Is nudging enough?

Rene Kinzett, one of my fellow contributors over at Dale & Co, posted Nudging or Nannying last weekend. The argument was perhaps a little cryptic, but the point was that relying on the subtlety of trying to “nudge” behaviour in the right direction is not an adequate policy response to certain types of problem. His example of treating rickets among young women who for cultural reasons do not have enough exposure to sunlight is an interesting one. He referred to minimum alcohol pricing, a policy being introduced in Scotland, and banning smoking in cars carrying children, a policy being introduced in Wales, as more conventional regulatory policy that will help those on the edges of society, when nudges are judged inadequate.

A couple of comments took Kinzett to task for this argument. One made the point that nudge theory is being preferred for developing policy at the moment because it has been shown to be more effective than traditional regulatory approaches. It was also arguing that no one is suggesting that nudge can be used in isolation and should be combined with other mechanisms to deliver better social outcomes.

It seems to me that these comments miss the mark in at least a couple of ways. Read more of this post

Steve Hilton, blues skies thinking and the resurgent deregulatory impulse

Steve Hilton has attracted flak across the old and new media following the FT’s revelations about his suggestions for stimulating economic growth. The proposals that hit the headlines included the abolition of maternity leave, labour market policies that contravened European law and the suspension of all consumer rights. Many have criticised the proposals for a range of offences including apparently overlooking the rule of law. Others have defended the utility of blue skies thinking when seeking ways to deal with the challenges that face us.

Personally I’m not averse to blue skies thinking. But the idea that off the wall thinking is central to the role of a strategy director is curious. One would have thought strategy should entail something rather more concrete and grounded, at some point in the process at least. And as someone more disposed to bottom up decision making and a Parliamentary party that is charged with representing the collective will of its members, I’m not so keen on the idea that one unelected, unaccountable and largely anonymous individual should have such influence over policy in the first place.

But the main thing that strikes me about these revelations is that they are not very “Blue Skies” at all. Read more of this post

Democratic deficits

Liberal democracy faces profound challenges. Radically different future trajectories present themselves. We are living through momentous times.

In Britain the media has spent the last fortnight preoccupied with the Hackgate scandal. Incremental, and ongoing, revelations have exposed the inner workings of the nexus between Westminster politicians and the tabloid media. What we witness is the political class showing an alarming level of deference to powerful economic interests. The alleged intimate connection between sections of the Metropolitan police and the tabloids raises equally urgent questions about the prevailing culture and ethics at the heart of a core social institution.

The British media has been preoccupied with this evolving soap opera involving many of its own. And the scandal has certainly opened up a welcome window of opportunity to reform relationships vital to a healthy democracy. But events unwinding elsewhere are likely to play a bigger role in shaping economic and political trajectories in the short and medium term. Read more of this post

Dispatching rogue landlords

Tonight’s C4 Dispatches programme provided some very clear evidence regarding poor standards of accommodation and management in the private rented sector. It is linked to the Shelter campaign to Evict Rogue Landlords. While the individual underhand practices deployed by landlords are very unpleasant, the impact of the programme will be mitigated by the problem that all research in this sector faces – that it is hard to quantify the scale of the problem. If one problem is that no one prosecutes rogue landlords, for example, then the statistics appear to show that unlawful behaviour by landlords isn’t a big problem. The logic is faulty – absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence – but convenient for those who have no wish to act. The majority of private tenants are happy with their current landlord. But that tells us nothing about how many tenancies they’ve moved on from because of poor treatment by a landlord.

Grant Shapps was interviewed briefly in the programme. His contribution had two key elements. First, he argued that the national registration scheme for private landlords proposed by the previous Labour government ran the risk of becoming a bureaucratic exercise and so was dropped. In fact, his argument here was a little less than clear. But the net result is that this type of regulatory scheme appears to be off the agenda. Second, he argued that there are lots of local authority powers and regulations already in existence to deal with problem private landlords.

This second point is correct but almost entirely irrelevant. Read more of this post

Failures to care for vulnerable people: what lessons to draw?

The practices exposed by Panorama last week at Castlebeck’s Winterbourne View care home were profoundly shocking. The case continues to develop – several further arrests were made this week. Ghandi said that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”. What we witnessed at that particular care home suggests our claims to greatness are debateable. And, of course, rumbling in the background we also have the Southern Cross debacle. There are grave concerns over the future of the country’s biggest private provider of care homes for older people. There appears to be a government guarantee on the table to see that residents are provided for, but no promise of a bail out.

Searching questions are quite rightly being asked. How can we have got into this situation? It is maybe rather late to be waking up to the issues here. Nonetheless, it is welcome that they are getting their moment in the spotlight. Let’s hope some positive changes result. But are the right lessons likely to be drawn from current troubles? Read more of this post

Dr Cable: the Cassandra within Cabinet?

Vince Cable seems to be occupying a somewhat awkward role in Government as the Coalition enters its second year. While continuing as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, he appears to be acting as agent provocateur-in-chief of the new style Lib Dem “opposition within government”. He popped up as the surprise guest at the recent Fabian Progressive Fightback conference. And ConservativeHome placed him squarely at the top of their Yellow B**tards Premier League.

Yet, while this role appears rather awkward from the point of view of cabinet unity and collective responsibility, you get the sense that it is more congenial to Vince personally.

Vince is at it again in an interview in the current New Statesman. Read more of this post

Up to the task? Dealing with housing market volatility

It does not take great insight to realise the UK housing market is in a mess. Recently we’ve witnessed significant nominal house price declines and consequent negative equity, a massive contraction in the supply of credit, a private sector construction collapse, and social house building as a victim of austerity. Repossessions have risen. And that affects not just owner occupation but also ripples out to the private rented sector as Buy to Let landlords fall behind with their payments and tenants lose their homes. Demand for both social and private rented housing has increased as ownership becomes unaffordable or inaccessible for many.

Layered on top of all this we’ve had a series of policy initiatives around housing allowances in the private rented sector, support for independent living, and rents and tenure in the social sector that are not obviously going to improve the situation. Indeed, critics argue forcefully that these policy manoeuvres are only going to exacerbate the problems.

The dimensions of the problem are not generally contested. The question is what we do about it. The latest attempt to chart a course out of the jam we’re in is the final report of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Housing Market Taskforce Tackling Housing Market Volatility in the UK, published today. Read more of this post

Upstairs at Eric’s – What’s on the big guy’s mind?

Earlier this month Communities and Local Government launched what they describe as an ‘informal consultation exercise’ reviewing the statutory duties placed on local government.  It’s aiming to gather views on the full range of statutory duties with a view to identifying any that are no longer appropriate or necessary. The Department makes it clear that this is not an exercise expected to deliver short term outcomes. This is the long game. And it needs to be seen in context. The accompanying explanatory note makes this clear:

In order for this Government to achieve its goal, as announced in the Coalition Agreement, of decentralisation and promoting the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups, clarity is needed about what the current demands on local authorities are and careful consideration as to whether they can continue to be justified in the move towards decentralisation and localism.

So one could see this as an exercise of profound significance. Yet, at another level, the way in which the exercise has been set up seems almost custom-made not to gather any very useful information. As with much that originates within the Pickles empire, it is an initiative that raises a host of profound questions. Read more of this post

Private renting, quality concerns and spatial exclusion

To say that there appears to be inconsistency, incoherence or complacency at the centre of Government policy is not a particularly novel observation. Indeed, it doesn’t really narrow down what we’re talking about, given the generally rushed and badly thought through nature of current policy proposals in many fields. Nonetheless the point reasserted itself with the conjunction of two pieces in yesterday’s Observer (here and here).

A perennial problem in the private rented sector is relatively poor affordability coupled with relatively poor quality. Many private renters pay a lot for bad housing. It has been an active part of the housing policy discussions for the last 15 years at least. The Buy to Let boom of the 2000s made a difference to average quality, but not to affordability.

The fundamental issue is that landlords in Britain are unwilling or unable to provide consistently high quality accommodation for the level of rent that private tenants are willing to pay or, at the bottom of the market, able to pay. Read more of this post

Curtailing access to Employment Tribunals – a liberal approach to fostering economic growth?

There is little disagreement that the economic growth figures for 2010 Q4 were very poor. When set alongside the performance of other developed economies they look even more anaemic. The Government is promising that the 2011 budget will be a budget for growth. But the Government is already bringing forward more focused initiatives with the justification that they are geared towards fostering private sector growth. Most recently Vince Cable has announced proposals for changes to employees’ access to Employment Tribunals.

The core proposal is that a worker will need to have been employed for two years, rather than the one year at present, before they are eligible to take a case of unfair dismissal to an Employment Tribunal. Defending a case that goes to Tribunal is expensive for employers, on average it is estimated to cost around £4,000. The argument is that the expense and bureaucratic nature of the process can act as a deterrent to taking on additional workers, particularly for small businesses. Lifting this burden will, the Government hopes, encourage employers to be more bullish in expanding their workforce.

The Government is also concerned that there has been a dramatic increase in cases taken to Employment Tribunal. The total number of claims rose between 2008-09 and 2009-10 by 56 per cent to 236,000. The Government suggests that its new approach will also be more effective in dealing with weak and vexatious claims. There is, of course, an implication there that the recent growth in claims is stuffed full of frivolous claims.

But is that a sensible inference for us to draw? Read more of this post

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