Criminalising squatting

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 01/11/11]

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Bill has returned to the House of Commons this week. The problems with the Government’s proposed Legal Aid reforms have been apparent for a while. Some people will see their access to justice seriously curtailed, while the courts are likely to silt up with inexpert litigants-in-person. The chances of any money being saved – when considered in the round – are limited. In this context it is good to see reports that Liberal Democrat MPs Tom Brake and Mike Crockart are tabling amendments to seek to address some of the most egregious injustices embodied in this part of the Bill.

But the Bill poses other profound challenges to those concerned with social justice and evidence-based policy making. Read more of this post

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Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? Read more of this post

Crunch time for the Liberal Democrats –The NHS Bill and electoral oblivion

The tuition fee debacle was bad. But at least there was a reason, if not an excuse. Neither major party was committed to removing tuition fees. So whoever the Liberal Democrats ended up in Coalition with it was unlikely that the party was going to be able to honour its pledge. The hand was no doubt badly played, but the outcome was going to be nothing other than politically damaging.

This time there is no excuse. The Conservatives may claim that their manifesto refers to extending GP commissioning. But this passing reference is a threadbare justification for the enormous changes being proposed. And how many electors actually read the manifesto? If they bought the story at election time then it was more likely to be Cameron the compassionate Conservative reassuring them that the NHS was his top priority, that it was safe in his hands, that there would be no top down reorganisation, that it wouldn’t be privatised, etc., etc., etc. That these reassurances were not worth the breath required to produce them seems increasingly apparent. Significant chunks of the electorate have interpreted the Government’s plans as taking an axe to their beloved NHS. Read more of this post

The Work Programme isn’t working …and that raises bigger issues

The Work Programme (WP) is the Coalition Government’s £5bn replacement for the range of programmes – including the Flexible New Deal – designed to assist unemployed people back into work. While the WP learns from and builds upon previous initiatives it also represents a departure. Its key characteristic is a more thorough-going application of the payment by results approach.

Last week the Social Market Foundation published a brief report on the Work Programme, which got a fair bit of coverage in the mainstream media. The headline conclusion is that all is very much not well with the new approach, as currently structured. The programme is, as they put it, at risk of “financial collapse”.

Even if assistance for the unemployed isn’t particularly your interest, this debate is important. It has much broader resonance in the light of current directions for public service reform. Read more of this post

On bankruptcy constraints, soft and hard

One strand of the economic critique of government provision is that public providers face a soft bankruptcy constraint. If they operate inefficiently or extravagantly and run out of money then they can turn to government for a handout to cover any shortfall. If the government is short of money to bail them out they just put up taxes. Private providers, in contrast, operate in the face of a hard bankruptcy constraint. They must operate in the face of ever-present risk. If they don’t produce what consumers demand, and do so as efficiently as possible, then their continued existence is in doubt. Hence, the argument runs, a powerful incentive is missing from the sphere of public provision. This argument has been invoked as one component of the justification for shifting activities from public to private sector. Read more of this post

Economic liberalism and public service reform

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 22/02/11, and ranked most read post of the week]

Are the Liberal Democrats a party of untrammelled ideology – sorry,“principles” – or do ethics and evidence also play a role in thinking? This question struck me forcefully when reading David Cameron’s article on public service reform in the Telegraph. It appears that the imminent Open Public Services White Paper has been formulated with collaboration from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Nick Clegg is fully ‘on side’. We await the details, but if Cameron’s article gives us an accurate sense of what is to come then I think there is – or should be – a significant battle shaping up. Cameron’s position would appear to be “The answer is marketisation. Now what’s the question?”. Is it appropriate for Liberal Democrats to be complicit in this agenda? Read more of this post

Welfare reform in the dark

Today saw the introduction of the Welfare Reform bill to the House of Commons. Initial Impact Assessments were also published. This piece of legislation has been trailed for many months, but it will nonetheless take quite a while to fathom the detail of what is being proposed across the wide range of areas it touches on. And it will take just as long to explore how it interacts with policy developments in other areas. Much of the early buzz about the Bill was the news that the Government had dropped the proposal to cut Housing Benefit for those receiving JSA for more than 12 months. This is clearly an unusual outbreak of good sense. Many are claiming it as a victory for the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular. Later in the day we were being reminded not to get carried away with this change – important though it is – because the Bill continues to embody a range of contentious proposals for seismic change to welfare provision (see here at Left Foot Forward, for example).

As those who have read previous posts will know, I am very keen on summing the parts and trying to understand the big picture (see, for example, Piecing together the housing policy jigsaw). It is something that many government are not good at. This government seems particularly poor at it. But in an era of rapid and radical change it is all the more important. Read more of this post

Sign of the times

If you have a blog then you’ve probably got access to a host of usage statistics for your site, information on links to and from your blog, and the search terms that people used to lead them to your words of wisdom.

I’ve just noticed that someone found their way to this blog today by entering the following search terms:

losing home waiting for social security

That brought me up short. It was truly affecting. A clear sign of the times.

One can only speculate on the combination of circumstances, the concatenation of events, that placed someone in such a precarious position. And on the absence of accessible local help that led someone to search the web for assistance on such a serious matter.

I may well write about housing and housing policy – as I have recently here and here – but I feel distinctly inadequate in being completely unable to offer anything sensible to assist someone with such a pressing and enormously important problem. Read more of this post

The great unmentionable: in-work poverty

The Government’s strategy for addressing poverty and inequality is geared towards tackling benefit dependency and making the transition into work easier. In this respect there is a great deal of continuity with the rhetoric, if not the practice, of the previous Labour administration.

The publication today of this year’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ought to give anyone convinced by the Government’s strategy pause for thought. The report shows that the overall number of children living in poverty has fallen (to, a still pretty shocking, 3.7m) and the number of children in workless households has fallen to 1.6m. This is most likely because of the rises in tax credits and child benefit under Labour. At the same time it shows that the number of children in poverty who are living in working families rose slightly. They now account for 58% of the total.

One of the authors of the report, Tom MacInnes, comments that “it is simply not possible to base anti-poverty policies on the idea that work alone is a route out of poverty”.

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