Sunday, September 19th, 2010 01:30 pm
A few days ago, Nick Clegg wrote an article for The Times (reproduced for free on his site here), in which he talked about the need for reform of the welfare system. In The Times, this attracted the headline "Poor must accept cuts in benefit, says Clegg", which itself attracted much understandable criticism.

Except, as you can see by reading the article, he didn't say that.

Except, as far as I can tell, he all-but did.

At least, he didn't give any other mechanism by which what he said made sense. The article says (a) that the welfare budget is too big and must be cut and (b) that we need to give people incentives to move off long-term benefit dependency. At first sight, those two objectives seem to line up, but at second sight there's something a little odd going on; if it were that easy to do get people off benefits, Labour would have done it. Nick Clegg himself acknowledges that this was a long-term objective of Labour's, and attacking supposed benefit scroungers was very much a feature of the last government. As Nick Clegg points out, this failed to achieve savings in the welfare budget.

So how is the coalition going to do it? I'm not denying that they might have a plan, but Nick's article is completely free of one. The vague rhetorical stuff at the end, about putting power in the hands of the welfare recipients and reshaping the State are all well and good, but contain no proposals that will clearly save money. Possibly it's just assumed they will. Call me a cynic, but if Labour's rhetoric didn't do it, I'm not at all convinced that ours will, either. Initiatives to get people back into work usually cost money. For that matter, greater scrutiny of benefit claimants to try to weed out those who are claiming falsely costs money. It's the flip-side of all that 'red tape' we're supposed to be saving money by eliminating; cut the red tape, and you'll catch fewer benefit cheats.

(Incidentally, I'm not at all convinced that there's much money to be saved by going after benefit cheats, or those who have supposedly opted for a 'lifestyle on benefits'. I take on trust that such people exist, because people tell me they know some, but I don't think there are that many of them. I don't think that vein can be mined for £4 billion, as George Osborne claims he can do, or more than a tiny fraction of that amount. What's more, I suspect that if you try to do it, the people you will actually hit are those who are bad at gaming the system, or who have trouble filling in forms - in other words, some of the most vulnerable even of those on welfare. But because of all this talk of the £4 billion coming from benefit cheats, the public at large will assume that anyone who gets their benefit cut must have somehow deserved it, and will think the cuts are fair.)

I don't see a cut in the number of people who need welfare happening, somehow. And if you cut the welfare budget without cutting the number of people on welfare, then you are, indeed, going to cut benefits to the poor.

I've just heard a speech by Danny Alexander in which he made much the same points as Nick Clegg but, again, without the linking jigsaw piece of how you get people off benefit while cutting the welfare budget. This is worrying. One game to play at Conference is to see which phrases and themes are repeated by all the on-message MPs, because those are the ones that the leadership wants conference to absorb, accept and repeat. This - 'we will cut the welfare bill and we will incentivise people to get back to work' is clearly one of them, which makes it worrying that, as stated, it has no mechanism to make it happen other than making the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society poorer and more vulnerable.

Danny Alexander also talked about going after taxpayers; both by closing loopholes that people currently exploit legally, and by going after tax evaders. This is welcome news, and appears to have been agreed with George Osborne. My worry, though, is that it will be hard to do; with taxpayers, the government is usually trying to claw back money from someone who already has it. With people on benefits, the government is trying to not pay someone who doesn't yet have the money. The latter is easier to do; what's more, if you do it unfairly, the taxpayer is in a much better position to mount a legal challenge than the person on benefits.

A repeated refrain in Danny Alexander's speech was that we were doing things 'not because they were easy, but because they were right'. My worry is that we (as Liberals in the coalition government) will cut benefits from the most vulnerable not because it is right, but because it is easy. I hope I'm wrong.
Sunday, September 19th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
I am putting in a question on this for the Benefits Q&A, with relevant stats, and have raised it with several people, including one of the Federal Policy Committee candidates. (I know you know this, but I also know some of our mutual friends are keen to hear what we're doing on this.)
Sunday, September 19th, 2010 05:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Sunday, September 19th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you - this is really useful stuff.
Monday, September 20th, 2010 10:41 am (UTC)
Oh, good. :-) *approves*
Sunday, September 19th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
Ah cool, I shall read Nick's article - I saw writeups about it, but only linking to the paywalled Times version.

The LD Manifesto had some starts, talking about incentivising employers to be more supportive and understanding of people's needs in employment, flexible working, childcare support, disability clue expanding Access to Work etc etc. I am *gutted* that none of that starting clue seems to be being talked about now. Put osme of the Welfare money into supporting people in the workplace and financially supporting employers who take on disabled people who might cost a bit more to employ due to sickness or something. It'd still be cheaper than the dole to us all.

Making it harder to sack people for ill health or other things would be something which wouldn't cost money. As it is, a lot of employers are saying "we can't keep people who aren't well enough to work 100% of the time". I know when HR were gunning for me at my workplace last Autumn I was TOLD about the recession and "think of the business"at least 5 times and supposed to feel guilty and magically 'stop being ill' anymore. If I had lost my job I would have been too ill to work and too well for benefits.

What happens to someone who can only work 9 days out of 10? No employer will stand for that. But DWP/JCP etc will say is well enough to work and too well for ESA. That's a reality for so many people! Social model of disability FFS!

I need to find some spoons to write to Danny Alexander (and a proofer to take my 4 letter curses out of it) as 'author' of the manifesto and ask him to PLEASE reread what he wrote and start talking about the proto ideas more because they were *good*. The LD position on social model of disability was a key reason many disabled people and I voted LD this year.

I will not join the LDs or indeed vote (who else is there?) for them again until I see positive steps on welfare cos it is a deal breaker for me.

I hope the outcome of some of this conference makes some positions clearer. Thank you for writing what you have. It's an improvement on what I expected even if not 'enough' to make the deal for me right now.
Monday, September 20th, 2010 09:53 am (UTC)
This is an excellent analysis. My biggest worries about what the Coalition is doing are benefits related.

Yes, there are too many people who have never worked, but I see that as an indication of a failure of the education system to educate & motivate. We have to get serious about offering those who are able opportunities to fulfil their potential & hope about what they can achieve. The whole structure of the benefits and it's rigidity actively discourages that.

Also, we know there ate going to be lots of ex public sector workers on the dole queue soon. If you were an employer, who, realistically are you going to pick? Someone who has been on benefits for 20 years or someone who has a proven track record with the skills you require?

I am very worried that we may be party to cuts in benefits which are cruel & unfair without giving proper support & a realistic assessment of employment prospects. It's kind of like sending someone out into a premier league match wearing stilettos and blindfolded.
Monday, September 20th, 2010 10:43 am (UTC)
indication of a failure of the education system to educate & motivate

How many of those "never worked" have actually got undiagnosed specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia; or indeed come from generations of families with huge socio-economic problems where they 'don't know how to work' because things are in short "so messed up"? I suspect like people in prisons there are high levels of undiagnosed/unrecognised mental health issues going on as well.

The whole structure of the benefits and it's rigidity actively discourages that.

Absolutely, the inflexibility of what courses they will fund - I know of people who can't do a part-time evening course but could do a full-time day course. Or even things like funding driving lessons/tests for people who live in areas with poor public transport etc etc.

Someone who has been on benefits for 20 years or someone who has a proven track record with the skills you require?

Or as some of the better disability bloggers are saying "someone who might need adjustments and time off for medical appointments, or someone who is fully-nondisabled who won't".

I find this links in with this idea of Super crips where people like David Cameron's father, or Barack Obama's Father-in-Law are lauded because "despite their disabilities they never took time off work" "despite their disabilities they achieved" while other privileges such as class, and education were ignored.

I know I am as successful as I am cos of my class and education, and indeed the class and education of my parents. My mum teaches SEN kids from very poor socio-economic usually people with English as 2nd/3rd/ummpteenth language and their kids don't get basic entitlements cos the parents (don't know how to) fight for their kids rights.

proper support & a realistic assessment of employment prospects

The current ESA testing isn't realistic. They don't understand the idea that someone can do something once, they can't do it 5 or 10 times as they would have to during a working day.

It is not the short term ability, I worked in banking for 7 months, but it made me horribly ill and horribly unhappy and I wasn't doing what they considered to be a bare minimum. I worry about disabled people grinding themselves down over periods of months or years and not recognising the long-term and possibly permanent damage they are causing to themselves in order to 'be normal' cos after a while the system telling you that you are a lazy, no good slacker, starts to get to you and you start to believe it. I know I did for a long time.
Saturday, October 30th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
Some very good points which I quite agree with.
I work in a job centre (see my post below.)
Unfortunately when it comes to people in your situation, the reason you get shat on is because you are a minority compared with people who are too ill to work and people who attempt to fraud the system.
There are so many of those two groups that governments get obsessed with making it either "softer" and providing support to those who cannot work or "harder" and preventing those who would take advantage.
Thus they overlook the people who have partial ability the "false positives" the system creates by being too inept other than to lump people into only "can work" and "cannot work."
Politics and politicians over simplify situations because the electorate is easily manipulated that way by polarising things, consequentially subtlety and intelligence goes out of the window.
Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 05:03 pm (UTC)
I don't understand why anyone thinks it's reasonable to focus on forcing "scroungers" into work when people who want jobs can't get them.
Saturday, October 30th, 2010 06:21 pm (UTC)
Allow me to give you an insiders perspective, from someone who works in a job centre.

first of all, the amount of what the average person would consider to be fraud is bigger than you, or I or any other left leaning person with an education would think but much significantly smaller than the amount that the right leaning people and presses try to scare people by implication with.
Second of all I'll talk about what the department calls error, which makes up several times more the aimed savings than fraud.
Error is to do with when someone is paid money that they are not entitled to when it is not a deliberate deception the customer has engaged in.
Savings due to reduction of Error is not as many left wing newspapers have reported much if to do with the civil service "incompetence" with correctly recording things or following good customer service.
One way error creeps into the system is when people don't tell us things that affect their entitlement, because we were too rushed to ask, (we are expected to be aware of an absolutely vast array of constantly changing technical information in our jobs.) or they didnt realise they had to tell us.
That however pales in comparison to where the real bugbear governments have is.
The bugbear is labour flexibility.
There are two aspects to entitlement to JSA: availability and actively seeking employment.
Availability: Government has laid down that people on JSA have to be available for work, ie: no claiming JSA if you are actually a full time carer, or are ill for over a certain duration and unable to work, we have different benefits for that.
We do of course have an array of reasons that someone can be excused for their availability up to a maximum in a given time period. Typically an error, would be not recording these excusings and thus some people who go over their allotted amount of excuse still dont get their money suspended, or changed over to another more appropriate benefit as there is no evidence they have gone over what is allowed.

Actively seeking is the tough one.
The rules say that for the first three months of a claim you can with agreement of an officer restrict the type of work you look for and the amount of salary you are looking for.
After three months you can only restrict salary.
After six months you can't have any restriction and have to accept and look for all jobs you can do.

These are NOT strictly enforced by and large, there is a lot of turning the other way done by officers, and most people are left to search only for jobs that they historically have done, even when those labour markets are ultra competitive and jobs within them are having hundreds of applicants for each of a tiny number of jobs in that sector.

The current government wants us to get stricter at enforcing the rules, which it hopes will result in making claimants expectations of the labour market forcibly change and then they will get into the jobs that are available instead of waiting for their turn at the few that rarely are around but were previously much more common and thus a lot of people have been looking for primarly.

As to whether this is a good idea or or not, I can honestly say i'm not sure.
On the one hand we have done a lot of research on the effects of people doing as they wish and looking for another job they used to do when it becomes rarer. We've studied long term unemployment and shown clearly time and time again its really bad for people to do that to themselves, to aim at an unrealistic target of going back to work in a sector where jobs have vanished in large numbers and they have a huge amount of competition.
The longer people go without some form of work, the worse it affects them financially, and psychologically ultimately, and the less likely they are to go back to work the longer it gets, in part due to employer prejudice against the unemployed, in part due to the psychological changes an individual who remains unemployed goes through, in part due to their skills becoming atrophied or outdated with to much time out of use.

On the other hand it doesn't take a genius to work out that forcing people to take jobs they don't want to do isn't going to make them happy, they are more likely to get fired or dismissed and that in turn will also have bad psychological effects on them.

But we do have enough jobs for many many unemployed to fill, its just a large number of them don't match what the labour market wants.
The unskilled sectors that are available in large amounts of things like cleaning and caring generally get people turning their nose up at, especially the typical punter who has worked on a construction site, in a warehouse or factory most of their working life (we have a lot of customers from there, unskilled worker gets hit hard in/after a recession.) and for the more skilled worker, they tend to have come from more of a career and don't want to go down to the generic administration roles that are the biggest section that is available for people who are more skilled and educated than the manual labour segment.

On the subject of fraud:
I compare the sifting of the unwilling and lazy from the genuine to a Email spam filter, you dont want false positives at all. but you want to maximise the number of correct detections and avoid spam coming through the filter. It is by no means an easy task.
Instead of working harder on making the filter more intelligent, the flow of politics tends to just keep setting it between high and low, which is a waste of everyones time, as on the current filter, high means innocent peoples lives are ruined, and on low means an atrocious amount of wasted money (it is a lot) and people's futures ruined because the system failed to help their expectations change to a point where they could develop themselves or have a better financial future and working life.

Some of the changes to the benefit system they are proposing could actually make a big difference in positivity if done right. simplifying the system is a big and sensible step.
Incentivising the return to work properly making sure that I don't do calculations for people that show they are actually better on staying on benefits than taking that part time job they've been offered because they dont get tax credits until they hit 30 hours and public transport here is more expensive than the amount of earnings ignored by JSA for under 16 hours, or between 16-30 hours the amount of disregard housing and council tax benefit gives.
certainly making labour mobility a reward is a good idea.
and punishing those who are trying to get away with being very inflexible or who just dont want to work unless they can get the same amount of money they used to in an unskilled job because times were good without wanting to put the work in to retrain is important.

But as with all political issues, it is much much much more complicated than the pathetic political public debate would actually give anyone cause to understand.