How Social Security Works: An introduction to benefits in Britain, by Paul Spicker

Policy Press, 2011, xii + 284 pp, hbk 1847428110, £65, pbk, 1847428103, £23.99

This well-organised book is what it says it is: an ‘introduction’ to the ‘design, management, operation and delivery of benefits’ (p.ix). Its careful structure enables Spicker to bring a sense of order to a system which he recognises to be ‘baffling’ (p.x), though he himself admits that ‘there is a limit to how clear it is possible to make things clear – the structure of benefits does not make sense’ (p.x). A further problem identified is the constant and rapid change from which the system suffers, and this reviewer can empathise with Spicker’s statement that his ‘head is cluttered with old rules and regulations dating back through the last thirty-five years’ (p.xi).

The first part of the book asks ‘What is social security?’ and suggests that ‘there is much more to social security than the relief of poverty’ (p.10). The second part details the development of the system from the Poor Law to the present day, and asks whether the new Universal Credit will in practice be a unified benefit. The third part discusses different categories of benefits (National Insurance, means-tested, non-contributory, discretionary, and universal), how claims are processed, and take-up levels. Part IV debates life’s contingencies (retirement, illness, disability, children, parenthood, lone parenthood, unemployment, and poverty); and the fifth covers such issues as cost, targeting, fraud, the meaning and measurement of poverty, and redistribution. A final chapter compares Britain’s system with those of other countries. A particularly interesting chapter is that on complexity in which Spicker concludes that complexity matters when it leads to the system ‘failing to respond to the changing conditions of people in complex circumstances … We cannot ask claimants to live simpler, more orderly lives’. Part of the answer is to address the issues of ‘conditionality, administrative rules and administrative procedures’ (p.145).

Chapter 12 on ‘Universal benefits’ starts with an argument as simple as the benefits themselves:

The general arguments for universality … include basic rights, simplicity and effectiveness. The central criticism of universal benefits is that they spread resources too widely: if benefits are going to everyone, then either they will be very costly, or they will have to be set at very low levels. This dilemma can be avoided. One option is that universal benefits can be reclaimed through the tax system – a process referred to as ‘clawback’. This has an effect similar to means testing, with two important differences: first, that everyone receives the benefit, and second, that the examination of means is also done for everyone. (p.117)

Then follow a history and discussion of Child Benefit, a description of New Zealand’s universal pension, and a discussion of the Coalition Government’s current consideration of a citizen’s pension for the UK. The chapter concludes with an intelligent and nuanced debate of a Citizen’s Income and with another encomium to Child Benefit:

What Child Benefit offers is a modest but secure element of a family’s general income, something that is fairly predictable and secure. It is the only element of income that seems to continue to function reliably in situations where people are moving in and out of work or where their income is unstable and unpredictable. That seems to me something which is valuable and important, and the principle could be more generally extended. (p.124).

In his concluding ‘Postscript: Social Security: a programme for reform’, Spicker’s first recommendation is: ‘extending the scope and value of less conditional benefits, like Child Benefit, which also helps to stabilise the income during transitions’ (p.274); and the first suggestion in a list of ideas for ‘reducing complexity, error and administrative confusion’ is ‘replacing some claims with automatic payments’ (p.274).

Spicker doesn’t put it like this, but it would be perfectly fair to describe his book as a sustained argument for a partial Citizen’s Income.