Clueless on conditionality

job centre plus policeOn Thursday I blogged about the weak foundations underpinning some of the Coalition government’s policies. On lobbying, on Universal Credit, and on Legal Aid the policy has run into serious trouble. I might return to the lobbying issue again soon, because you could read it in different ways. But that’s for another day. Two days ago I wrote:

A common thread in all these cases is the apparent lack of sufficient thought at the outset: thought about what the policy is trying to achieve and thought about whether the proposed mechanisms are, even in principle, capable of achieving those objectives. This would seem like a profound – and elementary – mistake.

Such thinking won’t stop a policy getting mired in implementation problems. But building the policy on weak foundations increases the chances of it turning into a fiasco.

Today we are presented with another example.

Shiv Malik’s article at the Guardian focuses upon the in-work conditionality component of the Government’s welfare reform agenda. It contains a quite remarkable statement from a DWP spokesperson embedded in this passage:

The DWP said that their overall plans for those in low-paid work were not yet definite and recognised that supporting working families to increase their income was a complex area into which the state hadn’t previously intervened. But the department estimates there are one million people in this lower-paid bracket.

Not all of those will be forced into jobcentres, with individuals with caring responsibilities or other constraints preventing them taking on full-time work highly likely to be excluded.

The DWP said: “There isn’t any real clear, definite plan as to how this [part] would work.”

However the department did confirm that docking social security payments for those who are categorised as “not working enough” formed part of their plans.

Here again we have an example of a policy that is on the statute books before anyone had thought it through properly. You’d like to say this was an extraordinary occurrence. But it seems to be heading towards worryingly commonplace.

But this is equally worrying from a broader perspective.

Late last night I tweeted the Guardian story with a comment. Paul Anders asked a key question in response: why are we talking about this now? The conditionality provisions have been part of the Universal Credit proposals all along. It’s a bit late now. This is the exchange:

Embedded in this exchange are important questions about the thoroughness of Parliamentary (pre-)legislative scrutiny. If there are MPs beginning to wake up to this being a problem where were they two years ago? Is it simply a case of not paying attention?

But it also raises questions about the scrutiny that policy under development gets from the media. We are seeing a similar pattern here to that which we witnessed for the so-called bedroom tax. In the housing literature – both academic and professional – there were plenty of warnings that the bedroom tax was going to be problematic, right from point at which the idea was first floated. But the mainstream media didn’t really give it a great deal of attention. It was only as the policy approached implementation that sustained media attention was directed at the policy’s likely impacts. By that stage there was little scope for critical engagement to have any meaningful impact on the way the policy was rolled out.

It seems that something similar has happened with in-work conditionality. It has been there all along. The more specialist commentators flagged up the issue a while ago, but its import wasn’t really picked up by the mainstream media.

I claim no privileged insight into the issue, but I first blogged about it about a year ago in response to a report by the Resolution Foundation. The report indicated that in-work conditionality could affect over a million households. What I said at the time was:

The coming welfare crunch

The way in which the Government has systematically gone about stigmatising those on social security is disgraceful. Its attempts to foster an “us and them” culture of deserving and undeserving, tax payers and benefit scroungers, have been as distasteful as they have been effective. But 2013 could well be the year that this strategy backfires mightily. There are two reasons for thinking this.

The first is the arrival of what has been dubbed by some the Pickles Poll Tax. From next April thousands of the poorest households who had previously been outside the council tax system are going to have to start contributing. For some this will be layered on top of the removal of housing benefit via the bedroom tax. As with Mrs T’s poll tax, this may well be an injustice too far.

The second, potentially more important, reason is the arrival of in-work welfare conditionality in the Autumn of 2013. The Government has fostered an “us and them” culture, the hard working families and the feckless. Many of the people who think of themselves as “us” – as among the hardworking families trying to do the right thing – currently find themselves in part-time or lower wage jobs simply because the labour market is so weak. However, when Universal Credit arrives they fall within the ambit of the system. The Government expects them to be exerting themselves to find work that pays the equivalent of a 35 hour week at minimum wage. If they don’t then sanctions could follow. At a stroke these households – who no doubt currently see themselves as among the strivers – will become “them”. They’re now marked out as potentially problematic skivers who are not coming up to the Government’s expectations for concerted effort in job search – welfare-dependent scroungers.

While no one yet knows quite how this regime will work or how many people it will apply to, the Resolution Foundation has estimated that as many as 1.2 million households in work could be affected. If the Government plays this heavy-handedly then it has the potential to explode in their faces. The politics of it could get very nasty.

I’ve subsequently blogged a couple of times about welfare reform at greater length, and I’ve made similar points.

These are the points that are now being picked up by the more mainstream debate as in-work conditionality heads towards becoming a reality.

I appreciate that the audience for this blog is hardly extensive. But I wasn’t the only one commenting on this issue. And some specialists got to it much earlier. By the time I was commenting the legislation had already hit the statute book.

Yet, there is some sort of disconnect here. It is not about individual journalists. It is something more systemic. These issues somehow fail to register as newsworthy, in a broader sense, until they are imminent. Shiv Malik’s point is that now we have government numbers – and those numbers are big – conditionality becomes an issue worth attending to. That may be the reality of the situation. But that in itself raises problems.

Most people remain largely clueless about what is heading their way. Equally importantly, this lack of knowledge means that those outside the Westminster bubble, and the relevant policy community, have no real opportunity to engage with, critique or resist policy proposals at a stage in the policy process where such actions are likely to have leverage. By the time most people find out an issue and get exercised by its negative consequences they are already fighting a rearguard action. Or possibly a lost cause.

That doesn’t seem quite right to me. And I’m not sure that it is necessarily inevitable.

Image: Caratello via flickr.com under Creative Commons.

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