The efficient packing of children

Housing benefit is a UK benefit which helps low income tenants pay their rent. Entitlement is, reasonably enough, set out in the housing benefit regulations. About a decade ago I was looking at the part of these regulations which governs the size of property it’s considered reasonable for the claimant to occupy.

(3) The claimant shall be entitled to one bedroom for each of the following categories of occupier (and each occupier shall come within the first category only which applies to him)—
(a) a couple (within the meaning of Part 7 of the Act);
(b) a person who is not a child;
(c) two children of the same sex;
(d) two children who are less than 10 years old;
(e) a child.

It looked pretty straightforward, but after writing several test cases I realized there was a problem where the claimant:

  • has three children of the same sex; and
  • one child of the opposite sex; and
  • one of the children of the same sex is aged at least 10 and the others are not

The law prescribes an order in which to allocate rooms. But where we have odd numbers of the same sex, it does not tell us how we select the children to pair off under 13D(3)(c). If we pair off the older same-sex children first, we will be left with two children aged under ten, who can share a room under 13D(3)(d). If we choose to pair up the younger same-sex children first, we are left with two children who cannot share a room – they qualify for a room each under 13D(3)(e).

From a programmer’s viewpoint this ambiguity feels highly unsatisfactory. And we might well take as the moral of this slight tale that we should all be trying to execute our regulations before they come into force, rather than leaving ambiguities to be deliberated upon later by tribunals.

But it’s possible to read the regulation another way. Since the housing benefit regulations do not prescribe a way to pair off the children, the decision maker can take the broader family circumstances into account. Whichever pairing is chosen will comply with the law. This would give leeway, say, to pair up young twins and give separate rooms to teenage siblings, rather than forcing teenagers to share with toddlers. In another case where children were closer in age, the decision maker might award one less room.

Unfortunately for this optimistic reading, the corresponding provision for universal credit (an integrated benefit which will mostly replace housing benefit for working-age claimants) closes off any discretion on the part of the decision maker:

(2) A member of the extended benefit unit to whom two or more of the descriptions in sub-paragraph (1) apply is to be allotted to whichever description results in the renter being entitled to the fewest bedrooms.

This removes the ambiguity, at the expense of discretion.

I don’t know if the drafters of the original regulation gave any thought to the leeway they were possibly allowing. It may be unlikely, given that it involves a relatively uncommon circumstance. But I do wonder if thinking of law as code might tend to favour rigidity over discretion. This is not necessarily a bad thing of course – discretion can be abused, and in any case can be explicitly provided for. Perhaps the most useful thing that coding can offer law is a set of practices (testing, encapsulation, patterns) rather than a metaphor.

Truth, lies and tax credits #1 – Osborne’s odious comparison

Osborne’s claim: Summer Budget 2015

The original Tax Credit system cost £1.1 billion in its first year. This year, that cost has reached £30 billion

The claim was repeated in the Telegraph a few days ago.

A system that cost just over £1 billion in its first year ended up costing £30  billion a year.

A thirty-fold increase in costs would certainly suggest things gone awry. But a thirty-fold increase is hard to reconcile with the government’s own research.

in most years [1997-2011] spending on working age people and children accounted for between 12 per cent and 13 per cent of Government spending

The truth is that Osborne is comparing two very different things.

The history

When Labour came to power in 1997, government provided support for families with children:

  • via the (at that time) non means-tested child benefit
  • via family credit, a means-tested benefit for working families with children 1
  • via the married person’s tax allowance, and the additional person’s tax allowance available to unmarried parents
  • via child personal allowances paid as part of income support and income-based jobseeker’s allowance, these being means-tested benefits paid to out-of-work claimants

In addition, a relatively small number of people with disabilities received in-work support via disability working allowance.

The 1999 scheme – the first tax credits

In October 1999 the Labour government introduced two new benefits:

  • working families tax credit, replacing family credit
  • disabled person’s tax credit, replacing disability working allowance

These were essentially a re-badging of family credit and disability working allowance. Structurally very similar, they were substantially more generous than the benefits they replaced:

  • increased amounts could be paid for adults and each dependent child
  • the income figure at which benefit began to be withdrawn was increased
  • the taper rate at which benefit was withdrawn due to rising income was reduced from 70% to 55%
  • child-care support began to approach realistic levels

It’s this 1999 scheme, which covered low-income working families only, to which Osborne refers when he talks about expenditure of £1.1 billion.

What he doesn’t say is that that figure:

  • only covered six months – from October 1999 to March 2000
  • only covered three months of tax credit payments for a typical claimant

The latter applied because family credit was awarded for six months at a time. Claimants were not permitted to end their award early in order to switch to working families tax credit. In October 1999, on average, a family credit claim had three months left to run. By the end of March 2000, former family credit claimants had therefore only enjoyed the increased income from working families tax credit for an average of three months.

Children’s tax credit

In 2000-2001 the government replaced both the married person’s tax allowance , and the additional person’s tax allowance with the short lived children’s tax credit, a tax allowance aimed specifically at parents.

The 2003 scheme – working tax credit and child tax credit

In April 2003 Gordon Brown introduced a new tax credits scheme, structurally very different to anything seen before in the UK.

Child tax credit replaced all of:

  • the per child allowances in family credit; and
  • the child personal allowances in income support and income-based jobseeker’s allowance; and
  • the children’s tax credit – this effectively became the family element of child tax credit which could be paid to claimants earning well over £50,000.

Working tax credit replaced the remaining parts of working families’ tax credit and disabled person’s tax credit. It extended entitlement to some workers who were neither parents nor disadvantaged due to disability.

The personal allowances for children which formed part of income support and income-based jobseeker’s allowance were not immediately removed from existing claims – migration to child tax credit took place over several years, with the cost of child tax credit rising accordingly. Now nearly all state child support other than child benefit is delivered as child tax credit.

The comparison

So £1.1 billion represents the cost of:

  • in-work support only
  • covering a six month introductory period
  • with only three months on average being paid under the new scheme

£30 billion: the full-year bedded-in cost of:

  • in-work support for low income workers and their families
  • support for children in non-working families
  • replicating support previously given to parents as a tax allowance

And of course no adjustment has been made for inflation or changes in the composition and numbers of households.

None of this is to say that tax credits did not become more generous – and undoubtedly the 2003 scheme had many faults. But Osborne’s comparison is neither useful2 nor fair.

  1. Family credit cost about £2.5 billion per year prior to the introduction of working families tax credit 

  2. Of course it’s politically useful 

On a Citizen’s Income Scheme

The citizen’s income is an unconditional non-means-tested allowance paid individually to all citizens.

On the recommendation of Anthony Painter at the RSA, I took a look at a citizen’s income scheme proposed by the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT). Their scheme covers most basic needs, but not housing costs or benefits paid because of disability. The CIT includes indicative costings, and claims that the scheme is broadly cost-neutral once tax changes are taken into account.

Housing costs are excluded because of their variability: a national flat-rate citizen’s income sufficient to support private-sector London rents would be far in excess of that needed elsewhere.

A key objective of the CIT scheme (as with most citizen’s income schemes) is to eliminate or greatly ease the poverty trap created by the sharp withdrawal of means-tested benefits as other income rises. The scheme I looked at does not meet this objective.

The CIT assumes that housing benefit and council tax support remain in situ – pretty much as they were in 2012 before the recent cuts. Both are means-tested. In broad terms, where income exceeds a claim specific amount, housing benefit is reduced by 65p for each additional pound of net income (gross income less tax/NI). Typically, 20p or more of council tax support is also withdrawn for each additional pound of net income.

Suppose I am a tenant responsible for rent and council tax. I have my citizen’s income, intended to cover my basic needs other than housing. I then receive means-tested housing benefit and council tax benefit on top. Because I don’t have any other income, my housing and council tax are covered in full.

I then get a part time job and my income goes up by £100 gross on which I pay £32 tax (employee’s national insurance is bundled into income tax in the CIT scheme, personal allowances are abolished.) This leaves me with £68.00. Assuming my housing benefit and council tax support are calculated as they were in 2012, my housing benefit is then reduced by 65% of this, i.e. by £44.20, and my council tax support by 20%, £13.60. Total deductions are £89.80, making me just £10.20 better off. This compares rather poorly with universal credit (plus the separate council tax reduction), and is little different to the pre-universal credit schemes.

What would it take for the CIT scheme to eliminate the poverty trap?

You would need to pay everybody’s rent and council tax in full. Merely retaining housing and council tax support is insufficient.

Alternatively, fix the housing system so that everyone has access to well-maintained, secure and affordable housing.

Winners and losers

People with inherited property and modest trust funds would do well from the CIT scheme. Lone parent tenants in need of childcare would do very badly. Unlike the current system, the CIT scheme excludes:

  • support for childcare costs.
  • support for owner-occupier housing costs
  • additional amounts in means-tested benefits paid to people with disabilities or caring responsibilities

So if a CI scheme doesn’t spring the poverty trap, what’s the point?

Ultimately, the prospect of a decent life for all. But CI schemes conflate several different hopes:

  • reduced administrative costs
  • low marginal deduction rates (combined impact of lost benefit and increased tax as income rises) CIs are means-tested in practice, it just happens via income tax
  • removing couple penalties – all entitlements are individual
  • income redistribution (popular on the left)
  • payment in lieu of government provided services eg health (popular on the libertarian right)
  • removing conditionality (no need to sign on, look for work etc)

Payment in lieu of services appeals on the grounds of maximising personal autonomy, but once services are devolved to the person in this way, it’s much easier for them to be cut – reducing the CI is easier than sacking care workers, just as allowing a private steel company to go bust is easier for the state than eliminating part of a nationalised industry.

Reduced administrative costs are often cited as a major benefit of CI. Although there are savings to made, I suspect they’re commonly exaggerated. Many schemes will bring more people into the tax system. Any scheme which keeps separate housing benefits and benefits for people with disabilities (as in the CIT scheme), will equally keep much of the administrative cost. The Green Party’s CI scheme includes an additional £80.00 for lone parents, rightly acknowledging the additional costs of single parenthood. But adding it to the scheme means that there now has to be a bureaucracy determining the status of single parents – and pairs of single parents who become one family will lose £160 per week.

Removing or significantly reducing conditionality is perhaps the most immediately achievable goal – though it goes against the prevailing establishment view that being poor is a condition deserving of punishment in itself.


Dr Malcom Torry from the CIT has kindly forwarded me some new intermediate CI schemes developed by the trust. These retain much of the existing benefits system – and therefore much of its complexity, but usefully discuss how progress might be made towards a citizen’s income in the short to medium term.

DWP Advice for decision making in HTML

Update: for anyone who found the monolithic version troublesome, there’s a lightweight multiple file edition at

The DWP publishes the Advice for decision making, or ADM. The ADM is not a statement of law, but it contains official guidance used by DWP staff to interpret and implement the law. It covers the benefits brought in by the 2012 Welfare Reform Act:

  • universal credit
  • personal independence payments
  • new style employment and support allowance
  • new style jobseeker’s allowance

The ADM runs to a couple of thousand pages, divided into volumes, chapters and numbered paragraphs. This structure has been somewhat obscured by the transfer to .GOV.UK – the ADM is presented as a string of PDFs, each holding one chapter, but the distinction between volumes has been lost.

Unfortunately, although the ADM is highly self-referential, there are no links between paragraphs. It’s especially awkward to follow references across the 100 or so chapters. A typical paragraph looks like this:


As an experiment, I decided to make an HTML version with functioning links. Because I was building it primarily for myself, I didn’t have to worry too much about:

  • visual appearance
  • standards
  • perfection

I wrote a set of scripts to:

  • scrape the ADM chapters from .GOV.UK
  • convert these into a single large PDF
  • extract this PDF into HTML
  • parse the raw HTML to insert links, add back references and expand acronyms

Resulting in output like this:


A single file

I originally just wrote out the ADM as a single HTML file. This has the following advantages:

  • it’s a thing – you can save it, email it, rehost it and reference individual paragraphs as URLs
  • the whole document can be searched using the browser’s find function

and the following disadvantages:

  • it’s big: some browsers and devices choke
  • as anyone can pass it on to anyone, I can’t track its use without additional effort. This is also an advantage.

I now have a version divided into chapters at

This should work in any current browser.

There are also several drawbacks to my general approach:

  • ripping open PDFs and parsing the resulting text is a fundamentally stupid way of doing things – but I don’t have access to whatever the originating format might be…
  • the parsing is imperfect and ad hoc – there are also a significant number of errors propagated from the source documents
  • the formatting is pretty rubbish – a consequence of the PDF -> HTML conversion
  • it doesn’t self update – it would be useful to have a built-in update check
  • I haven’t paid attention to accessibility
  • it doesn’t offer much contextual support – breadcrumbs, etc

Even so, for my purposes it’s far more usable than the original.

The single file version is here – please read the note on browsers and devices before opening .

A note on browsers and devices

The single file version works well on a mid-range Windows PC with

  • Chrome
  • IE10/11
  • Safari for Windows
  • Opera

It chokes (semi-randomly) using Firefox under Windows, but Firefox in Ubuntu is OK. Performance is tolerable using Chrome (but not Safari) on a recent iPhone. It fails to load on at least some Browser/Android combinations. Adblockers and other browser extensions which process links can increase the load time considerably.

Nielsen’s web placebo considered harmful

“If your poem isn’t working, cut off the last line. Repeat as necessary.” – Michael Donaghy

There’s a curious statistic floating about the internet. It’s not always expressed in exactly the same words, but it comes from Jakob Nielsen.

“On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.”

Almost every part of this claim might benefit from elucidation. Average web page? Average visit? The time users have? Those reassuringly specific numbers?

Nielsen based his findings on data from a German study. 25 academic staff had their web browsing habits monitored over an extended period, and the authors provided Nielsen with their data – just under 60,000 page visits. He then excluded all page visits:

  • lasting more than 10 minutes or fewer than four seconds
  • to pages with fewer than 30 words

Assuming a reading speed of 250 WPM, he graphed the maximum percentage of words readers could have read, given the time they spent on each page, against the number of words on the page, noting that this percentage falls very rapidly as page length rises. Further noting that the average (presumably mean) page length in the data set was 593 words, he looked at the corresponding point on his Y axis and arrived at his 28% upper bound. 20% is then a guesstimate to allow for user orientation before reading begins.

We now have some definitions:

  • Average web page: a web page of 593 words.
  • Average visit: the average time some staff at an academic institution spent reading web pages 593 words long.
  • Have time: the time the reader happened to spend on the page.

A very bad thing?

But let’s suppose that people really are reading 20-28% of web pages. Generally this news is delivered mournfully, often prior to some hectoring on why we should be taking a butcher’s knife to our content. I haven’t seen anyone recommend a specific number of iterations, but it’s clearly a procedure with rapidly and literally diminishing returns.

But why would we ever expect anyone to read 100% of a page in the first place? Could 28% actually be a generous percentage? Here, perhaps, there’s a bit of sleight of hand. When we talk about an average page, average takes on its usual connotations of regular, typical, standardordinary. Content you might hope some users would read from start to finish. But the study Nielsen got his data from looked at all web browsing, not just content intended to be read in full – presumably including, amongst other things:

  • search results (the median time spent looking at Google search results was reported as being eight seconds, so many of these would have been included by Nielsen)
  • navigation pages and directories
  • calendars, weather forecasts and other services where we may just want a single piece of information.

For search results and navigation, we would generally be happier if users found what they wanted quickly. If the first Google result is the one I want, I may have only read five percent of the page. That isn’t a sign that Google needs to work on creating stickier content, it’s a sign that Google’s search algorithm is working well. Similarly, weather forecasts and calendars may just be glanced at, but if four seconds or more elapse before the user moves on, they get scooped into the data-set.

A web placebo?

Perhaps the (mis)use of this statistic is most charitably thought of as aphoristic, as a useful provocation rather than something meant to reflect an underlying truth – as a web placebo. But when such shibboleths harden into points of doctrine, it’s probably time to consider whether they do more harm than good.

Noticing the details

It may not quite be a consensus, but I suspect that one common conception of good law is simply less law. Academics have tried to measure legal complexity by counting paragraphs; lobbyists and ministers rail against red tape. I’d like to put in a plea for detail. I’ll offer two examples and sketch a possible mitigation.

Local council tax reduction schemes

Each English local authority responsible for collecting council tax is required to operate a corresponding support scheme for residents facing difficulty in payment. For working age claimants, councils are free to devise their own local schemes – pension age claimants come under national arrangements.

There is a general requirement that local authorities publish their local schemes; sensibly most authorities make them available online. However the law only stipulates that the schemes are published, not how. Some have proved remarkably difficult to winkle out.

(3) Having made a scheme, the authority must publish it in such manner as the authority thinks fit.

It would be very useful if local authorities were required to:

  • publish their final schemes online by a certain date each year, prior to their taking effect
  • state explicitly that the schemes are final rather than draft
  • explicitly date schemes including the date they were approved by council.
  • indicate if schemes are unchanged from one year to the next
  • register their schemes with a public registry

It would also be useful to provide for consequences in the event of failure to publish a scheme (if a council fails to make a scheme, a default scheme applies).

Universal credit: are you our kind of person?

Universal credit, for all its troubles, has been blessed with some fairly clear regulations. Unfortunately, it has also been cursed by some remarkably taxing commencement orders. A recent change gives the Secretary of State discretion to refuse claims from arbitrary classes of claimant (they can then claim so-called legacy benefits instead). Unfortunately no method is specified for publicizing the operation of this discretion. It would be very useful for advisers and the public at large to be able to find out where and how this discretion is being exercised.

As a particular example, a recent commencement order provides for couples to make new claims for universal credit in some parts of the country. Previously, only single people could initiate a claim. DWP published a press release on .GOV.UK, stating that:

As well as being available to couples who are both out-of-work, eventually people may also be able to claim Universal Credit if 1 or both partners is in work and their combined take home pay is under £525 per month.

The order enabling couple claims does not provide for any delay in claims by couples who happen to be in low paid work. So is this an exercise of the general power to refuse claims, or just an error in the press release? 1 It would be useful to know, which means it would be useful to have a way of knowing.

Structured notices

Legislation often requires authorities and other organizations to publish notices in newspapers or the official gazettes.

Perhaps there ought to be a class or classes of structured notice. By default, a structured notice might:

  • state the legislation under which it falls
  • state its geographical extent
  • state its effective date or dates
  • have a standardized permanent unique resource identifier
  • be tagged with the responsible department or authority, by name and by digital signature
  • give a notification date in advance of its earliest effective date
  • have default consequences for failure to publish

Specialized notice templates could inherit and if necessary override the properties of the default or root template.

We could then say things like:

  • Each billing authority shall publish its scheme as a local structured notice no later than four weeks before the scheme takes effect; or

  • the SoS will publish amendments to the scope of the universal credit client group as a departmental structured notice

thereby importing all the properties – obligations – of the specified class of notice without having to spell them out again in statute. It should then be possible for interested parties to subscribe to notice feeds: by department, type, authority, extent etc.

  1. It was an error in the press release, since corrected. 

Citizens are entitled to hope for better (revisited)

Update September 2014

In June 2014 I examined a sample of the material on benefits and tax credits published on .GOV.UK by the government digital service (GDS). I identified a number of factual errors and made several suggestions for improvement. I reported the errors to the GDS, who made some corrections fairly quickly and promised to look at the rest. Three months later, I thought I’d see how they got on.

The good news is that many factual corrections have been made (noted below). A few errors remain, and there are several passages which could stand improvement. Unfortunately the quality of material on benefits remains disappointing – glancing at GDS content on some of the benefits I didn’t cover in June (eg carer’s allowance, housing benefit, ESA) shows that serious errors persist.

Publishing is one of the four strands of the UK Cabinet Office’s Good Law project. When we look at government publishing, we shouldn’t confine ourselves to how government publishes the text of the law itself, we should also examine the material which government uses to communicate the implications of the law to citizens and those who advise them.

Until recently, the main online conduits for such information were Directgov and individual departmental websites. These have been brought together as .GOV.UK, under the auspices of the government digital service (GDS). At least in theory, this should facilitate inter-departmental working and reduce redundancy. It also means that government content can be produced to common standards, both technical and stylistic. To help achieve these goals, the GDS has been given enormous editorial control over non-technical content that appears on .GOV.UK. Content must conform rigidly to a style guide, which places great emphasis on search engine optimization, and, rightly so, on readability.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no equivalent emphasis on fact checking. Having had my attention drawn to a number of errors in material on .GOV.UK, I took a brief look at some of the content relating to social security benefits and tax credits. Comments on a few individual pages follow. None of us – certainly not myself – are infallible, but citizens are entitled to hope for better.

Income support

“At least £56.80 a week.”

This should be £57.35 per week. Corrected September 2014

“You can claim Child Tax Credit if you claim Income Support and have children”

This is true, but it would be more useful to say:

“If you receive income support and have children, you will be entitled to the maximum child tax credit for your household”.

“Personal allowance”

Figures for couples have not been updated to 2014-15 rates. The first three couple figures would still be misleading even if they had been updated – they are the figures that would apply if only one member of the couple was entitled to income support. The £86.65 rate applying to some younger claimant couples is left out altogether. Figures corrected and missing figure inserted September 14. The higher rates for young claimant couples have also been incorporated


“You can get between £15.55 and £122.20 extra depending on your circumstances -“

The author appears to have glanced at a table of premiums and plucked out the highest and lowest figures. No-one claiming income support will just qualify for the enhanced disability premium at £15.55 – they will also qualify for a disability premium. Similarly, no couple on income support will just qualify for 2x severe disability premiums = £122.20: they will qualify for at least one additional premium.

Corrected September 14

“eg if you’re a pensioner, disabled or a lone parent with a disabled child.”

If you’re a pensioner you can’t claim income support. You might qualify for a pensioner premium if you have a partner who is a pensioner, though in that case your partner would generally claim pension credit instead. Lone parents with disabled children may indeed qualify for additional premiums, but only if they’ve been claiming for many years and haven’t claimed child tax credit or they qualify for a carer premium. It would be better to mention carers in general. Errors corrected and suggestions incorporated September 2014

Income Support Disability Premium

“Disability premiums (Income Support) A disability premium is extra money if you’re under 60 with health problems that stop you from working – what > you get, eligibility, apply”

1) You don’t have to be under 60 to be awarded disability premiums. To be awarded the disability premium or the enhanced disability premium you (as well as your partner if you have one) have to be under pension credit age. There are no age limits specific to the severe disability premium.

2) You don’t need to have health problems that stop you from working in order to be awarded a disability premium as part of income support. And if you did, you would be more likely to be claiming employment and support allowance.

3) Disability premiums don’t just apply to income support: it’s surprising that only income support is covered. Although the disability premium proper is not part of employment and support allowance, both the enhanced disability premium and severe disability premium are. All three disability premiums feature in jobseeker’s allowance and working-age housing benefit. This section has been deleted from .GOV.UK

“2. What you’ll get”

Table suggests that both claimant and partner must qualify for the enhanced disability premium in order to receive the couple rate. Actually, the couple rate is paid regardless of whether one partner or both qualify. The table heading has been amended and is now correct for the enhanced disability premium. Unfortunately it is now wrong for the severe disability premium.

“3. Eligibility”

“Disabled Person’s Tax Credit” was abolished over a decade ago. Substitute “working tax credit with a disability element”. Corrected June 2014

Severe Disability Premium

Needs a line to cover cases where the partner qualifies for the premium but the claimant does not. Amended – note that first bullet list under “Rate if you qualify” should refer to PIP and AFIP

Enhanced disability premium

Need to be under pension credit age – not under 60. Corrected

Jobseeker’s allowance

“Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) is at least £57.35 a week to help you while you look for work.”

No it isn’t. Jobseeker’s allowance is means-tested (even the contributory allowance is partially means-tested). The minimum amount is £0.10 per week. Uncorrected

“JSA does not affect Child Benefit or child tax credit”

Actually, if you qualify for income-based JSA, you will automatically qualify for the maximum child tax credit applying to your household. Unchanged

Table for income-based JSA rates.

This table omits figures for couples not both aged 18 or over. Still missing

“Also, to get income-based JSA you (and your partner if you have one): must usually work less than 24 hours a week (on average)”…

No. The claimant must usually work less than 16 hours per week. If they have a partner, the partner must usually work less than 24 hours per week. This is true even in joint-claim cases: the one partner can work up to 24 hours. Still wrong


“You could get income-based JSA, tax credits or Employment and Support Allowance instead.”

You might, but the latter two are not alternatives to contributory JSA for self-employed people. Child tax credit is paid to parents in and out of work. Working tax credit is paid to people in work (or treated as being in work). Employment and support allowance is paid to people too sick to work. Unchanged

Child tax credit

  1. “You could get a basic amount and extra (known as ‘elements’) on top of this.”

No. The basic amount is also an element: the family element. The author has probably made a mental analogy with other means-tested-benefits, where premiums may be added on top of a personal allowance. Not so for tax credits. This isn’t just pedantry: if claimants are trying to understand their awards, it’s important to use the right words. Corrected August 2014

A table sets out the elements applying to each individual child in a family. The table gives three rates, noting that the third can be paid in addition to the second. It should also say that the second is paid on top of the first: noting one and not the other implies the opposite. corrected August 14

The phrase ‘Up to’, in the table suggests that the elements are individually tapered (or perhaps paid at a variety of rates). In fact all elements (working and child tax credit) are added together: if assessed income is greater than a threshold figure, this maximum amount of tax credit is reduced by a percentage of the difference. unchanged

Working tax credit.

No mention that you will have to be at least 25 unless you have children or a qualifying disability – this omission is repeated under the heading “Your age” fixed by Sept 2014

  1. “Basic Amount”

See as per Child Tax Credit But not corrected for WTC

The table suggests that claimants with a severe disability will receive this element on top of the disability element. In fact, an award may include either element or both. It is quite possible for an award to include a severe disability element and not a disability element. *Corrected September 2014

Comments on appropriate legislative language

Writing on the Cabinet Office’s good law tumblr, parliamentary counsel Diggory Bailey asks: “What is ‘appropriate legislative language’ and who decides?”

Given that it’s unusual to find an answer in any legal text without at least a little burrowing, appropriate legislative language may simply be that which presents the fewest obstacles and offers the fewest distractions. In particular, language which favours:

  • the plain over the decorative. Fancy writing will not sugar coat bad policy, plain language may sometimes illuminate it.

  • denotation over connotation. Absolutely avoiding connotation’s evil twin: insinuation 1.

  • the enduring over the ephemeral. Extirpate inessential or buried time-dependent references 2.

  • reference over duplication. This may complicate the making of amendments, but offers greater hope that different parts of the law may continue to mesh together. Preferring reference may also help identify candidates for consolidation.

Diggory asks “Are we getting it about right?” That is a tricky question to answer in isolation, for reasons that speak to the limitations of the Good Law project 3, depending as it does upon the useful fiction that we can separate poor construction from bad policy. The language is always likely to be difficult if the policy mechanism is unnecessarily complex or ill-formed, but it may still be appropriate legislative language. It’s rarely just a question of tone, but to be positive I think the tone is generally about right.

Diggory also suggests that some people want a degree of pomp and ceremony. I don’t, at least not in functional parts. Like government itself, the law isn’t a cake: it’s a fungus, both in its extensiveness and its interconnectedness. Statutes aren’t icing: they’re mushrooms. Or toadstools. Be careful what you ingest.

  1. “Schedule 3 re-enacts the current general ban on prisoner voting, but with a few minor changes”, (quoted by Diggory) has a whiff of yah boo sucks to anyone familiar with the context. 

  2. This can come at the cost of some specificity eg electronic communications rather than email-SMS-snapchat-tinder etc. 

  3. Limitations are not a bad thing of course. Projects without limitations are doomed.