Making Social Policy Work, by John Hills, Julian Le Grand and David Piachaud

Policy Press, 2007, ix + 286 pp, pbk, 1 86134 957 6, £25, hbk, 1 86134 958 3, £65

This Festschrift for Howard Glennerster is about the ‘historical development and practical implementation of policy in key areas of social concern’, and it asks the questions: ‘How [can we] make social policy work? How can policies be designed so as to achieve the aims of government in the social arena? How can these policies be implemented in such a way [that they] promote the desired aims but without damaging other aims that we might wish to pursue? Can we ensure that social policies have only those consequences that are intended?’ (p.1)

There is a wonderful variety of chapters. Jose Harris offers an interesting history of the welfare state (though it’s a bit confusing to call insurance benefits ‘universalist’, and strange not to notice that Child Benefit really is universalist); Tania Burchardt asks what welfare is for, and commends a ‘capability’ approach which asks what welfare provision enables people ‘to be and do’ (p.45); Jane Lewis finds that governments no longer privilege particular family forms but rather work with today’s diversity of forms; Anne West studies schools and their funding and Nicholas Barr the funding of higher education; Julian Le Grand explores quasi-markets in healthcare and Martin Knapp choice and control in social care; and Anne Power studies neighbourhood renewal and social integration.

Of particular interest to readers of this Newsletter will be David Piachaud’s chapter ‘The restructuring of redistribution’ in which he studies how ‘the impact of government through benefits and taxes on the distribution of net money incomes has changed since 1997’ (p.199). He discusses such changes as tax credits and rightly decides that the redistributive effects of both taxation and social security need to be studied together. He discusses the decrease in the number of people facing marginal deduction rates of over 70% and the increase in the number facing marginal deduction rates of over 60%, and he compares the redistributive effectiveness of the system now with that in 1997 by comparing the numbers taken out of poverty by the tax and benefits systems both today and then. He concludes that restructuring since 1997 has been effective but that there is still a long way to go – and that now ‘the entire system is mightily confused’ and ‘many more now gain very little from extra earnings due to high marginal tax [i.e. deduction] rates’ (p.215).

After this, John Hills studies ‘pensions, public opinion and policy’ and suggests that the compromises recently enshrined in legislation will need to be constantly explained to the public; and Tony Travers studies how social services resources are distributed.

This book is by academics, so, as we would expect, the answer to the question ‘How [can we] make social policy work?’ has more to do with theoretical outcomes than with why so many people can’t face filling in tax credits application forms (no, not ‘form’: ‘book’). People are deeply alienated from the system by recurrent errors and draconian demands for repayment of overpayments which weren’t their fault, and all of this makes us ask serious questions about whether it’s possible to make the current system work.

This is an informative book as far as it goes. We now need a book by people who know how the system works on the ground, and how it doesn’t work. ‘Making it work’ means making it work in practice for everyone involved in it.