Category: Social Policy

This occasional blog discusses issues in Social Policy.

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.

Thinking collectively

Deadline day, and I’ve just sent off the final script of my next book to the publisher; it will be my nineteenth.  Barring catastrophes, Thinking Collectively: social policy, collective action and the common good will be out next spring from Policy Press.  (My original title was, “The Common Weal”, but the publisher didn’t think that would make sense to people outside of Scotland.)  In Reclaiming Individualism, I made a case for social and government action in order to protect and enhance the conditions of individuals. Thinking collectively comes from a different direction, looking at the issues from the perspective of groups, communities and the wider society.  As often happens, I’ve had to develop my own framework and approach because most of the existing literature doesn’t do what’s needed.

Writing books, of course, gets you nowhere.  Academic institutions like to give the impression  that they want people to publish, but they don’t really – publications are way down the list of priorities, and books aren’t taken seriously anyway.  My advice to young academics: don’t do what I did.

 

 

Social care has deeper problems than migration

The Migration Advisory Committeee’s report on migration is mainly focused on economic impacts.  It stresses that much of the concern about migration is misplaced, simply because immigration does not have that much effect on the underlying structures.   The rather dismissive comments made about Scotland’s pleas for more migration rather misses the point.  The issue is not about how the Scottish economy is performing proportionately to England; it’s about managing the effects of depopulation across a vast geographical area.

There was another set of comments, however, that set me off on a different tangent.  This concerns the problems of social care.  The MAC report notes:

Social care is a sector that struggles to recruit and retain workers which is a cause for concern as demand is rising inexorably. Its underlying problem is a failure to find a funding policy that allows the payment of higher wages.

That’s half right.  There is major problem in finding the labour to provide social care, and low pay is part of the problem.  Polly Toynbee has some cutting things to say about this, to great effect.  But the problem runs much deeper than that.  The issues are also about what kind of provision  is being made.  Social care has developed on a market model that attempts to commodify the time that carers spend with the people being cared for.  So, we get people being given a series of time slots – 15 minutes, 30 minutes or the like – which are met ‘flexibly’ by workers on a rota.  The poor conditions experienced by workers are not just a matter of low pay: it’s also that working on these terms, flitting from one slot to the next, is not a good  way to work.

More importantly, the whole approach is bad for service users.   Personal services depend on personal relationships.  It matters whether or not the person who comes to care is the same person as it was last time, if that person can recognise that the person they’re looking after is having a worse time than before, if that person knows what to do in different circumstances,  has time to talk,  is trusted by the person who’s being cared for, and so on.  A commodified, time-limited approach simply doesn’t fit most people’s needs.  Even if we improve pay, conditions and the numbers of people engaged in care, this is the wrong model, and the wrong way to do things.

Peru has provided everyone with national ID

The things we take for granted often look very different from the perspective of other countries.  In Peru, it’s being proudly reported that the nation has at last provided identity documents to everyone – a smart card that covers people for grants and benefits as well as ID.  Civil war had displaced 600,000 people, and three million had no documentation.  Now everyone does.  It’s being represented as a major step towards social inclusion.  “IDs open doors to opportunities.”

In the UK, ID cards were abolished post-war after people refused to cooperate with the system, and their reintroduction has been fiercely resisted.  It’s seen as the action of a domineering state and “Big Brother”.  In India, the Aadhaar card has been used to impose controls on issues including tax evasion and terrorism, and it is being challenged as an invasion of privacy.

It’s clear that the problems of being without documentation are a major blight on the lives of many people, most obviously in the USA and more recently in the treatment of Caribbean immigrants in the UK.  But processes which include some people can exclude others, and there are concerns from India about people who have been left out.  The lesson for public administration ought to be that no system is perfect, and the test of a good system is how it deals with mistakes, omissions and exclusions.  This is not so much about a sophisticated technology as about how services relate to ordinary people.

Terminating a Basic Income experiment tells us something, too

The decision to terminate the Basic Income Experiment in Ontario is a sort of finding, too.  The design of related experiments has usually been based on short term economic or behavioural effects – because that, after all, is all one can hope to pick up from an experiment for two or three years.  However, the arguments around Basic Income, on both sides, are about something different – about social and cultural change.   That kind of change can take a generation or more, and it’s simply not going to appear in the way that economists usually model such effects.  I’ve previously drawn the parallel with the introduction of old age pensions, where the effects in the UK weren’t fully resolved in sixty years.  It’s not possible, more than a hundred years after the introduction of pensions, to be certain what the implications were for older people at the time – and people considering retirement would have been right to be uncertain.  The costs of the 1908 scheme led the UK government to threaten retrenchment, and after massive post-war cuts in other services (the “Geddes axe”, applied 1921-22, cut spending worth 10% of GDP), in 1925 pensions were fundamentally reformed to raise money through contributions instead.   Most older people were retiring by the 1940s, but many people who were retiring in the 1970s were still deferring their pension claims.

The decision in Ontario comes shortly after a (somewhat less brutal) decision in Finland not to extend their experiments.   The message coming over is clear and strong: Basic Income is pushing at the limits of what politicians are prepared to consider.

What does this imply for Basic Income?  First,  politicians won’t leave Basic Income alone – they just can’t stop themselves from tampering.  Look at Child Benefit, which was working really well before the Coalition government decided to create special conditions for wealthy people. If Basic Income comes, it won’t be forever.

Second, there’s no such thing as an unconditional benefit.   Issues which may seem relatively minor now, such as the treatment of migrants, prisoners or religious communities, are going to surface eventually.   Some of the conditions are more liberal, some are less intrusive, but there will be conditions – tax exemptions to “send a message”, rewards for virtue, or whatever.  People advocating for Basic Income have to argue for conditions to be kept to a practical minimum.  That’s hard to do when politicians and the press will convert it into “benefits for paedophiles” or “benefits for members of ISIS”, with specific instances.  Be prepared.

And that leads to the third point: whatever people use their Basic Income for, they’d be unwise to bank their long-term security or future life-plan on it.  How long would it take before the system is so strongly embedded that the future becomes certain?   I can’t be sure, but it’s not going to happen in a three year experiment.

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.

Academic sources can’t be relied on

I’ve never been keen on the dominant style in conventional academic referencing, represented by Harvard or Vancouver – the notes generally appear as the author’s name stuffed in brackets with a date, such as “Marx, 1990”.  (That’s from a book I was looking at which is citing Das Kapital.  Karl Marx didn’t write very much in 1990, being dead, but we’re all supposed to know what it means.)   The notes often disguise the original source, which will appear on a different page, and lots of people will stuff a small reading list into a note to support points. I’m used to my own stuff being dragged in like that.  Whenever I write an academic paper, I’ll usually try to include arguments for, arguments against and my own conclusion.  That gives people the chance to find three contrasting opinions in most of the stuff I do, and I’m pretty much used by now to having all sorts of weird, ill-founded or obnoxious views attributed to me, from both left and right.  To take a small example, I’ve recently read an otherwise rather good article which cites my work on covert research, saying that covert research generally relies on deception.  That’s a fairly direct contradiction of what I do say.

Lots of academic writing seems to rely on sources to convey the necessary gravitas, but people can be a bit cavalier about the way that names are dropped.  I’ve just come across this, which seems to have been put together by pulling the names of likely contenders from a hat:

There is a long-standing problematisation of impoverished individuals subverting the basis of state or charitable support (Rousseau, 1762) and a strong conservative tradition of individualistic and behavioural understandings of poverty (Hobbes, 1651; Burke, 1790; Smith, 1776).

Rousseau, Hobbes and Burke’s Reflections (the 1790 reference) didn’t have much to say about state support for poverty, and it could be argued that Smith said the opposite.  It would have made more sense to refer to Joseph TownsendThomas Alcock or the traditions of the Poor Law.  The misattributions just get in the way of what is, otherwise, a very creditable and solid bit of empirical research.  Peer review is supposed to protect against this sort of thing, but frankly most peer reviewers won’t pick them up when they’re commenting – inaccurate referencing is hard to spot, and it’s almost never the main issue requiring comment.

 

 

India’s response to open defaecation

A billion people in the world defaecate in the open, largely because they have no toilet.  Half of them are in India. The graph below comes from an atlas of the Sustainable Development Goals produced by the World Bank.

SDG6.2

The government of India hoped, five years ago, that it could end open defecation by 2019.  It is well behind that target, but claims that 72.3 million toilets have been constructed, out of a target of 110 million. Reports from India number such things in lakh, a unit of 100,000; 72.3 million is 723 lakh.  The position was slightly confused last month by the Prime Minister’s claim that the state of Bihar had constructed 8.5 lakh, that is 850,000, toilets in a week – it seems that the toilets have been constructed, but not so quickly.

The Economist is sceptical about the figures more generally; some of the toilets that were supposed to be constructed appear not to exist, the claims of one state to have ended the practice have been shown to be false, and besides some people continue to defaecate in the open even though they have a toilet.   In Bangladesh, improved sanitation has been linked to education about hygiene, to great effect.   Regardless, the government deserves some credit for the priority it has given  to issues that are intended to make people’s lives better – including housing, electricity, financial inclusion and sanitation.