Juxtapositions

414585868_2c8513d269_nYesterday felt like a day of unanticipated juxtapositions.

The major domestic political event was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. This has now morphed into a mini-budget so it will take a while to fully unpack precisely what Osbo’s proposed changes add up to. But he no doubt anticipated that he’d grab the headlines with the combination of the reaffirmation of his faith in the voodoo of austerity and the return of the debt-fuelled growth that got us into this mess in the first place. The OBR lent Obso a hand in the bid to dominate the front pages when it calculated that his sums imply that by 2018 spending on public services will be reduced to levels not seen since 1948.

Commentators were quick to point out that a year or two ago Cameron was assuring us that deficit reduction was as a necessary evil – as painful for him as it was for those directly affected and only being undertaken to get the public finances back on an even keel. Over the last few weeks, with contributions from Cameron, Johnson and now Osborne, we are witnessing the gradual exposure of the ideological nature of the Tories’ austerity project. The pretence has been abandoned. It’s some sort of revolting market fundamentalist dance of the seven veils. [Read more...]

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Refreshing Beveridge

Squalor. Ignorance. Want. Idleness. Disease. William Beveridge’s five gaint evils encapsulated the enemies the welfare state was designed to combat. They signalled the battles that needed to continue once the military action of World War II had ended. Yet 70 years on from the publication of the Beveridge report there have been a number of suggestions that we need to move on. That we need to refresh Beveridge for the twenty first century.

At the turn of the year Liam Byrne had a crack at it. He delivered the Beveridge lecture at LSE in which he offered an interpretation of Beveridge that focused on welfare responsibility, conditionality, workfare. Byrne suggested that Beveridge would be broadly behind a move towards more stringent workfare policies. This argument was subsequently strongly and publicly contested by a number of social policy scholars. If nothing else it unhelpfully decontextualizes Beveridge, who was viewing conditionality in the light of a state commitment to full employment. [Read more...]

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Criminalising squatting

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 01/11/11]

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Bill has returned to the House of Commons this week. The problems with the Government’s proposed Legal Aid reforms have been apparent for a while. Some people will see their access to justice seriously curtailed, while the courts are likely to silt up with inexpert litigants-in-person. The chances of any money being saved – when considered in the round – are limited. In this context it is good to see reports that Liberal Democrat MPs Tom Brake and Mike Crockart are tabling amendments to seek to address some of the most egregious injustices embodied in this part of the Bill.

But the Bill poses other profound challenges to those concerned with social justice and evidence-based policy making. [Read more...]

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Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? [Read more...]

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Crunch time for the Liberal Democrats –The NHS Bill and electoral oblivion

The tuition fee debacle was bad. But at least there was a reason, if not an excuse. Neither major party was committed to removing tuition fees. So whoever the Liberal Democrats ended up in Coalition with it was unlikely that the party was going to be able to honour its pledge. The hand was no doubt badly played, but the outcome was going to be nothing other than politically damaging.

This time there is no excuse. The Conservatives may claim that their manifesto refers to extending GP commissioning. But this passing reference is a threadbare justification for the enormous changes being proposed. And how many electors actually read the manifesto? If they bought the story at election time then it was more likely to be Cameron the compassionate Conservative reassuring them that the NHS was his top priority, that it was safe in his hands, that there would be no top down reorganisation, that it wouldn’t be privatised, etc., etc., etc. That these reassurances were not worth the breath required to produce them seems increasingly apparent. Significant chunks of the electorate have interpreted the Government’s plans as taking an axe to their beloved NHS. [Read more...]

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The Work Programme isn’t working …and that raises bigger issues

The Work Programme (WP) is the Coalition Government’s £5bn replacement for the range of programmes – including the Flexible New Deal – designed to assist unemployed people back into work. While the WP learns from and builds upon previous initiatives it also represents a departure. Its key characteristic is a more thorough-going application of the Payment by Results approach.

Last week the Social Market Foundation published a brief report on the Work Programme, which got a fair bit of coverage in the mainstream media. The headline conclusion is that all is very much not well with the new approach, as currently structured. The programme is, as they put it, at risk of “financial collapse”.

Even if assistance for the unemployed isn’t particularly your interest, this debate is important. It has much broader resonance in the light of current directions for public service reform. [Read more...]

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On bankruptcy constraints, soft and hard

One strand of the economic critique of government provision is that public providers face a soft bankruptcy constraint. If they operate inefficiently or extravagantly and run out of money then they can turn to government for a handout to cover any shortfall. If the government is short of money to bail them out they just put up taxes. Private providers, in contrast, operate in the face of a hard bankruptcy constraint. They must operate in the face of ever-present risk. If they don’t produce what consumers demand, and do so as efficiently as possible, then their continued existence is in doubt. Hence, the argument runs, a powerful incentive is missing from the sphere of public provision. This argument has been invoked as one component of the justification for shifting activities from public to private sector. [Read more...]

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Economic liberalism and public service reform

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 22/02/11, and ranked most read post of the week]

Are the Liberal Democrats a party of untrammelled ideology – sorry,“principles” – or do ethics and evidence also play a role in thinking? This question struck me forcefully when reading David Cameron’s article on public service reform in the Telegraph. It appears that the imminent Open Public Services White Paper has been formulated with collaboration from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Nick Clegg is fully ‘on side’. We await the details, but if Cameron’s article gives us an accurate sense of what is to come then I think there is – or should be – a significant battle shaping up. Cameron’s position would appear to be “The answer is marketisation. Now what’s the question?”. Is it appropriate for Liberal Democrats to be complicit in this agenda? [Read more...]

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Welfare reform in the dark

Today saw the introduction of the Welfare Reform bill to the House of Commons. Initial Impact Assessments were also published. This piece of legislation has been trailed for many months, but it will nonetheless take quite a while to fathom the detail of what is being proposed across the wide range of areas it touches on. And it will take just as long to explore how it interacts with policy developments in other areas. Much of the early buzz about the Bill was the news that the Government had dropped the proposal to cut Housing Benefit for those receiving JSA for more than 12 months. This is clearly an unusual outbreak of good sense. Many are claiming it as a victory for the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular. Later in the day we were being reminded not to get carried away with this change – important though it is – because the Bill continues to embody a range of contentious proposals for seismic change to welfare provision (see here at Left Foot Forward, for example).

As those who have read previous posts will know, I am very keen on summing the parts and trying to understand the big picture (see, for example, Piecing together the housing policy jigsaw). It is something that many government are not good at. This government seems particularly poor at it. But in an era of rapid and radical change it is all the more important. [Read more...]

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Sign of the times

If you have a blog then you’ve probably got access to a host of usage statistics for your site, information on links to and from your blog, and the search terms that people used to lead them to your words of wisdom.

I’ve just noticed that someone found their way to this blog today by entering the following search terms:

losing home waiting for social security

That brought me up short. It was truly affecting. A clear sign of the times.

One can only speculate on the combination of circumstances, the concatenation of events, that placed someone in such a precarious position. And on the absence of accessible local help that led someone to search the web for assistance on such a serious matter.

I may well write about housing and housing policy – as I have recently here and here – but I feel distinctly inadequate in being completely unable to offer anything sensible to assist someone with such a pressing and enormously important problem. [Read more...]

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