Liam Foster, Anne Brunton, Chris Deeming and Tina Haux (eds), In Defence of Welfare 2, Policy Press, in association with the Social Policy Association, 2015, 1 4473 2792 9, pbk, 177 pp, £10 (available free online )
Before the 2010 General Election the Social Policy Association published In Defence of Welfare: a review of the social policy developments of the preceding parliament. The current volume was published before the recent General Election with the same purpose. It contains nearly fifty short essays on a wide variety of aspects of social policy, divided into six categories: What’s the point of welfare; Impact of welfare reforms; Welfare provision – core services; Welfare beyond the state; Challenges to welfare; and Looking Ahead. All of the essays are by experts in the relevant fields, they are up to date, and they are of high quality. The verdict of the essays is almost unremittingly negative in relation to the previous government’s social policy record. This is understandable, because food banks get a mention in more than a quarter of the essays, benefits sanctions and caps and the bedroom tax appear almost as often, and the Government didn’t even seem to be listening to informed right wing opinion, as Ian Cole and Ryan Powell point out in their contribution on housing: but the risk attached to the unremittingly negative tone is that a future Conservative government (which we now know we have) will be increasingly disinclined to listen to social policy expertise.
A somewhat different approach is taken by Robert Page, whose essay attempts an objective understanding of what he calls the ‘progressive neo-liberal conservative agenda’ (p.52) – although some would no doubt question the inclusion of ‘progressive’ in that description. It now looks even more likely that this will become the ‘dominant welfare narrative of the contemporary era’ (p.54), and if the social policy profession can’t learn to work with it then it will find itself increasingly marginal to social policy decision-making. The social policy evaluation that we shall require will be the kind offered by Liam Foster and Jay Ginn. Their analysis of the Single Tier State Pension (STP) and other pension changes is that there will be some useful long term effects ( – there will be a greater incentive to save for retirement, and the system will be less complex than it is now), but that the changes will not solve some important problems, such as pensioner inequality. The policies on which the social policy community will need to concentrate are those that will deliver genuinely progressive outcomes but that will also cohere with a neo-liberal ideology. The STP is clearly a good example of this. Provision that is universal, or more nearly universal than the current provision, has a good claim to neo-liberal conservative interest because of its greater economic and administrative efficiency. It would also be genuinely ‘progressive’. Getting behind increased universal provision in social security and other policy fields is something that social policy academics and practitioners across the political spectrum should be able to agree on. Other important suggestions are that of Yates and Lockley in their essay on the increasingly computerised interface between the Government and the public: that the academic community needs to ‘take heed of the policies and practices that can be implemented through technology solutions’ (p.160); and that of Crosby and Price, that rather than providing short-term survival, the social security system should ‘prevent socio-economic insecurity and promote opportunity’ (p.170). Between them, these essays suggest that easily-computerisable universal benefits should be serious policy options both for neo-liberal governments and for the social policy community.
The editors are to be congratulated for bringing together such a feast of well informed, concise and relevant essays. The collection should be on the reading list of every minister in the new government.