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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Universalism v targeted is not an absolutist debate

In what passes for political debate in Scotland at present, universalism is often presented in absolutist terms, when in practice the position is more nuanced. Johann Lamont's, admittedly badly crafted, 'something for nothing' speech did not reject universalism. Equally, the SNP's claimed support doesn't extend to access to justice or the charges councils have been forced to levy as a consequence of the regressive Council Tax freeze.

I spent this afternoon at the Scottish Policy Innovation Forum's seminar on universalism. The format was a series of case studies to examine the issue.

Professor John Hills started with a survey of public attitudes to universal provision. Based on a survey of people in eleven EU countries, most supported progressive, earnings related benefits and taxes. In the UK there was a higher preference for paying flat rate pensions and unemployment benefit, but both surveys overwhelmingly reject means testing.

He highlighted the paradox of redistribution in that universal systems are more redistributive than targeted systems. However, this has become less so in recent years as countries like Denmark moved towards more targeted system. There is no longer a strong relationship, but the opposite doesn't apply either. It all seems to depends on how well systems are designed

He illustrated this with a case study on the effectiveness of measures to reduce fuel poverty. Even narrowly targeted supplier funded energy efficiency measures reach the fuel poor in smallish numbers, but broader targeted measures are even less effective. Targeted measures were more effective with a 6 to 1 benefit to cost ratio. 

He contrasted this with the impact of support for students in England where the cliff edge means testing has big impact on withdrawal rate. When combined with the tax system this creates strange anomalies. All sorts of means tested systems being invented  by public bodies, particularly in English councils. Few of these are joined up, or any thought given to overall impact and interaction with other benefits.

His main message was that all countries use a mixture of universal and targeted. Most are still universal e.g. NHS, schools etc. and while the debate can be polarised, in practice it is much more subtle.

Professor David Bell from Stirling University used free personal care for elderly as his case study.
He showed that spending in care homes is flatlining along with numbers being cared in these settings. The big increase is in spending on care in the home and it could be argued that the policy has contributed towards this positive shift.

Media commentary on comparisons between Scotland and England don't look at all payments. They forget that Attendance Allowance is not paid to Scottish residents in care homes. This means that nursing and personal care support in England is £188 and in Scotland £241 - not quite as significant as it is often portrayed. Free care in Scotland is not quite what it seems given hotel costs and Scotland should not have ignored the Dilnott report.

He outlined a new YouGov survey they had commissioned. Free personal care was very popular at 65%, with only 25% supporting means testing. Older and higher income cohorts are more supportive, but still pretty evenly distributed. A similar survey on university tuition was more evenly split. Not surprisingly, support for universalism tends to be based on the probability of individual benefit.

Lucy Blackburn looked at student support for living costs. Total Scottish living cost support is very similar to rUK, but is mostly in the form of loans. English students get more grant and as a consequence there is less skewing of debt towards the poor. The same applies in Wales. Scottish graduate debt is therefore regressive as grants are falling by around 15% in real terms to pay for free tuition, the costs of which are fixed. This wouldn't perhaps matter if we could demonstrate a positive impact on better access for disadvantaged groups since the policy diverged from England. However, we can't because it has moved at all. She argued on the basis of this case study that we should be wary of taking an absolutist position on universalism and targeted. It's how they are balanced that matters

Paul Spicker set out the arguments for and against universalism. In favour was the rights based approach and meeting common basic needs. It is also simple with minimal intrusive questions.
Against this approach is the need to target limited resources and universalism generally benefits the middle classes disproportionately. In practical terms means testing increases administrative costs. The argument that means testing works if you can get rid of the 'fiddly bits' misses point, means testing is fiddly!

His case study was Universal Credit. He argued that UC is not a simplified benefit, they have just lumped existing benefits together. It is trying to do too much, with an impossible computer system (pilot schemes are reverting to Excel!), modelled on past design failure. The lessons are that mixed systems works best. Equally, the basic citizens income concept won't work - one size fits all systems usually fail.

So where does all this leave us? It hasn't changed my core view that universalism, balanced by a more progressive taxation system, is the best approach. However, I accept that no political party is prepared to have the difficult political conversation with the electorate to get us there. Scandamerica still persists with many politicians as the independence debate has shown. We will therefore be left with a mixed economy of universal and targeted benefits. 

The key message I took from today's seminar is that we need to look carefully at the interaction between different means tested benefits and with other policies. Otherwise we will end up with an even more chaotic system.

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