Proposals for a better social security system: a consultation

by Michael Orton

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Social security is a core concern of social policy and SPA members are warmly invited to give their views on proposals for a better benefits system, which are currently being consulted on.

The proposals offer a radically simplified system: a Guaranteed Decent Income of £222 per week for a single person and £322 for a couple; Child Benefit as a main pillar paid for every child at a rate of £50 per week; and an entirely new start on Disability Benefit using a social model of disability. The full set of proposals are available in consultation format at this link and it is through this means SPA members can, and are very much encouraged to, submit thoughts and insights.


The need to identify a fit for purpose social security system

A contribution to the SPA’s 50th Anniversary Blog Series, in 2018, argued that “the need for a ‘fit for purpose’ social security system seems starker today than perhaps at any point since the SPA was founded”. The current pandemic has further highlighted that stark need.

But as has been argued previously, while within civil society there is considerable agreement on what needs to be done on issues such as housing, early childhood education and care, and minimum wage levels, that is not the case with social security:

“There are strong advocates of an unconditional universal Basic or Citizen’s Income while others express preference for contribution-based entitlements or universal but means-tested benefits. There are different views on the importance that should be given to public services versus individual income support measures or whether to prioritise immediate issues such as the bedroom tax or longer-term changes to Universal Credit and the tax system more generally.”

While criticism of the current system continues, when it comes to suggesting a way forward it is lack of consensus that is evident.


Developing proposals for a better system: the Commission on Social Security

The proposals being consulted on are an outcome from a project called the Commission on Social Security, funded by Trust for London. The project takes as its starting point the need to identify a better system and to do so using consensus building approaches. In addition, and recognising recent social policy debate about lived experience such as by McIntosh and Wright, the project places emphasis on the involvement of Experts by Experience i.e. people with lived experience of the benefits system. Indeed, the project not only includes Experts by Experience but is led by them with all the Commissioners being current or recent benefit claimants. There are a total of 16 Commissioners, from a variety of claimant and user-led groups and Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations. The Commissioners are the decision-makers with a secretariat/support team – including the author of this blog, Rosa Morris (an expert on disability benefits) and Kate Summers (as research analyst) – working under their direction. The project itself therefore presents a radical alternative to top-down policy development.


The 2019 Call for Solutions 

The Commission was launched in 2019. Rather than making a standard call for evidence typical of Commissions of Inquiry, Commissioners chose to emphasise the need to identify ways forward so instead issued a ‘Call for Solutions’. A topic-based approach was used, covering core issues such as Universal Credit, sickness and disability benefits, sanctions and so on, inviting the submission of ideas and suggestions for how to improve the current system.

The SPA kindly awarded an Opportunity Grant which enabled a series of workshops to be held around the UK, promoting debate about the Call for Solutions. Other efforts focused on encouraging input from groups whose voice is invariably not heard in public debate. For example, the Call for Solutions was produced in Easy Read format with accompanying British Sign Language videos and audio. In addition to the workshop series there was a legislative theatre initiative and also a poetry day.

Over a thousand responses were received to the Call for Solutions, with two key outcomes. First, the Call asked people what they thought of five principles which Commissioners had identified as needing to underpin social security. The response was overwhelming agreement. The five principles therefore became established as the basis for the Commission’s work. The five principles are:

  1. Make sure everyone has enough money to live – and to support extra costs, e.g. to do with disability and children.
  2. Treat everyone with dignity, respect and trust, and the belief that people should be able to choose for themselves.
  3. Be a public service with rights and entitlements.
  4. Be clear, user-friendly and accessible to all, involving people who have actual experience of the issues, from all impairment groups, in creating and running the system as a whole.
  5. Include access to free advice and support. Make sure people can access support to speak up, be heard or make a complaint.

Second, a rich basis for identifying areas of potential consensus was generated. Commissioners devised a coding framework to analyse responses, from which developed a series of briefing papers followed by an iterative process drilling down to core issues and ideas.

The result is a series of proposals which are now out for public consultation (the deadline for responses is 31 October 2020). As noted above, the proposals offer a hugely simplified system including a Guaranteed Decent Income, Child Benefit as a main pillar and a new start on Disability Benefit. Engagement with the consultation is being promoted in a number of ways, including this encouragement to SPA members to contribute your views.

Given the stark need for a fit for purpose social security system, this is an opportunity to identify and build consensus around a better system. The thoughts and insights of SPA members will be greatly welcomed, using the consultation link.

Michael Orton is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick and Secretary to the Commission on Social Security. He is on Twitter @MichaelOrton9


Disclaimer: All our blogs are the views of the author and not the SPA.