income,
- no one in the family who is working
- poor housing,
- parents who have no qualifications,
- where the mother has a mental health problem
- one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and
- where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
The overlap between the criteria does make it plausible to suggest, though, that someone who is “multiply disadvantaged” in the Demos report will probably also score four or more on the “troubled families” score. As the Demos authors note, there is no implication that families who are disadvantaged in these terms present problems for other people – but there is no reason to suppose that from the criteria for “troubled families” either. And there has to be some suspicion about the tenor of a report which goes on to tie the characteristics of poverty to alcohol, drug use and child neglect – none of which applies to most, or even to many, of the families identified through these statistics.
The finding that there are only 24,000 families with children in Scotland who are multiply disadvantaged even on as few as four indicators does raise some questions about the direction of policy, which has tended to focus on the characteristics and culture of poor people as something set apart. There are some points to draw from the figures:
- Scotland is a society where more than one person in six of working age receives an ‘out of work’ benefit, and a quarter of Scotland’s children are in low income households – but the vast majority of people in this position are not ‘multiply disadvantaged’ by the definitions in this report
- showing that social problems are more prevalent than elsewhere does not mean that they are actually likely – most people who are ‘multiply disadvantaged’ do not have them
- if the number of families who might be said to be multiply disadvantaged by these criteria is small, the numbers who might after that be said to suffer ‘intergenerational deprivation’ in these terms is, necessarily, smaller still
- while multiple disadvantage is a legitimate cause of concern in itself, it is neither typical of poor families or commonplace.
It makes sense to design policies that can effectively reach people who are most disadvantaged. Poverty in Scotland is much more widespread, however, and it makes no sense to make such policies the basis for anti-poverty strategy more generally.
With thanks to the BBC, I have permission to post a copy of my interview about universal benefits, broadcast on 29th September. It is obtainable as an MP3 file here.
Robert Black, who recently retired as Auditor General in Scotland, argues in today’s Scotsman in favour of reviewing the cost of universal services – particularly free personal care and free transport. He acknowledges that the cost of free prescriptions and eye tests is less and that they have a preventive function. His position has been consistent; it was formerly argued in an Audit Scotland report, Scotland’s public finances.
Part of Bob’s case is unarguable – that public expenditure has an opportunity cost, and we should always be prepared to consider what the implications are of one decision relative to another. Some of the figures he uses, however, are contentious. The increase in prescription costs to £1 billion is a general cost of the NHS, not a specific cost of ‘free prescriptions’. They cost nearer to £80m, though I’ve been struggling to find an accurate figure – the rest of the £150m cited in costs is down to eye tests, which have been separately justified in terms of savings elsewhere. We’re told that the cost of the National Concessionary Travel Scheme (bus and travel passes) ‘could rise’ to £500m. Well, it could do anything in theory; much depends on inflation, much on future policy; but the budget for 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 has been set at a constant £194m. There are certainly pressures on the public finances, but it’s not clear that it’s the universal benefits currently in dispute that are driving them.
Hard on the heels of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Labour Party has announced its opposition to services which are free at the point of delivery, including free prescriptions and personal care. Part of this is in a speech by Johann Lamont, part in comments by Arthur Midwinter.
There are many arguments in favour of universal services – services that are available to all, and free at the point of delivery. Here are some of the main ones.
- People have, or should have, a right to welfare. They do not lose that right if they earn more.
- Societies which offer equal rights are better to live in for everyone; societies that are less equal are worse to live in for everyone. (See The Spirit Level.)
- Richer people will not be content to pay for services they cannot benefit from.
- Separating out services for the better-off means there must be at least a two-tier service. “Services for the poor will always be poor services.” See e.g. T Horton, J Gregory, The Solidarity Society.
- If entitlement has to be policed, there has to be a mechanism for doing it. Means tests are intrusive, burdensome and expensive.
- The administration of testing inevitably includes some people who should not be included, and excludes others who should be.
- Multiple means tests are wasteful and unnecessary; there are better ways of controlling the finance.
It’s difficult to know at what point a shower becomes a rainstorm, but the Labour Party’s shift may indicate the emergence of a new consensus, where the three main parties are all opposed to the principles of the welfare state.
Gypsy/travellers are the minority group most discriminated against in Scotland. In a report published today by the Scottish Parliament, the Equalities Committee describes the findings as ‘deeply shocking’ and describes its reaction as ‘horrified’ and ‘appalled’. The work I do doesn’t often bring me into direct contact with travellers, but I did do some work in Aberdeenshire in 2004 which gave me the opportunity to talk directly with travellers about their situation. One of the women said what it’s like: “you’re a floor they can dance on.” The travellers talked about rampant racism, discrimination in services, harassment and lack of protection by the police – “we’re just a puckle of tinkers to them”. It’s good to see some public attention, but depressing to see so little progress.