Monday, 18 June 2012

Universal Discredit (Part 1)

I'm really rather stupid. I have difficulty with the concept of...difficulty. I can either do something, or I can't. 'Effort' is not something I can attribute to difficulty because everything I do, even the simplest, smallest thing; it takes effort. I need to check my phone in case anyone has tried to contact me and I can definitely see that this is not something as objectionable as actually talking to a complete stranger on the phone (alarming, confusing and upsetting for very complicated and awkward reasons). But the difference is because real-time contact with someone demands expectations of me which are beyond what I can do. It's not that they are 'hard', I just can't do them even if others find them to be straightforward. This does not mean simply checking messages is 'easier', it just means that rather than going through a checklist of what I can't do, there are things I both can as well as can't. For each item there is an 'effort' regardless of whether I can do it or not and just because I can do something doesn't mean it's less of an effort than what I can't do. Sometimes I can 'effortlessly' achieve something otherwise impossible simply because I fluked it. If I write down a list of things to say in case someone rings, I have fluked my way through the conversation because I simply won't be able to tolerate the sound from the earpiece and will be listening at a distance for certain keywords. That's 'easy', doesn't mean I can actually do it because it was just dumb luck.

Dumb luck
If I were smart, the very most hardest things I could do would be epic and everything below my average achievements or easy would be simple, effortless. The only explanation for why my perspective on difficulty is binary 'can or can not' rather than a measure by degrees is that I am viewing everything from close to the bottom. It is easier to judge the size of tall buildings when you are high up, but from the ground the vanishing point just makes them all look the same and that is the perspective from which I am observing degrees of difficulty.

This sets up this post for two issues I want to talk about. I'll start with the quick one: I am sick to death of hearing how 'complicated' the benefits system is. To be clear, when I confronted Maria Miller last year shortly after starting this blog, I learned in a very short space of time, mere seconds, that her knowledge about social security and it's history in Britain was only about the same as mine if not slightly(very slightly) better. At least at that time. This is despite Miller having a few months of a head-start on me and staff that do all the hard work for her and supply her with briefing material. Miller is the most-informed out of the Cabinet, she is the best they can do, so what do I have that she doesn't? Autism? Or that I don't have political baggage interfering with my learning about the subject? Miller must interpret things through a lens that abides by the ideology, prejudices and interests of the political base below her that grant a safe seat(Basingstoke, I think is safe) in the House of Commons and those above her that graced her with office, including their doners and supporting newspapers. Whilst I'd consider myself of the Left; I don't ideologically support the welfare state(neither did socialists when it was first created, nor do many of them now) because I think there are more ideologically palatable alternatives. I like it for what it is, despair at it's failures and think it can be improved but no so much as a complete alternative would do better. That's for another time and another place, I never wanted the blog to be specifically political but the crux is this: any sufficiently interested person can in a rather short space of time learn as much about it as those who are entrusted to make critical policy decisions about it. It is not that complicated.

There is a vast amount of information, it would take a decade to learn it all and each year more is added. But this information is basically just thousands of facts which are similar. Once you know the difference between a total and a net on/off-flow and their relationship, or a descriptor and a regulation or a guideline; the rest is straightforward, you're simply memorising numbers and priority-orders. Thousands of similar facts. So why do politicians and journalists insist on claiming(with no supporting evidence) that it is complicated? What they usually do is point to the list of benefits and say "look at that", but just because a benefit is still on the statute books does not mean there is anyone left claiming it. Most of these things like 'Industrial Injuries Benefit' have little or no claimants left, there's certainly no on-flows so including benefits like these as 'complexity' which DWP decision makers are dealing with now is blatant deception.

Some point to the DWP decision makers handbook, the guidelines they are set with for awarding certain benefits. There are two big problems with this; first that decision makers are not going to be making decisions about lots of different benefits. Some will make decisions about ESA, others about JSA and others about Income Support(the basis I'm using for this is that these all have different processing times when an initial claim goes in, meaning they are separate caseloads for decision makers). They only need to know what the guidelines are for those benefits they directly dealing with. These are not primary or secondary legislation or even set regulations but the policy decisions made by ministers and civil servants within the bounds of the statutory framework. What's so complicated about "they can set any guidelines they want as long as it's legal"? When politicians talk about 'simplifying the system' and the masses of guidelines are cited as evidence that their reforms are necessary; they don't target the guidelines but the law that restricts what the regulations can be which restrict what the guidelines can be so we end up with more, not less guidelines.

Such is the case with the next issue I want to talk about: the conditionality for Universal Credit.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments,if it is complex it is because it has to account for the complex situations people actual experience.I intepretate politicians utterations as I am (a) unknowledgeable about the area at even a basic,easilly found out,level or (b) I know enough but as justification for reform for the benefit of(ill-educated etc) recipients we will "simplify" it.IDS is immeasurably increasing "complexity" .

  2. The Government states quite clearly that the intention is to increase conditionality as UC is rolled out.In the original "consultation" it specifically encouraged/engendered responses to justify this as being applicable TO EVERYBODY,with the falseness of the reasonably sounding taking "circumstances into account"-psychological pressure is already being meted out to me(as no doubt many others)who currently have no conditionality attached.Timelimits are also going to be a feature-as benefits are seen as a temporary measure for temporary situations(ha ha) not only in ESA but in smaller but significant areas -Income Support Support for Mortgage Interest as a never mentioned example.