Social Policies and Social Control: New perspectives on the ‘not-so-big’ society, by Malcolm Harrison and Teela Sanders (eds)

Policy Press, 2014, xi + 272 pp, hbk, 1 44731 074 7, £70

The agenda is this:

Politicians frequently claim to support liberty and empowerment. Yet governments and political leaders often advocate policies that restrict citizens or seek to persuade them strongly in specific directions. (p.3)

The authors, mainly from the University of Leeds, discuss how UK governments ‘incentivise, discipline or “nudge” populations’ (p.4) in relation to a variety of social policy fields: social security, lone parents, employment, refugees, communities, education, health and social care, drugs, and social housing.

The introductory first chapter asks about the roots of increasing government control – and of increasing press and popular demand for such control – and identifies the tax and social security field as particularly prone to politically-driven control measures applied to the already disadvantaged, and to positive incentivisation for the already advantaged. This theme is pursued in the second chapter, in which Harrison and Hemingway conclude that control mechanisms developed during the 1990s are sufficiently distinctive to require us to speak of a ‘new behaviourism’. In relation to disability, these authors identify ‘the growing governmental preference for incentivising or enforcing behaviour change rather than tackling barriers and economic disadvantage. The capacity to increase surveillance and restriction rests in part on resourcing traditions linked to top-down selectivist methods constructed around individualised concepts of disablement rather than universalistic rights’ (p.37) – and the same point could have been made in relation to lone parents and to people who are sick or without employment. Chapter 3 shows how the concept of ‘vulnerability’ has been employed to justify regulatory practices and not as an indicator of where greater social justice is required.

Then follow the chapters that tackle particular policy fields. Of particular interest to readers of this Newsletter will be chapter 4 on ‘Welfare reform and the valorisation of work: is work really the best form of welfare?’ The author recognises that employment certainly can provide a route out of poverty, criminality, and drug dependency, but rightly identifies a significant difference between the kind of employment incentive represented by the National Minimum Wage and the kind of benefits disincentive represented by sanctions. The ‘strivers and shirkers’ discourse is criticised for not recognising that we are all welfare dependents, and for devaluing care and voluntary work. On Universal Credit: ‘commentators have questioned whether the reforms will actually increase incentives, reduce poverty, or deliver the “holy grail” of benefit simplification’ (p.62).

Also of particular interest will be chapter 10, ‘Nudged into employment: lone parents and welfare reform’, where current policies are criticised for individualising social risks rather than providing a ‘safety net in order to mitigate against the risks of a lack of supply of jobs’ (p.162). The author, Laura Davies, suggests that what is required is improvement in ‘the availability of decent work, … employment sustainability, and job retention’ (p.165), which will be far from easy in a future labour market characterised by precarious and insecure employment ( – Guy Standing’s The Precariat is referenced). In chapter 11 Mark Monaghan shows how incentives to take employment (or rather, disincentives to stay on benefits), alongside a requirement to engage with drug treatment programmes, are expected to deliver recovery from drug dependency. He questions whether this is realistic in the context of the low-paid and low-quality jobs on offer to most people with drug dependency histories.

In her concluding remarks, Teela Sanders finds that government control over behaviour results in social exclusion, that dependency is now assumed to be potentially reprehensible, and that ‘rather than bringing greater freedoms as advocates claim, economic liberal discourses have underpinned a major downward shift in aspects of household empowerment that were once linked especially to possibilities for accessing common resources’ (p.208). Far from a ‘big society’ picking up the pieces, we now have a ‘not-so-big society’ characterised by voluntary organisations with far too few human and financial resources to fulfil the increasingly unmet needs of vulnerable people, and by civil society institutions more fragmented, less empowering, and less inclusive of the poor.

This is a depressing book as it thoroughly exposes a trajectory of disempowerment that appears to be unquestioned by any of our main political parties. More positively, the book is a wake-up call, although unfortunately as the book stands it offers us little to wake up for. What we need now – perhaps from the same authors – is a study of alternative empowering social policies that would be feasible in the situation in which the UK finds itself. The individual empowerment and variety of incentives related to a Citizen’s Income (and the way in which it dispenses with sanctions) should mean that a Citizen’s Income would be at the heart of empowerment strategy required.