Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Welfare reform – heading towards the rocks?

Not infrequently, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, recalls being made redundant and facing life on the dole. Of course, most people being sent down the road are not so fortunate as to be able to rely on the wealthy in-laws.

Less frequently mentioned nowadays was his second enforced redundancy after just two years as Leader of the Conservative Party.Why do I mention this now? I will take IDS at his own words and, therefore, not underestimate the determination of a quiet man. However, word on the street is that IDS’s welfare reform programme is heading towards the rocks. If that results, he will be facing his own interview on the Work Programme in the near future.

The Treasury has been consistently sceptical about IDS’s welfare reform programme. Forget the objectives; forget the specific policies. It’s the practical delivery of the programme within the financial parameters that’s the key problem. However, it’s also important to look at the unintended (or were they?) financial and social consequences.

Let’s just consider a few elements:
  • DWP has already been forced to ditch three of the four proposed Universal Credit pathfinders because the IT systems – even for this limited application – are nowhere near ready.
  • Insiders are now confirming that there is no chance of 1 million people receiving universal credit by April 2014, as IDS promised in November 2011.
  • Applications for discretionary housing payments (DHP) in April, as a consequence of the bedroom tax, leapt from 5,700 last year to more than 25,000 this year and many more will claim when they find out about them. The budget for DHPs will shortly be exhausted, or so constrained that arrears will take a further leap.
  • As the DHP budget runs out, there will be thousands of bad news stories about the impact on adults with disabilities and on children who are no longer able to stay with one parent, after relationship breakdown.
  • The costs of collecting the bedroom tax, including managing arrears, could well take up most of the extra income.
  • A  housing association at the heart of the first direct payment pathfinder  experienced a 29 per cent rise in people contacting its financial support team in the last year, and a 19% rise in the total amount of debt referred.
  • Rent arrears in these pathfinders are already increasing dramatically. The reality is that ‘direct by default’ is already being carefully ditched.
  • The welfare reform agenda will increase costs in a whole range of other service areas, say 95% of senior council officers. None of these costs were included in the DWP impact assessment.
  • It is clear that DWP simply didn’t understand or take account of the frequency of changes in personal circumstances which affect housing and some other benefits which they are trying to incorporate into the universal credit system

Of course, if the government had really been serious about subsidising under-occupation, they would not have excluded pensioners from the scope of the bedroom tax. Not that I am advocating an expansion of the bedroom tax, rather the opposite.

Perhaps the biggest unintended consequence of IDS’s plans is that, because of the necessary extra provision for increases in arrears, increasing costs of collection and advice, and possibly increased borrowing costs social housing providers are cutting their investment plans for this year by an estimated £1bn plus, mainly impacting on the construction industry and building materials’ providers. So, at the very time that the government is rushing around trying to find good-value infrastructure investment projects that can be on site quickly, it scuppers over £1bn that fits the bill.

It has not been a good few weeks for IDS. He
  • called for people to voluntarily return winter fuel payments. Just 200 did so.
  • lost a major court battle to keep the locations of thousands of workfare placements secret. The judge said the DWP had “a paucity of compelling evidence” to back its claims. Sounds familiar!
  • was defeated when the Court of Appeal ruled that workers had been unlawfully made to do unpaid work
  • has again been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority over the deliberate misuse of statistics.

In November 2003, Iain Duncan Smith released his novel The Devil’s Tune. The critics panned it. "Really, it's terrible ... terrible, terrible, terrible" was one of the more generous.  The book never made it into paperback.

Now, with welfare reform being “terrible, terrible….”, perhaps IDS is determined to mark his place in history with the greatest crash on the rocks of all time. The dreadful prospect is that millions of the poorest families will be the ones most affected.

This article was originally published on the Local Government Chronicle website on the 4th of June 2013.

Cameron and Clegg – the criminals’ friends?

It is undoubtedly the case that crime fell significantly over the last decade. That fall followed the trend of increasing crime under the last Conservative government, which had made significant cuts to frontline policing and failed to tackle anti-social behaviour.
However, there is a real danger that the headline lower crime figures are masking another change in direction.

First, there is the cut in frontline policing. Nationally, there are already 11,500 fewer police officers than in 2010; 178 fewer in South Yorkshire, 252 fewer in Derbyshire and 282 fewer in Nottinghamshire. However, on the basis of the announcements already made, those forces still have significant cuts to make. For instance, South Yorkshire will be cutting another 239 frontline police officers by 2015.

Second, 30,000 fewer crimes – including more than 7000 violent crimes - have actually been solved since 2010. And, even when crimes have been solved, it is really worrying that some violent offenders are being let off without a criminal record.

Most people support community resolution and restorative justice for minor crimes. However, it is astonishing that, whereas just 2204 ‘violence against the person’ offences were dealt with in that way in 2008, that number had jumped to 33,673 in 2012. Last year, under pressure from Nick Clegg, more than 10,000 cases of serious violence didn’t even get to court. Further, not only is there no criminal record, but information about the crime or the criminal is not kept on the Police National Computer.

Thirdly, anyone who watches Crimewatch, or has followed the progress from detection to conviction of many serious cases – let alone thousands of minor ones – will have noticed the important role that CCTV has played. It is staggering that this coalition government is now spending £14m on increasing the red tape to make it harder to get CCTV and for the police and CPS to use CCTV and DNA evidence.

It’s getting more likely that the history books will write up Cameron and Clegg as the criminals’ friends.