Not austerity, but a purposeful aggravation of inequalities

A report for the EHRC identifies the impact of ‘austerity’ policies since 2010.  The cumulative effect of policy changes has been disproportionately to affect people on low incomes, women, people with disabilities and minority ethnic groups.  This is not about austerity, which has always been a misnomer.  Austerity means spending less; this is something quite different.

A new direction for social security tribunals?

In February, Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, was suggesting that tribunals were likely to move into online hearings, and that social security tribunals would be pioneering the approach.  That announcement was received with some apprehension, because the experience of digital communication and systems supposed to be “digital by default” has not been good for claimants; it assumes access to resources and a level of competence with IT that many people would find challenging.  The technology for managing group meetings is improving, but it’s still buggy and difficult to access; the added security needed for tribunal hearings is liable to add to that.

In a recent talk, however, Sir Ernest has been offering more insight into his thoughts about the conduct of social security tribunals, and it may not be what the critics expect.  He has been complaining that the incompetence of the DWP has clogged up the tribunal system.  Mandatory Reconsideration is no help – the number of bad decisions has been mounting.   In most of the cases submitted by the DWP, “there could be no argument in law or on facts that the appellant wouldn’t win.”   Ryder would like to give tribunals the right to reject the DWP’s papers without wasting time on a hearing.

Why the Scottish Government should not be using Mandatory Reconsideration

I was told yesterday, rightly or wrongly, that the Scottish Government is planning to stick to their proposed system of mandatory reconsideration –  the requirement to submit issues for review before an access to appeal can be allowed.  The government’s justification is, apparently, that there will be an important difference between their approach and the current practice of the DWP:  benefits will continue in payment until the issue is resolved.

There are three sorts of misapprehension here.  The first is about what happens when people’s benefits are stopped.   There is a problem, but this measure is not going to resolve it.  Benefits are often stopped first – that’s why people have to challenge the decision.  If it proves that someone is not entitled, any benefits paid under this arrangement can be recovered.  So, under these proposals, the benefits will stop, restart, stop again after review, restart after appeal, and possibly stop again – with repayment demanded every time.

The second misapprehension is that a formal review process is useful or necessary. Under the previous system, all grounds for appeal were scrutinised and acted on by the Department for Work and Pensions before the introduction of MR; so MR adds nothing to the actions of the agency.  What the introduction of MR did was to create an extra hurdle for claimants – a barrier to access to justice.

That leads to the third point: that the operation of MR is unlawful.  The Policy Memorandum issued by the Scottish Government argued that

“Without a re-determination stage, it would mean that all decisions being challenged would go to a tribunal. This could lead to the tribunal being inundated with large volumes of appeals, which will increase the likely waiting times for individuals to have their cases heard, resulting in a frustrating experience.”

It’s not so frustrating as bening denied access to justice.  In Unison v Lord
Chancellor, the Supreme Court stated in terms  that the creation of administrative barriers with the intention of preventing people reaching court is unlawful. Appeals are not just there for the appellant.  They are there to make sure that the system is done right for everyone else.   If the Social Security Bill is passed in this form, expect it to be challenged.


Soviet Russia was not kind to benefits claimants

At a session about social security yesterday, one of the speakers invited us to celebrate the inspirational anniversary of the  Russian Revolution.  As someone mainly concerned with security rights and dignity in social security, there’s some incongruity in that request.   Soviet Russia was not wholeheartedly supportive of people who needed benefits to survive.  The laws against “parasites, tramps and beggars” varied between the different republics of the Soviet Union, but they included penal policies and fora for public humiliation. There are three articles about it by Beerman in the journal Soviet Studies:  “A discussion on the draft law against parasites, tramps and beggars”, 1958, 9(2), 214-222; “The law against parasites, tramps and beggars”,  1960 11(4), 453-455, and “The parasites law”,  1961, 13(2), 191-205.  No doubt a similar law would go down well with certain sections of the UK press, but it’s not a model to be followed.

The Scottish Government edges towards a social security policy

The Scottish Government has released a series of ‘position papers’ outlining its approach to social security provision.  Some of these papers are very thin, but in the hope that people will find the reference useful, here’s the list:

I’ve previously commented on most of these issues.  I’d like to see a system that is less geared to replicating the DWP’s adversarial approach and more to a ‘learning organisation’, that takes the responsibility itself for correcting mistakes and learning from them.

A session in Haifa

I’ve been in Israel for the last couple of weeks, and yesterday I gave a presentation on the relational elements of poverty to a delightful group of academics, students and practitioners at the University of Haifa.    I’m shamefully incompetent when it comes to managing Hebrew at even the most basic level, but fortunately most of the academics I’ve met in my field don’t share my limitations.  They are being driven to publish academic journal articles in English in order to get tenure (15 articles in 5 years is apparently the norm, and book chapters and Hebrew articles don’t count).  The problem with that sort of direction in academic writing is that it tends to shape the character of the work that academics can engage in, and it’s not always to the benefit of the subject.  Good theoretical work needs time and variation; critical development that might influence policy in practice might tend to be repetitive.  Empirical research, by contrast, can often be divided up into meaty chunks and written up quickly, so that’s what people on the treadmill will be forced to do.

I’m a firm believer in a cooperative approach to academic discussion; I have been asked to think about making my work more accessible in Hebrew.  My work has previously appeared in Farsi and Arabic, and it’s intriguing that the same elements and approach seem to appeal across such different (and apparently divided) cultures.  We can only gain from dialogue and exchange, and it’s regrettable that some of my contemporaries have closed the door on that.

A report on Universal Basic Services

The Institute for Global Prosperity has produced a report proposing the introduction of a range of universal basic services.  The principle is the same as the principle of the National Health Service, education in schools, or the road network: providing universal services would offer a foundation for everyone in the society.  The fields in which they are proposing basic services are shelter, food, transport and “information”, which includes phone, television and the internet.

The schemes are not all worked out in the same way.  The proposals that would be genuinely universal are for public transport (extending the equivalent of pensioners’ bus passes to everyone) and communications.  The food service they propose is essentially a residual network for poorer families, replacing food banks and soup kitchens; the model for housing is an extension of existing social housing stock.  Neither would be universal.

They also compare the costs of their scheme with Universal Basic Income.   It’s not a completely fair comparison, because the provision they are proposing for housing and food is not provision for everyone; if they were genuinely offering either of those on a universal basis, the costings would look a lot different.  It is fair, however, to remind people of the alternative to Universal Basic Income.  People need an income so as to buy goods and services on the private market; it may be possible to take those services out of the market altogether.

Both the universal schemes they propose, and the underlying arguments, are interesting and thought-provoking.  I’m persuaded by the ideas of the universal bus pass and a universal infrastructure for the internet; I think others may need more work; but it’s a debate that’s well worth engaging in.



The Future of Social Security in Scotland: views from within the system

After a little delay,  PCS, the  Public and Commercial Services Union, has published our report on the views of DWP officers administering social security in Scotland.  The report is based on group interviews and questionnaires done earlier this year with 228 DWP officers.   This is not the first report ever to ask social security officers what they think, but it’s a rare and rather special event.  The officers generally showed an acute and detailed understanding of current problems in the benefit system, and expressed their frustration that they were not being permitted to set things right when they could.  They complained about constant micro-management, with inadequate staffing levels, poor training and failing  IT systems.  Many of them wanted to be able to provide a more personal service, following people’s cases through from start to finish.

The picture shows Helen Flanagan and myself at the launch in Glasgow in November.

Universal Credit: what took everyone so long?

There’s been a flurry of calls for the rollout of Universal Credit to be delayed (e.g. from two reports from Citizens Advice, and concerns from  Louise Casey and a clutch of Conservative MPs).   It’s still possible to hear people saying what a good idea Universal Credit is, how it was going to simplify everything and how it would help work incentives. “The trouble with Universal Credit”, a New Statesman article tells us, “is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea.”

There are four sorts of problems.  First, there were the basic flaws in the design.  I wrote this in a paper published in 2013:

Means tested benefits are not, of course, the only benefits which are subject to problems.  There are other aspects of the benefits system which are cumbersome, badly designed and problematic for claimants and administrators alike. They include, for example,

  • benefits which people cannot work out they’re entitled to
  • the problem of repaying money that people did not know they should not receive
  • rules that tell people they must work at the same time as recognising that it‟s not reasonable to work (the current position for ESA)
  • the medical reassessment of claimants
  • benefits which penalise claimants for circumstances outside their control
  • the cohabitation rule, and
  • complex assessments that require people to report changes across multiple dimensions.

Universal Credit has the lot. It is as if someone has started with a list of everything in the benefits system that causes problems and designed the new benefit round it.

Then there was the abandonment of all the benefit’s objectives, one by one. All the primary objectives – such as simplification, work incentives, reducing in-work poverty, smoothing transitions and cutting back on fraud and error – have been fatally compromised. The marginal rate of deduction is much higher than intended. The cuts in work allowances have removed any incentive for most claimants to remain in contact with the system if they find work.

Third, there were the problems of implementation.  None of the innovative methods envisaged – real-time processing, smooth tapers, digital by default – was achievable. There is no effective system for coordinating and pooling all the information required in one place – the new system has come to rely primarily on returns from claimants about changes. The system makes complex demands of claimants (for example, those relating to security, agreements by couples or job search) which are almost impossible to police.  It system relies on accurate information from claimants, and people cannot respond sensibly to questions they do not know the answer to.

And then, last of all, there are the so-called ‘teething’ problems – miscommunication, lost payments (surely that ought to be a priority concern?), and the difficulties of introducing the new benefit at the same time as managing a large injection of additional rules such as  conditionality and housing. With or without Universal Credit, we are already in the position where nearly a quarter of unemployed claimants have had benefits stopped.  Universal Credit is not just threatening  a major breakdown in the safety net; it has already happened.

I did wonder, before I started, if I really needed to bother writing all this again.  I’ve been making the same sorts of criticisms of Universal Credit for nearly seven years now – try this blog from October 2010,  when I was arguing that the scheme was simplistic, impractical and wouldn’t either enhance work incentives or reduce administrative errors.  While it’s encouraging that so many people are waking up to the problems – it’s never too late to make things a bit better, at least – I have to ask: what took everyone so long?

The prospect of rent control

I was expecting Jeremy Corbyn’s call for rent control to be met with the usual litany of ideological nonsense, so it’s been refreshing to discover that there is actually a nuanced debate about it.  The nonsense comes mainly from the political right, who have pointed to the supposedly destructive effects of rent controls: cutting prices, they argue, must cut supply.  The assumption is supported by a long string of economists, many of whom have been told it’s true during their first year of study.  Empirical evidence on rent control shows just the opposite: the supply of rented housing is generally larger where rent control is in force.  (See R. Arnott, 1995, “Time for revisionism on rent control?”, Journal of Economic Perspectives 9(1) 99-120.) There’s a balanced review of evidence in a recent Parliamentary Briefing.

Many writers still accept the questionable argument that ‘first-generation’ rent control in the UK made the sector shrink.  In fact, rent control in the UK slowed the decline of a sector whose best-paying tenants were becoming owner occupiers or council tenants, leaving a poor residual population of tenants.  When rent controls were lifted in 1957, the movement out of the sector became a waterfall.  It happened partly because rent is not the main determinant of investment decisions, and partly because “rent control” is not just about rent; it’s about the protection of tenants, security and regulation.  Cutting those protections is likely to reduce the supply of housing, as  landlords sell up.   The recent revival of the private sector reflects not the slow expansion after the deregulation of 1988, but a much more rapid expansation after 2001, reflecting a favourable combination of capital values and interest rates.   That has been reinforced by the balance since 2008; as and when interest rates increase again, capital values will suffer and other investments will be more attractive.

Shelter’s position on rent control has attempted to look at a range of different policies which come under the general banner of rent control: some, they suggest, would be harmful, some would be beneficial, and some would make very little difference.   While there’s obviously a need for tenant protection, the fundamental problem with the housing market is not about rents as such; it’s about access to housing, and that depends on supply.   As long as there aren’t enough houses, and those that there are are in the wrong places, some people are going to be left out.  Some people will be squeezed – high rents, poor conditions – and others will be left out altogether.  Britain has millions more people than it used to have, and it needs millions more houses.