Category: Scotland

ScotPHP: Scotland can use benefit and tax powers to improve people’s health

I missed it when it came out at the beginning of this month, but an interesting report from  the Scottish Public Health Observatory has been trying to identify the possible impact of new benefit policies in Scotland on the health of the population.  The figures are complex, but the basic principle behind them is reasonably straightforward.  Their argument is built on the case that higher income leads to fewer deaths and less health inequality.  Effectively, then, their report is an assessment of the potential distributive impact of different policies in Scotland.  Critically, however, the distributive impact they are considering is not the distribution for individuals or households, but for deprived areas.

Part of their summary is a fairly confusing graph, which seems to suggest that the best method by far would be to increase means-tested benefits by 50%.  The comparison being made, however, is with other policies with very different sizes and shapes – for example, increasing takeup by 1% (a very marginal increase, costing little) or introducing Citizens Basic Income and abolishing all other benefits (a very major change, costing a great deal).  The details about what’s covered and what’s not are sketchy, and the figures are, of course, indicative rather than certain.  The core of the message is this:

increasing means-tested benefits by 50% is modelled to have the biggest effect on reducing premature mortality (5% prevented) and narrowing inequalities in premature mortality (-8%). The results also suggest that the real Living Wage, Local Income Tax and increasing devolved benefits by 50% would be good policies for reducing premature mortality (~2% prevented for each). The two illustrative CBI schemes are also likely to be effective at narrowing health inequalities (-4% for CBI, and -6% for CBI Plus).

In the supplementary papers, Table 2a, it’s possible to find a statement of costs per outcome.  This also needs to be treated with caution, because the costs of CBI cannot be introduced in part; but the best value for money, in the sense of effect for each pound spent,  comes from CBI , improving DLA and PIP, increasing takeup and increasing basic means-tested benefits.  The powers of the Scottish Parliament don’t cover all these options, but they do include powers to improve disability benefits and to increase takeup.  There’s a case to consider, but there has to be a major reservation: at the level of individuals and households, there would be losers among those who are poorest.

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.

A glimmer of hope for disability benefits?

I’ve just spent a productive afternoon at a round-table discussion of benefits for disability, at the Scottish Parliament.  While many groups are understandably concerned with the transition from UK to Scottish administration, there is also some interest on seizing on the opportunities that the new legislative framework offers.  The need to protect people’s current situation is however emphasised by a recent report from the MS Society, charting the impact that the transition from DLA to PIP has had on people with multiple sclerosis.  The transition had had a major negative effect on daily life, emotional well being and the medical condition of sufferers.

There’s a limit to what the Scottish Government can hope to do; the system is a mess, and resources to revive it are limited.  The best hope probably lies in reforming the culture of the administration:  moving, if it can be done, from an adversarial system to one that listens, learns and corrects its mistakes.

Kim Long: 24 hours

Councillor Kim Long has agreed I can share her full thread with you, but asked me to include links to donate to two causes:  the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.  Here’s what she wrote on Twitter, minus only a couple of (understandably furious) swear words.

RIGHT. i am so angry. We have established that Trump is a monster, yes? Let’s talk about my past 24 hours and what that says about our esteemed UK government.

So Tuesday night i got a call from a church minister in a total panic because one of her congregation had recieved a letter, out of nowhere, saying her she had 24 hours to vacate her accommodation because her asylum support was being stopped. Her support (a whole £35/week) plus accomodation, was being immediately removed because they did not believe she was destitute. One of their reasons was she had toys (handmedowns from a kind neighbour) & money in her account – money she had recieved from the home office.  So because she could not prove her destitution according to their insane criteria they decided to MAKE HER AND HER 4 KIDS HOMELESS AND DESTITUTE. With 24 HOURS notice. Before her 3 days to appeal rights were even close to up.The letter had no email address, no phone number, no way of contacting except to send said appeal by POST. Which would be impossible within 24 hours. She was advised to FAX an appeal to a number NOT ON THE LETTER. A FAX. I have never even TOUCHED a fax machine.

So there she was, out of her mind with worry. Oh yes also she’s a single parent, she has an 8 year old, a 5 yo who is severely autistic (& so incredibly sensitive to disruption) & twin toddlers (omg). She has also survived horrific domestic violence, sexual assault, & abuse. (As an interlude i need to say how in awe i am of this lady, her strength and courage and parenting skills are just out of this world. She used to run her own small business, she is articulate and clever and hospitable and kind. It was a pleasure to spend my day with her) … anyway i went to her home yesterday morning, to try to work out a support plan, so that if Serco showed up there was Cllr observing their behaviour, and so that if they were made homeless i could ensure immediate social work support.

let’s pause here to observe that Glasgow City Council would be picking up the bill if the Home Office made this family homeless. The UK government is literally pushing people through the cracks + local authorities are financially penalised for not being so inhumane – let us also observe that if there were no kids involved the council would not be able to give her accomodation. Also if she was (now) fleeing domestic abuse she would not be able to go to a shelter because she is not eligible for housing benefits. Yes, things are that bad.

So – long day of emails and phone calls and then a wonderful lady from her church was there to watch most of the kids while i took this lady & kid to @GovanCP , who were just incredible. They met us, applied for an emergency grant, gave £ for food + an appt for the next day.We went home with cake from the foodbank 😁 & via aldi for essentials. Lady has been through hell but thanks to the support she’ll now receive to fight for her £ to be reinstated, thinks she will be able to sleep. Meanwhile locks were unchanged, nobody showed. Scare tactics.

So that was yesterday. And THEN on my way home today i met our neighbour who was frantic that he’s not seen me around (i’ve been away) – what if i had moved and he had nobody? He is also an asylum seeker & is living in limbo, waiting for news that his case is being looked at. He has been living with toothache for maybe 7 weeks because he is waiting for a form from the Home Office to give him access to dental treatment. He was recently given a card to say he was allowed to work, but now they have sent him a new one saying he is not allowed to.

He is bored. Fed up. Hungry. His wife is the same – he tells me they have nothing to do but quarrel because they are under so much pressure. They have a kid – the cutest, smartest, daughter, who comes to ours to play with/terrorise our cat & laugh at our music choices.  Today he said he is struggling with school holidays. “There are free things to do – but what if, when we’re out, we see someone with a lolly? Or she wants some candy? How can i say i can’t afford it? I feel so ashamed. So perhaps it’s better for her to be inside & not see.”

And then he said that while we were away they had their big interview with the Home Office. (They had first been summoned months ago, went through sleepness nights, showed up, to find the wrong interpreter provided. Interview postponed – back home. More waiting.) So last week they went back again. He was grilled for 8.5 hours, with 1 hour break & one further 15 mins. His wife had 6.5 hours. No kids allowed, but no childcare. They questioned every minute detail. He was so exhausted when he got home he didn’t speak for 2 days. And then – after he explained the danger they fled from, after he explained that as both religious and cultural minorities they could not possibly be safe in their country of origin – he said that he had also brought his daughter away because of the threat of FGM. We were standing in the sunlight but suddenly the world went grey as i realised the gorgeous kid who made me a birthday card last month would have been mutilated as soon as she hit puberty – could still face this if they are put on a plane. And then – i don’t know if i can type this because i am shaking – the interviewers said:”But 98% of the people in your country do FGM. Why is this a problem?”It took me several minutes to understand. UK HOME OFFICE AGENTS ASKED HIM WHY HAVING HIS DAUGHTER CUT WAS AN ISSUE.

This is our UK government. This is what they are doing to people – people who live in your close, whose kids are pals with your kids, people who are just trying to live their lives and survive.

This has been ONE DAY.

Kim’s requests for donations again:  they were the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.

The Supreme Court is considering the Continuity Bill

The Supreme Court has retired to consider their verdict about the Scottish Parliament’s Brexit Bill, which rejoices in the title of the “UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill”.   The Bill does its best to make it look as if it’s all really, really difficult.  The issues are said to be complicated. They’re not as complicated as they might seem at first.

The basic principle of devolution is straightforward.  All legal authority stems from a common source.  In many countries, that source would be the Constitution; in the UK, it’s Parliament (well, technically the “Crown in Parliament”, but it’s the same thing).  When Parliament is described as  “sovereign”, it doesn’t mean that Parliament holds all the power; it means that all legal authority flows from Parliament.  So whenever a lesser body exercises power – which might be, for example, a local authority, a government agency, a private prison or a devolved assembly – its authority has to be traceable back to the source.

What that means, for Scottish legislation, is that all legislation passed by the Scottish parliament has to pass a basic test: does the Scottish Parliament have the delegated authority to make that decision?  I raised this issue in relation to the powers of local government when Scotland introduced the Scottish Welfare Fund.  In England, local government was granted a power to promote welfare by the UK parliament.  In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament passed the same legislation in the same words – but it couldn’t mean the same thing, because the Scottish Parliament couldn’t grant powers it didn’t have.  That’s why the Scottish Government needed additional UK legislation before it could set up the Fund.

The same principle applies to any and all legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Parliament’s authority only extends to those areas where it has devolved authority, or ‘competence’.   If it were to pass any rule in general terms – like granting powers to promote welfare, requiring public authorities to offer interpretation in Gaelic or BSL, managing harbour traffic,  requiring licences for energy production or whatever – that rule could only be valid in so far as it related to the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament, and invalid in so far as it related to anything else.  The Continuity Bill has been very careful to specify that this is the case, and that it only relates to matters of devolved competence: EU legislation is affected “if and to the extent that it makes provision that is (or would be, if it were contained in an Act of the Scottish Parliament) within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.”

The legal principle at issue is so obvious and so fundamental that I’m ready to take a pop at predicting what the Supreme Court is going to say.  They’re going to say that Scotland has the power to make decisions when they have the power to make decisions, and that they don’t have the power to make decisions when they don’t.  Politically, this could be seen as a defeat or a victory on both sides, depending on what people were expecting.  But it’s not relevant that the UK government might prefer the Bill not to be considered yet; either the law is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament or it’s not.

The basic principle may not be complicated, but the Supreme Court’s judgment almost certainly will be.  They’ve established the dreadful practice of allowing each judge to issue a lengthy judgment that is different in tone, emphasis, content and specifics from each of the others, and then they pretend that they’ve reached a joint decision.  If you’re not confused  yet, you will be.

Saving remote Scotland

A short research note from the James Hutton Institute offers a gloomy prediction for the future of Scotland’s remote areas.  About half the country is sparsely populated, in the sense that it takes a journey of more than 30 minutes to reach places where 10,000 people live; large parts of the country are, more or less, wilderness.  Low populations mean limited development, limited opportunities and limited services – schools, banks, supermarkets and fuel have to have a population base to justify their existence.  The projected populations of the islands and Argyll and Bute are expected to fall by a third; the population of the Highlands is likely to fall by a quarter.

Lesley Riddoch offers a splendid piece in the National, crackling with ideas about the kinds of things that could be done to help remote areas.  The article’s not helped by a headline that suggests a different kind of content, but Riddoch’s article points to to issues including energy, land ownership, housing, communications, and local governance.  I know that some people will question whether human beings ought to be allowed into empty and wild spaces, but we need to question the wisdom of allowing half a country to wither away.

The Scottish Social Security Bill, now amended

The second stage of the Scottish Social Security Bill is complete.  Unusually, most of the issues raised as amendments have been incorporated, a clear sign that the legislators have taken comments seriously; there will be a Scottish Social Security Commission to review legislation and regulations, the rules on overpayments have been considerably qualified, and I was particularly gratified to see two new clauses on alienability (48A and 48B).  Mandatory reconsideration is still there before a claimant can appeal, in a piece of macho drafting depending on multiple cross-references to determine what can be appealed and what can’t.  The Bill is not perfect, then, but it is much better for the amendments.

Progress on the Social Security Bill in Scotland

A large number of amendments to the Social Security Bill have been tabled by the Scottish Government, along with a smaller number from opposition parties.  The Scottish Government amendments, which are more likely to pass, include:

  • a duty to promote takeup
  • provisions relating to aid and advocacy
  • the constitution  and operation of an independent Scottish Social Security Commission, which will scrutinise proposed regulations
  • qualification of the provision to allow some benefits to be paid in kind, so that it will be dependent on the consent of the recipient
  • clarification of rules for reconsideration (but not, regrettably, the two-stage mandatory reconsideration)
  • not reclaiming overpayments from people  innocently receiving them,
  • rules about appeals, and
  • uprating for inflation.

Other constructive amendments from opposition parties are less likely to pass, but they are constructive: they include, amongst other things:

  • extension of the general principles to cover the relief of poverty and the protection of rights
  • definition of the functions of the  Scottish Social Security Agency
  • reporting issues
  • the power to create new benefits, and
  • a duty to inform people about their entitlements.

This doesn’t deal with all the issues I’ve previously raised;  I am still concerned about the adoption of the Mandatory Reconsideration, and the lack of reference to alienability or diversion of benefits – but the overpayments rules and the provision for detailed scrutiny are much better.  It speaks well of the government that they have listened to many concerns, and of the opposition that the amendments are considered and show an evident desire to make the Bill better.