Category Archives: good law

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.

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.