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...]

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Developments in the ongoing Bedroom Tax saga

8610361700_dea8d85350_zYou have to admire Andrew George. Or at least I do. Commentators are busying themselves accusing the Liberal Democrats of inconstancy or hypocrisy in supporting his Private Members’ Bill to reform the Bedroom Tax. But we should remember that George has ploughed a rather lonely furrow in consistent opposition to the policy from the start, even as the bulk of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party repeatedly lined up behind the Tories to support it.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the George’s Affordable Homes Bill, if it were to be successful, would bring housing benefit policy closer to current Liberal Democrat party policy. In that respect the Liberal Democrats can’t be accused of hypocrisy. The more problematic issue is why the Libdem leadership supported a policy of such obvious boneheadedness in the first place.

Nor is it hypocritical to change position on a policy as new evidence comes to light. That is entirely reasonable and sensible. The more problematic issue is that the evidence that is said to have triggered the Liberal Democrat leadership change of position is not, really, very new. It largely confirms what people who understand the housing sector have been saying about the policy’s likely consequences since before the policy was implemented.

But there is some very clear hypocrisy and obfuscation in the Liberal Democrat messaging around yesterday’s events. [Read more...]

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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...]

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Welfare reform: the evidence mounts

There is little doubt that IDS’s pet project – welfare reform – is having a significant impact on the lives of some of the most disadvantaged members of our society. And for every case where we might conclude that impact is positive, it would appear there is a substantial pile of cases where the impact is negative.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee made some pointed remarks about the emerging picture last week, including offering recommendations on mechanisms for mitigating some of the worst effects. It will be a while before we see the official DWP response.

Today the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launches two reports addressing different aspects of the welfare reform agenda as they affect the social housing sector. These reports are the first outputs from the Foundation’s housing and poverty research programme.*

In between these two report launches we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing IDS face Andrew Marr for yet another session of the interviewer equivalent of underarm bowling. I’ve had words about that before. [Read more...]

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Fighting talk

Why_PovertyThese days it seems we’re more likely to hear politicians talk about a “cost-of-living crisis” or, possibly, allude to problems of housing affordability than we are to find them discussing “poverty”. Indeed, we’re back in an era where the whole concept of poverty, and whether there are any households in genuine poverty, is being questioned. The translation of the banking crisis into a crisis of welfare has seen benefits cut and uprating mechanisms pared back. The prevailing policy narrative of over-generous welfare provision has caused the discussion to loose its moorings. The political elite fail to show any great appreciation of when or whether their cuts might be at risk of reducing citizens to an unacceptably low standard of living.

Yet, in recent weeks the term “destitution” seems to have made an unwelcome return to the political lexicon following the intervention by Archbishop – now Cardinal – Nichols to raise the issue of overzealous benefit sanctions.  And there’s been some discussion of quite how far the UK will miss its child poverty targets by, largely as a consequence of the Coalition’s welfare “reform” agenda.

Into this fog of political euphemism and misdirection comes Julia Unwin’s Why fight poverty? This brief book was published towards the end of last year, but I’ve only just got to reading it.

The book is a timely reminder of what is at stake. Unwin provides a restatement of why poverty is a major social problem – not just for those who find themselves poor at a particular point in time but for everyone. Poverty is risky, costly and wasteful. [Read more...]

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Moralizing destitution

Just by way of a change, today I wrote a post at Medium.com. It’s a crisp, clean properly WYSIWYG writing experience. There is just enough formatting to allow you to make your point. But not a lot of bells and whistles to distract you from the writing. That is, I believe, the point. I may well use it again.

Here’s how I got going:

Moralizing destitution

Now the clergy are involved. That adds a whole new dimension to the debate.

A bench of bishops and a whole bunch of other church leaders have called on David Cameron’s government to act to address hunger. They note that:

“Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry … Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year”.

While not placing the blame for this situation exclusively at the door of the Government’s welfare reform agenda, the church leaders claim that half those using foodbanks: [Read more...]

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Policy Unpacked #3 – Welfare reform and social housing

Policy Unpacked logoThe Coalition government has embarked on a wide-ranging and far-reaching programme of change to the UK welfare system. Several components of the agenda  have already been implemented. Some are still to come.  The Coalition is pursuing policies on welfare benefits, rents and social housing development that have potentially significant implications both for household poverty and the future of housing providers. [Read more...]

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IDS? idk

4635240754_eb76ddc5e5_mI was intending to discuss Iain Duncan Smith’s speech today at the Centre for Social Justice. I really was.

But I just can’t.

I’ve read the text of the speech and watched some of the VT. But I’m not quite sure what to say.

The characteristic missionary zeal is there. But now it comes with an extra dollop of hubris. Quite incredibly IDS likens his callous welfare changes to the campaign to abolish slavery.

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. [Read more...]

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It’s only going to get worse

It seems that with each passing week the news on the housing front gets gloomier. A week ago the NHF published its latest Home Truths report which extrapolated current trends and concluded that if things carry on as they are then affordability – or rather unaffordability – will pretty rapidly reach new heights of absurdity. And we are barely able to grasp the implications of the longer-term scenarios for prices and rents set out in the report.

Of course, the chances of these forecasts proving accurate are pretty low. All sorts of things could, and probably will, intervene in the meantime. For example, the probability of a Help to Buy fuelled property price implosion just in time for – or more likely just after – the 2015 General Election is non-zero. And if that happens then the direction of the whole debate will change.

But the purpose of such forecasts is not to be accurate. They are a political call to action to try to ensure the future turns out differently. Given the media profile that the report achieved I would imagine the report is seen as having met its short term objectives at least.

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A more substantial piece of research emerged a few days later when the third instalment of the Crisis/JRF Homelessness Monitor was published. This is an invaluable long term project documenting the impact of the changing social, economic and policy context upon housing and homelessness since the arrival of the Coalition government. I blogged about the previous report in The gathering storm. This year’s report presents a similarly gloomy picture. Jules has summarized some of the key points already. The trajectory of homelessness is very different in different regions, as are the principal causes in different parts of the country. But the overall picture the report paints is one of a deteriorating situation.

The report identifies three issues, which have perhaps had less prominence in the debate so far, that I thought worth noting. [Read more...]

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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. [Read more...]

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