Peter Beresford, All our Welfare

Peter Beresford, All our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy, Policy Press, 2016, x + 445 pp, 1 44732 893 3, hbk, £75, 1 44732 894 0, pbk, £23.99

One of the most engaging characteristics of this book is the text boxes containing quotes from members of the author’s extended family: ‘The strength of the welfare state was that it was universal … Charlie Croft, Brother-in-law’ (p. 4). Another is the frequent expression of the author’s own engagement with and feelings about the welfare state.

The first part of the book studies the history and present characteristics of the welfare state. The introductory chapter – largely based on Beresford’s own lived experience – both affirms the ‘values and principles underpinning the welfare state’ and recognises that sometimes the welfare state does not act according to those principles. Chapters 2 to 6 chart the history of social policy ( – ‘social policy’ as implemented policy) from the Poor Law to the present day, and also explore public attitudes towards the welfare state: by 1956, National Insurance and National Assistance (means-tested benefits) were the least popular part of it (p. 107). Beresford’s verdict on more recent attacks from the Right is that they have been easy to implement because the population as a whole has never been properly engaged in the construction of the welfare state; and in chapter 7 this verdict is applied in detail to the Conservative governments of the period 1979 to 1997: ‘growing inequality, poverty, division, want and social problems – the conditions which ironically provided the impetus for the creation of and popular support for the welfare state’ (p. 140). At the end of the first part of the book, chapter 8 explores the relationship between social policy as implemented policy and social policy as an academic discipline, and suggests that both the Fabian and neoliberal traditions were important roots of the nonparticipative and paternalistic nature of the UK’s welfare state.

The second part of the book looks to the future. It charts increasing involvement of service users in service provision ( – a development not sufficiently recognised by the social policy academy); explores emerging new principles – ‘nothing about us without us’, and a rights-based approach rather than a needs-based one; discusses user-based research methods; and shows how participative innovations have been subverted. Chapters 13 and 14 offer the outlines of a new welfare policy for the twenty-first century: self-defined needs, and person-centred practice, with economic policy serving the individual’s wellbeing rather than the other way round. Beresford concludes that if change is to occur then both staff and service users need to be in control.

While Beresford recognises that new kinds of organisation can be essential if change is to occur, he perhaps pays too little attention to the social and economic infrastructure that will best undergird the kind of participative welfare state that he wants to see. For instance: he knows that we need ‘a benefits system and a labour market … based on a notion of work and economy that support, rather than challenge our well-being … .’ (p. 280): but there is no discussion of the kind of income maintenance system that might best facilitate increased participation in society, the economy, and the welfare state. A Citizen’s Income would do nicely, as it would provide a platform of financial security on which to build, and a greater ability to take new decisions in relation to the employment market and engagement in civil society.

Beresford’s book has the character of its message: participation. The ubiquity of personal experience makes it a really engaging book to read. I can’t resist repeating one of the text boxes:

In the late 1980s, when I, my partner Suzy and our children were still living on poverty-level unemployment benefits, we bumped into the social policy academic Peter Townsend … He … asked us how things were with us, and I briefly told him that we were having a struggle. He replied, with no apparent sense of incongruity, that he understood, as his last two or three research grant applications had been unsuccessful. … The author. (p. 155)