Replacing Public Welfare? UK Divisions of Welfare in the 21st Century. One day conference report


University of Birmingham

9 December 2015

December 2015 saw the 60th anniversary of the Eleanor Rathbone Memorial Lecture on ‘The Social Division of Welfare: Some Reflections on the Search for Equity’ delivered by Richard Titmuss at the University of Birmingham. To mark the occasion the University’s School of Social Policy and the Social Policy Association hosted a conference at the University to take stock of recent changes in UK welfare arrangements in the light of Titmuss’ taxonomy (extended to include voluntary and informal welfare), and consider the extent to which they heralded a new welfare order.

The event took the form of reviews of key developments in the different divisions of welfare followed by a plenary discussion. The speakers were Pete Alcock (University of Birmingham), Edward Brunsdon (University of Birmingham), Tania Burchardt (London School of Economics), Nick Ellison (University of York), John Hills (London School of Economics), Rob Macmillan (University of Birmingham), Margaret May (University of Birmingham), Jane Millar (University of Bath) and Adrian Sinfield (University of Edinburgh). The conference was chaired by Pete Alcock and Karen Rowlingson (University of Birmingham).

Pete Alcock opened the conference, setting the scene by reminding us of the concerns driving Titmuss’s original lecture and outlining the major changes since then to collective social protection in the UK, and other OECD countries, particularly over the last three decades. For many commentators these have signified the decline of ‘public welfare’ and its replacement by the neo-liberal promotion of individual responsibility and market competition and a world in which access to many services is increasingly determined by income rather than need. In his view though, the implications of recent changes to public welfare are not so clear cut, nor is the extent to which they have presaged its demise – an assessment made more complex by the impact of the devolution of political power and policy making within the UK.

Tania Burchardt extended the analysis of some of these issues by emphasising the importance of distinguishing between funding, provision and decision making, and the varying permutations of these across and between different welfare activities. Using this three-dimensional framework ,and drawing on research conducted with colleagues at the LSE, she highlighted the complexity of recent changes in England, particularly between 2010 and 2015. Bearing in mind the data problems it nevertheless appeared that on all three dimensions income maintenance provision remained state dominated. Health care too was still largely ‘purely public’, whereas social care had seen a marked rise in ‘purely private’ arrangements. But though declines in public finance, provision and decision making could, to varying degrees, be seen in other areas, overall there was no evidence yet of a decisive shift away from the state.

Adrian Sinfield discussed developments in fiscal welfare. He raised a number of continuing concerns here, particularly the ongoing changes to pension tax relief.  Despite Titmuss’s work, he argued that fiscal welfare remained an opaque area subject to little public scrutiny or policy analysis. What is more it was increasingly displacing public welfare to the benefit of the better off. In the light of this he issued a ‘call to arms’. He urged social policy analysts to challenge the ‘taken-for-granted’ nature of HMRC’s work, and to press for comprehensive, transparent data to open up debate on fiscal welfare policy-making and the role of the pensions industry and other agencies in its formation and evaluation.

Edward Brunsdon and Margaret May focused on the reconfiguration of occupational welfare since the millennium.  Adopting a broad characterisation they highlighted the complex interplay between the main agencies shaping this ‘division’, the expansion of mandatory benefits and shifts in voluntary provision. They argued that the latter, often tax-funded, continued to create serious inequities in access to welfare. Looked at overall, however, they suggested that there were significant obstacles to any large-scale transfers of benefit funding and/or delivery to employers.

Tania Burchardt’s second presentation explored some of the data on the scale of privately provided and funded welfare in England. She discussed the extent to which commercial organisations concentrated on positional and low-risk goods and services, and on the growth in for- and not-for-profit provision of public services, especially since 2010. Citing several recent cases she emphasised the limited consideration that had been given to the problems posed when such outsourcing failed, and argued that there were questions to be asked about the likelihood of commercial organisations moving into the direct supply of higher risk products.

In the final presentation session Rob Macmillan reflected on recent developments in ‘voluntary welfare’ and the challenges it set for social policy as a discipline. He discussed the difficulties of characterising the amorphous range of entities and activities involved here, and the implications of recent government policy in the field. He argued that the involvement of voluntary agencies in the transfer of public service, often in partnership with commercial bodies and subject to new performance mechanisms, meant that they were increasingly expected to operate as businesses. These developments, he suggested, could be construed as a ‘Trojan horse’ for privatisation, raising fundamental questions about the distributional consequences of this, and  the oppositional and campaigning role that voluntary organisations might play in the wider welfare nexus.

The plenary session was opened by short presentations from Jane Millar, Nick Ellison and John Hills.

Jane Millar highlighted both the scale and range of family based care in the UK, the inequalities arising from differences in families’ resources, and the neglect of such considerations in current policymaking. She questioned the assumption that informal care could offset a reduction in public welfare, arguing that it could instead: intensify social divisions, limit reciprocity, and reduce the importance of adequate safety nets in facilitating family solidarity and reducing inequalities.

Nick Ellison stressed the commitment to social rights that had underpinned Titmuss’s lecture and the fracturing of the post war framework in which debates over social citizenship took place. In the current context, he argued it was essential that social policy analysts recapture that commitment and proactively defend and promote welfare citizenship.

John Hills also questioned notion of a decline in public welfare, which had been discussed in the earlier sessions.  He pointed out that the welfare state still accounted for two-thirds of UK government spending, and that the retention of the real value of out-of-work benefits in 2007/8 should also be recognised. Looking forward, however, the outlook for cash-based protection was grim. He argued that the cuts and changes now in train would be likely to lower the welfare safety net significantly; that commercial insurance offered poor value for money and would not fill the gap; and that increasing pressure on families would intensify social inequities. The implications for younger adults were also worrying.  As he concluded though, however gloomy the future scenario may seem, political circumstances could alter this in the future.

Wide-ranging discussion followed the presentations and the plenary speakers, with many contributors extending the concerns expressed by the speakers. Among the key issues raised were the distinction between notions of the ‘divisions of welfare’ and ‘the mixed economy of welfare’; the interconnectedness of the various ‘divisions’ and the ways this could reinforce social inequalities and the role of the state as a regulator. Attention was drawn to the need for research on the implications of shifts in capital expenditure on welfare services, changes in corporation tax, the use and impact on consumers of ‘topping-up’ public provision, the differences between for- and not-for profit providers in welfare markets, and the role of commercial agencies in shaping government policy.

Concern was also expressed over the effects of marketisation on user views and public discourses, the blurring of lines of accountability in service delivery and the use of ‘gagging clauses’ in supply chains, the move to welfare localisation in England, and the government’s neglect of the preventative role of social policy.

The overarching issue to emerge from the Conference, however, was the need for social policy analysts to engage more directly in public debate over the direction of change in both public and the other divisions of welfare – to challenge misconceptions and to re-assert the crucial role of universal protective public welfare. In this respect the Conference provided an excellent opportunity to discuss some of the ‘bigger issues’ in social policy, and ones of which we trust Richard Titmuss would have approved.

Pete Alcock, Edward Brunsdon and Margaret May, Conference Organisers

Note – fuller versions of several of the papers are due to be published over the next year or so.