Budget 2017: Time to (re)invest in Universal Credit

Being the Chancellor of the Exchequer is probably like winning the lottery, just without the enjoyable bits.

Sadly, I’ve never won the lottery but when I do (after I’ve shaken off the hangover) I imagine that old friends and acquaintances will surface to ask if they can have a few hundred quid.

This must be a daily occurrence for the Chancellor, only with bigger sums. “Can I have £7billion for transport infrastructure?” “I need £4billion for the NHS.” “Can you lend me £50billion for housebuilding?”. And so on.

Fielding those requests is no easy task. How nice it would be to say yes, yes, and yes. But the Chancellor’s job, more often than not, is to say no. Much like a parent in a toy shop being asked “dad, can I have this, can I have this…” albeit with fewer subsequent tantrums (you’d hope).

And so, in that spirit, I’ll throw my hat into the ring to encourage the Chancellor to increase funding for Universal Credit (UC). In doing so, Philip Hammond would put right a mistake made by his predecessor.

In 2010, the introduction of Universal Credit was a radical and much needed reform to a floundering welfare system. Iain Duncan Smith once described the welfare system as being a combination of a safety net and a trampoline – because it should catch people when they fall on hard times but (in his words), “it should also propel them back upwards”. At the end of the Labour government in 2010, the welfare system was doing the first part of that but failing miserably on the second.

Prior to 2010, the UK’s spending on welfare had increased year-on-year for nearly a decade but the system was failing those it was trying to help. By the time Gordon Brown left Downing Street in 2010, 1.4 million people in the UK had spent 9 out of the last 10 years on benefits; almost one in five households had no one in work; and the number of households where no one had ever worked had nearly doubled. In short, the expanding welfare system had done little to move people into work.

Enter Universal Credit. Introduced by the coalition government, UC has been described as “the most radical reform to the British welfare system since Beveridge”. The main aims of UC were to simplify the welfare system (by merging several different benefits into a single payment) and to ensure that work always paid better than remaining on welfare (i.e. to remove the financial incentive of remaining on benefits for long periods).

The element of UC that helped people transition from welfare to work is ‘work allowances’ which is the amount a person or family can work before their UC payment is affected. Their UC payment will then taper downwards at a steady rate as they earn more from work. However, in his 2015 Budget, in an effort to find savings George Osborne announced a significant reduction to work allowances. The effect this had on UC was significant: it severely diminished UC’s overriding objective, to make work pay. In its assessment of the 2015 Budget, the Resolution Foundation concluded that “the incentive to enter work has been significantly reduced” and the changes will “make a difficult situation worse” for many low paid families.

It is here that Philip Hammond should intervene, a view supported by those who know and understand Universal Credit better than anyone.

Last week, the three main architects of Universal Credit each urged the government to take action on various aspects of UC including on the issues of work allowances. In separate interventions, the people who were chiefly responsible for introducing the policy each called on the government to use the Budget to change course.

Firstly, Dr Stephen Brien, the intellectual architect of UC who (literally) wrote the policy used an interview with the BBC to urge the government to amend its current policy on the 7 day waiting time as well as to introduce greater work allowances for claimants.

Secondly, the Centre for Social Justice, the think-tank chaired by IDS that published the original UC proposal in 2009, released a report to the Guardian that called on the government to cancel a planned raise to the income tax threshold (a Conservative manifesto commitment) and instead to re-invest £3.4bn in the work allowances that were taken out of the system in 2015.

Thirdly, Baroness Philippa Stroud (who served as special advisor to Iain Duncan Smith and who ran the CSJ before moving into government in 2010), used a speech in the House of Lords to urge the government to “abolish” the waiting period before a person is eligible to claim Universal Credit and to re-introduce the work allowances.

The waiting period, said Stroud, is “not a design feature of Universal Credit” meaning that it can easily be changed. Stroud added “I do not think it should just be reduced; I think it should be abolished.” In the same speech, she also echoed the call made by both Stephen Brien and the CSJ to re-invest in the work allowances that were removed in the 2015 Budget.

And so, what should be done? The government has ignored (rightly) the calls to pause or even reverse the roll-out of Universal Credit. At its heart, UC is a tool to fight poverty and contrary to popular belief it has been broadly successful: on average claimants of Universal Credit spend more time looking for work, are more likely to find work, and earn more than those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.

But UC was always intended to be introduced iteratively, or as Philippa Stroud describes it, with a “test and learn” approach. In other words, it will take time to get it right and it should be regularly reviewed and adapted if needed.

The Chancellor would be wise to remember this in his Budget. By strengthening Universal Credit, the government has an opportunity to direct much-needed cash to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. At the time of year when everyone is asking the Chancellor for money, this is one group he should say yes to.


Links of the Day…

A selection of articles that I have enjoyed over the last few days…

How to be a judge – Spinning Hugo

Key Figures In British Engineering History Who May Or May Not Have Led A Secret Double Life. Part 1 In A Series Of 1 – Why Miss Jones

With style and a dash of daring, the new SNP MPs rise to battle for their own little corner – Chris Deerin

It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy – Fredrik Deboer

They’re Trying to Be King of the Mormons – Matt Canham, Thomas Burr

Michael Gove on Justice


Image: Legatum Institute (www.li.com)

Michael Gove gave his first speech today in his role as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. Speaking at the Legatum Institute, Mr Gove set out some big picture proposals, giving an indication of his direction of travel for the coming months/years.

While there was little in terms of specific policy detail, his speech did offer some insight into his vision both for the legal system and for his approach to his role. Here are few of my take-aways:

1) A change of tone. I’ve long been a fan of Mr Gove. I am a supporter of his education reforms. However, much of his good work as Education Secretary was overshadowed by the tone and manner in which he approached his role. His adversarial approach saw him do battle with a whole host of established figures within the education system. I’m sure that much of this was unavoidable given the reforms he was championing but it seemed at times he deliberately sought-out a fight and relished the confrontation. His speech today was of a very different tone indicating that he would not be replicating his former approach. He cited and praised numerous senior legal professionals highlighted the good working relationship he has with them.

2) A Robin Hood justice system? Several times during his speech, Gove hinted that he would like to see the wealthiest legal firms ‘contribute’ more than they currently do, in order to help the poorest in society have better access to justice. Gove was careful not to get drawn into the specifics but hinted at a light-touch solution – such as encouraging an increase in pro bono work done by the big firms – rather than heavy-handed legislation or taxation that would compel them to do so. This is undoubtedly a worthy ambition…making it work (including getting buy-in from the big law firms) will be very tricky.

3) Working with – not against – the system.  Several times Mr Gove stressed that he would be working with the legal profession rather than against it. He stated that during his first few weeks in the role he has felt supported by the profession and will aim to be guided by it. He stressed his good relationship with the Lord Chief Justice, as well as his warmness to the proposals within Lord Leveson’s Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings.

It’s early days but it seems like Gove is keen to embrace reforms that are coming from – and are supported by – the legal profession (very different to the head-on battles that characterised his time in the dept. of Education). In answer to a question about the existence of a “blob” within the legal system (followers of Mr Gove’s earlier work will be familiar with this term!) he stated that he has not identified one in the legal profession…yet!

4) Court closures. Gove was clear that some courts will have to close. What will the money saved be used for: simply absorbed into the wider departmental cuts or re-invested back into the legal system…? Again, refusing to be drawn on specifics, Gove stated that various options are on the table, although he did say that the Treasury is sympathetic to his case for re-investment into the system rather than straight cost-cutting.

Speaking with lawyers, think-tankers, and journalists after the speech I noted two common themes: first, positivity about the themes of the speech. Second, scepticism about how Mr Gove plans achieve it all. And that’s the whole ball game. It’s one thing to set out what you want to happen, it’s quite another to deliver it. Time will tell whether he can. I’m sure an anxious legal profession is watching and waiting.

The full text of the speech is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/what-does-a-one-nation-justice-policy-look-like

Video here: http://www.li.com/events/what-does-a-one-nation-justice-system-look-like

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us

Ten minutes in to his party conference speech, Boris Johnson produced a red brick from the shelf of his lectern. His message both verbal and visual was clear. London suffers from a housing shortage; we need to build more homes. In his own words, “One way or another we will need 1bn bricks. So, brick, my little friend, you will not be alone in London.”

BRITAIN-POLITICS-CONSERVATIVESWith the population of the capital set to exceed 9 million, the demand for housing is growing daily. The important question facing the city’s planners and developers is not if new housing is needed but what type of housing is best for London. This matters because a city’s architecture has a profound effect on its residents. Put simply, where you live can determine how you live.

Surveys of people in the UK have consistently found that the large majority of people prefer to live in streets rather than in high rise blocks. Those who live in streets are statistically happier and less stressed compared to people who live in multi-story buildings. Moreover, in conventional streets crime is lower and people report to being more socially engaged compared to people in high rise buildings.

Back to Boris. Earlier this year the Mayor of London took responsibility for the fate of one of London’s most historic sites, Mount Pleasant, which is currently home to the Royal Mail sorting offices. A large part of this site is set for redevelopment and competing plans exist for how to do it.

Royal Mail has invested more than £10 million in its plans to turn the site into a series of large, high-rise concrete flats up to 15 stories high. The plan has been derided by many including Simon Jenkins who wrote recently that “No respect is shown for contour or urban context.” Jenkins goes on to explain, “The Royal Mail proposal has been overwhelmingly opposed by every local body, not least the local Mount Pleasant Association. It is a mockery of localism and drains whatever character might have been instilled in this potentially charming corner of London”.

An alternative plan has been put together by Create Streets and the Legatum Institute. This plan is far and away a better option than the Royal Mail plan. A quick look at the details of the alternative plan reveal why:

  • It includes 730 homes, which provides a higher density than the Royal Mail’s 681.
  • It’s popular. A recent survey of 258 local residents found that 99% of respondents favoured the Create Streets plan over the Royal Mail plan.
  • It’s better value. The estimated re-sale potential over 40 years is estimated at £280m more than the RM plan (which would mean an Mount Pleasant£84m loss for the British taxpayer given that we own 33% of Royal Mail).
  • It gives greater priority to green spaces, especially in relation to the impact on a nearby primary school.
  • It provides better connectivity for residents, with pedestrian routes that are 75% more accessible than the RM scheme.
  • Finally, it’s much, much prettier than the RM plan.

Enter Winston Churchill. In 1943 parliament was debating the plans to reconstruct the House of Commons chamber after it was destroyed by a German bomb two years previously. During his speech, rather than using the event to make a case for modifying the chamber, Winston Churchill argued for it to be rebuilt exactly as it was. Churchill argued for this because he believed the Commons Chamber represented more than bricks and mortar. The intimate design of the Commons chamber, Churchill argued, plays a vital role in preserving and upholding the style, culture, and process of Parliamentary democracy that had existed for centuries.

Churchill recognised that our architecture influences our culture. He knew that preserving the principles of Parliamentary democracy would have a substantial effect on wider society. This is what he meant when, during the debate, he said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.

Back to Boris. Picture the scene, the Mayor of London has both sets of plans for the Mount Pleasant site spread out on his desk. The first is the Royal Mail plan for an ugly, high-rise, concrete jungle, unpopular with local residents; the second is the Create Streets plan for an attractive, popular, design that provides more homes and better value than the first. This sounds like a no-brainer. And yet, bizarrely, Mr Johnson recently approved the Royal Mail plan.

This may not be the end of it. There’s still a chance for a government minister to overturn the decision or indeed for Johnson to change his mind. The excellent Mount Pleasant Association certainly hasn’t given up hope.

Boris Johnson is soon to release a book about Winston Churchill. He will undoubtedly be familiar with Churchill’s advice to parliament in 1943. Seventy years later, Johnson would do well to heed that advice.

RFK on Moral Courage

rfk capetownAfter his election as Senator of New York in 1965, Robert Kennedy began campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. In June of 1966 he travelled to Cape Town where he received a hero’s welcome, being greeted by a crowd of 18,000.

In his speech, RFK positioned the South African struggle for freedom in the context of the worldwide struggle to break down barriers of nationality, race and class. It has been argued that in this speech RFK laid out his core political philosophy.

The speech was delivered to the National Union of South African Student’s Day of Affirmation, an annual protest in support of human liberty and academic freedom in the face of government oppression. It has become known for the section in which Kennedy talked of ‘tiny ripples of hope’ that can ‘build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’

The speech is superb from start to finish, packed full of wonderful prose. However, the section that stood out for me was the section in which he lists the dangers that can prevent people from achieving their dreams. After listing two dangers (futility and practicality), he moves on to the third:

A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.

This is so true – and just as relevant today as it was when Kennedy first said it. The world is full of people who are strong, brave, or intelligent. But the people who change history are those who have the courage to risk their own reputation in order to stand up for what is right.

9 reasons why assisted suicide should not be legalised

Assisted suicide is back on the agenda. Next week, parliament will again debate this divisive issue.

To the casual observer it may appear that the arguments in support of assisted suicide are overwhelming. Several high profile cases in the media combined with a determined campaign from well-funded lobby groups can make it feel like we’ve reached a tipping point. Resistance, it would seem, is futile.

When an argument is clothed in the language of choice, and compassion it can seem hard to resist. But resist we must. Between the savvy PR, large-scale advertising, and celebrity endorsements, we mustn’t forget that the case against assisted suicide is strong and credible.

Here are nine reasons why parliament should resists calls to legalise assisted suicide:

1)      The current law works.

The law acts as a deterrent. It is right for our laws to be devised so as to offer protection to the majority. And yet it is also right for the law to be applied with compassion and understanding. If a person helps to kill another person it is right that the facts of that case are examined. This process prevents people with malicious motivations acting unlawfully. If the facts reveal that a person has acted purely on compassionate grounds, it is highly unlikely that s/he will face prosecution. The recent DPP guidelines have made this clear.

2)      The medical profession doesn’t want it.

If assisted suicide or euthanasia is legalised the responsibility for ending a life would fall to nurses and doctors. And yet, surveys consistently reveal that these medical professionals don’t want to be involved in ending life. The most recent survey of GPs published in February found that 77% of GPs oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide. This makes perfect sense given the very nature of the medical profession is to protect life. The Hippocratic Oath states that medical professionals should “do no harm to anyone” and indeed the Oath goes further to state categorically that doctors should “give no deadly medicine to any one if asked”. Furthermore, the four leading UK medical bodies – the Royal College of Physicians, of GPs, of Surgeons, and the British Medical Association – are all opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

3)      Medical prognosis is not exact.

The question “How long have I got?” is one that many doctors will be sadly familiar with. It is natural to believe that when faced with this question our medical professionals are able to answer very precisely. In reality, however, they can’t. The Royal College of GPs has warned about this stating that the scope for error in predicting how many months a person has left to live “can extend into years”. This means that the clause in Lord Falconer’s bill requiring a six month prognosis is unreliable as a safeguard. The reality is that, despite Lord Falconer’s best intentions, people who have longer than 6 months to live would qualify for assisted suicide.

4)      The law should protect the vulnerable.

For people who are seriously ill or facing death, the security of knowing that the law protects them no matter what their circumstances is hugely significant. A patient requiring regular care can often feel like a burden to those around them. In this case it can be all too easy for the patient to express sentiments along the lines of “everything would be better if I wasn’t here anymore.” In these circumstances the response from doctors should not be, “Ok, let’s talk about assisted suicide; I’ll fetch the paperwork.” We need our doctors to provide reassurance and comfort to their most vulnerable patients. It’s revealing that one of Britain’s most active disability rights campaigners, Baroness Jane Campbell, has said recently, “as a severely disabled person, I fear a change in the law to permit assisted dying.”

5)      Parliament has debated and rejected this several times in recent years.

There is a belief that parliament has deliberately avoided debating this subject. This is wrong. In fact, parliament has debated this issue at length several times in recent years. Three bills seeking to legalise assisted suicide have been considered in the past 10 years and twice the proposals have been put to a vote. Every time this issue has reached a vote, parliament has rejected it. On one of these occasions the debate lasted for over eight hours and included over 90 speakers. In the resulting vote, the proposal was defeated by 148 votes to 100.

6)      The slippery slope is real.

We need to recognise that this measure would be the first step on a very dangerous path. We’ve seen in Belgium (where euthanasia is legal) how quickly the law has been extended. Not only is the Belgian law applied very loosely (specifically to those who are not terminally ill) but most recently it was extended to allow children to be euthanased. I’ve written before on the detail of what’s happening in Belgium.

7)      The ‘Oregon model’ is flawed.

Campaigners in the UK hold up Oregon as the model for us to follow. However, a close look at the Oregon law reveals worrying trends. Assisted suicides in Oregon have quadrupled since the law came into force. Oregon’s death rate from assisted suicide is the equivalent of approximately 1000 cases a year in England and Wales. More worryingly are stories like that of cancer patient Barbara Wagner who was told by her insurer that the chemotherapy drug she had been prescribed was too expensive but if she chose assisted suicide, the cost would be covered.

8)      It’s not just religiously motivated people who oppose assisted suicide.

Some people do object to assisted suicide based on their religious beliefs. Many others object for a variety of other reasons. It is not true to say that the reason this law has failed so far is due to religious motivations. In the last House of Lords vote, 14 bishops voted against the bill. Even if you discounted these votes the measure would still have been comprehensively defeated.

9)      Advances in pain relief & end of life care.

In recent years we have seen significant medical advances in pain relief and end of life care. As such, one of the UK’s leading palliative care specialists, Professor Ilora Finlay has said, “terminally ill patients should no longer have to die with unrelieved pain.” Moreover, we have a first-class hospice movement in this country with a long and distinguished history. That doesn’t mean that they system is perfect – many improvements can still be made – but high-quality care should mean that the vast majority of people can be comfortable in their final days.


It’s important, in conclusion, to acknowledge the emotional complexities of this subject. Arguments in favour of assisted suicide can be very persuasive. Real life cases of people in desperate situations are incredibly moving. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to watch life slowly slip away from a loved one. I remain convinced, however, that neither assisted suicide nor euthanasia is the answer.

Instead we must continue to invest in palliative care and in hospices so that when death approaches we can face it with dignity, love, and compassion. As Churchill said: “you measure the degree of civilization of a society by how it treats its weakest members.” He was right. May the hallmarks of our society be the care, comfort, and compassion we give to those facing their final days.

Elections Matter

Democratic governance is about more than calling elections and it is about more than casting votes. Democratic governance encompasses a wider landscape of rights including factors such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, accountability of institutions and transparency of elected leaders. And when it comes to elections, it also includes the freedom to vote for your preferred candidate without fear of recrimination from the state.

In the UK, we accept these conditions as standard. A quick glance through history and indeed a quick glance around the world today, reveals that we stand among the privileged.

Glance through history - quoteThe former Soviet Union countries held elections for decades. Invariably these elections produced the same results. As John Feffer points out, the Communist Party candidates—or their close allies—won the elections often by farcical margins of 99.9%. Feffer observes the near-upset in 1980 when the Party in Hungary won with only 99.3 per cent of the vote!

While holding elections is a vital ingredient of a healthy democracy, it is only part of the whole recipe. This is evidenced by countries such as Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Sudan, and Kazakhstan, all of whom hold elections but none of whom are categorised as full and free democracies. Despite these exceptions, elections, when they are genuinely free and fair, represent a vital pillar of the democratic system.

The Freedom in the World report by Freedom House ranks nations on the condition of political rights and civil liberties. In their 2014 report, Freedom House categorise 48 countries as “Not Free”. This represents a quarter of all countries in the world and includes nearly 2.5 billion people, or 35 percent of the global population (though Freedom House point out that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China).

The good news is that the number of electoral democracies around the world has risen over the last 25 years. This year, the number of electoral democracies stood at 122, four more than in 2012. The four countries that achieved electoral democracy status were Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Percentage of countries that are electoral democraciesAnd so, while one-third of the world’s population do not benefit from the right to self determination, many of those who do seem to take it for granted. In the UK a huge number of the electorate has disengaged with the electoral process. At the last general election in May 2010, voter turn-out was 65% meaning that over one-third of eligible voters were so unmoved by the choices before them they opted to stay at home instead of exercising their right to choose who governs them. 

Voter apathy is no doubt linked to the behaviour of our elected politicians who must bear some, if not most, of the responsibility. The expenses scandal followed by some high profile criminal cases such as that of Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne caused a lot of damage to politicians’ already fragile reputations. While it is true to say that the vast majority of British MPs from all parties are honest, committed, and hard-working, public perception is undoubtedly swayed by the exceptional cases.

So how should we respond? Today is election day in the UK—local and European. One way to respond is to re-engage with the democratic system. When respect for the political process falls, the best response is to pick it up and hold it high. We can blame politicians if we want. We can even try to blame the system itself. But in a democracy it is us, ultimately, who have the power to make a change. And that is what makes democracy by far the best form of governance ever devised.

Or to consider the same from the opposite angle, as Winston Churchill famously observed: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


This post first appeared on the Legatum Institute blog: http://www.li.com/blog/legatum-institute/2014/05/22/elections-matter
Graph source: Freedom House