Present and future conditional

job centre plus policeOne of the most striking developments in policy design in the UK is the rise of conditionality. It most prominently affects those who are out of work and seeking assistance from the welfare system, but it features across a range of other policy areas including housing and health.

Commentators might, quite rightly, rail against IDS and his insensitive disciplinary regime of seemingly indiscriminate sanctions, but he has only taken a system that was initiated by the Blairites in the 1990s and distilled it into something purer. He has made the conditions placed on receipt of assistance more stringent and the sanctions for transgression harsher. Indeed, it could be credibly argued that in some cases the system is now ludicrously harsh and vulnerable people are being set up to fail.

But conditionality doesn’t represent a distinctive evil incubated in the dark heart of fanatical rightwingers. And it is by no means a particularly British approach. Indeed, creeping – or galloping – conditionality can be observed in many industrialised countries since cuddly Bill Clinton introduced it into the American system to prove Democrats could be tough too. It is an issue that has preoccupied many social policy scholars for a decade or more. But it rarely gets examined intelligently in broader popular debates. It’s a done deal. Anyone against harsher conditionality is shouted down as “soft” on welfare and combatting “dependency”. So they can be safely ignored.

At the most fundamental level, conditionality represents a recasting of the relationship between the citizen and the state. While academics might debate whether state assistance has ever been entirely unconditional, it is clear that whereas once upon a time certain types of assistance were available as a right of citizenship, they are increasingly only offered upon fulfilment of certain conditions. Most typically these conditions relate to exhibiting particular behaviours – intensive job search as a condition of receiving JSA, desisting from anti-social behaviour as a condition of maintaining a social tenancy, etc.

Politicians are inclined to refer to this as a move from a “something for nothing” to a “something for something” culture. On the face of it that no doubt strikes most people as sensible and desirable. But, as is so often the case in policy, you have to get beyond the slogans and look at the detail and the practice on the ground. And when you do so it opens up some important questions about what the approach is trying to achieve. [Read more…]

The miraculous power of welfare reform

5078082286_61e24d05dd_nThe international news is pretty grim at the moment. This doesn’t really fit well with the traditional idea that we’re in silly season, when Prime Ministers travel to holiday destinations to point at fish.

Yet something that fits entirely comfortably with silly season is another self-justificatory speech by Iain Duncan-Smith. And today we were treated to a corker. It would be silly, if it weren’t so alarming.

I blogged about IDS’s last big speech back in January. Then I noted:

We have a fine smattering of slogans and soundbites.

There are some extraordinarily sweeping claims about the attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours of those who receive assistance from the state.

If you are looking for simplistic binary understandings of the world – those who work hard and those who are “trapped” in a lifetime on benefit – and implausible generalisations about the moral laxity or weakness of will of those who require state support then you’ve come to the right place.

We have an interpretation of the impacts of welfare reform that can only be sustained as long as we make little or no effort to understand what is actually happening on the ground. There’s a little statistical chicanery of the type that will be familiar to seasoned IDS watchers.

But then no one would mistake IDS for a member of the reality-based community.

Yet, mostly we have a great confused jumble of incoherent fragments of thought and inconsistent lines of argument.

Many of the same ingredients were very much in evidence today. But they were given some new twists and combined with some new ingredients. [Read more…]

Osbo’s poverty trap and pinging the elastic of reality

Message opposed to unemployment.Since they entered office the blue-tinged contingent of the Coalition has been engaged in a systematic process of stigmatising those in receipt of social security benefits. Great emphasis has been placed upon the undeserving and the fraudulent. There is support for the hard working strivers, but condemnation for the skivers. The spotlight has been on the most extreme cases of households receiving substantial financial support from social security in order to create a smoke screen for cuts in benefits to the poorest. The Tories are convinced that welfare “reform” – particularly the overall weekly benefit cap – is their most popular policy. Yet many of the components of this policy have yet to be fully implemented. The general public has yet to grasp their full impact. It may transpire that once they do, the Tories will feel they acted precipitately in drawing such a positive conclusion. [Read more…]

Policy challenges around welfare reform

[This is the text to accompany my presentation to open the South West Observatory seminar “Welfare reform: challenges, impacts and evidence”, 13/11/12]

Where to start?

Politicians are prone to hyperbole. The most minor modification to a relatively peripheral policy is portrayed as a groundbreaking initiative. However, in the case of welfare reform a hugely ambitious agenda is being pursued in the name of making work pay. Nothing like it has been attempted for decades. The challenges are therefore enormous. There is a huge amount at stake. The well-being of the most vulnerable members of society depends on its successful delivery.

We should begin by distinguishing politics from policy, although there is not such a bright dividing line between the two as is sometimes assumed. [Read more…]

Social security reform: populist or progressive?

For there are only two ways of doing politics: by following opinion, to get yourself on the populist side of each issue, or by leading opinion, and standing on the future side of each issue. The first brings short-term rewards, of course it does. But the big prizes are for those with the courage and vision to get out in front, set the agenda and point the way.

Nick Clegg, 26/09/12

Standing on the future side of the issue? No, me neither. But leaving that to one side the point Clegg is making here is an important one. What stance should politicians take toward public opinion when framing policy? This is an issue of profound significance. But it’s one that is less well explored than it might be.

We live in an era of populist politics because populism is seen as what you have to offer to wins elections. Senior politicians frequently nod to a nobler cause and an aspiration to lead. But that’s what’s expected of someone in their position. Often as not they don’t mean anything by it. [Read more…]

Restructuring to reduce market volatility

Last May the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Housing Market Taskforce produced a major report which touched on a wide range of housing market issues, with the main concern being how to reduce the substantial and dysfunctional volatility that plagues the market. Four issues were identified: increasing housing supply in the long run, implementing policy instruments to deal with short run price volatility, developing innovative and effective mechanisms for protecting consumers from the consequences of market volatility, and fostering alternatives to home ownership that will provide households with long term secure accommodation.

Two of the academics involved in the work of the Taskforce – Mark Stephens and Peter Williams – have returned to provide an update, published today, on policy developments under the Coalition. Has the Government taken the sort of steps that will move the housing market on to a more stable footing? [Read more…]

Cameron’s war on welfare

I was considering blogging in detail about David Cameron’s speech yesterday on welfare. But I decided against it. There are already several very good critiques of the substance of the speech. Plenty of people, including IPPR’s Nick Pearce, have pointed out that the speech was primarily about politics rather than policy. It was about “throwing some red meat” to the pack of feral dogs that apparently prowl the Tory backbenches. Tim Leunig of CentreForum has pointed out that the proposals pertaining to the removal of housing benefit for the under 25s are – how should we put it? – a little ill-thought out. CentreForum were also one of the first commentators to point out that David Cameron seemed to be criticising one of the Coalition’s own policies. We know Cameron isn’t a detail man, but that is pretty inept.

So I just wanted to make a couple of comments. [Read more…]

Is the quiet man about to turn up the volume?

… no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

I have always taken the use of the term “enslaved” in the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Federal Constitution to be figurative, given that slavery was formally abolished in England in 1833. But while reading yesterday’s Observer I was struck by the thought that perhaps we need to revisit the issue rather more literally.

Under the headline Coalition to step up its work-for-free programme Daniel Boffey and Toby Helm report that in the next fortnight Iain Duncan Smith is planning to launch an expansion of his mandatory work programme for long-term unemployed people. This plan is perhaps curious, given that there are signs that the current mandatory scheme is not delivering the expected outcomes. And this is occurring at a time when it appears that welfare to work more broadly is floundering in the face of the recession. Boffey and Helm report that:

Critics … claim the move is an indication of panic within government over the failure of ministers’ various schemes to tackle long-term unemployment, which is at its highest level for 16 years.

It wouldn’t surprise me if it was. Panic would seem a plausible – quite possibly understandable – reaction to the current situation. [Read more…]

In praise of absolute poverty

It strikes me that we may need to rewind the clock and recapture something a bit simpler. It might help some members of the political elite talk more sense.

There is a continuing academic debate over how to measure poverty. Broadly speaking, thinking on poverty has moved away from using absolute poverty measures – such as the $/day that has been frequently used to assess the extent of global poverty. Emphasis is now much more on the use of relative poverty measures, such as those who fall below 60% of median income, or consensual measures, which, crudely speaking, identify what constitutes an acceptable standard of living within a particular society and work backwards to the level of resources needed to achieve it. Relative and consensual measures of poverty get at an important additional dimension to the problem of poverty – it is not only that lack of income leaves people hungry or cold but the absence of income also frustrates meaningful social participation.

Those on the political Right tend to favour a return to absolute measures of poverty. It is only when using an absolute measure that it is possible to declare poverty to have been banished or to deny the existence of poverty, as it was so publicly attempted by the Thatcher government.

While that move was criticised as statistical shenanigans, there may be a need to reintegrate a concern with absolute poverty into the debate. For two reasons. [Read more…]

Compassionate, careless or conniving?

Today I posted over at Dale & Co:

In the run up to the Parliamentary recess the country was transfixed by a scandal involving the Conservative contingent of the Government, the media, powerful private companies and a Select Committee exerting itself. The scandal gained momentum when it was clear that particularly vulnerable people were being affected by unacceptable or underhand practice.

There is another scandal brewing which has the same cocktail of ingredients. I am talking about the changes to Incapacity Benefit and the implementation of Employment Support Allowance. The rhetoric of reform here is positive. Some might even say unexceptional. But the practice is, by comparison, looking decidedly ropey. As so often turns out to be the case.

You can read the full post here.

Update (05/05/13):

The Dale&Co blog is no longer online. If you want to read this post – and I hope you do – it is available in my collection of blog posts The policy con is on: Welfare and workfare in Cameron’s Britain. You can access this on my bookshop page.