Labour has the opportunity to carve out a fresh approach on social security, based on the principles of fairness, dignity and respect, writes Ruth Patrick
For lots of reasons, the 2017 general election felt very different from recent battles to secure the nation’s vote. Brexit dominated the campaign trail, and crowded out the space for discussion of other policy areas. Column after column was devoted to whether Theresa May could deliver on her ‘strong and stable’ pledge, while the performance of Jeremy Corbyn was forensically monitored by friends and foes alike.
As a researcher interested in poverty, social security and welfare reform, what stood out for me about the election was the comparative lack of discussion of welfare. Recent elections have seen ‘welfare’ endlessly mobilised (particularly by the Conservatives) as a key campaigning issue, with rhetoric and pledges focused around efforts to clamp down on a supposed culture of welfare dependency. In 2010, for example, electoral billboards showed David Cameron finger pointing and smiling as he told an assembled audience: ‘Let’s cut benefits for those who refuse work’.
Labour has often seemed pushed onto the defensive here, attempting to persuade the public that it too will address the ‘problem’ of welfare. Under Ed Miliband, Labour sought to shed as the image of being soft on ‘welfare’ for fear that this was losing the party votes. This was most evident during the 2015 election campaign, when then shadow secretary for the department for work and pensions, Rachael Reeves, told a Guardian interviewer: “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.”
While welfare, better described as social security, may have been sidelined from this year’s campaign, it is of course a policy area that has massive consequences for us all. Over the past 35 years, successive changes to the social security system have greatly altered the nature of Britain’s safety net, undermining the security that it offers and increasing the conditions attached to out-of-work (and most recently, some forms of in-work) social security receipt.
Between 2011 and 2016, I followed a small group of out-of-work benefit claimants as they lived with and experiencedwelfare reform under first the coalition and then the majority Conservative government. Through repeat interviews, I was able to track individual journeys over time and explore how benefit changes were anticipated, experienced and reflected upon. What this research showed was the stark mismatch between the policy presentation, prescription and promise on welfare reform and individual lived experiences. Talking to people directly affected by benefit changes illustrated the flimsiness of the ‘benefits as a lifestyle choice’ rhetoric, as well as the ways in which welfare reform can push people further away from rather than closer to paid employment. It also demonstrated the extent to which an endless demonisation of benefit claimants is entrenching and deepening the stigma of benefits receipt, and creating deep (if artificial) divisions between groups within our society (most notably between those in and out of paid employment).
What this research also demonstrated – as does so much of the research is this policy domain such as Kayleigh Garthwaite’s excellent work on food banks – is the inherent value in foregrounding individuals’ experiences of our social security system. Doing so is the only way we can effectively understand the impact of policy changes, and enables a much richer appreciation of what living on welfare actually means in today’s Britain. Those with direct experiences of poverty, welfare reform and social security receipt are best seen as experts by experience, and we all have a responsibility to do much more to mobilise this expertise in policy discussion and development.
After an unexpected general election result, and set against a post-Grenfell context in which we have tragically seen what can happen when the voices of Britain’s poorest are completely ignored, there are perhaps the beginnings of an opportunity to build momentum for a different approach on social security. The Labour party still needs to do much more here, with Jeremy Corbyn’s limited statements on social security to date showing a lack of grasp of the policy detail, most notably in his election wavering on whether or not a future Labour government would uprate benefits.
But if Labour were to take on the challenge of offering genuine ‘welfare reform’, there are several key areas in which change is urgently needed. Some of the change would involve ambitious (and costly) reforms, but there is also a need for a shift in the policy narrative and presentation, which could be cost-neutral but – over time – might significantly alter the way our social security system is seen and works.
First, and perhaps most fundamentally, there is a pressing need to reframe the way politicians, the media and policymakers talk about so-called welfare dependency. Tired and repeated dichotomies between ‘welfare dependants’ and ‘hard-working families’ do effective rhetorical work in creating dividing lines between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ populations, and suggesting that ‘welfare’ is a residualised form of state support for a marginalised – and often undeserving – population. In fact, of course, as the founder of social policy, Richard Titmuss, reminds us, we are all welfare dependants, especially if we think of welfare as including not just social welfare, but forms of occupational and fiscal support such as tax relief and pensions. Further, as John Hills’ recent research has shown, most of us will draw upon social security support at some point in our lifetimes, and so welfare is something that matters to us all. It would be genuinely radical and exciting if political leaders could give up on their stigmatising welfare claimants and endless valorising of ‘hard-working families’. Instead, they could pledge to create a society that seeks to include and make life better for us all. Does that really have to sound so utopian?
Second, it is now time to seriously rethink the place of welfare conditionality within our social security system. The emerging body of research from the large-scale welfare conditionality project which involved six universities and was led by Professor Peter Dwyer has shown that sanctions almost never assist moves from ‘welfare’ into ‘work’, something reinforced by the findings from my own study. Instead, sanctions often cause extreme hardship, even destitution, and can lead to individuals feeling compelled to take part in what has become known as ‘survival crime’ (for example, stealing food and clothes to get by). There has always been and always will be some conditionality within Britain’s social security system but there is an urgent need to review what – if any – purpose the recent intensification and extension of welfare conditionality has served.
Third, a more egalitarian and progressive social security system would recognise and reward contributions, perhaps through a revitalised social insurance scheme as has previously been suggested by the Fabian Society in its report For Us All. However, it is critical that any emphasis on contribution does more to recognise diverse forms of contribution and does not privilege paid work. Parenting, care work and volunteering also need to be valued, and should be included within any reformed system of social insurance.
Fourth, it is vital that the social security system is underpinned by principles of dignity and respect, and does much more to make sure that individual claimants are treated as citizens who are entitled to state support. In my research, it was common to hear individuals talk about feeling stigmatised in their encounters with Job Centre Plus, while the process of applying for state benefits was often experienced as needlessly bureaucratic and time consuming. Individuals described their patronizing encounters with advisers, laced with the threat of compulsion and punishment, and thisoften undermined the possibility of the provision of effective back-to-work support. When I asked the individuals I spoke to what they would like from their Job Centre advisers, they made modest requests that hinted at the shortcomings with the current system. For example, one asked that advisers ‘be polite’, and make appointments ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ them. Reform in this domain requires cultural changes and could be done without significant costs being incurred. But these changes that start from a recognition of the right of all citizens to fair, respectful treatment could make a big difference.
More costly, but also much needed, is reconsidering what a rich country like Britain should be offering in social security support to individuals in times of need. For example, the recent decisions to freeze benefit levels will contribute to increases in child poverty, increases that Britain should not be willing to accept. Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that relative child poverty will rise to 25.7 per cent in 2020–21, a 50 per cent increase from 2015, and one that will undo most of the reduction in child poverty achieved since 1997.
What underpins all these proposed changes is the belief that social security matters to us all. We are all likely to rely upon it – in some form – at some point in our lives, and there is a large body of evidence that shows why reducing inequality and poverty is good for society as a whole. Taken together, these changes would start the process of building a progressive social security system. Surely, that is a future that we should all be keen to work towards.
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