Who’s wrong? The Government or the Economists?

Where should we draw the boundaries of the state? When should Government take responsibility for providing or funding services? And when should it be left to the market to sort out? One characteristic of the current government is that it has destabilised well-established understandings of where the boundaries lie. Most prominently we have the debate over higher education funding. But there are a range of other fields – including social care, rail pricing, school sports, arts funding and library provision – where central or local government is stepping back from funding and/or provision. While the financial crisis is typically invoked as the trigger for this, there is more than a suspicion that this can act as a handy pretext for furthering an agenda of state retrenchment, leaving more to the market, the voluntary sector or informal provision.

From the point of view of economists interested in social policy and social problems this is intriguing. Many economists who concern themselves with such matters tend to operate from a social liberal or social democratic position – they tend to favour a mixed economy and acknowledge a significant role for the state, if only in funding rather than provision. This is in part because they are a self-selecting group. The dyed-in-the-wool market fundamentalists don’t tend to spend too much time thinking about the role of the state. Rather, they tend to assume that Milton and the Public Choice boys have put that particular question to bed – the state should keep well away from just about everything. Read more of this post

The poverty of Nick Clegg’s “new” progressives

Nick Clegg’s Hugo Young speech last night is already generating plenty of comment in the old and new media. It was structured around a distinction between “old” and “new” progressives which is highly contestable. The characterisation of “old” progressives was not even a gross simplification. It was a caricature which, as Next Left has pointed out, is not readily anchored in any identifiable thinkers or contemporary policy position. Clegg’s view of old progressives – which would appear to encompass quite a chunk of his own party – is that they have both a simplistic and a static view of the world. To say that it was a straw man, or straw person, would be to do a disservice to cereal-based hominids.

On the other hand, “new” progressive policy would appear to encompass everything that Clegg and his new friend Dave are planning to do. Read more of this post

Keeping it honest on the run

[Originally posted on Bristol Running Resource, 21/11/10]

Do you prefer your running solo? Or would you rather a bit of jostling in the pack? They are very different experiences, and both can be enjoyable. But I guess I do most of my running these days with a partner. There are many advantages to running with a partner, the most obvious is having a bit of company on the way round. Even more fundamentally, it creates a sense of mutual obligation to get you both out the door in the first place.

But partnering up for a run can be fraught with difficulty. Read more of this post

You can’t act on what you don’t know (until too late)

Yesterday’s hardcopy of the Guardian reports that the Government is only planning to release the full Equality Impact Assessment for its policy of cutting Housing Benefit on the day that the legislative changes are brought forward. Critics have already argued that the policy is being rushed in so it is unlikely that the impact has been fully analysed. If it is true that the impact assessment is not going to be available until so late in the day then it means that even the partial picture the government has assembled is not, in practical terms, available to assist effective scrutiny. Impact assessment should start as early as possible in the policy making process. Earlier stages of the Impact Assessment process for the Housing Benefit changes were acknowledge by the Department for Work and Pensions to be incomplete. Which makes data that emerge later in the process even more significant. Read more of this post

Equalities out, “fairness” in?

So Theresa May has announced, outside of Parliament, that the Government will not be implementing the socio-economic duty for public bodies which was originally part of Labour’s Equalities Act 2010. The tone of the announcement was rather different from the signals the Government were giving back in July when it looked like they were going to continue with the equalities agenda set by the previous government. Back then the only part of the Equalities Act that was apparently under scrutiny was the proposed requirement upon employers to publish pay data, which had the potential to expose the existence of a gender pay gap. While that part of the legislation is still looking vulnerable, the focus of Ms May’s current displeasure is the socio-economic duty which she has dismissed as ‘politically motivated’.

It appears that Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone followed up her Minister’s statement by describing the socio-economic duty as “new and unnecessary” and continued: “I said at the time that this was a weak measures, that it was gesture politics and that it would not have achieved anything concrete”. On the one hand, it is disturbing that a Lib Dem is being taken as supporting the Tory line on an equalities issue. But, on the other hand, Featherstone’s point appears rather different. It is not that the socio-economic duty was unnecessarily interventionist – “socialism in one clause” – in the way the Tories are claiming but that it was an inadequate mechanism for addressing entrenched inequality: too weak rather than too strong, Read more of this post

“Us” and “them”. Yes, them over there. The benefit scroungers.

We have yet to feel the full force of the Coalition’s welfare cuts. But we are perhaps now starting to get an inkling of the reaction they will elicit when they finally arrive. One of the puzzling characteristics of much of the discussion of the agenda so far has been the relative absence of effective and vocal opposition. The Coalition has had a relatively easy ride in the press and in Parliament.

The Tories have very successfully pursued a divide and conquer strategy based on deservingness. Consequently a theme dominating the public discussion of welfare cuts is that the Government is right to think that ‘something needs to be done’ about ‘them’ [choose preferred target] – they are clearly taking the rest of us for a ride and are an unjustified drain on resources. This has been perhaps most effective in relation to the restriction of Housing Benefit. The Government has focused on the most egregious examples of the high levels of financial support going to individual households in expensive parts of London in order to justify the restriction of Housing Benefit for hundreds of thousands of poor households. Read more of this post

Cuts, conflict and Alan Johnson getting all mythical

At the RSA last week Alan Johnson gave his second speech on the economy, the deficit, and the direction of policy – both Coalition and Labour. He travelled under the banner “Beyond fiscal fables and Greek myths” (available via @LabourList). This event got rather lost in the fallout from the tuition fee protests and IDS’s proposed welfare reforms. That is unfortunate because there was plenty in the speech that was interesting.

First, Johnson has clearly been doing some background reading of that economics primer he mentioned when he took up his current role, or at the very least he’s being better briefed. The economic content of the speech was rather more plausible than some of his previous pronouncements on the topic. Read more of this post

Disposing of that pesky homelessness problem

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 11/11/10]

It was entirely predictable. The opening moves in a game that could see another hard-won component of the welfare state undermined have now been played.

It may have been predictable, but it is no less distasteful for all that. Read more of this post

Workfare: the practice is as bad as the principle

Over at Liberal Democrat Voice it all kicked off in response to a post noting that in 2008 Labour under James Purnell changed JSA in a way that is very similar to IDS’s recently trailed proposals for compulsory unpaid work for long-term benefit claimants believed to need reconnecting with the labour market. Much of the extensive comment that followed the post was directed less at the question of whether Labour are no better than the Tories, but at whether the principle embodied in these proposals are acceptable to liberals, of whatever flavour.  In The requirement to work looks imminent – why not locate it all in one place? I offered some brief comments on that issue.

But clearly this isn’t just an issue of principle. Read more of this post

The requirement to work looks imminent – why not locate it all in one place?

We are starting to get strong indications of the shape of the Coalition’s proposals on welfare. Today’s papers are trailing the core idea of requiring unemployed people to participate in 30-hours per week of unpaid manual work in the community for four week periods. It appears that if claimants decline to do so then they can expect to lose their benefit entitlement for up to three months. The aim is apparently to refamiliarise individuals who’ve been out of the labour market for a while with the routines and rhythms of work. It is likely to be prescribed for those who need “experience of the habits and routines of working life”. Of course we have to be cautious in jumping to conclusions before the formal policy announcement is made, but the suggestion that policy is moving in this direction – under the malign influence of US academics Mead and Murray – shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nor should it surprise anyone that something very similar was proposed by Labour in 2008 (as discussed here).

This policy is going to represent yet another challenge for the Liberal Democrats. Read more of this post

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