Category Archives: moaning

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 Typically, 20p or more of council tax support is also withdrawn for each additional pound of net income.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.

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