Category: Social security

This blog includes discussion of issues in British social security policy, along with new material to complement my book, How Social Security Works.

Tinkering with Universal Credit

The announcement of modifications to Universal Credit in the Budget fall a little short of what is needed.  Para 6.14 outlines proposed changes:

  • advances on entitlements for those ‘in need’ – effectively an interest free loan repayable over twelve months.  UC will continue to be paid in arrears.
  • the reduction of waiting time by 7 days; it will still be 5 weeks for most claimants.
  • continuation of Housing Benefit for two weeks.  That should reduce rent arrears by two weeks – it is not enough to ensure continuous payment.
  • ‘easier’ arrangements for payment of rent to landlords.
  • a slower roll out, still to be completed by December 2018; and
  • a limited trial of ‘innovative” approaches to improve earnings.

What the proposals didn’t include was

  • a review of tapers
  • a review of work allowances – the current allowances are too low to lead to continuity of contact
  • a review of the treatment of children
  • pause and fix, or
  • any announcement of measures to deal with the administrative problems.

Para 6.12 and 6.13 defend the system’s design. The government evidently thinks that the scheme is okay because people on it are working, and that if there are residual problems it’s because people are not getting out and working.  They haven’t realised that most of the people on working age benefits, and so most of the people the scheme is going to deal with in due course, are unable to work, and most of the rest are working already.  They began by focusing on a particular category of claimant, mainly younger single applicants; but as the scheme gets rolled out, more and more of the people who are being dealt with will be in other categories. That’s why problems such as self-employment or telling people who are working to come in to the office are only really emerging now.  The scheme is not so much ‘unfit for purpose’ as directed to the wrong purposes – and that means that no amount of reinforcement is ever going to make it appropriate to people’s needs.

A new direction for social security tribunals?

In February, Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, was suggesting that tribunals were likely to move into online hearings, and that social security tribunals would be pioneering the approach.  That announcement was received with some apprehension, because the experience of digital communication and systems supposed to be “digital by default” has not been good for claimants; it assumes access to resources and a level of competence with IT that many people would find challenging.  The technology for managing group meetings is improving, but it’s still buggy and difficult to access; the added security needed for tribunal hearings is liable to add to that.

In a recent talk, however, Sir Ernest has been offering more insight into his thoughts about the conduct of social security tribunals, and it may not be what the critics expect.  He has been complaining that the incompetence of the DWP has clogged up the tribunal system.  Mandatory Reconsideration is no help – the number of bad decisions has been mounting.   In most of the cases submitted by the DWP, “there could be no argument in law or on facts that the appellant wouldn’t win.”   Ryder would like to give tribunals the right to reject the DWP’s papers without wasting time on a hearing.

Why the Scottish Government should not be using Mandatory Reconsideration

I was told yesterday, rightly or wrongly, that the Scottish Government is planning to stick to their proposed system of mandatory reconsideration –  the requirement to submit issues for review before an access to appeal can be allowed.  The government’s justification is, apparently, that there will be an important difference between their approach and the current practice of the DWP:  benefits will continue in payment until the issue is resolved.

There are three sorts of misapprehension here.  The first is about what happens when people’s benefits are stopped.   There is a problem, but this measure is not going to resolve it.  Benefits are often stopped first – that’s why people have to challenge the decision.  If it proves that someone is not entitled, any benefits paid under this arrangement can be recovered.  So, under these proposals, the benefits will stop, restart, stop again after review, restart after appeal, and possibly stop again – with repayment demanded every time.

The second misapprehension is that a formal review process is useful or necessary. Under the previous system, all grounds for appeal were scrutinised and acted on by the Department for Work and Pensions before the introduction of MR; so MR adds nothing to the actions of the agency.  What the introduction of MR did was to create an extra hurdle for claimants – a barrier to access to justice.

That leads to the third point: that the operation of MR is unlawful.  The Policy Memorandum issued by the Scottish Government argued that

“Without a re-determination stage, it would mean that all decisions being challenged would go to a tribunal. This could lead to the tribunal being inundated with large volumes of appeals, which will increase the likely waiting times for individuals to have their cases heard, resulting in a frustrating experience.”

It’s not so frustrating as bening denied access to justice.  In Unison v Lord
Chancellor, the Supreme Court stated in terms  that the creation of administrative barriers with the intention of preventing people reaching court is unlawful. Appeals are not just there for the appellant.  They are there to make sure that the system is done right for everyone else.   If the Social Security Bill is passed in this form, expect it to be challenged.

 

Soviet Russia was not kind to benefits claimants

At a session about social security yesterday, one of the speakers invited us to celebrate the inspirational anniversary of the  Russian Revolution.  As someone mainly concerned with security rights and dignity in social security, there’s some incongruity in that request.   Soviet Russia was not wholeheartedly supportive of people who needed benefits to survive.  The laws against “parasites, tramps and beggars” varied between the different republics of the Soviet Union, but they included penal policies and fora for public humiliation. There are three articles about it by Beerman in the journal Soviet Studies:  “A discussion on the draft law against parasites, tramps and beggars”, 1958, 9(2), 214-222; “The law against parasites, tramps and beggars”,  1960 11(4), 453-455, and “The parasites law”,  1961, 13(2), 191-205.  No doubt a similar law would go down well with certain sections of the UK press, but it’s not a model to be followed.

The Scottish Government edges towards a social security policy

The Scottish Government has released a series of ‘position papers’ outlining its approach to social security provision.  Some of these papers are very thin, but in the hope that people will find the reference useful, here’s the list:

I’ve previously commented on most of these issues.  I’d like to see a system that is less geared to replicating the DWP’s adversarial approach and more to a ‘learning organisation’, that takes the responsibility itself for correcting mistakes and learning from them.

Universal Credit: what took everyone so long?

There’s been a flurry of calls for the rollout of Universal Credit to be delayed (e.g. from two reports from Citizens Advice, and concerns from  Louise Casey and a clutch of Conservative MPs).   It’s still possible to hear people saying what a good idea Universal Credit is, how it was going to simplify everything and how it would help work incentives. “The trouble with Universal Credit”, a New Statesman article tells us, “is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea.”

There are four sorts of problems.  First, there were the basic flaws in the design.  I wrote this in a paper published in 2013:

Means tested benefits are not, of course, the only benefits which are subject to problems.  There are other aspects of the benefits system which are cumbersome, badly designed and problematic for claimants and administrators alike. They include, for example,

  • benefits which people cannot work out they’re entitled to
  • the problem of repaying money that people did not know they should not receive
  • rules that tell people they must work at the same time as recognising that it‟s not reasonable to work (the current position for ESA)
  • the medical reassessment of claimants
  • benefits which penalise claimants for circumstances outside their control
  • the cohabitation rule, and
  • complex assessments that require people to report changes across multiple dimensions.

Universal Credit has the lot. It is as if someone has started with a list of everything in the benefits system that causes problems and designed the new benefit round it.

Then there was the abandonment of all the benefit’s objectives, one by one. All the primary objectives – such as simplification, work incentives, reducing in-work poverty, smoothing transitions and cutting back on fraud and error – have been fatally compromised. The marginal rate of deduction is much higher than intended. The cuts in work allowances have removed any incentive for most claimants to remain in contact with the system if they find work.

Third, there were the problems of implementation.  None of the innovative methods envisaged – real-time processing, smooth tapers, digital by default – was achievable. There is no effective system for coordinating and pooling all the information required in one place – the new system has come to rely primarily on returns from claimants about changes. The system makes complex demands of claimants (for example, those relating to security, agreements by couples or job search) which are almost impossible to police.  It system relies on accurate information from claimants, and people cannot respond sensibly to questions they do not know the answer to.

And then, last of all, there are the so-called ‘teething’ problems – miscommunication, lost payments (surely that ought to be a priority concern?), and the difficulties of introducing the new benefit at the same time as managing a large injection of additional rules such as  conditionality and housing. With or without Universal Credit, we are already in the position where nearly a quarter of unemployed claimants have had benefits stopped.  Universal Credit is not just threatening  a major breakdown in the safety net; it has already happened.

I did wonder, before I started, if I really needed to bother writing all this again.  I’ve been making the same sorts of criticisms of Universal Credit for nearly seven years now – try this blog from October 2010,  when I was arguing that the scheme was simplistic, impractical and wouldn’t either enhance work incentives or reduce administrative errors.  While it’s encouraging that so many people are waking up to the problems – it’s never too late to make things a bit better, at least – I have to ask: what took everyone so long?

“Well, here we go yet again … another sorry tale of HMRC institutional incompetence and inefficiency”

The judgment of Justice Nicholas Wikely in the Upper Tribunal in VO v HMRC (TC) [2017] speaks for itself:

“Well, here we go yet again.  I used the phrase “Well, here we go again” with a sense of frustration, bordering on despair, to open my decision in NI v HMRC [2015] UKUT 160 (AAC), a case in which I criticised Her Majesty Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for both its decision-making processes and its conduct of appeals in relation to tax credits claims. .. So, yes, in short this is yet another sorry tale of HMRC institutional incompetence and inefficiency which could well have led to injustice, were it not for the persistence of the Appellant.”

But of course, it did lead to injustice: the denial of entitlement and redress for five years. The judge explained the case as follows:

The HMRC written response to the Appellant’s appeal made the case look very
straightforward. In a nutshell, the Appellant had failed to reply to a request from HMRC to provide evidence of her entitlement to tax credits. She was therefore no longer entitled to tax credits for the relevant tax year and was liable for a substantial overpayment. So, according to HMRC, it was an open and shut case. End of story. … In her notice of appeal, the Appellant stated that “as I previously explained, I forwarded all the information required from me and to my surprise you never received the documents” (emphasis added). I interpose here that I have underlined the phrase “as I previously explained” as this statement alone should have rung alarm bells for the FTT. This is because there was nothing at all in the HMRC evidence provided with the appeal response to suggest that the Appellant had made any contact with HMRC before her notice of appeal … In the parallel universe that is tax credits adjudication, the file does not actually include something as elementary or fundamental as the actual decision notice. As HMRC’s original response to the FTT appeal explained, the HMRC computer cannot provide a copy of a decision notice – only the claimant can do that. So, in a classic Orwellian doublespeak, the response continues: “HMRC has not omitted to include the decision notices from the bundle; it is simply unable to provide copies”. How are we supposed to respond to this? “Oh well, that’s alright then.” Who designed this computer system? Did anyone think to check it was compatible with basic tenets of good public administration, let alone the principles of administrative justice?

He warns first-tier tribunals not to take HMRC’s statements on trust.

The basic principles of administrative justice include the right to know what the argument is against you, and the right to have a hearing. The same disregard for citizens’ rights, of course, is found in decisions about sanctions, where penalties are frequently imposed before the claimant has any opportunity to object.

For dignity and respect, it matters how people are treated

The Scottish Government has said that the new social security benefits will be bound by principles of dignity and respect, so the publication of a commissioned report on Social security systems based on dignity and respect ought to have been very welcome.  Unfortunately, the report fails signally to come to terms with its brief, choosing instead to emphasise either human rights issues or the substantive failures of social security policy.  Both sets of issues are important  – they are necessary for dignity – but they are not sufficient.  There is nothing in human rights legislation which says that people will be addressed politely, that they will be believed when they say things, or that officials will be considerate.

There is very little in this report about those issues.  The report acknowledges, in the Executive Summary, that “The feeling of being treated unfairly or viewed with suspicion by case workers on permanent alert for fraud is reported as particularly demoralising” – there is some further material on these problems on pp 33-35 – but the authors don’t go on to say what needs to be done about them.  A   chapter on “Ensuring dignity and respect in the claimant experience” really says nothing about the claimant experience, let alone about dignity and respect.

The central issue is how people are treated.  The report ought to have considered process at length – access, application, communication, assessment, handling changes of circumstance and so on.  There is some (admittedly dated) empirical evidence that many of the processes used for verification are unnecessary, that insisting on claimant declarations  colours the process, that security is disproportionate and ineffective in dealing with errors.  The system is not geared to deal with complaints or to correct mistakes.  The nearest the report gets to most of this is to  call for greater  personalisation, which risks increasing the scope to get things wrong and exacerbates the problems of judgmental administration.

An assessment of Basic Income

Luke Martinelli’s assessment of Basic Income is a serious, wide-ranging consideration of several of the arguments: among them, affordability, distributive effects, work incentives and political feasibility.  There is more to say about administration, implementation and the relationship to existing benefits, but no-one ever covers everything.

He characterises the opposition to UBI as saying that “an affordable UBI would
be inadequate, and an adequate UBI would be unaffordable.”  That’s not the whole story, either.  I put the case like this in a video interview:

“If you limit the level of benefit you are still dependent on other benefits, so you’ll get all the problems of the tapers, the poverty trap, the intrusion into people’s lives and the complexity.  If you increase the cost, then you can float people off those benefits – but what will you have achieved if you do that?  … those people who were formerly on benefits will find themselves on the equivalent in Basic Income, and you’ll have spent nearly all the money to the benefit of people who weren’t on benefits – to people who are better off.  So you have really got to decide, is it worth putting large amounts of money into a scheme which isn’t going to benefit the people you most want to help?”

Confusion about PIP

There’s a report in the i this morning about a letter sent by Frank Field MP to David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, detailing some of the hardship and problems  that have been created in the benefits system.  Field calls for a thoroughgoing review of current benefits, which I’d fully support.  But one of the points in the article is a mistake, almost certainly made by the newspaper reporter:

He backed an urgent review of the assessment system for evaluating PIP claims amid frequent complaints that it was too rigid to assess accurately claimants’ ability to work.

Presumably this is meant to refer to the assessment for Employment and Support Allowance.  Personal Independence Payment, unlike ESA, is not an out-of-work benefit; it’s a general income supplement for people with serious disabilities, supposedly partly intended to cover extra costs, and it is paid regardless of whether or not the person is working or able to work.    But I have come across cases, and I’m sure that Frank Field will have done as well, where PIP assessors have wrongly and inappropriately been asking people about work.  It’s the wrong test for this particular benefit.

From DWP research, many people never understood what they were claiming when they applied for  Disability Living Allowance, and now it’s being replaced by PIP it’s probably true that they don’t really understand that either.  Part of a review should be an attempt to get benefits that make sense to the people who administer them and to the people who get them.