26 Jan

From Welfare State to the Big Society?

Posted By Politybooks

Today I watched a TV show called Saints and Scroungers (BBC), which looks at cases of ‘benefit scroungers’ who claim benefits to which they are not entitled, and ‘saints’ who haven’t claimed benefits they’re entitled to until someone else points it out. The show includes people claiming disability and incapacity benefits who are video-recorded lugging huge wardrobes into and out of removal vans or refereeing local football games without a twinge. Has there ever been a better time for this show as the British government sets about reforming benefits and transforming the welfare state?

Before Labour’s 1997 election victory, Tony Blair asked his advisers to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare reform. Frank Field MP tells us that ‘the unthinkable’ then was understanding how means-tested benefits influence behaviour, how benefits could be designed that went ‘with the grain of human nature’ (i.e. self-interest), how state benefits could make more use of partnerships with the private sector, and how mutual membership organizations could be built that would strengthen civil society’s role in the provision of welfare (see Field’s article for the BBC here).     

Field argues that one of the problems with the politics of welfare reform is that histories of welfare have been written by left-leaning academics who see post-1945 state provision as the ‘normal’ endpoint. Hence, all previous forms are seen negatively as patchy, unreliable and inferior. This, he argues, is not only wrong, but it sets strict limits to what ‘welfare reform’ today might mean. Field resigned as Welfare Reform Minister in the previous Labour government and in June 2010 accepted a post as ‘poverty tsar’ in the new Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government.  

Of course, Britain is by no means alone in ‘thinking the unthinkable’ as governments try to deal with enormous national debt burdens in the wake of economic recession. Other countries ran up large deficits when their economies were growing and when the downturn hit they were less able to weather the storm. In Greece, an EU / IMF financial package of €110 billion was agreed in May 2010 in return for an austerity plan based on stringent spending cuts. In the Republic of Ireland, a similar bailout package amounting to €80.5 billion is currently passing through the Dáil (the Irish parliament). Concerns remain about Portugal and even Spain. Can conventional models of a welfare state that provides a safety net ‘from cradle to grave’ survive in this climate?

The British coalition government announced its plan to simplify the benefits system with a new ‘universal credit’ in 2013, based on the principle that people should always be better off in work than on benefits. There will also be stricter rules governing how long people can stay on benefit without working, so the incentive to work will be stronger. More broadly though, the government has a vision of Britain as a bottom-up, ‘big society’ in which the state withdraws from many of its current obligations, to be replaced by strong citizens groups, reinvigorated communities and a renewed sense of social responsibility and individual empowerment. Instead of a provider state, an enabling state is the ultimate goal. The broad thrust of this is attractive to many, especially the Liberal Democrats who have long argued for decentralizing power to the local level.

But can the ‘big society’ really replace large swathes of the welfare state and public services? Well, as Frank Field points out, in the nineteenth century, what welfare existed was provided by voluntary agencies such as mutual and friendly societies, volunteer-run hospitals, churches and parish councils. But moving towards a strengthened version of such arrangements presents some serious problems with today’s size of population.

When people rely on public services they have to know they’ll be there when they need them, but could volunteer-run services ever be so reliable over long time periods? And is there a demand for such bottom-up provision anyway? Most people have busy lives already and just don’t have that much free time to take on the running of services or to provide welfare. The low level of parental involvement in the activities of their children’s schools is testimony to that.

More seriously, political critics see big society ideas as an ideological smokescreen covering up the increasing pace of privatization, a long-cherished Conservative Party policy. Similarly, with recession and spending cuts as the backdrop, some fear this is the ideal moment to pare back the welfare state, which conservatives blame for creating an anti-work, dependency culture amongst some claimant groups. Yet for others, the welfare state represents a positive form of collectivism and society-wide responsibility that is now under threat.  

While the coalition is focused on how benefit entitlement influences behaviour, a neglected issue is how people in need of benefits will behave if entitlement by virtue of citizenship is removed. Previous Labour governments had started moving towards ‘conditional entitlement’ – the right to benefits being dependent on conditions such as means-testing or mandatory work training – but, as Charlesworth points out, without any underpinning legal right to welfare, or fiscal obligation to provide it, voluntary efforts will never replace state provision, and poorer social groups will be the main losers. If so, then the big society might well be an even more unequal one.   

A potted history of the welfare state and models of welfare states can be had in Chapter 12 ‘Poverty, Social Exclusion and Welfare’, pp. 507-17. Chapter 13 on ‘Global Inequality’ also contains much material which is useful in broadening out debates on poverty and welfare across the world. Issues of unemployment and its social consequences are covered in Chapter 18 ‘Work and Economic Life’, pp. 921-30.

Next week sees the publication of Mary Daly’s new short introduction to welfare, its various interpretations, and current developments both in understandings of and political approaches to the idea of ‘welfare’.


 Philip W. Sutton