Poor Relief or Poor Deal? The Social Fund, Safety Nets and Social Security, by Trevor Buck and Roger S. Smith (eds.)

Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003, 250 pp., hb., 0 7546 3335 7, £45.00. Order this book

The book opens with four chapters on the historical and political context. First comes a brief history of lump sum and emergency payments, from the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, through Exceptional Needs Payments and Single Payments, to the Social Fund of 1988. This is followed by a comparative chapter on Belgium’s decentralised system of single payments (with its consequent arbitrariness). In the third chapter Gary Craig sees the Social Fund as “a formal, though tacit, acknowledgement that social assistance benefit levels are inadequate” (p.54), and (because loans from the fund have to be repaid) as a means of exacerbating poverty. Finally in this section Roger Smith, in a chapter on ‘Politics, Social Justice and the Social Fund’, sees a greater reliance on loans as a (not very successful) attempt at social inclusion – and the continuing existence of grants as a means of creating a class of people who will never be included.

Part 2 is about how the provision actually works. Roger Smith finds that “far from meeting need and promoting social inclusion, [the Social Fund’s] administration and delivery work to compound feelings of dependency and inadequacy amongst those who seek help from the state when they are in difficulty” (p.101); Mike Rowe suggests that “if the outcome of an application can be ….. apparently random, it contributes to ‘learned helplessness’ in applicants” (p.116); Jacqueline Davidson compares Holland (where single payment administration is part of a ‘welfare to work’ strategy) and the UK (where it isn’t); and Trevor Buck studies the decision review function of Social Fund administration and finds characteristics which might be useful if reform ever occurs.

The third section of the book is on ‘Prospects for Reform’. Sharon Collard evaluates recent reforms of the loan scheme, and makes recommendations for further change; Beth Lakhani recommends a new system of grants for particular purposes to help the government to meet its targets for the reduction of child poverty; Anne Daguerre and Corinne Nativel discuss France’s recent use of a residualist welfare model and its consequent convergence with the UK’s system; and the editors contribute a final chapter summarising what they see as the important structural and administrative issues and suggesting criteria for reform: any new scheme must, in their view, be an “effective contribution to the alleviation of poverty” (p.212).

This book provides much useful information and much food for thought for anyone interested in the reform of benefits systems. Even substantial reform based on universal benefits will require residual means-tested benefits, and such provision will need to be implemented in such a way that its effects do not conflict with the aims of the reform. This well-researched book will help policy planners to achieve such an implementation.