Harry Burns on mortality figures

I’ve recently joined the board of Barony Housing Association, which is part of the Wheatley Group, and consequently was invited to a institutional lecture by Prof Sir Harry Burns, who was considering mortality statistics in Scotland and the UK.  He made the case that, despite the emphasis on nutrition in much of what’s written about public health, nutrition is not at the core of the problems.  Scotland’s nutrition-related mortality follows a pattern, astonishingly, which is not much different from Finland’s.  Finland has an exemplary nutritional policy and lots of virtuous practices, and Scotland (notoriously) doesn’t.

The real difference in mortality, he argued, occurs in younger age groups; and the primary issues for the mortality of younger adults are drugs, alcohol, violence and suicide.  All of which are social.

The last of the main manifestos, from the SNP

The Scottish National Party’s manifesto is the last of the main manifestos to appear.  It’s a reflective document, explaining the SNP’s work in opposition, their role in Westminster and some of the things they hope to lobby for.  In the field of social security, that includes ‘halting’ Universal Credit – presumably that means halting the roll-out, scrapping the two-child limit, ending the freeze on uprating and protecting the WASPI women.   That platform brings them quite close to Labour, who are similarly trying to reverse some of the negative policies of recent years.

I have to accept, reviewing the clutch of election manifestos, that I’d been looking for something that none of the parties is really ready to consider: some thinking about what government should be trying to do for its citizens, what might be done with benefits, what principles we would want to uphold.  I had imagined, after the great splash on social care in 2017, or the continuing problems in health care marked by the troubles of A and E, that some party would have run with something more innovative – for example, what should be done by contributions (the German approach to social care), what by different social arrangements (such as the Kerr reforms of urgent health care) or what by redistribution.  However, these are not the sort of things that our political system is engaging with.  It’s easy to blame Brexit for monopolising everyone’s attention, but I think it goes deeper than that.  After decades years of neoliberalism, marketisation and ‘austerity’, there’s little appetite for solidarity, redistribution  or the expansion of public service.


Suffering for my art

I’ve been trying to catch up on reading for social policy, and it’s not been a rewarding experience. I’ve just read two books on inequality that couldn’t tell me was inequality was; three books on austerity, two of which could have been written at any time since 1980; several papers that have gratuitous numbers and more references than text; and two and a half books on social work which have told me useless things like saying that capitalism is bad or that people have problems, without giving any hint or clue about what social workers might actually do about it. I’m not going to name those books, because throwing around insults isn’t going to win any friends, but I will mention the one glimmer of light, which was Frances Ryan’s book Crippled: austerity and the demonisation of disabled people. It’s about people’s lives, and everything rings true. If only there were more like it.

Labour’s manifesto could have been more exciting

Coming to the Labour manifesto so shortly after viewing the Liberal Democrats’, I was struck more by the similarity of approach than by the differences – not so much the common emphasis on, say, climate change or mental health, as the fact that both parties have opted for a very long series of specific proposals rather than – as they might have done – a strong critique of government since 2010, a focus on key principles, an analysis of Britain’s democratic problems, the failures of regional policy or measures that could help to bridge the divide between our alienated and marginalised communities.

The policy on social security is, as is all too common, mainly reactive; there is lip service to dignity and respect, but not much that explains how that can be achieved.   There is a commitment to help people with disabilities, which  mainly boils down to £30 on ESA or accepting a supplement within UC – putting back what’s been taken away – with other marginal measures.  The best idea is getting rid of Universal Credit – but that’s reactive, too.

Another of the peculiarities of this document is how much it proposes centralisation.  A National Education Service; a National Care Service; a National Crime Agency; a National Youth Service: a National Strategy for Childhood; even a national LGBT+ plan. The proposals are mainly specific to England. I searched for references to Wales, only to find that devolution is not central to the vision here; it’s being treated in a different manifesto.

This is being feted as a deeply radical document, but I’m not convinced it is.  There are too many token measures  – removing hereditary peers, or an enquiry into Orgreave or releasing papers about Cammell Laird shipyard workers.  With the splendid exception of universal broadband, there’s not enough that is really game-changing.

Additional note, 22nd November.  There are some elements of the proposals that I missed, because they are  not in the manifesto at all: they are in a separate costings document Most of the elements are straightforward, but I should welcome the proposal to bring basic corporation tax and Capital Gains Tax to the same level as Income Tax – currently there are incentives to present income as if it was something else.   No doubt this will be represented by critics and some over-enthusiastic supporters as a radical attack on the wealthy, which it is not; it is a dull but sensible rationalisation of a system that has grown far too complex.


The Liberal Democrat manifesto: baby steps, but it could have gone much further.

The Liberal Democratic manifesto, or  “Jo’s plan for the future”, has lots of small, specific policies to flesh out the cult of personality.  Being specific is no bad thing, but it makes it more disappointing that they have not a great deal to say about either social care or benefits.  In relation to social care, their main proposals are to spend more on general practice and on mental health services – fair enough, but it falls somewhat short of responding to the needs of dependent elderly people, and particularly the issues surrounding residential and domiciliary care that undermined the Conservatives during the 2017 election.  Too difficult, perhaps?

In relation to  social security, much of what they want to do is to rein back on some of the damage that the Conservatives have wrought with Universal Credit – the five week wait, the bedroom tax, the two child limit, the rules for self-employment, sanctions and assessments.  I’ve previously been critical of the Labour Party for going through the same kind of reactive exercise – ‘pretty feeble stuff’, I called it in a paper earlier this year.  We need to do far more to ensure that benefits are more adequate, to address insecurity,  and to make sure they get predictably to the people who need them.  The Liberals are proposing a ‘right to food’.  How about an income that makes it possible for people to buy the food they need?

The Manifesto’s heart is in the right place, at least.  And there is one particularly cheering, specific proposal: to separate employment support from benefits administration.  Spot on.  Lumping the two together has impaired the effectiveness of both of them.

The Green Party Manifesto proposes a Universal Basic Income

The Green Party is first to reveal its manifesto for the General Election.  An important part is the proposal to introduce a Universal Basic Income, offering £89 a week to every adult, supplements for disability, single parents, lone pensioners and means-tested allowances for families with children.  Housing Benefit (or the housing element of Universal Credit) will be retained only for existing claimants.

I’m sure that advocates of Basic Income will welcome the direction of movement, but there are problems with the specific proposals.  First is the distributive effect.  If other benefits are stopped, the financial gains to better-off households far outstrip any benefit to people on lower incomes.  This scheme is highly regressive.  Secondly, there are the supplements.  Disability benefits will require a test; supplements for lone parents will require a cohabitation rule; means-testing for families will inevitably be complex.  Third, there is the proposal to freeze Housing Benefit.  That means, bluntly, that new claimants (mainly younger people) will not be able to afford housing; and that social housing providers will not be able to provide it.  Overall, this scheme will leave many poor people worse off.

Four years of independent work

I’m coming up to an anniversary of sorts.  It’s four years since I took early retirement, leaving my employment with Robert Gordon University.  I’d been asked to move in a different direction, far away from social policy.  I thought that I could do more of the things I cared about if I worked independently.  Since then, I’ve finished three books plus one (the fourth, currently in press, will be out in March), had a semester in Poland, attended conferences in France and Italy (but can’t afford the SPA conferences), and had three research contracts.  I’ve also passed a small personal milestone, with more than four thousand citations recorded on Google Scholar. The work goes on.

Institutional racism comes from ‘othering’, not just from hate. We need to recognise the dignity of difference.

Institutional racism has come, in Britain, to be understood as

the collective failure of an organisation to provide and appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin.

Those words come from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.  The elements of institutional racism lie, not so much in the expression of direct or personal discrimination, as in the actions of institutions – acts, processes and the promotion of outcomes which are discriminatory.

Both the leading candidates in the electoral contest have been criticised,  with some reason, for making stereotypical or prejudiced comments about race.  Boris Johnson has made offensive comments about Muslims, women, homosexuality, Liverpudlians, Africans, ‘orientals’ and heaven knows what else.  Jeremy Corbyn is accused more often of condoning racism more than of making racist statements,  with the main exception of accusing Jews of not understanding British irony; but the racism he has appeared to wave aside includes accusations of conspiracy, divided loyalties, sinister influence and Holocaust denial.   I don’t think we can appeal for ‘zero tolerance’ of inappropriate comments, because – like going ‘back to basics’ in moral conduct – it asks more of us than we’re capable of living with.  Everyone has some prejudices,  even if we might hope that public figures would think twice before they gave vent to them.

We should be more directly concerned with about the levels of institutional racism that have been on display in both the Conservative and Labour parties.  Both parties have factions who want to deny that there is any problem.  Some right-wing commentators have  claimed that Islamophobia has been invented; Labour supporters often refer to ‘smears’ (itself a racist accusation, claiming that complaints are based on deliberate fabrication and conspiracy).  The Conservative leaders promised to hold an inquiry into anti-Muslim hatred, and have backtracked; Labour stands accused of  institutional racism and a toxic environment.  We need to understand the effect on institutions that is produced, not by racial hate as such, but by ‘Othering’ – painting minority groups, such as Jews or Muslims, as alien.  The damage is done not when we call people names, but when we accuse them of alien patterns of thought, divided loyalties, dishonesty and ulterior motives.  Those, rather than outright racial hatred, are the sentiments which lead to denial, rejection and the inability to deal with justified complaints.


The pitfalls of comparative analysis: does the welfare state lead to wealth inequality?

A blog from the right-wing Cato Institute caught my eye.  It claims, on the basis of an article published last year, that poorer households have less personal wealth in countries with higher welfare state expenditure.  Apparently, this is because people in welfare states don’t need to provide for the same contingencies that others might have to.  The headline claims: “Welfare State Causes Wealth Inequality”.

The original article , by Fessler and Schürz, is complex and careful, and it’s capable of being interpreted in several ways.  The article is behind a paywall, so here’s a link to a slide show with key details.  Wealth holding is very strongly reflects the pattern of inheritance, and the people this most affects aren’t the poorest.   The authors explore a range of interpretations, most notably the apparent paradox that

social services provided by the state are substitutes for private wealth accumulation and partly explain observed differences in levels of household net wealth across European countries. …  This implies that an increase in welfare state spending goes along with an increase — rather than a decrease — of observed wealth inequality.

I’m not convinced that we can treat social expenditure as a unified element – the way countries treat pensions is not necessarily how they treat people with disabilities – and if there is a generative relationship, it’s not at all clear what affects what.  In my own published work, more generally, I’ve been critical of analysing country effects in this way.

The paper where I make the arguments is on open access here.  What matters is not the number of data points within the countries, because those points are interdependent, but the number of policy units (that is,  governments).   There just aren’t enough countries to be able to do this analysis sensibly, and this paper is no exception.  direction  Here is a graph from Fessler and  Schürz‘s paper, showing some of the key information.

The data in the article are based on 13 countries; this graph has eleven.  One of them is Luxembourg, a notorious outlier – not just because it’s small, but because it’s distinctive.  Remove Luxembourg from the analysis, and the line in the graph goes clearly and strongly in the opposite direction.  (That reversal of direction, which contrasts with the apparent pattern for people with less wealth, actually makes the findings more interesting.)

This doesn’t mean that the interpretation in the article is wrong.  The hypothesis is intriguing and plausible,  and it could still be true.  The problem is that we can’t tell.