Promotion from the conference?

Nearly one year ago I wrote about the upcoming 2017 budget, stating that it was hard to get excited about proposed policy changes when Brexit was going to get in the way of everything. I don’t think I was wrong in this (perhaps I was a little too focused on elections) but the key thing was not much has happened in the last year. Even supposedly headline policies like housing have, pretty much, fallen by the wayside in the last 12 months. Just look at the empty state of the social housing green paper or the lack of an official social care green paper.

Well, now that Brexit is truly rearing its ugly head you might think I’d offer the same advice. Oddly, I’m going to do something near the opposite. I actually believe conference season, if we listen hard enough, might offer some policy nuggets that whilst they may still struggle to get off the ground, may become the focus of discussion in the next year.

Put it like this- a number of ministers, shadow ministers or spokespeople are, as ever, going to be giving speeches, attending panels, speaking at fringe meetings, that sort of thing. So far, so normal. But unlike normal times, the uncertainty in the political system is about to come to a head.

Brexit, one way or another, is going to be decided in the next 12 months. I don’t mean to say it will be done and dusted, but that we’ll be on a course that will be ultimately impossible to reverse, past the point of no return and quite possibly staring into an abyss. Perhaps there will still be discussions to be had, but we won’t be at the point where it will be the be all and end all. There will be a policy space, which is likely to get filled, one way or another, with some other discussion.  We need to hope it is meaningful discussion.

I also think it is also fair to assume that, whoever it is, we will have a new Prime Minister in the next 12 months. Put it in your calendar and laugh at me if I’m wrong. I do try hard not to be party political in this blog. I’m interested first and foremost in policies. But what makes the political carnival of the next few weeks important is that those speaking at speeches, panel discussions and so on could be the next Prime Minister, Minister of State and so on. Sometimes these competitions can surprise you- who would have thought Theresa May would have been elected unopposed last time?

I don’t usually tell politicians things they don’t already know, so it is quite likely a number of ambitious souls are already planning what they are going to say. Perhaps they are trying to keep their policy powder dry. Perhaps they don’t really have any policies. But they will have to say something. In an eventual leadership battle (or election, if that’s the way it goes) they will have to come up with some policies- what they’ve just been talking about is likely to make it into the list. You’d expect that anyone who actually believes in a policy will also push for it.

Ministers obviously receive policy support in their roles, so you’d expect that the most worked through and therefore bullet proof policies they may suggest will come from there. But of course it is also worth watching out for people venturing over the lines into someone else’s turf. That not only indicates an ambition wider than their current role, but that they will engage on some policy detail and make an attempt to suggest their preferred way forward. It is a long way off a policy actually being delivered into law, but it is certainly the first step on the way towards that.

Perhaps now is the right time to declare an interest- I wrote my master’s dissertation on policy development through an election, so I’m on record with this being a topic that fascinates me. It is the interaction of the business of policy mixed with the cacophony of an election (whether a leader selection or a general election) that burnishes, alters and ultimately makes or breaks policies. Leaders feel somewhat committed to them. We can all names policies that have fallen by the wayside after an election, but they are often less likely to than other policies floated outside of one.

None of this means we will be able to select the policy that will pop out and become the focus. My hand and my heart yearn for it to be a sustainable answer to social care, but I can’t see how that will happen given the furore last time. But policy space is about to become available. Time in parliament may soon start appearing again after being confined almost wholly to Brexit for so long. A political vacuum will be filled and whoever fills it will need to say and do something. We should just hope it is something worthwhile.

If last year I was saying “don’t listen, none of it will happen” this year I think it is more “listen very carefully, anything could happen!”. That’s equally a warning and an opportunity, depending on what eventually come forward. But I’ll be listening to see what’s there- I hope you’ll join me.

Numbers and numbness

Has everyone seen the video of the man who uses excel to paint? Well, I can’t say I’m anywhere near as interesting as him, but I can usually hold down a spreadsheet and extract some valuable information from it.

The heart wrenching testimony from the work and pensions committee have shown, once again, that the systems looking into what benefits people with health issues receive are not working properly.

As regular readers will know, I have already shared my two pennies on one of the reasons I think employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payments (PIP) appeals are going through the roof and why mandatory reconsiderations (the new-ish process the DWP is forcing on claimants) are not helpful. I’m not alone in wanting to look at this, indeed, the work and pensions committee have an ongoing investigation into PIP and ESA assessments, where that recent testimony came from. As part of this the DWP has given them some supporting statistics, which are a treasure trove of interesting information.

That said, like most treasure you do have to do some digging. I’m always very interested in looking at government responses to select committees (or, for many local authorities, scrutiny committees). If you know what to look for you can often find what information the authors are trying very, very hard to avoid saying, whilst putting the data out into the open.

And so it is with the data tables the DWP have released, alongside an explanatory document that explains far more than it is trying to let on. That said, if you read just the explanatory document you wouldn’t see much of interest. But when you actually look in detail, you can see what they are hoping you will miss.

Before we get into the data proper, let’s just take a quick step back and remind ourselves what mandatory reconsiderations are. Introduced in 2013, this was an additional step where a benefit claimant thought a decision was wrong. Instead of just being able to appeal straight away, they had to ask for the DWP to look again at the decision and then only once this was complete could they, separately, appeal against the decision.

This was controversial as it was adding another layer of decision making, expecting claimants to understand the process and to push forward through a difficult and complicated appeals process if they believed the decision was wrong. This is even more difficult when you think that simultaneous cuts to legal aid mean fewer and fewer people can be appropriately represented through the appeals process.

What I find odd about the explanatory document is that it consistently puts each statistic into the context of a larger cohort. So we don’t see just the outcomes from mandatory reconsiderations, we see that within the context of all claimants.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.23.42 PM

Similarly, we don’t see just the proportion of PIP decisions that are overturned at the first tier tribunal, we see that within the context of all mandatory reconsideration decisions.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.25.10 PM

This makes issues appear smaller than they are. Sure, lots of people are asking for mandatory reconsiderations and then appealing, but they want you to look at it in the context of the whole benefit, where other people are not asking for a reconsideration and then appealing. Surely those people are happy with their decision?

Coming from that second graph, the second odd thing I notice is the insistence that there is a small (2 percentage points) gap between different health conditions. The suggestion seems to be that conditions are treated quite similarly and have similar results.

Well, both those oddities can be rectified by having a look at the actual data. As I suggested at the start of the post, I have held the statistics down and given them a bit of a thrashing out, which is available here. The graphs that follow all come from my tables, which are themselves simply rearrangements of the DWP statistics.

So, when we look at the actual data of decision making we can see some interesting results. Firstly, and coming straight from the government’s data, we can see that a whole lot of people stop after the mandatory reconsideration stage. Nearly 450,000 claims had PIP decisions upheld by mandatory reconsideration between 2013 and July 2017. All of those could have applied for an appeal if they still disagreed, yet only 126,000 have had appeals heard. Similarly, 448,000 ESA claims were upheld at mandatory reconsideration, but only 152,700 cases were heard.

What does this mean?  I suspect, particularly for the more recent decisions, appeals have been made but not yet heard; the tribunal service have a big backlog for obvious reasons. It also means mandatory reconsideration has been an exceptionally powerful tool for stopping people from appealing. It’s hard to tell why that is, perhaps some genuinely accepted the DWPs version of events? But perhaps along with this, people are giving up, or are unable to cope with the stress of further appeals or blindly accept what the DWP is telling them or, worst of all, think that the mandatory reconsideration was the appeal. Further research is most definitely required, because I don’t think society can see this as a win until we know what is really going on.

But more than that, when you look at the overall appeal outcomes, these statistics start to mirror those of the tribunal service itself. Wade through the data and this shows the DWP confirming that 62% of their PIP decisions are overturned on appeal. For ESA it is nearly 45% between 2013 and July 2017.

The ESA result sounds better, until you see that the proportion overturned has been going up each year since 2013, with the rate so far this year matching 2016/17s high point of 61%.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.51.15 PM

So whilst mandatory reconsiderations may be preventing many people from appealing, those that do appeal are winning their cases in droves. It’s just like Sir Henry Brooke said a few weeks ago.

Coming onto the second oddity from the explanatory document, this idea that diseases are treated approximately the same. That looks like it is a result of the contextualising data rather than the actual facts. Here is the chart for different primary health conditions for PIP:
Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.57.20 PM

In PIP the highest areas of tribunal overturns are for immune diseases (100% of the 100 cases over those years), visual disease (77% overturns) and neurological disease (70%). The lowest is metabolic disease, with just (just!) 50% of the cases being overturned at tribunal.

And here it is for ESA:Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.59.25 PM

For ESA the highest proportion of successful appeals was in cases with ear and mastoid processes (60% of the admittedly small 500 cases over the period) with a wide selection of health problems getting 50% of claimants being successful in their appeals. There are so many at 50% I had to check I wasn’t using the same data twice! The lowest is childbirth and related issues with no successful cases recorded. Due to the way the DWP has collated these figures (to the nearest 100) this means a small proportion of cases could have been successful. Injury and poisoning, one of the biggest groups of people appealing decisions,  has the next highest failure rate, with only (only!) 36% being successful at appeal.

Overall, if you aren’t aware of the DWPs terrible record at appeals you should be shocked by how high each and every one of these numbers is. The DWP is losing cases by the bucketload, which asks serious questions about their competence and about the process of mandatory reconsideration.

What’s more, and however they are trying to argue it, it is losing cases for some primary health conditions more than it is others, so they should be looking at this to work out what they can do to make better decisions the first (or second) time around.  Finally, especially on ESA, it is losing a higher proportion of cases each year, indicating something is very wrong with its decision making.

I think the DWP is trying to say that the focus from people like myself is on a small proportion of their decisions. Those of us on the outside only think about appeal decisions and not about those people who accepted the decision, either when it was first made or after the mandatory reconsideration. But that misses the point: we don’t know why people didn’t appeal. Some might have been happy with the decision, but are others simply unable to get through the process themselves? Many of the decisions (particularly the refusals) could have been just as bad as those getting to appeal, but we simply don’t know. The heartfelt responses the work and pensions committee have received in recent weeks point to the fact that people feel let down and confused about the whole process.

This is a key issue with mandatory reconsiderations- it has added another layer in decision making. A layer suggestive of a tickbox exercise that seems to put droves of people off appealing further, even if they may well have a case on appeal. It is another piece of paper to fill in, another time you have to explain your health condition to a stranger, placing yourself emotionally on the line and another place where -as does happen- there is a chance the award can go down as well as up.

I think we can all agree mandatory reconsideration isn’t working. I don’t want to put extra work on the tribunals service, but I can’t see how the DWP can justify maintaining the current mandatory reconsideration process when their appeal outcomes are so bad. The DWP used to always reconsider their decisions after an appeal in any case, so we have to ask why this obstructive layer is allowed to remain.


PS I’m aware that the charts have some of the primary health conditions names chopped down. It is basically impossible to do it any other way when you have such big names for conditions. All of the full condition names are available on the google document containing the charts and sheets for your persual.

Hello! Hej! Hi!

Welcome to my blog of policy analysis!

Until very recently I have been working for public and third sector bodies. Most recently I have been supporting politicians in a large northern Local Authority.

I’m taking some time away from the world of work to look after my daughter as she literally takes her first steps in the world, but I can’t quite turn off the part of my brain that wants to think about, consider, discuss and reflect on policy.

Rather than spend the time talking to myself (although there’s a fair bit of that as well), I thought I would put some of these thoughts online for everyone to share. Feel free to comment, tell me I’m wrong, demand to see evidence about my assertions and so forth. As you can imagine, I’m used to critical challenge!

In recent years I’ve worked across wide parts of Local Authority policy, but my main interests are in housing, social security and welfare, economy and regeneration.

My contact details are available here and more information about me is available here. My writing times are limited to my daughter’s naptimes and more generally quiet moments- apologies if you contact me and don’t get an immediate response, but I will try and reply as soon as I can.

For my first few posts I will be talking about more general points and trends I have noticed over the last few years; things that I believe I will keep coming back to when I write posts that are more specifically related to a individual policy. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but hopefully I can ask some interesting questions!