A new agenda for welfare

Britain needs a social security system based on solidarity, risk sharing and collective action.

Sarah Lyall
4 November 2014


Through our research on a new social settlement, NEF proposes an agenda for the future of the welfare state – based on solidarity, risk sharing and collective action. We offer ways to build on the strengths of the post-war welfare state, while making substantial changes – taking account of seven decades’ worth of material and political change and a new set of social, environmental, economic and political challenges.

In our most recent working paper on social security we describe a staged approach to changing benefits and Jobcentres. We make radical suggestions: to invest in benefits which prevent harm; to transform Jobcentres through co-production and timebanking; and to involve people in democratic dialogue and decision-making about benefits. We also propose ways to embark on change strategically and gradually. We suggest evolution rather than revolution because each stage in the sequence needs to support three broader shifts:

  • Changing attitudes to people receiving social security (particularly recognising their contributions, financial and non-financial),

  • Galvanising improvements to the labour market (on wages, employee representation and control over working time), and

  • Building appetite and capacity for inclusive democratic decision-making (to make shared decisions about shared resources).

As has been argued by Ben Baumberg, “sequenced change” may be the most effective path to a more generous social security system. Such change “takes place in stages, and each stage facilitates the adoption of the next one”. Staged change can build momentum and create pathways which are harder for political adversaries to destabilise than wholesale reforms. The important point is to consider the core cultures, institutions and ideas that need to be shifted in order to move in the right direction.

Here are five first steps:

    1. Understand personal responsibility, but in the context of interdependence. Many of the problems with the present system – that it is divisive, punitive and stigmatising – originate from views about personal responsibility. People are individually blamed for being unemployed, regardless of the economic context. We build on a different definition, developed by Skills Network through peer research into mothers’ experiences of Jobcentre Plus. As they point out, “In the context of people being interdependent, personal responsibility is asking for support when it’s needed and giving it when you can.”

    2. Support paid and unpaid labour through benefits and in Jobcentres. Taking account of people’s whole lives, Jobcentre activities and conditions should value and support people’s unpaid roles within society, rather than viewing them as barriers to their capacity to undertake paid employment. People providing informal care to relatives should be better supported to do so, through a carer’s allowance that takes account of the value which unpaid carers contribute to society, and through the support of other people, as it becomes more common to take informal caring roles alongside paid employment.

    3. Create more supportive, inclusive Jobcentres. At present, Jobcentres measure progress simply through the number of applications a person completes after signing on. But what if we turned them into hubs of collaborative activity, providing support in a number of different ways? Through co-production people would have much more say over what support they need to find a suitable job. A timebanking model could also help to properly value different activities that help prepare for and find employment. People would then be able to choose a more tailored package of support, with workshops at Jobcentres, meeting with local employers and providing support for others – for example, childminding for a peer who was attending a job interview or teaching someone else a skill – also valued.

      Rather than viewing people’s caring responsibilities as barriers to their capacity to undertake paid employment, timebanked Jobcentres would count hours spent caring as a valuable part of someone’s contribution. Timebanking would widen access to Jobcentres, involving other people in the local area. If Jobcentres became branches in regional time credit networks, then time credits could be used by anyone to access the Jobcentre if they wanted to refresh their CV or develop their leadership skills.

    4. Make decision-making more democratic. Few people currently have a say in social security policy. Campaigners, charities and other various fringe groups strive to have influence, but their voices are rarely heard. Instead, politicians base policy on media-influenced polling which is in turn shaped by elite, distant figures. There is little genuine dialogue – discussions, for example, around: the effect of cost of living increases on benefit rates; the amount of unpaid labour contributed by people receiving benefits (carers, parents, volunteers) which would otherwise be a struggle to pay for; and the deeper drivers of welfare spending (particularly rising private rents and unequal pay). Democratic bodies should be developed to which government is formally accountable, creating more transparent, evidence-based discussions, involving people with first-hand experience of the system.

    5. Put pressure on government to ensure quality as well as quantity of jobs. People need support that helps them access employment, but we must also ensure the right sorts of employment are actually available. This points to the need not only for a Jobs Guarantee but for a ‘Good Jobs’ Guarantee, including provision for shorter working hours and strengthening the obligation on employers to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled staff.

Throughout, the process should aim to build mutual confidence, trust and acceptance between present recipients of social security, and also wider society. Changes should make people feel more powerful rather than powerless, such that people know they can make positive changes in their lives and be of help to others.

An effective social security system creates a structure for shared sympathy and responsibility. Through collective action against insecurity and redistribution of wealth it helps to build solidarity. It has the potential to facilitate more equal shares in what society has to offer: with equal opportunities to play a meaningful role, contribute what you can, receive mutual support, and fulfil personal potential. These are the true benefits to be unlocked.

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