Archive for the 'public policy' Category

3 critical steps we need to take to save democracy

henry-tam

Henry Tam

Henry Tam, author of Time to save democracy: How to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, discusses the decline of democracy and the three critical steps that must be taken in order to save it.

“In the 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the apartheid regime in South Africa, there was a time when democracy seemed to be in the ascendant. But the new millennium has not brought good tidings, more the reverse.

George W. Bush played his part with his ill-conceived wars to make people recoil from any talk of ‘spreading democracy to the world’. On both sides of the Atlantic, ‘Third Way’ attempts to blur the left-right divide managed to consolidate one thing – the indifference of a third or more among those eligible to vote to stay away from the polling booth whenever there’s an election on. And then came Brexit and Trump in 2016 to demonstrate how ready millions of people were prepared to cast their vote irrespective of what the clearest evidence and expert analyses might say, so long as they could vent their frustration and anger at a few easy targets.

“We need democracy as a bulwark against the threat of arbitrary government.”

We need democracy as a bulwark against the threat of arbitrary government. But when the mere form of electoral selection is mistaken for the substance of an equitable system of control by the people, our political health is in trouble. Any superficial framework for vote-casting can all too easily be exploited by charlatans with wealthy backers. To save democracy from terminal decline, we must take action in three critical areas.

First, democracy has to take roots in a polity with a broad sense of togetherness. Neoliberal individualism and divisive tribalism in their respective ways attack civic solidarity, and blind people from recognising the need to prioritise their common good. But social polarisation is not inevitable. Governments around the world have used engagement techniques, familiarisation activities, and reconciliation processes to bring people with diverse backgrounds together to develop shared understanding and joint objectives. Rejecting both the ‘anti-political correctness’ brigades who celebrate discrimination as their heritage, and the ‘rights-override-all’ warriors who refuse to accept that rights can ever be diminished by wrong-doing[1], the state should stand firm on guaranteeing respect for all who respect their fellow citizens, and stamp out invidious attempts to stigmatise ‘others’. Furthermore, we should not weaken civic cohesion by giving public subsidies to schools that inculcate beliefs in the supremacy of their own faith, but instead strengthen it through teaching democratic consensus-building and the importance of pursuing the public interest.

Secondly, the rule of law must be backed by a collective system for distinguishing truth from falsehood. For too long, concessions have been made to the relativist notion that all claims are as valid as each other, thus giving succour to demagogues, extremists, and corporate propagandists to pretend what they say are inherently beyond criticism. And when their version of ‘reality’ is contradicted by objective evidence, they invoke the freedom of speech to keep spreading their lies in the hope that they can fool enough people enough of the time to win power. But no country refrains from setting and enforcing legal limits on irresponsible communication. Even those who declare there must never be any restriction step back when what is communicated involves, for example, words and images that encourage the targeted audience to commit atrocities in the name of some deity, consume what is above the accepted safety level, or promote paedophilia. In addition to applying the law against irresponsible communication consistently and rigorously, especially in relation to those are prone to lie to expand their economic and political influences, schools must be given the duty and corresponding resources to teach to a high standard the skills for objective reasoning, debunking misdirection, and evidential examination.

“…we must reverse the wealth inequalities that have since the 1980s increasingly corroded the civic parity needed for democratic decision-making.”

Last but not least, we must reverse the wealth inequalities that have since the 1980s increasingly corroded the civic parity needed for democratic decision-making. The unscrupulous among the rich and powerful use their resources to back candidates and policy proposals that favour them at the expense of everyone else. And money matters. For example, between 2004 and 2012, in each of the five bi-annual contests in the US House of Representatives, over 80% of the candidates who spent more than their rivals won[2]. Spending on federal campaigns in 2012 alone was over $6.2 billion, with 68% of that money coming from just 0.26% of the population[3]. For many people, there is no point getting involved when the rich will ultimately have the last say. In the 2016 US presidential elections, 48% of those who had registered to vote did not actually cast a vote – that’s 95 million people who simply abstained.

Beyond restrictions on campaign donations and spending, other ways should be considered for reining in plutocratic influences. Many more public decisions should be delegated to deliberative forums structured to curtail opinion manipulation. A decent level of public service and basic income should be provided to protect people from being politically marginalised by socio-economic vulnerabilities. There should be better resourced and more transparent investigative agencies to hold both those holding and seeking political office to account for their actions. And to give all those who work in any organisation a real say over their pay differentials, more support should be given to the development of multi-stakeholder cooperatives that are far less likely to tolerate inequitable income gaps.

[1] Otherwise the ‘right to freedom’ would shield every criminal from punishment.

[2] Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 11)

[3] Prokop, A. (2014) ’40 charts that explain money in politics’, Vox: http://www.vox.com/2014/7/30/5949581/money-in-politics-charts-explain (Chart 2)

TTS_DEMOCRACY_FCTime to save democracy, by Henry Tam is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £15.99.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Exploring the quiet revolution of mission-driven millennials

ash-singh-photo

Asheem Singh

An interview with Asheem Singh, author of The moral marketplace, originally published by Pro Bono News on 7th February 2018.

“A global generation of youthful social entrepreneurs is on the march, according to the author behind a new book exploring how social enterprise is driving mass political and social change.

Asheem Singh is an international activist, social entrepreneur, journalist and formerly the youngest ever CEO of leading UK charity leaders body Acevo.

In his new book The Moral Marketplace: How Mission-Driven Millennials and Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing Our World, he argues that the rapid global growth of social enterprise over the last decade has been a “quiet revolution” of “mission driven millennials”.

He told Pro Bono News social enterprise had come to dominate thinking when it comes to how social innovation happens.

“The Moral Marketplace is my term for a number of independent, grassroots business type organisations that have grown up over the past decade, and they have grown at pace,” Singh said.

Watch Asheem Singh answer the question ‘What is social enterprise?’ in this great video.

“They have begun to really dominate our thinking when it comes to how social innovation happens, how doing good happens … and there are all sorts of different kinds of organisations that come within the banner.

“What has been really cool to see, is so many, what I call mission driven millennials, enter the marketplace and set up their own social enterprises. You see it all over the world, you see it in Australia as well. There are so many fantastic, inspirational young people who say, ‘I don’t want to just do nine to five, I don’t want to just work hard for some faceless corporation and give back to charity, I want to make the object of my life doing good, as well as doing well’.”

In his book, Singh uses examples from around the world, giving first-hand accounts of social innovation in India, movements built to counter cultures of abuse and rape in Zimbabwe and exploring how entrepreneurs selling ethical products across Europe and America have proliferated.

He said the founders of the social enterprise movement were “very much not millennials”, but it was a model that resonated with younger generations.

“I don’t think we’ve seen yet the full potential of this incredible generation being tapped.”

“My book opens with a guy called Vinod Kapur, he is an Indian guy, I think he is past 70 now, he has been working in the villages for years, and he found that women in Indian villages were abused, they had no capital of their own, they had no way out of their own situation and that was because they couldn’t rear their own livestock, conditions were too harsh. So he spent 20 years, breeding a chicken that could survive in the most distant and most remote of Indian villages and by doing that he managed to reach out and find groups of women who could benefit from this innovation and over 10, 20 years, he managed to create the most incredible business called Keggfarms whose principle goal is not just the rearing of chickens and the production of eggs for India’s middle class, but actually to empower women. And some of the stories you see and some of things he has done are just incredible, so this guy is not a millennial,” Singh said.

“But what we find is that we’ve reached a sort of critical mass of these stories.

“In an age of social media, information technology, when the foundations for the sharing economy are being set and universities are doing more to spread information about the moral marketplace, people like me are writing books about it, a critical mass of these millennials are being turned on by these stories, they are tuning in and saying ‘you know I want this too’.

“I don’t think we’ve seen yet the full potential of this incredible generation being tapped.”

Startup Stock Photos

Singh said social enterprise was the tool many millennials were using to change the world.

“I think that what you see is in the old days, previous generations they had their thing, they had their way of doing charity, their way of doing good. I think this generation, so generation Y-ers and generation Z-ers, social entrepreneurship is their thing, that is the tool they will use to change the world. To be part of that, as a millennial myself, being part of that is really exciting,” he said.

“I think it is that idea of almost feeling powerful enough to change the world. We live in an age of hashtag activism, which is covered in the book, we live in an age where people are giving us these messages that you too can make a difference, that each of us can make a difference each and every single day, and part of me thinks that message is getting through.

Singh-MoralMarketplace-FC-web“When you hear someone like Muhammad Yunus say that the young people he meets every single day, the young generation are the most socially conscious generation, the least selfish generation we have ever encountered, it flies in the face of everything you hear about young people. We hear that they’re snowflakes, we hear that they’re self obsessed, they live in a selfie culture and the rest of it, and some of these things to an extent among certain people are true, but I think there are also real sense of wanting to do good and social entrepreneurship being a tool with which they can do that.”

He said he was sceptical about interpretations that millennials were “the have your cake and eat it generation” who wanted to feel like they can make money and do good at the same time.

“I think that is the Gen X and baby boomers’ interpretation of what has happened here,” Singh said.

“The young people who are getting into the space that I have seen are not in this for themselves, they are in this to make a difference because that is what they care about.

“This idea of enlightened self interest, it is a very kind of 1950s value and I just think we’ve moved on, I think people genuinely feel in an age of disconnection, of alienation, of loneliness, of urban alienation, I think they feel that they want to reach out to community and build their own community and try and help people.

“A lot of the social enterprises that I see are about getting elderly lonely people and bringing them into the community. There is a great one called GoodGym here in London there is a running group, where the route for the runners goes along houses of elderly people who are lonely and don’t have any family. So the runners, stop in, drop off a paper and then carry on. They get fit, they do some good, this is not about enlightened self interest, this is about building community and I think millennial realise, what we lost through the selfish years, the ‘Ateful Eighties’ as we call them… was that sense of connection, connectivity, community, and I think social entrepreneurship is to them a way of rekindling that flame.”

In the book Singh distinguishes between two kinds of social entrepreneurs.

“I talk about what I call incubated social entrepreneurs, which is the kind of the classic Harvard grad who has had a very privileged life, who then goes to Kenya and says ‘I want to help these Kenyan farmers because I am great’. And sometime they do great stuff and sometimes they really help, there are some great examples of those kinds of social enterprises in the book, I think that is fantastic. I am all for that. I am so glad they are doing that and not ruining the world by joining some investment bank or making arms to sell to a war zone,” Singh said.

“But what I would say are the more radical and more exciting social enterprises for me are those ones that are fed-up by what I call the people living at the bottom of the pyramid, so they are bottom pyramid social enterprises.

“They are the ones where you have got someone living in a disadvantaged situation, a difficult circumstance, they have suffered and they say ‘I am never going to let that happen to anyone ever again, I am damn well going to set up something which changes the situation’. It might be something completely stupid like a waste management system because someone they know died of cholera, but that is an act of social entrepreneurship and is every bit as valuable as the mega chicken that Vinod Kapur produced, or the really cool tech for good apps that all these Harvard grads are producing.”

But Singh said the full potential of social enterprise was not being realised.

In particular he argued that previous and current governments have not done enough to unleash the potential of Britain’s social enterprise community.

He said there was a big debate currently taking place in the UK regarding public service contracting, that was being fueled by the collapse of Carillon.

“Government outsourcing megaliths like Carillon, who rinse the public for profit, are the antithesis of the moral marketplace of social enterprises,” Singh said.

“Our public services are a ticking time bomb as a result of contracts made with companies like Carillion. The government’s regrettable indifference to the real potential of social enterprise to reform public services and place social value at their heart – if it continues – will only result in waste and misery. I trust that Carillion’s collapse will be the stimulus for radical change.”

Among 30 policy ideas included in The Moral Marketplace Singh has suggested a “community first” test for public service contracting, which urged government to privilege purpose-driven, socially-minded organisations over private sector businesses when tendering for public services.

“It is about putting organisations with social purpose, social value at their heart, and saying we’re going to give you a chance to get this contract first before we turn to anyone else. Just something simple like that can really empower, from the government perspective, these organisations. From our perspective, we the people, we need to be encouraging them to do that,” Singh said.

He said the public should continue to support social enterprises through learning more and buying from organisations in the moral marketplace.

“There is so much we can do as an activated, motivated public. More than ever people are wearing their causes as badges and saying this is what I stand for and I just think we need to get that momentum behind, these amazing people, these mission driven millenials who are saying you know what, I want to change the world.”

He said he hoped his book helped people learn more about social entrepreneurship and offered lessons to people looking to enter the space as well as for officialdom on how to create a consensus that works better for social enterprise.

“If you are someone who cares about doing good and you want to know what good looks like in our time, maybe you have heard about this thing social enterprise but you’re not sure what it looks like, hopefully my book will be able to help you elevate your knowledge and also feel good about what’s happening out there. If I can help more people get more active and more involved then I think the book will have done its job.”

The moral marketplace by Asheem Singh is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £10.39.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Repealing the 8th: how new legislation on abortion should be designed

Fiona de Londras

Fiona de Londras

Mairead Enright

Mairead Enright

Fiona de Londras and Mairead Enright – authors of ‘Repealing the 8th: Reforming Irish abortion law‘ – respond to the announcement of the Irish Cabinet of its intention to hold a referendum to repeal Article 40.3.3 in May 2018. The book, now publishing on Thursday this week, looks beyond the referendum to what might come next, presenting detailed proposals for new legislation.

Chapter 4 from the book – Accessing abortion care: principles for legislative design – is now available to download free on our website. 

In 1983 the Irish Constitution was amended by the insertion of Article 40.3.3, now known as ‘the 8th Amendment’. This provides that “the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

At first glance, the 8th Amendment may seem innocuous or merely aspirational. However, over time, this provision has led to a near-absolute prohibition on abortion in Irish law and serious infringement of pregnant people’s rights. Under the current law, abortion is only lawfully available in Ireland when a woman will almost certainly die without it, and even then multiple doctors usually have to agree that this is the case.

“More than three decades of activism have come together in a large, vocal, visible and highly effective campaign for political and legal reform.”

Now, though, there are signs of change. More than three decades of activism have come together in a large, vocal, visible and highly effective campaign for political and legal reform; for the removal of the 8th Amendment and introduction of a law that will enable women to exercise agency in pregnancy and ensure that, for those who want to avail of it, abortion care is available at home in Ireland.

On Monday, the Irish Cabinet announced its intention to hold a referendum to repeal Article 40.3.3 in May 2018. The People will be asked to delete this Article and to insert a provision that expressly says that provision may be made by law for the termination of pregnancy. The Taoiseach said that the referendum will present the People with a choice to enable the Irish parliament to legislate for abortion care at home, or to continue to export abortion to other jurisdictions and to put the lives of women in Ireland at risk.

The Cabinet will publish indicative legislation for a GP-led abortion service ‘on request’ up to 12 weeks, and more limited access to abortion in later pregnancy.

Hamill Aoife - 205kTravelled - Signs - London Irish Arc 2

After the referendum

In the book we look beyond the referendum, to what might come next once the 8th Amendment no longer absolves the Oireachtas of the responsibility to make law to provide for the needs of women in Ireland. We include detailed proposals for how new legislation on abortion might be designed, including draft legislation that gives effect to the proposals that appear to have received Cabinet support this week in a way that respects the rights of pregnant people in Ireland.

“…the rights of pregnant people can be developed in ways that truly respect and protect bodily integrity, privacy, and the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.”

In doing this, we argue that repeal of the 8th Amendment would create opportunities for the progressive interpretation of the Constitution, so that the rights of pregnant people—for so long narrowed down to a bare right to life said to be equal in stature to that of an unborn foetus—can be developed in ways that truly respect and protect bodily integrity, privacy, and the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment. This, we argue, would compel the Irish state to provide for lawful abortion, but would allow it to pursue the socially valuable objective of preserving foetal life provided in doing so it respects the constitutional rights of pregnant people.

This can be done by introducing law that makes abortion available without restriction as to reason up to at least the twelfth week. After that such a law might make lawful abortion available on broadly drawn health grounds so that pregnant people can truly determine the course of their own reproductive lives, and so that victims of sexual violence or those who have received unexpected foetal diagnoses will be able to be supported through a decision to an end a pregnancy, rather than forced through a punitive ‘qualification’ processes. This is what we are calling for now that the Referendum has been announced.

Like the Citizens’ Assembly and Joint Oireachtas Committee on the 8th Amendment, we draw distinctions between the availability of abortion after 12 weeks and after 24 weeks, with later abortion (after 12 weeks) being truly exceptional in law, just as it is in life. Illustrating the feasibility of such an approach, we include in the book draft legislation that gives effect to this approach. This makes our book essential reading for anyone involved in the campaign.

Our objective in writing this book was threefold. First, we wanted to make the constitutional arguments about the 8th Amendment clear and accessible and, in so doing, to show that from a legal perspective there is nothing unusually difficult about legislating for abortion and no reason why, uniquely among medical procedures, it should be regulated within the text of the Constitution. Second, we wanted to show how the Constitution itself could develop after repeal to reinvigorate the personal rights of pregnant people and to strike a balance between protecting these legal rights and pursuing the social objective of preserving foetal life through voluntary, consensual, and well-supported pregnancy. Finally, we wanted to show that, by drawing on experience in other countries and on international human rights law, and by committing to ensuring that pregnant people have sufficient certainty and support to make decisions about their own reproductive lives, a workable, reasonable, and rights-based law on access to abortion can be imagined and designed for Ireland.

Now, with the announcement of the Referendum on the 36th Amendment to the Constitution, we are a step closer to achieving some of these goals, but there is still much work to do. Given this week’s developments, Policy Press has brought forward the publication of the book to 1 February: please circulate information about it to anyone who is involved in the debates around the referendum.

 

Repealing the 8th: Reforming Irish abortion law‘ by Fiona de Londras and Mairead Enright  is publishing on 1 February 2018 and is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Pre-order here for just £10.39.

It will be available Open Access under CC-BY licence.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

How to start dismantling white privilege in higher education

Racism is still alive and well in US and UK academia, writes Kalwant Bhopal, author of White privilege. She argues that to dismantle it, there is a need for radical action from universities, which must start by acknowledging the existence of institutional racism and white privilege.

Originally published by the LSE British Politics and Policy blog on 28th November 2017. 

Kalwant Bhopal

Despite many claims to the contrary, racism is alive and well and robustly shaping the educational experiences of black and minority ethnic students in the United Kingdom and the United States. The evidence that this is happening in schools, when accessing elite (and non-elite) universities and later when applying for better paid or higher status jobs is scrutinised in my new book, White Privilege: The myth of a post-racial society. I argue that in neoliberal contexts, policy-making ensures covert and overt forms of racism, and exclusion continues to operate at all levels in society in which white identities are privileged. The talk may be all about a ‘post-racial society’, but in reality the status quo remains unchallenged.

Black and minority ethnic academics working in universities remain marginalised and regularly describe experiencing subtle, covert, and nuanced racism. At senior levels, they are less likely than their white colleagues to be professors or occupy decision-making roles. The white space of the academy perpetuates and reinforces white middle class privilege; consequently our higher education continues to be dominated by a white elite. I have researched educational inequalities for 30 years and it often feels like we are going around in circles: the more things change, the more they stay the same. A radical shift is needed from universities to acknowledge their long-standing role in privileging whiteness and implement change that addresses the inequalities this has fostered.

Credits: pxhere (CC0 Public Domain).

Higher education must firstly acknowledge institutional racism and white privilege; a failure to acknowledge racism results in a failure to act upon it. Institutional frameworks to facilitate change at local and national levels include universities monitoring racist incidents, identifying measures to address racism, and action plans with specific outcomes. Such action plans need to be characterised by their ‘clarity’; they need to demonstrate a clear link between identifying a problem, providing solutions, and measuring outcomes. Additionally, they need the ‘clarity’ we might associate with being ‘out in the open’, in which racism is publically acknowledged and addressed. Such clarity would ensure that it is the outcome of change that is assessed, rather than the rhetoric of what should happen.

Secondly, universities should be held to account for their lack of representation of black and minority ethnic groups in senior decision-making roles through monitoring and reviewing their staff profiles on a regular basis. A greater visibility of black and minority ethnic staff is needed in senior decision-making roles so that there is a specific recognition and valuing of diversity in staff representation. Unconscious bias training should be mandatory for all staff: at the very least, this training should be a requirement for individuals who are involved in promotion and recruitment panels. Simple measures such as the introduction of name-blind job applications to avoid the ample evidence that non-Eurocentric names are disadvantaged in recruitment processes are easy to implement and immediately signal a willingness to tackle issues of diversity. To support black and minority ethnic staff to reach their full potential, all universities should be expected to provide formal mentoring and training to staff who wish to progress in their careers.

Thirdly, universities must address the racial makeup of their student bodies. Oxford University was recently accused of ‘social apartheid’ for not admitting a single Black British student in nearly one in three of its colleges. Too often institutions that fail to recruit Black British students talk about their commitment to diversity by highlighting the numbers of international students they have recruited. These are discourses that demonstrate a lack of clarity. The value of international students for universities is closely tied to their greater economic contribution compared to home students. When the playing field is level, when white home students and black home students are paying the same fees, it seems remarkable that diversity is suddenly not accounted for.

Universities must be held accountable for failing to admit a diverse body of home students. I suggest a quota system should be introduced for selective universities, as well as elite universities, such as Oxbridge and the Russell Group in particular. The persistent failures of these publically-funded universities to address their inability to recruit the brightest students if they have the ‘wrong’ skin colour is, in the language of civil servants and policy-makers, not delivering value for money. Measures such as outreach programmes targeting poor areas, underperforming schools and underrepresented schools; offering support packages to pupils to develop their university applications; training for interviews; bursaries and scholarships to Oxbridge, are in no way about lowering standards. They are simple, necessary steps to move towards an inclusive approach for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who are not currently finding they have access to the same opportunities afforded their white, more wealthy, privately-schooled peers.

White privilege is awarded to those who are already privileged. This reinforces and perpetuates a system in which white elites are able to maintain and reinforce their position of power at all levels. Within a neoliberal context, policymaking is legitimised through a rhetoric that reinforces the benefits of neoliberalism as a universal value. I argue, however, that it reinforces whiteness and white privilege. It fails to acknowledge the role that race and inequality play in perpetuating advantage over disadvantage and that neoliberalism does not benefit all members of society equally.

Furthermore, to argue that the aftermath of the Macpherson report on institutional racism in the UK police has resulted in a post-racial society is utterly absurd (as I highlight with Martin Myers in a recent paper). Such discourses only serve to further marginalise black and minority ethnic communities. Racism exists at every level of society: it permeates our schools, our colleges and our universities. It is alive in all elements of society, our popular culture, our media and the social spaces that we occupy. We do not live in a post-racial society. What you look like – if you are black or from a minority ethnic group determines how you will be judged. Race acts as a marker of difference in a society poisoned by fear, insecurity, and instability. If we continue as we are, then whiteness and white privilege will continue to dominate in higher education institutions, with white groups doing whatever they can to protect and perpetuate their own positions of power.

 

White privilege by Kalwant Bhopal is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £10.39.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

The Tax Credits system needs fixing: addressing Universal Credit is not enough

Sam Royston, author of Broken benefits, argues that the government must reform the  flawed Tax Credits system before they can even begin to improve Universal Credit.

It is tempting to think that a “devastating picture of administrative chaos, computer errors and political misjudgements” in the social security system must be a reference to Universal Credit over the last few months. It well could be, but this is, in fact from George Osborne back in 2005 emphasising that problems with the Tax Credits system had become so serious he believed that there were serious questions over the future of the responsible Minister.

Many of the problems were to do with the way in which Tax Credits are calculated and paid. Whilst, as we shall see, many of the problems were addressed at the time, cuts to the benefits system mean that they have been rapidly re-emerging in recent years.

Why were Tax Credits such a mess when they were first introduced?

Tax Credits are an annual award – the total amount a claimant is entitled to is calculated for the whole year. However, people, and particularly those living on the lowest incomes, need to receive payments more frequently than once a year. For this reason, they are normally paid on a weekly or four weekly basis, based on an estimated entitlement for the whole of the year.

Since Tax Credits are means-tested, the claimant’s household earnings over the course of the year can affect the overall amount due – predicted annual entitlement is based on what the claimant thinks their income will be for the year.

“At the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.”

The difficulty arises at the end of the year, when the award amount is checked against the household’s actual income for the year. If the household’s income is lower than the estimate, then the award may have been underpaid and is topped up to the actual entitlement. If the household’s income is higher than the estimate, then this can result in the award being classed as overpaid and the government asking for some of the money back.

We aren’t talking about small amounts of money – in 2004, at the height of the Tax Credit problems, around £1.9 billion was overpaid to households in receipt of Tax Credits.

To reduce the likelihood of overpayments occurring, the Tax Credit system has a built in “buffer zone” (known as the “income disregard”) which means that a household’s income can rise by up to a given amount during a year without affecting their Tax Credit entitlement. In the mid 2000s, as a result of the amount of Tax Credits being overpaid, the government decided to increase the income disregard from £2,500 to £25,000. In effect this meant that if a claimant had been paid Tax Credits for a few months at the start of the year based on their previous year’s earnings of £10,000, and then changed job so that by the end of the year they had earned £35,000, their overall Tax Credit entitlement wouldn’t be affected.

Some overpayments are in fact impossible to avoid without a buffer zone – a household that has a low income for most of the year and then gets a sharp but unforeseeable increase in income may have already had more than their yearly entitlement before the rise in their income.

What’s gone wrong with welfare reform?

Despite this positive effect, following the 2010 election, the coalition government decided to reduce the size of the overpayments buffer zone – first from £25,000 to £10,000, and then to £5,000.

“They are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time.”

Astonishingly, the coalition government also decided to introduce the reverse of a buffer (an anti-buffer?) which disregarded falls in income of up to £2,500 from 2012. This means that when (for example) a worker sees their hours reduced so that they earn £2,500 less than they did the previous year, the earnings figure used to calculate Tax Credits is not immediately adjusted down. Instead they are treated as if their earnings are the same as the previous year – which could cost them more than £1,000 at a time when they are likely to be struggling.

As the income disregard has been reduced, overpayments (again, unsurprisingly) have increased. As large a proportion of Tax Credit claimants face overpayments than during the height of Tax Credit problems in 2005, with one in three claimants facing an overpaid award, and £1.6 billion of overpayments in 2015-16. This includes some exceptionally large overpayments – including around 50,000 families overpaid by more than £5,000.

Tax Credit awards overpaid as a proportion of total awards
2003/04 – 2015/16

awards-overpaid

In 2005 when these problems were first recognised, the then shadow (and later actual) Chancellor of the Exchequer called for the resignation of the Minister responsible. The response of the government was dramatic – not only did the Prime Minister apologise, but the large increase in the size of the income disregard was a direct response.

In 2015, when he himself was faced with a similar scale of problems within the system, the response of the Chancellor was to further reduce the level of the income disregard, back to the 2003-4 level of £2,500. We don’t yet know the impact that this will have on overpayments, but the Chancellor expects to save quarter of a billion pounds from this measure at its peak in 2018-19.

Giving credit where credit’s due

“It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system needs fixing.”

It is tempting to think of the Tax Credits system as a thing of the past, focussing instead on the profound mess which is being made of the introduction of Universal Credit. However, it is important to remember that more than 4 million families (with more than 7 million children), still rely on vital Tax Credits to make ends meet – and will do for the next few years at least.

Nor will these families escape their overpayments when they transfer over to Universal Credit – they will come with them and be automatically deducted from their Universal Credit entitlement.

It isn’t good enough to just focus on improving Universal Credit – the Tax Credits system need fixing. For a Government which wants to improve the fairness and simplicity of the benefits system, removing vital income disregards which prevented families from falling into benefit debt is a move in entirely the wrong direction.

 

Broken benefits by Sam Royston is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £12.00.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Why we need social entrepreneurs

Chris Durkin, co-author of Social entrepreneurship; A skills approach, reflects on his experience of redundancy and how the uncertainty it brings is representative of life in the ‘gig economy’. He highlights the urgent need to teach new skills, creativity and resilience and how social entrepreneurs can show us the way.

Christopher Durkin

I have been very lucky throughout my working life and only recently experienced the indignity of being made redundant. What was apparent was that redundancy has a formality, which goes through various stages – notification, ‘consultation’ and final notice – a process that involves you in attending various meetings, both as a group and as an individual.

What sticks out for me on a personal level was that throughout the process there was a high level of uncertainty, a complete loss of confidence and a feeling of anger, loss and failure; feelings that are both natural and individual.

Continue reading ‘Why we need social entrepreneurs’

What effect do sanctions & conditionality have on disabled people?

Guest editor Ben Baumberg Geiger introduces the new Journal of Poverty and Social Justice special issue, focusing on disability and conditional social security benefits.

 

Ben Baumberg Geiger

“There are times that policy runs ahead of academic knowledge.

Indeed, this is often the case, for policies must first be introduced before social scientists can study them – and if policy makers were restricted to policies that had been tried and tested, then policy innovation would be impossible.

Yet such innovation can come with considerable risks, as new policies can be introduced and widely imitated, only for social scientists – after some delay – to show that such policies are difficult to implement, can fail to achieve some of their aims, and may even have unforeseen and harmful consequences.

In a new special issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, we focus on one area where this might be happening: conditionality for sick and disabled social security claimants. While, historically, disabled benefit claimants were largely exempt from seeking work, high-income countries from Australia to Norway have increasingly required disabled claimants to take steps towards finding work, under the threat of financial penalties.

“…high-income countries from Australia to Norway have increasingly required disabled claimants to take steps towards finding work, under the threat of financial penalties.”

The conventional wisdom repeated by bodies such as the OECD is that this is a necessary step towards reducing high benefit claim rates, and, moreover, helps improve the finances, health, and social inclusion of disabled people themselves.

However, there are several challenges to this story. By any principle of justice, claimants cannot reasonably be required to perform actions that they are incapable of doing, but it is difficult for benefits agencies to know exactly what someone can or can’t do. If they get this wrong, conditionality for disabled people can create injustices, and inflict considerable stress on disabled people. Moreover, conditionality may move disabled people further away from work, by both undermining their relationship with their employment support caseworker, and making them less willing to take risks in performing tasks that they are not sure they are capable of doing.

 

Two conflicting stories – but what does the evidence say?

Until now, there has been very little published research trying to establish which of these accounts is correct. This is the aim of the special issue, which includes four research papers looking at experiences from around the world. In the UK, Aaron Reeves looks at on the impacts of conditionality for disabled people claiming unemployment benefit. In Denmark and Sweden, Sara Hultqvist & Iben Nørup look at the different forms of conditionality implemented for young disability benefit claimants. In Germany, Patrizia Aurich-Beerheide & Martin Brussig look at the (failed) implementation of conditionality for disabled people in Germany. And my own paper (see below) brings together these papers with a wider review of evidence and practice, to come to some initial conclusions about what we know so far.

“It is crucial for the wellbeing of disabled people around the world that deeper knowledge and more informed policy go hand-in-hand.”

The special issue also includes four further, slightly more unusual papers about the UK, perhaps the country where these issues have become most hotly contested. Indeed, conditionality for disabled people has been the subject of an award-winning film (I, Daniel Blake) and an award-winning play (Wish List), both of which are reviewed in the special issue (by Alison Wilde and Kim Allen respectively). Jed Meers covers a recent Supreme Court judgement about the ‘bedroom tax’ in the Supreme Court. And we felt it was important to convey the lived experience of conditionality, so a team from the Welfare Conditionality project describe two real-life stories of people who took part in their research.

So at the end of this, what do we know? In my (open access) review paper, I summarise the evidence into four ‘stylized facts’:

1. Requirements for disability benefit claimants are common, but sanctioning is rare (particularly outside of the UK and Australia).

2. Assessment and support are critical in making conditionality work on the ground, and can be combined into ‘passive’, ‘supportive’, ‘demanding’ or ‘compliance-based’ systems.

3. The limited but robust existing evidence suggests that sanctioning may have zero or even negative impacts on work-related outcomes for disabled people.

4. Individual case studies in ‘compliance-based’ systems suggest that sanctioning in the absence of other support can lead to destitution, and that conditionality can harm mental health.

While we need to know more, it is already clear that we cannot assume that conditionality for disabled benefit claimants is easy to implement, nor that it will have purely positive consequences. Policy may have run ahead, but research is now starting to catch up. It is crucial for the wellbeing of disabled people around the world that deeper knowledge and more informed policy go hand-in-hand from this point.

This is an edited version of the (free) introduction to the special issue, and is simultaneously being posted on the Policy Press blog and my own Rethinking Incapacity blog. The full special issue can be accessed here.

 

You can read the Disability and Conditional Social Security Benefits’ special issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice here. 

For all the latest Journal news and free articles:

• Sign up to the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice newsletter

• Follow @JPSJ_Journal on Twitter.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates

Archives

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

The work on the Policy Press blog is licensed under a Creative Commons licence.