Tuesday, 14 June 2011


After the shredding of Andrew Lansley by the Royal College of Nursing and David Willetts by the Congregation of Oxford, the next major government policy plank looking likely to run into trouble is Social Security. Meanwhile, the first volleys are being heard in a battle to determine whether or not Scotland will take control of its own Social Security matters after independence or a further devolution settlement. The demonisation of working class people and those with disabilities which commentators like Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones have recently remarked on ought to have made these issues politically straightforward, but this is a context in which the political ground can shift very quickly. What does this mean for the Westminster coalition, for Holyrood, and for those who depend on the welfare state?

Let's start with a simple question. Why change the Welfare State at all? The answer the Westminster government will give you (and one which was earlier espoused, to an extent, by its Labour predecessors) is that it is all a matter of money. The system costs too much (at £152 billion a year) and loses too much in fraud (approximately £1 billion). The danger of buying into this theory is that it's too easy to see those figures in isolation. As with every other public service, we should be asking what we get in return for this investment, what we would stand to lose if we cut the money, and how it fits into the context of comparable services.

First of all, let's set aside the issue of fraud. Fraud is, of course, a serious problem and needs to be tackled, but it should not be a major consideration in policy making for two very good reasons: firstly, that £1 billion is a small amount when compared, proportionally, with losses made by major financial organisations operating in the private sector; and secondly, it is a small amount in comparison with the amount of benefit that goes unclaimed by British citizens who are entitled to it. The value of unclaimed benefits amounted to around £15 billion last year. Some people choose not to claim, of course, but others are not aware of their full entitlement because the system is so complicated.

How did it get this way? This is a natural consequence of Social Security having been a political football for several decades now, kicked around by politicians of all stripes. Many have tried to reform it, for varying reasons, and the end result is that it has become a collection of poorly connected systems assembled around half-complete strategies that are at odds with one another. This is a problem for governments, staff and claimants alike. It's one of the reasons why the system is riddled with poverty traps whereby claimants can end up being poorer if they work. It contributes to claims taking months to process whilst claimants struggle to feed themselves and stay in their homes. It has also resulted in a bloated bureaucracy that costs the taxpayer a fortune. If we want to make Social Security cheaper we should be looking not simply at how much claimants receive, but at how much it costs to deliver it to them.

Simplifying this is a noble aim and there is a lot to be said for Iain Duncan Smith's early ambitions. Unfortunately, like many ministers before him, he has found that this isn't so easy to do in reality – especially within the lifetime of a Parliament. The measures now travelling through Parliament are consequently just another half-baked plan that doesn't really tackle the underlying problems with the system and will end up adding to the existing mess. That the government knows this too is evident in its cautious climbdown over hasty suggestions like the cap on benefits at £26,000 per year. Now that we are told this “was never intended to apply” to households which include disabled people and that it is unlikely to be applied to households with children, it is difficult to see who it will apply to. Despite the shocking figures which the Department of Social Security has now admitted it took, without verification, from the Daily Mail, there is no real evidence that people on benefits are bringing in over £100,000 a year. Most live on very little.

So let's take a look at some of the central problems in the system, how they manifest, and what could realistically be done about them.

First up is the issues of long term recipients of Incapacity Benefit. When Iain Duncan Smith and Ed Miliband express their shock at how some people have been 'left' on these benefits for over a decade it may sound shocking, but what does that really mean? In some cases there is reason to be sceptical about long term claimants. In the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's government was worried about the consequences of spiralling unemployment figures, many claimants with relatively minor health problems were moved onto Incapacity Benefit as a convenient way of massaging the statistics. This was a particular issue in depressed areas of the country where little employment was available (it's one of the reasons, for instance, why the number of claimants in Glasgow is so high, when you consider that unemployment reached 85% on some Glasgow housing estates during that period). Some (not all) of these people could now go back to work, though they would of course need extra support to update their skills and to find jobs when they are unlikely to be considered very employable. But this does not apply to all Incapacity Benefit claimants.

It is estimated that approximately a third of current Incapacity Benefit claimants could work, a third will never be able to work, and another third can do some types of work with a lot of support. Though I have never claimed this benefit, I might consider myself in the latter camp – my serious illness means that I am limited to working from home, which in turn effectively limits my earnings. It's not so very bad for me because I have skills that enable me to do this, but many people with long term illnesses and disabilities don't. Any government serious about having them work – and keep working – must provide the necessary training, create suitable job opportunities (by more effectively tackling employers' unwillingness to take on disabled staff, by encouraging the development of more telecommuting opportunities, etc.), and acknowledge that many of these people will be unable to cope with full time hours. The upshot of this is that it may well cost more to help such people into employment than it does to keep them in receipt of Social Security. This is one of the reasons why we have a welfare state – sometimes it's the most practical option.

This brings us to another intrinsic problem with the system – it is built around a model that assumes people will be in full time work or not working at all. Again, Iain Duncan Smith has the right idea with his pledge to support those in 'micro jobs', but at a policy level he has failed to follow through on this. Part time working is heavily penalised at many levels. People working more than one part time job because that's the only way they can earn enough to support themselves are penalised by the tax system, hardly an encouragement to work. Benefit claimants working over sixteen hours a week can have their benefits docked even if they are not earning enough to compensate for their losses – not a problem if they are above the minimum wage but a serious impediment to people who are self employed, for instance. As an individual earns more, they become ineligible for specific benefits such as free dental care, so that they may easily end up being poorer as a consequence of working. They should do it anyway, you may well say (and, indeed, I have long done it anyway), but when one is on the breadline and has a family to support, that's not such an easy call.

Part time working is the best model for many people with long term illnesses and disabilities, for single parents and others with care responsibilities; and it's also very often the only choice people have when full time jobs are scarce. We might prefer that people not claim benefits at all, but it's better people contribute what they can than not contribute at all. Working also tends to result in better health outcomes for individuals and reduced pressure on families, both of which reduce later costs for the state. So these barriers to work need to be removed. How do we find them all? By using the only research tactic that has been consistently ignored throughout these decades of poorly thought-out changes: sitting down the long-term claimants and asking them what has made it difficult for them to work.

One point raised again and again in these situations is the particular difficulty experienced by families. Because partners (whether married, in civil partnership, or not) are expected to support each other financially there is a disincentive for one partner to work when the other is not working (because if their earnings are relatively low they will receive very little financial reward for it) and there is an incentive for families to split up, which then costs the state more because it is more expensive to provide Housing Benefit for two properties and there may be additional bureaucratic costs in relation to child support. It would be one thing to penalise partners like this if their responsibility for one another as dependants were acknowledged in the tax system, but it is not, so they lose out at both ends. The system also loses out because this means that people can be paying taxes at the same time as they are receiving benefits, so the state is taking with one hand and giving with the other and inevitably losing money in administration during each process. Iain Duncan Smith's early proposals included the suggestion that this obligation of support be broken, so that people were responsible simply for themselves and their children; he also proposed ensuring that people would not pay tax until they were above the threshold at which they received benefits; but again, these potentially effective measures were lost in subsequent redrafting as political concerns interfered with his attempt to bring a straightforward management approach to the system.

The danger of allowing political rhetoric to contaminate approaches to Social Security is twofold. First of all, it can create lead to real suffering and a lack of help for the most vulnerable people in our society, something all politicians decry but few seem willing to take action on. Secondly, it encourages short term solutions that fob off the worried taxpayer whilst doing nothing to reduce costs in the long term. Taking away people's benefits if they're fit to work but don't accept jobs might sound like a good idea, but the reality of it is much more complicated. What if they have children – do we leave the children to starve, or take them into care (costing the state a lot more)? What if they start stealing in order to provide for themselves? What if they have been wrongly assessed as fit and their health declines rapidly in the working environment (at least one man has already died of a heart attack after finding himself in this situation)? As so often, this cost saving measure could easily become more expensive than simply leaving things as they were.

There is a real problem with a small minority of benefit claimants who simple can't be bothered to work, but to focus policy around them is economically na├»ve and risks seriously harming those in genuine need. It makes for good soundbites but it doesn't make for good government. Simply put, we need to take the same approach to the benefits system as the banks – fraudsters must feel the full force of the law and we must aim to clarify the rules to make things more difficult for those who simply avoid doing their duty. Meanwhile, we must make take care that the problem minority are not allowed to tarnish the whole system.

Just as we all depend on having access to banks, we all depend on Social Security. It's a safety net for society and it's insurance for us as individuals – that portion of our taxes that goes toward supporting it is not just there to provide for other people, it's there to ensure that we, too, will receive support if we should ever fall on hard times. In a recession, this is something people should be acutely aware of. Politicians and tabloid journalists frequently complain about benefit claimants having a sense of entitlement, but they should feel entitled to draw upon a system that their taxes have contributed to. Why do bankers have a sense of entitlement to large bonuses when their companies are making losses? Why do some of Mr Cameron's front bench colleagues have a sense of entitlement to inherited wealth and, well, titles? If we are to question the entitlement of the poor it should cut both ways.

There are real problems with the Welfare State and there are fictitious ones. It's time our leaders stopped play-fighting with the latter and took responsible measures to introduce genuine reform and make Social Security a better system for everyone.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Friend of the Family

The recently released Bailey Review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children places a lot of emphasis on the need to make society 'more family friendly'. Every government likes to proclaim that it has family friendly policies – it is, after all, a pretty easy way to sound like the good guys – but what does it actually mean? Just what kind of family are they talking about?

Of the UK's approximately seventeen million families, just twelve million are headed by married couples. Around two and a half million are headed by couples who are cohabiting without marriage or civil partnership, and this figure is steadily growing as a proportion of the whole. There are just over two million single mother families and a mere hundred thousand single father families; neither of these groups has grown or declined much in recent years, although if you read the tabloids you may well have been under the impression that they're an epidemic. The evidence suggests that most single parents are in relationships at the point when their children are born. Only around ten percent of them are under twenty five, so the irresponsible teenager stereotype is misleading too. Oh, and over half of single parents work, though they are significantly more likely than those in two parent families to be living below the poverty line.

Of course, this only gives us a rough idea of what Britain's families really look like, because families aren't limited to the nuclear group. There are certainly quite a few polyamorous families out there, with more than two adults providing for children, but we don't have any firm details on this because the people running the National Census decided to disregard all data concerning multiple partner groups and instead assign each individual thus described a single partner, on the basis that they probably made an error when describing themselves (how they can arrive at this conclusion in the absence of other quantitative data on polyamorous households is unclear). There are also many families which have fractured and reformed so that children frequently travel between their birth parents' homes and are also looked after by step parents. And then there's co-parenting, where two unrelated adults who are not romantically involved share a home in order to raise their children together – many women find this a practical way to work around problems they would otherwise face in finding childcare to enable them to work.

Add to this the extended family. Modern UK society is unusual in its notional adherence to the parents-and-children-only model. In most societies today and throughout history, grandparents, aunts and uncles and often close friends of the family have played important roles in raising children – not just providing childcare, but helping more generally with education and socialisation. In fact there are still a great many families in the UK that function like this, they just tend to be under the political radar. There are also many complex care situations in which families may include elderly, ill or disabled adult dependants, some of whom also help to look after children.

Given this complex picture, it should be pretty clear that one-size-fits-all approaches to family friendliness are not going to work. The UK has a sad history of prioritising some family types at the expense of others and of using crude financial levers to try and force people into that 'standard' model (though David Cameron's much-vaunted plan to create a new tax allowance for married couples seems to have been consigned to the back burner). Single mothers are made scapegoats for everything from male violence to the struggling economy, generally with no substantiating evidence, whilst relatively little attention is paid to the men whose desertion has left many of them in that situation in the first place, even where non-payment of parental contributions is commonplace. Single fathers, meanwhile, tend to lose out because they are 'invisible' when policy is being developed.

To complicate things further, families include people who face different kinds of social exclusion. There are three and a half million children in the UK living below the poverty line – a statistic which becomes more worrying when one realises how many of them were born to parents who grew up in the same circumstances. To families like this, the notion that their primary concerns should include the appearance of the kids' underwear must seem ludicrous to say the least. One in six kids in this situation considers suicide. Shouldn't we be more concerned about that? Or about the kids who feel suicidal because they experience racist, homophobic or transphobic bullying whilst Cameron's government increasingly deregulates the schools that ought to be protecting them?

Moral panics have a nasty way of making things harder for kids like these. Public fear of paedophiles has made it harder for many kids to access sport, hobby groups or outdoor play. This is despite the fact that most child molestation occurs within the family unit or its immediate social circle. Denying kids contact with other adults makes it harder for them to find people they can confide in when things are wrong at home. It also means that a kid who is worried about developing homosexual feelings, for instance, will find it harder to ask a neutral adult for advice. Responsible advice is hard to find online if parents have installed content-blocking software. So such young people are often left more vulnerable, not less so, like those prevented by the same software from accessing safer sex advice. If Nadine Dorries and her allies succeed in placing the focus of school sex education on abstinence we can expect rates of sexually transmitted infections to soar as they have where similar approaches have been taken in the US. Protecting children is not always as obvious a process as it might first seem.

It's also an emotive business. The phrase 'family friendly' is designed to appeal to the emotions, but often it does so at the expense of good sense. People who care passionately about protecting children often believe that qualifies them to act on instinct. It doesn't. To make good policy which has the effects intended, it is necessary to consider the evidence. Fortunately there is a good quantity of this, though little in the Bailey Review, which amounts to little more than a collection of opinions.

There is one other important question to ask here, and that's whether it is appropriate to place so much extra emphasis on parental input when it comes to developing policies that affect children. Parents generally do know their own children better than anyone else does, but that doesn't make them experts on children in general. And the welfare of children is not solely their concern. It's not just that non-parents may also want to see children do well, it's that the whole of society depends on how children are raised. Everybody has to live with problems like youth violence and everybody will ultimately depend on the skills and hard word of those who are now children to sustain the economy when they grow too old to work themselves. Children are a social investment, not just a familial one.

The hard truth of the matter is, most genuine ways to improve the lives of families and children across the board require money – more money than successive governments have been willing to invest. Until they are ready to put that money where their mouths are, they should be wary of announcing that they're family friendly. Baby-kissing is out of fashion on the campaign trail (I am still uncertain as to why, in the internet age, we don't see more politicians posing with kittens). It is time we also put its rhetorical cousin to bed.