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Fair Access to Social Welfare – Technical fix or a change in attitude?

February 10, 2015

blog citizens advice

The justifiable campaign to defend the NHS and free access to healthcare at the point of delivery can make it too easy to neglect other pillars of the welfare state. One of the most important – is financial support from the state – social welfare. In an earlier blog I noted how positive it was that Due North the public health report for the North of England had flagged up access to welfare rights services as a key action.

This issue receives welcome further attention from Citizens Advice whose report Responsive Welfare was published in January 2015. The report is worth a read because it offers some interesting ideas for change.

The report calls for a new approach to social welfare that empowers individuals through a combination of local integration, more supportive and skilled staff and better access to information.

Three key actions are suggested:

  • Decentralising benefit provision to better support social and economic development of places which would include varying some benefit rates around the country and merging budgets for other benefits with local public services spend.
  • Creating an ‘intelligent frontline’ of professional staff (a comparison is made with social work) to provide professional support to individuals with complex needs so that they can receive more appropriate training and employment
  • Greater use of digital channels to empower individuals to make more informed and effective choices.

All of these ideas are focussed on practical delivery – and I think a benefit system that is tailored to priorities in a place has merit. As the report points out some places have few jobs and plenty of housing and others have the reverse. Similarly the idea that there should be supportive staff whose job it is to help rather than police feels positive too.

The report made me think about two things – the relevance of the actions proposed and the likelihood of their being implemented.

Relevance

Regional – I think that linking social welfare support to economic regeneration strategies at a city region level does make sense, and is the most useful idea in the report, particularly if it were possible to tailor funds to reflect different cost pressures in subregions. However, there are huge risks here – not least that central government would pass responsibility over but fail to provide adequate funds – as has happened recently with Housing Benefit.

As readers of this blog will know – I think that local politicians are much more adept at rising above soundbite politics and market ideology to put the needs of their communities first – witness the rise of Fairness Commissions. This report supports this view quoting an IPSOS MORI report which notes that” 79% of people trust local politicians compared to 30% who trust the Government”.

Intelligent Frontline – creating a new profession to support people into training and work. The report draws analogies with social work and nursing here. I am not convinced, I think there is a continuous pressure on staff in helping professions to move into quasi policing roles with an emphasis on rationing.

I think that there is a stronger argument for considering how to strengthen the informal roles that community based voluntary organisations already play – from development trusts through to local Citizens Advice Bureau. They already fill the gap left between marketised, punitive, tick box government interventions and peoples ambitions to lead fulfilling lives. This very local role has been largely ignored by government in its rush to award huge national contracts to private sector organisations such as A4E.

Digital – of course state of the art digital access is important but this is not really a strategic system changer – particularly given the digital divide described by the excellent Tinder Foundation which impacts so heavily on the most disadvantaged who rely most on social welfare.

Implementation

I am not convinced by the central argument in the report that “the welfare system has lost public support not because people don’t understand it, but because it is not responsive enough to citizens’ needs”. Much of this is based on the DEMOS/IPSOS MORI report Generation Strains. which is concerned with public perceptions of the social welfare system. However, there is no mention of  the YouGov research referred to in Generation Strains – this was commissioned by the TUC (support for benefit cuts dependent on ignorance)  in 2012, it notes that:

“people with the least knowledge of the social welfare system have the most negative views about it”

This view is supported by an important analysis (Perspectives are not reality) conducted by Kings College London and the Royal Statistical Society in 2013

Lets face it the biggest challenge is the attitude of Government. For possibly understandable reasons politicians come off very lightly in ‘Responsive Welfare’ – indeed national ones are barely mentioned.

At the end of the day it is the decisions that politicians make that determine the principles and values of a social welfare system.

Legislators have created a system that is increasingly punitive, that places an emphasis on discouraging  vulnerable,  unwell and disabled people to take up their entitlement to support – taking them through stressful assessments by Government proxies like Maximus and their hated predecessor ATOS. Further, government staff are tasked with using the sanction regime to make accessing social welfare support as difficult and unpleasant a process as possible.

Successive governments have set an agenda which seeks to move us away from universal services to providing instead minimalist heavily restricted safety net services. This allows arguments to be developed about the the deserving and underserving and in my view undermines the proposals here for a return to reciprocity and social insurance.

Conclusion

This report is a useful contribution – anyone who is concerned about this agenda should read it ….. but with a critical eye!

It focusses on technical solutions some of which have merit. However, they stand little chance of being implemented unless Westminster politicians are challenged by independent voices to create a service that genuinely seeks to help rather than punish.

What do you think?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Pedler permalink
    February 15, 2015 10:31

    Thanks Mark Interesting stuff. It certainly makes sense to have local control of welfare spend (and it could hardly be less intelligent than the current set up). I can see that it would be very tough for locally responsible front line staff to manage a tight budget but we’re doing this anyway aren’t we with all the LG cuts? A tough job but perhaps better than the alternative?

    Cheers

    Mike

  2. February 22, 2015 21:28

    Hi Mike – good to hear from you – yes it is an interesting proposal – the key for me is some financial autonomy from central government – so that this does not just add to the list of ‘devolved budgets’ that the government cuts on the sly. All the best – Mark

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