Category: Social Policy

This occasional blog discusses issues in Social Policy.

The problems of people who beg

Shelter Scotland has published a noteworthy report profiling people begging in Edinburgh.  The report asked questions of 420 people; that’s unlikely to be everyone, but it’s a lot.

Addiction plays a large part, with nearly 90% misusing drugs or alcohol; more than 80% had mental health problems, mainly depression and anxiety, and more than 60% also had physical health problems.  It’s a population that overlaps with street homelessness – 43% said they slept rough – but the two things are not equivalent, and I was struck as much by the differences as by the similarities.  When I worked on the census of homeless people in Aberdeen, it was the support staff who tended to say that the problems were problems of life-style and personal issues; homeless people said that the main problems were that they were cold and they were hungry.  People begging in Edinburgh seem far more likely to say that it’s down to their personal issues.

I did wonder if people might have been steered in some directions by the shape of the questions asked.  One of the messages from the qualitative studies I’ve done with psychiatric patients in the past is that family matters; the people left without support to become homeless are mainly those whose relationships with the family have broken down.  This is hinted at, but overall it’s not a major factor here.  In fairness, though, it’s difficult to set up exploratory, discursive interviews with homeless people (been there, done that); the remarkable thing about the Shelter study is how much information they’ve been able to bring together.

Some thoughts on nationalism and social policy

Over the last few days, I’ve hopped round a series of apparently unconnected sources which seem, nevertheless, to have a common theme.  I’ve been looking, for example, at material about the experience of poverty in low income countries; at political arguments concerning Zionism and anti-Zionism; at arguments for a distinct Scottish currency; and a constitutional arrangements concerning the rights of European citizens.  The issue that they have in common is a sense of the nation as a body which defines the scope of public policy.

Some years ago, Daniel Béland and André Lecours wrote a fascinating book on the relationship between nationalism and social policy.  The key question they are concerned with is how far our communities, and our responsibilities, extend. The case examples they looked at, such as Belgium and Canada, are effectively multi-national states, but so are others which see themselves as having a unifying culture – look, for example, at the constitutions of Ireland or Poland.   (Those constitutions, for what it’s worth, show that there is nothing exceptional about Zionist nationalism.)  The link between nationalism and social policy isn’t just that nationalist movements tend to emphasis the importance of mutual welfare, though it makes sense that they should do so.  It’s that social policy itself depends on the construction of a political community – an identifiable group which defines the scope and limits of mutual responsibility and support. However, solidarity in a political community commonly extends across nations and ethnicities – and some political communities extend beyond territory, too, which is how a few hundred thousand people have recently been able to claim Irish citizenship.  To be legitimate, solidarity and citizenship have  to be reasonably inclusive: any such community needs to accept that there will be people from more than one nation within it. Scottish nationalism meets that test; I’m not sure that all the other contenders do.

 

A protest about women-only events: can’t there be safe spaces for women?

A stushie in Edinburgh, with accompanying Twitter storm, has exercised my nearest and dearest.  The Audacious Women Festival, as the name implies, might be assumed to have something to do with women: find their tweets at @awfest.  Some of the events are open to all, and some are single-sex events intended for women.  But the idea of a single-sex event has exercised a particular lobby, claiming to represent trans and non-binary people, who have called for a boycott.  Yesterday, Glasgow Women’s Library (@womenslibrary) pulled out of two single-sex workshops they were due to conduct, leaving sixty people without an event at 30 minutes’ notice. Edinburgh Rape Crisis (@EdinRapeCrisis) has pulled a book launch planned for Monday.  Reactions on Twitter have been mixed; it seems to me that more people have condemned the organisations than have supported them.

The offence that the Festival has caused is that the organisers have stuck to the policy on gender recognition advised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission: more or less, that they treat people as women when they present as women (the statement has been misread by the Twitterati who don’t understand the purpose of the word ‘or’ in a sentence).   The call for a boycott was circulated by @ClassicsQueer, who holds that that policy excludes “our trans and nb sisters”. [“NB”, for those lost in acronyms, stands for non-binary.]   She attached a document saying this:

I would urge you particularly if you are a cis woman to boycott … A few weeks ago I reached out to them as I was concerned by the ‘women only’ rhetoric and was disappointed to find their response laden with transphobia.  I was told that the events were for people who are ‘publicly accepted as women’ and that they urge me and my friends to consider if other audience members will feel ‘comfortable with your personal identity’ before attending any events.”

Sisters Uncut Edin (I think the word ‘uncut’ is meant to be taken literally)  posted:  “We stand in solidarity with the trans, nb, gender non-conforming and cis allies who have called for a boycott of the festival.”  (Cis, for practical purposes, refers people who still have the gender assigned to them at birth.)  So, on the face of the matter, it’s not good enough to accept trans women as women, which is what the Festival does; there also has to be space for non-conforming, non-binary, non-females, or it becomes the act of a “#terf” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).

The first question to consider is whether it is legitimate to ask for distinct spaces for people of different genders.  The need for women-only spaces is recognised in equality law.  As a man, I accept that women need safe spaces; for example, as a social work supervisor with a student working in Women’s Aid, I wasn’t permitted to set foot on the premises.  Women’s discussion groups have long established the principle that the presence of men changes the dynamics of group conversation. Men, and people raised as men, are socialised to engage in discussion in different ways (and often try to dominate).  The rationale for making a distinction in supportive groups is that people from different genders have different life experiences, and behave differently as a result.  Trans, non-binary and non-conforming people have different experiences again – and have just as good a case for a distinct safe space in their own right; but that experience will not be reflected either in a men’s group or a women’s group.

The second question concerns the criteria used for inclusion and exclusion.  It seems to me that if trans, non-binary and non-conforming can be treated as a unifying category (and that, rather than trans inclusion, is the substance of the protest) we are not talking about conventional distinctions between women and men at all.  Some people extend that to include LGBTIQ+ – but that lumps gender together with sexuality, and in any case we are running out of alphabet. The issue is surely, if I can borrow a phrase from Jonathan Sacks, about recognising and valuing “the dignity of difference” – a principle which applies much more widely than the issues of gender.  But you cannot hope to rely on that principle for yourself if you deny it for others; and that, regrettably, is what the critics of the Festival are doing.

The third question concerns the boycott.  I’m baffled that the people demanding to be included can imagine that this is the way to pursue an argument.  Boycotts are exclusive; they stand at the opposite end from tactics of discourse, argument and persuasion. They are beloved by trolls and bullies.  The trans-activists who made this call are behaving like Men.  This is not what feminism looks like.

The Independent Group wants us to click on “I Agree”. Unfortunately, I don’t.

The ‘Independent Group’, the seven MPs who have quit the Labour Party has posted a statement of principles on its website.  (Not only do they have a website, they’ve even got a Wikipedia page; not bad for a movement that is less than one day old. )  The site opens on a positive statement of values, which they invite people to agree with.  Presumably they think the principle have a general appeal and that the statement places them somewhere near the political centre.  That may be true, but if so, the centre is a lot further to the right than it used to be.

Ours is a great country of which people are rightly proud, where the first duty of government must be to defend its people and do whatever it takes to safeguard Britain’s national security.

The idea that the first duty of government is defence comes straight out of the neo-conservative playbook, and it’s highly contentious.  The first duty of government should be this: the welfare of the people is the highest law (or salus populi suprema est lex:  when it’s in Latin, you know the sentiment has been around a long time).   In the course of the last  thirty years we’ve seen a proliferation of new states, and while defence matters. it comes well down the list of priorities.  What people want from their governments is practical benefit, and that’s a long way from what any government in the UK has been trying to do in recent years.

A strong economy means we can invest in our public services.

This one has it the wrong way round.  Investing in public services, and investing in people, is the way to have a strong economy.

The barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination facing individuals should be removed and advancement occur on the basis of merit, with inequalities reduced through the extension of opportunity, giving individuals the skills and means to open new doors and fulfil their ambitions.

Meritocracy and an emphasis of opportunity – the platform of the Conservative Party in the 1960s – are arguments for an unequal society.  Even the United Nations has been able to sign up to something more promising than this, pledging that no-one should be left behind. Anthony Crosland, who many people think of as being on the right of the Labour Party, wrote:

“in Britain equality of opportunity and social mobility … are not enough.  They need … to be combined with measures, above all in the educational field, to equalise the distribution of rewards and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification, the injustice of large inequalities, and the collective discontents which come from too great a dispersion of rewards.”

Back to the Independent Group.

Individuals are capable of taking responsibility if opportunities are offered to them, everybody can and should make a contribution to society and that contribution should be recognised.

It seems that everyone should make a contribution to society.  But some people can’t.  Some are left out, some are shut out, some are pushed out; some will never be able to fill the gap.  When people are vulnerable and disadvantaged, it’s not a good time to look for a contribution.  Some of us believe that people should be protected.  Some of us even think that people might have rights.

I share many of the Independent Group’s concerns about the direction that the Labour Party has taken.  The direction they propose instead is not, however, the direction I’d want to take.

 

Making people work for their health care

The Economist this week carries an article and an editorial piece about what they are calling “The Arkansas experiment“.  In January 2018 President Trump announced that there would be federal waivers to allow states to introduce a test of ‘community engagement’ for entitlement to Medicaid.  Medicaid is the means-tested system offering support in the US for health care for people of working age; ‘community engagement’ means, more or less, a work test, requiring people to be working, ‘volunteering’, studying or responsible.  Arkansas is so far the only state to implement this, but the Economist notes that 14 other states have applied for similar waivers.

The Economist expresses some doubt about the policy: it is complicated, engagement is difficult to prove in a world of precarious work, and incentivisation is perverse.  The main thing that sick people need before they can work is to be healthy.  But they start with a rather questionable statement of principle:  “The theory behind tying cash benefits to work requirements is sound. Asking people to do something in exchange offer a payment can build political support for welfare programmes”.    Conditionality may well be the price that politicians have to offer to get a programme accepted; that’s not the same as saying that conditionality leads to greater support.  If anything, the polities where people are most determined to impose conditions on the poor are also usually the ones where support is most tenuous.

The “theory” behind work requirements, if it deserves to be called a theory,  is highly questionable.  ‘Activation’ policies, which are supposed to prod unemployed people into work, are based on a series of false premises – that benefits used to  promote unemployment ‘passively’, that the answer to unemployment is more vigorous job-seeking, and that people will not move into work without a spur.  Empirically, activation doesn’t improve job matching; there is some evidence that it can make lead to mismatches, or even slow down the rate at which people move in to employment.  ‘Activation’ for people who are sick – a policy we’re now seeing in the UK, reflected in the treatment of sick people on ESA and Universal Credit – is worse still.  People on these benefits have to ready themselves for work nevertheless – sickness is no excuse.  It’s only a small step from there to the extension of the same principle to health care.  Depression?  Ulcerative colitis?  Congestive heart failure?  Pull yourself together!

 

 

A second referendum is not the way out of this mess

If there is a second referendum, there is no good reason to suppose that it will deliver the result that remainers hope for.  I’m basing that view not on opinion polls, but on some old-fashioned political science.  There is no such thing as ‘the will of the people’.  What there is, instead, is a mish-mash of different opinions.  Some people voted ‘leave’ because they were unhappy with the EU; some because they were opposed to immigration; some because they were against capitalism; some because they wanted to return to the 1950s; some because they wanted to give the government a kicking.  Some people voted remain because they like the EU; some because of self-interest; some to avoid disruption; some because of their judgment about the economy; and so on.  Lies or fear may have played a part, on either side, but that’s not decisive; nor is the fact that some people will feel empowered to vote leave, or that other people will strain themselves to get a different result this time.  The more complex an issue is, the more likely it becomes that people with different motivations and preferences will cancel each other out, and the closer the result moves to what you’d expect from a random distribution – a 50-50 split.

Once we start from that position, the result is statistically likely to be decided by a relatively small group of people with a strong, settled opinion, if there is no equivalent group on the other side to oppose them.  The source of this argument is L Penrose, The elementary statistics of majority voting, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 1946.    Bartholomew and Bassett wrote, in Let’s look at the figures, that  “2,000 resolute voters in a population of just over one million can almost always get their way.”   (p 125)  And that’s what happened in 2016.   (There might well have been an equivalent group on the other side – Britons in Europe – but they were largely barred from taking part.)     It’s not the polls that count; it’s the mechanism by which the issue is to be decided.  And without very strong reasons to the contrary, we should expect the same mechanisms and the same process to produce the same result.

The NHS long-term plan for England is not really a ‘plan’

I’ve not been close to work with the NHS for some years, and I’ve been away from England rather longer; but I think I know what a plan looks like, and the NHS Long Term Plan isn’t it.  The supposed plan is a long, rambling shopping list, lacking in structure, priorities or the means of achieving any aspirations people might have.  It’s all very well to say that the service will “dissolve the divide between primary and community health services”, or that people will have “more personalised health care when they need it”, but we need to know why, how, and how we will know if it’s happened.

One of the implications of the lack of structure is that there will be no way to tell whether or not this document has made any difference.  Being told, in bold lettering,  that “The health  service will continue to support implementation and delivery of the government’s new five-year action plan on Antimicrobial Resistance” or that “every trust in England with a maternity and neonatal service will be part of the National Maternal and Neonatal Health Safety Collaborative” tells us nothing at all – and if those objectives aren’t achieved, the gaps will be covered up by the rubble from hundreds of other equivalent objectives which might be achieved on the whole, or in part, or not at all.    The problem with long lists of policies,  Aaron Wildavsky wrote in Speaking truth to power,  is that they become a way of burying the things that don’t get achieved – “mechanisms for avoiding rather than making choices”.  The NHS Long Term Plan doesn’t identify problems, aims, methods, process, outcomes, or how to get value for money.  That doesn’t inspire confidence for the future.

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 Court of Appeal decision on NDAs is difficult to take

I never used my legal training, and in some important ways I’m sadly out of date: this is one of them. Confidentiality agreements used to refer to the protection of internal information relating to a business; they have become  a means of silencing criticism, something quite different. I was sufficiently perplexed by the reports of the current affairs relating to Philip Green to want to read the Court of Appeal’s judgment.

The fundamental problem, barrister Jolyon Maugham has written, is that the Court of Appeal has failed to take account of the imbalance of power.  Obviously enough, the gagging orders are taken by people in a position of privilege against less powerful employees, usually women.   “How did the Court miss this?”  It didn’t miss it, but it did wave it aside.  In paragraph 42, the Court notes that it is hard to get a settlement of litigation without an NDA; in paragraph 43, they refer to agreements as valid if they are not subject to pressure.  Pressure is built in to the process.

The Court takes the view that a settlement of litigation can routinely include a rule of confidentiality.   At the start of the judgment, the Court considers the NDA as a subordinate part of the Settlement Agreement.  “There were terms in each of the Agreements under which both sides undertook to keep confidential the subject matter of the complaints themselves and various associated matters, including the amounts paid by way of settlement. … We will refer to this aspect of the Settlement Agreements as non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).”  After that, however, it refers consistently to “the duty of confidentiality”.  The Court took it that confidentiality should be presumed to be upheld unless there is a strong element of public interest which requires otherwise – and held the hearing in private session on that basis. That should not be taken for granted.

There are three problems with applying a rule of confidentiality.  First, it has not been established whether there is such a duty; the Settlement Agreements apparently make exceptions for certain lawful actions and, as the Court itself recognises, “confidentiality could not be relied on to conceal wrongdoing.”  The rules are supposed to protect confidential information, but there is no “information” in this case; the main thing being held in confidence is the agreement.  Openness is fundamental to justice.The presumption of confidentiality  on the basis of a Settlement Agreement is illegitimate; it has to be justified.

Second, if there is a duty, it is not owed by the Daily Telegraph, which on the face of the matter had already been informed about the existence of the Settlement Agreements and the NDAs.  That already constitutes, in the terms of another set of laws, publication: the knowledge in question has been conveyed to a third party.  If there is any breach, the breach is by signatories, and action lies against them.  The substance of this action depended on a supposition that if there had been a leak by one of the parties to an NDA – that has not actually  been established –   any duty of confidentiality they owed to the other party must be extended to the newspaper.  I think it could be argued that talking to a newspaper magnifies the offence of  someone breaching an agreement; I cannot see that the newspaper owes any duty of confidentiality to either party.  There is no justification for preventing publication, unless in some way the newspaper itself violates the complainant’s rights in the process.  In this case, there is no indication that the Telegraph has acted improperly in any way.

The third point is the one that runs deepest.  The Court of Appeal has taken a view about the confidentiality of settlements which is inconsistent with the Rule of Law.  The Supreme Court’s recent judgment in the Unison case emphasises the essential nature of access to justice.

The constitutional right of access to the courts is inherent in the rule of law. … Access to the courts is not … of value only to the particular individuals involved. … it is not always desirable that claims should be settled (my emphasis) … the value to society of the right of access to the courts is not confined to cases in which the courts decide questions of general importance. People and businesses need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their rights if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them. It is that knowledge which underpins everyday economic and social relations.

It seems to me that the Court of Appeal has lost sight of this fundamental principle.  They have treated a settlement agreement as virtually equivalent to access to justice; it cannot be.   A private agreement to avoid litigation may be beneficial, but it cannot bind others, it cannot remain secret, and it cannot be treated as the last word.

Unifying benefits is hardly a new idea

In the comments to a previous posting, Andrew Hatton asks when the idea of first unifying benefits was seriously considered by a UK Government. I started to respond within the comments, and then thought it might stand as an entry on its own.

It might reasonably be argued that governments in these islands have always thought in terms of unified systems. The Tudor poor law  of 1536, inspired by the model of Ypres, created national law for responding to poverty. The statutes of 1598 and 1601 – the “Old Poor Law” – instituted a national scheme, at least in principle. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act – the “New Poor Law” – was designed to implement a uniform regime within that scheme, treating for example older people and unemployed people on the same terms. The Beveridge scheme was supposed to create a unified national administration based on insurance – popularly described as a system to cover people ‘from the cradle to the grave’. National Assistance initially included income and welfare services for every group not covered by insurance. And Supplementary Benefit, its successor, incorporated a range of provisions into a single means-tested benefit: income, unemployment, disability, rent, mortgages, sickness, old age, residential care for older people and child support among them. Universal Credit is not a great, original idea; it revisits the portmanteau benefits of the past.

Marina Hyde, writing in the Guardian, puts her finger on one of the key problems with Universal Credit.  “The most dangerous type of politician”, she comments, is “the sort who thinks that very complicated things are actually very simple.”  And I wrote something similar in the Guardian myself shortly after Universal Credit was first mooted.

Benefits deal with millions of people, and recipients’ lives are diverse and complicated. If universal credit responds to their needs, it will also be diverse and complicated – and therefore expensive. If it does not, it will cause hardship – and it will look unfair.

There have been, of course, other types of unifying scheme, and currently the one which is most discussed is Universal Basic Income – an idea which has been around since the eighteenth century.  Some of the models for UBI are utopian, but if we take UBI to mean an all-singing, all dancing answer to every human problem, it will fail for the same reason that all the other combined schemes fail: people’s lives are too complicated to be covered neatly and simply in a uniform way.  It’s more important to focus on the idea that Basic Income is meant to be basic – a springboard, an element of income that can be mixed with other income – and forget the idea that it will then be possible to junk everything else about the benefit system, because it won’t be.