No 24: Social insecurity: a new consensus is needed to return security to the system

by Sarah Batty

‘Putting the security back into Social Security’ was the title of a series of national solution-focused workshops held in 2017 in which I was involved, organised by Dr Michael Orton of Warwick Institute for Employment Research. The aim was to use consensus-building to identify key short to medium-term actions to return security to the benefits system. One of the workshops took place at the quarterly meeting of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers, while others brought together local practitioners, academics and people with personal experience of welfare benefits.

The chance to debate the future of social security represented a positive opportunity for me as an advice worker, dealing with the negative impacts of welfare reforms and social security administration. Our job, by its very nature, is solution-focused. We listen to people, unpicking complex legal and personal scenarios to find legal and procedural solutions. However, given the poor state of the current social security system, discussion, by necessity, focused on problems rather than solutions.

One roadblock to developing solutions was the term ‘social security’ itself. Rather than signifying the system of welfare benefits and entitlements in relation to income, our discussion provoked questions about broader social issues dominated by ‘insecurity’; for example housing, employment and mental health. Another key theme was the political and media representation of benefit claimants as dependent and undeserving, which has enhanced negative public perceptions. We felt that changing the ‘story’ was crucial to reintroducing ‘social security’.  

Another challenge for our group was the scale of the cuts to social security, which amount to £27 billion per year by 2021, and the sheer number of welfare reforms: over 50 are listed in CPAG’s latest research. Put simply, the cuts affect almost every aspect of financial support for adults and children, whether working, unemployed or unable to work because of sickness, disability or caring responsibilities. There are so many changes that it is difficult for practitioners to keep up, and so many problems that the ‘topics’ lists on our flipchart were extensive. Some people questioned the utility of making suggestions when policy-making appears far removed from evidence or logic: who will listen anyway? Although some agreement on key themes was reached, no clear consensus on top priorities emerged.  

Two policies were identified by many workshop participants as causing the most severe hardship, harm to health and deep insecurity: the punitive ‘Sanctions’ regime and the Work Capability Assessment with its well-known faults in process and outcomes. Also mentioned were policies which seem inconceivable although they have passed into law — the ‘Two Child Limit’ and the removal of the £30 per week ‘work-related activity component’ from people too sick to work. More profoundly, the underlying principles of social security were questioned, prompted by the experience of poor administration of welfare benefits, including the undignified treatment of claimants and the policy of ‘mandatory reconsideration’ — a barrier to the independent appeal system.  

The 2017 workshops took place before the accelerated roll-out of Universal Credit when problems with rent arrears and payment delays were just starting to be reported. However, Universal Credit was the focus of the more recent #budget4all campaign which used the consensus-building approach. Fifteen leading charities called for three key changes to help restore the potential of Universal Credit to address poverty: restore the ‘work allowances’ to make work pay, reduce the wait for payment and end the freeze on benefit rates. In the Autumn 2017 budget, the government did reduce the waiting period but has yet to take on board the arguments supporting more fundamental changes.

The proliferation of social security reforms, in combination with cuts to frontline advice services, makes it difficult to sustain opposition, evidence-gathering and consensus-building. We can lose sight of the simple fact that entitlements are now reduced, in various ways, below previously agreed subsistence-income levels, which are already lower than the cost of living, which undermines the principle of ‘social protection’.  We must not adjust to the current state of the social security system, whereby discretionary charitable welfare becomes an acceptable component and is normalised by our participation. Both broad and detailed discussions are necessary about the future welfare benefits system we need. The debate should cover, 1. core principles to underpin our protection of adults and children; 2. the degree of universality and conditionality; and 3. the interactions of income with employment, health and housing.  

We must, at the same time, look for short-term improvements to increase the security of those who need it most. Our Workshops contributed to developing ideas, but the need for a ‘fit for purpose’ social security system seems starker today than perhaps at any point since the SPA was founded.

Sarah Batty is a welfare rights adviser working in social housing, a freelance trainer and a member of NAWRA. She completed an MA in Social Policy at the University of York in 2017. She tweets @sarah_batty.

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