Universal Credit and a pattern of fraud

A major fraud has been reported affecting Universal Credit.  Over the course of the last eight and a half years, I’ve frequently commented on the vulnerability of the UC system to fraud and error, despite repeated claims from the government – and the falsification of the business case – to claim the opposite.  This fraud is different from most, because it represents organised criminal activity that is neither attributable to claimants nor to DWP officials.  The criminals  pretend to be other people, both claimants and people who have not claimed, to register for short term loans before any checks might be made.  (This is not, for the most part, ‘identity theft’; it is personation.  A fraud of this sort is typically a fraud on the DWP, not on the claimaint.)

It should have been obvious from the outset that computer-based identification wouldn’t be sufficiently secure for the purposes of the DWP.  There was something close to an admission of this more than  three years ago, when Verify, the successor to the failed “Identity Assurance”, was cut adrift.  But the problem is not only down to poor tech.  The situation has been produced by a system that relied on online verification, rather than claims in person; that left claimants without resources for well over a month; and replaced a system capable of processing the vast majority of claims within 14 days with one that struggled to do it in six weeks, and sometimes could take as long as three months.   Universal Credit is error-prone by design.  Its vulnerability to deception is only a part of that.

 

 

A Scottish supplement to benefits for children

The announcement of a Scottish “child poverty” benefit has to be welcome.  In principle, it will increase the incomes of many families by £10 per week per child, starting with children under the age of six.  Focusing on the under-sixes is good; there’s a clear relationship between the age of the youngest children and low incomes.   So is the promise that it will be there for every child in a family.

The main problem with reliance on qualifying benefits is that receipt is going to reflect the deficiencies in that system.  One clear problem is takeup.  I’m not convinced by the HMRC claim that CTC goes to 85% of all potential recipients (if it’s true, it’s more accessible than any other means-tested benefit), but that still leaves out the 15% who don’t get it.  A second problem is that entitlement is intermittent, particularly for benefits assessed on the basis of income; and benefit entitlement can be interrupted by sanctions, which shouldn’t be relevant for this supplement.    Dealing with changes in circumstances – including moving out of Scotland – could also be problematic.

In practice, the details are still vague; I’ve been greatly helped by a reference supplied by Ian Davidson, who pointed me towards the Position Paper posted on Wednesday by the Scottish Government.  The qualifying benefits will be:

  • Child Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit
  • Income Support
  • Pension Credit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Housing Benefit
  • Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA)
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

Those benefits are all under the control of the DWP, with a particular emphasis on Universal Credit; Scottish benefits, including Council Tax Reduction and Disability Assistance, will not qualify claimants for the Scottish Child Payment.

One way to resolve the problems of means testing – just make the details up

I’m definitely slowing down; it’s the nearly the end of May and I’ve still got seven hundred pages to work through of the CPAG handbook.

I’ve been struck this time by something I really ought to have noticed before now, which is the system’s gradual, creeping dependence on imaginary money: ‘notional’ income,  earnings or capital, ‘deemed’ income, treating loans as income, attributing to people the benefits they haven’t claimed, ‘underlying’ entitlements, treating payments that are owed to a claimant as if they had actually been paid, and so on. For those of you who habitually don’t spend their time curled up with the Handbook, here are a few examples:

If your main work is self-employment but your earnings are low, your UC may be worked out on higher earnings than you have.  (p 119)

You may be treated as having notional income if … you work free of charge or for less than the going rate ( p 129)

If you fail to apply for income to which you are entitled without have to fulfil further conditions, you are treated as having it from the date you could have obtained it. (p 451)

Capital (unless it is disregarded) is assumed to provide a set rate of income – called ‘deemed income’ (p 477)

You may be treated as having notional capital if:

  • you deliberately deprive yourself of capital in order to claim or increase benefit
  • you fail to apply for capital which is available to you
  • you are a sole trader or a partner in a business which is a limited company (p 501)

You are treated as having ‘notional earnings’ if it is not possible to work out your actual earnings from employment or self-employment when your claim is decided (p 564)

Student loans for maintenance count as income if you could get a loan by taking ‘reasonable steps’, even if you choose not to apply for one.  (p 871)

The basic principle is that if people’s income is too complicated, too unstable or too uncertain to declare, the process of means-testing is going to plough on regardless.  They may not actually have any income, but we can still pretend that they have one. It’s a wonder that we’ve not thought more about make-believe food.  It’s the obvious answer to foodbanks.

How to abolish universal credit

An inquiry in London is asking how Universal Credit can be replaced.  I’ve previously supported calls to ‘pause’ or stop its roll-out.  Unfortunately, with more than two million people enrolled, we’re well past the point where it can be stopped or cancelled in its present form. The most important change passed when UC moved past its previous focus on unemployed people and started to enrol other people with a wide range of needs.   Most people who are unemployed cease to be unemployed within a few months, but longer-term claimants are much more likely to be chronically sick or disabled.  They need stable, secure protections. Universal Credit is not good at providing them, because of the  fluctuations in the level of support provided, but the support cannot just be removed while a new system is sorted out.   Transfers from existing benefits can be stopped, but new enrolments can’t be – there have to be benefits available for sickness, unemployment, low earnings.

What can be done, then, to deal with this catastrophe?  Forget the easy, unified solutions; that’s how the mess was made in the first place.  The only practical approach is to start to dismantle the system by moving to new, compartmentalised benefits dealing with the principal contingencies.  Start with invalidity, or long term sickness: it needs to be removed from the principle of work-testing, because the whole point of the provision is that it is supposed to deal with people who it’s not reasonable to expect to work.  Most of the regulations introduced for ESA or UC  have been screamingly inappropriate.  Think about child care; it may be best to take it out of the benefit system altogether.  The changes to Pension Credit are new – couples where one person is still of working age can transfer back to the pension system with no loss.  Housing Benefits are still largely in place – they won’t be for long, and local authorities have been losing expert staff, but the long-heralded abolition of Housing Benefit for pensioners hasn’t happened yet, and that system could keep going.

I’m not going to go through every aspect of the benefit in the same way, but the principle should be clear.  Whenever  you have a complicated problem, the way to deal with it is not with a single, complicated answer.  To deal with an unmanageable  problem, break it up into slightly less complicated ones; break those up in turn into smaller ones, and keep going until there’s a group of problems that it’s actually possible to deal with.

This is, of course, the opposite of what Universal Credit was supposed to do.  The approach is made a little easier by the fact that Universal Credit is not, and never could have been, a unified system: it already has compartments for different aspects of the service (unemployment, employment, housing and so forth).  The system can’t be abolished overnight.  It has to be taken apart piece by piece.

Winners and losers from Universal Credit

In any benefit reform, there are likely to be winners and losers; unless there is a substantial increase in the budget, the gains for some can only be made because others are being paid less. A fascinating report from Mike Brewer and his colleagues at the Institute of Fiscal Studies looks at the difference between short- and long-term gains and losses from Universal Credit. The difference is important, because Universal Credit has in theory been designed to maintain contact with large numbers of people over extended periods of time.

What the IFS report finds includes

  • greater lossers for people on long-term low incomes,
  • losses for people with disabilities
  • short term losses for self-employed people with low earnings, that are less likely to last as their circumstances change, and
  • some large gains and losses in the short term, which are not always reflected in the long-term outcomes.

The report is concerned with entitlement, rather than the actual amounts of benefit received – the serious problems there have been in practical delivery, and the impact of conditionality and sanctions, are going to mean that many more people are worse off than they ought to be on paper. Short term losses matter, too. For people on very low incoimes, a short-term loss means, in practice, that people have periods of severe privation, often going without food and accumulating debts.

Some reservations about Basic Income

Yesterday I was at the launch of the report from a seminar series organised by the Scottish Universities Insight Unit in conjunction with Citizen’s Basic Income Scotland.  My role has been as the resident sceptic; I prepared a series of background papers and a paper outlining the reasons for my doubts, and how they might be overcome.  The results are in the report, Exploring Basic Income in Scotland, available here.  There are my papers on Basic Income and Human Rights and Equality on pp 12-17, Care  on pp 47-52, Housing on pages 62-65.  The longer paper on Reservations about Basic Income is on pp 90-104.

The summary of those reservations goes like this:

Even if we accept all the arguments for Basic Income in principle, there are serious issues to resolve relating to cost, distribution, adequacy and practical implementation.

  • Cost. Basic Income schemes are all very expensive. The first question to ask is not whether we can afford BI, but whether we should – whether the money would not be better used in some other way.
  • Distribution. All the Basic Income schemes which have been developed to date make some poor people worse off. That mainly happens because they try to pay for BI by cutting or reducing existing benefits. Any scheme which does that it is going to benefit some people on higher incomes more than it benefits people on lower ones.
  • Adequacy. The treatment of existing benefits and of current tax allowances cannot work as intended. Basic Income cannot meet all the contingencies currently covered by social security benefits. It should not even try to do so.
  • Implementation. BI will not be without its complications. It is time to address them.

Basic Income cannot be ‘adequate’, but it does not need to be; it only needs to be basic. A modest income could be provided without damage to poor people, so long as it does not affect the status of other benefits.

 

Nothing personal: a proposal to convert the personal allowance from tax to benefits

About ten months ago, I put an argument for a convertible tax allowance on the blog – here is the link. The New Economics Foundation has just floated a very similar idea, in a report called Nothing Personal. The main difference between their proposal and mine is that they are proposing not an optional conversion, but a universal one.  That would have the advantage of ensuring coverage, but it would also have two large disadvantages.  One is that it would call for much more extensive direct administration, because it doesn’t use the existing PAYE system in the same way. The other is that the personal allowance would be reduced to zero, requiring declaration of every penny earned.

Disability Assistance: the consultation paper opts for too many of the wrong answers

The Scottish Government has launched A Consultation on Improving Disability Assistance in Scotland, with a closing date set for the end of May. The consultation paper makes the important assumption that the design of Disability Assistance should be based broadly on the existing pattern of benefits.  In particular, it proposes

  1. A distinction between benefits for children and young people, for people of working age and for older people
  2. The continued use of a functional assessment, and
  3. The maintenance of components to cover ‘daily living’ and ‘mobility’

A risk of confusion  At three points (on pages 15, 16 and 17) the document suggests that they want to reduce the “risk of confusion between benefits being delivered by both UK and Scottish Governments”.  The existing system of benefits is already deeply confusing, and as a consequence it fails in many important respects to reach the people it is meant to help. The approach laid out in the consultation paper is designed to make sure it is at least as confusing as it was before.

I would point here to three pieces of evidence.  The first is from an ad hoc study done for the DWP.  Three-quarters of the people who benefits are supposed to support do not recognise themselves as being ‘disabled’.  Most of them do not think of themselves as being disabled; others answer that they’re disabled ‘sometimes’.   The second is that people do not understand the basic premise of a benefit that is supposed to cover daily living or care.  A study of unsuccessful claims for Disability Living Allowance found that people receiving Employment and Support Allowance – the long-term sickness benefit – did not understand that DLA was there for different purposes from ESA; that they sometimes made claims with no reasonable hope of success, thinking that they may as well have a crack at it anyway; and if they were refused, they put it down to luck rather than the operation of appropriate criteria.  The third issue is that takeup of these benefits is worryingly low.  None of these figures is certain, but the best guesses are that the mobility component of DLA is claimed by something in the region of 60% of the people entitled, Attendance Allowance by 50% and the care component of DLA (now the ‘daily living’ allowance of PIP) is taken up by 40%.

Distinctions on the basis of age.  Wherever a distinction is made on the basis of age, there will be problems in managing the transition between benefits.  The suggestion that people of “working age” have different needs tends irresistibly to give the impression that the criteria have something to do with working, and one of the problems with PIP at present is the mistaken assumption that ability to work is somehow a relevant criterion in assessment – that is not what disability assistance is supposed to be about.

The most important problem, however, is that distinctions on the basis of age can lead to serious inequity, and anomalies in the operation of the benefit.  As things stand at present, people under the age of 65 get PIP, and people over the age of 65 are supposed to get Attendance Allowance.  That implies, on the face of the matter, that people under 65 can get help with mobility, and people over 65 cannot.  However, that is not what happens.  A person who becomes disabled before the cut-off date can continue to receive DLA/PIP after the date.  Fully a third of PIP and DLA claims are made by older people under this rule.  And that means that people with the same disability can get different benefits, depending on when their disability was incurred.  One of the most common causes of disability for people aged 50-70 is stroke; some people who have strokes recover, some others recover partially.  So a person who had a stroke at 63 and recovers partially may get help with mobility, while another person who has a stroke at 67 cannot, even if the functional limitation of the older person is more serious.

The use of a functional assessment. DLA was made by clumping together two rather different benefits: Attendance Allowance for adults below pension age and mobility allowance.   Mobility Allowance was based on a functional assessment – whether or not people could walk; Attendance Allowance was not.  While there have been many challenges to the mobility component, for example those related to conation, it is the care or daily living component which causes most confusion.

The points-based approach to functional assessment was initially based on work by the Office for Population Censuses and Surveys, when the scheme had a very different purpose.  There was no intention to develop a mechanism for individual disabilities to be precisely measured, and points were not the sole test: when the OPCS scheme was initially worked out, one of the critical points made about it was that disability reflected the nature of each person’s most serious impairments, not a cumulation of smaller functional limitations.  The points scheme has never worked well, and one of the reasons why entitlement to DLA and then PIP grew beyond the government’s expectations was that repeated challenges drew attention to groups of people who were simply left out – first people with learning disabilities, then mental disorders, then people with terminal illness and most recently people with fluctuating conditions.  The central problem is simply this: most disabilities do not have a strict, constant and precise relationship to functional capacity or daily activity.  People cannot clearly relate their circumstances to the tests.

There are alternatives.  I have made the case before on this blog, and it bears repetition here.  First, it is possible to identify certain conditions which should imply automatic entitlement, offering benefits on minimal or secondary evidence – either accepting on sight that the person has a qualifying disability (double amputation, severe disfigurement) or passporting benefits on the basis of provision by other agencies (congenital disability, blindness).  Second, there are conditions which will have led to prolonged long term contact with health services, and certification from a consultant is sufficient to establish that the condition is there without requiring further detailed examination of personal circumstances. Examples are terminal illness, multiple sclerosis, MND, malignant neoplasms or brittle bones. Third, there are conditions where existing services in long-term contact with the individual are far better placed to judge the impact of a condition than an independent assessor could be, and it would be appropriate to accept medical certification. Examples are continued psychosis, epilepsy, dementia and learning disability. Only after these three categories are considered is it appropriate to think in terms of further individual assessment of function, or a points scheme.

Daily living and mobility components. The other main issue to consider is whether there should be two components of a combined benefit, at least for people of working age.  The key problems have already been identified here.  People do not understand it, and ‘have a go’ instead; takeup is poor; there are serious inequities because of the treatment of the mobility component.  If there was a separate Mobility Allowance, its rules could be reconsidered to sort out which older people should get it, instead of the arbitrary current rules; and people do understand, more or less, what a Mobility Allowance is about.  Then we could have a reasoned discussion about the other component – whether it is supposed to respond to extra needs, or to provide extra income, some compensation for disability, or some other purpose.  (My own view is that we ought to revive SDA, rather than abandoning it, but I appreciate that that probably puts me in a minority of one.)

Whatever we do, we need to recognise that the current arrangements do not work, and that minor tweaks are not enough; it is time to bring them to an end.

Policies for devolved disability benefits

The Scottish Government has decided not to ask for the transfer of responsibility for Severe Disablement Allowance, which will continue to be managed by the DWP. I was asked by a journalist for a reaction, and what follows is my answer.

The decision is  understandable, because SDA was closed to new claimants many years ago, and the government does not want to create disruption for the small numbers of people who are currently entitled to Severe Disablement Allowance. Having said that, the power to deliver a benefit similar to SDA could be important for the future. SDA was always a relatively small, residual benefit designed to fill in the gaps when other benefits were not available. The distinctive feature of SDA was that it was the only benefit paid to people simply because they were severely disabled. Other benefits like Attendance Allowance, DLA and PIP have tied the conditions to people’s care needs, which usually means, for example, that people in residential care may not get them. I think it’s valuable to have a mechanism of the sort, and hope that the Scottish social security system will be able in the future to recognise needs that the current UK system doesn’t.

More generally, I’d also like to see benefits for people with disabilities to be made more accessible. The proposed reforms will make it possible for older people to continue to receive Personal Independence Payments without repeated assessments, and that’s a good thing. But the basic reason why older people are continuing to claim DLA or PIP, instead of moving on to Attendance Allowance, is that Attendance Allowance doesn’t cover mobility needs. This means, for example, that someone aged 63 can get long-term mobility support after a stroke, but someone aged 67 can’t, even if the restrictions the older person faces are more severe. It would make more more sense, and it would be fairer, to have a separate Mobility Allowance without the age restrictions that currently apply.

Universal Credit leaves more people destitute

As Universal Credit extends its icy grip, the tone of press coverage has been changing; it is more focused on personal experiences, and it is ever more serious.   These are from the last few days; the headlines speak for themselves.