Sally Witcher, Inclusive Equality: A vision for social justice

Sally Witcher, Inclusive Equality: A vision for social justice, Policy Press, 2015, 1 44730 004 5, pbk, x + 238 pp, £24.99

This is a ‘big picture’ book: a brave attempt by a former Director of the Child Poverty Action Group to connect together different academic disciplines (and particularly political economy, sociology, and social policy) in order to construct a vision for social justice. Here is perhaps the defining feature of the book: that it is an attempt at construction. There is no shortage of books of analysis of the state of our society, and particularly of its inequality and its injustice: but books that attempt something more positive are harder to find. Sally Witcher’s book is therefore a very welcome contribution.

The introduction suggests that a cohesive society that maximises people’s wellbeing will be one characterised by an inclusive equality; the second chapter moves on from Amartya Sen’s and John Rawls’ approaches by insisting that inclusive democracy and a variety of equalities are required if we are to establish social justice; chapter 3 understands poverty as a variety of different deprivations, and not just as a deprivation of financial resources; chapter 4 highlights the importance of mutual recognition of our different identities; the fifth chapter identifies opportunity to participate in society’s decision-making as the way to abolish social exclusion; chapter 6 shows how inclusive policy processes, which would enable individuals to cross boundaries between social networks, could work out in the context of healthcare policy; and the seventh chapter encourages the co-production of services and widespread involvement in policy design. The short concluding chapter becomes more polemical, and compares the positive vision offered by the book with our current direction of travel towards an atomised and marketised society.

The author is perhaps wise to have restricted to healthcare policy a discussion of how her broad approach might work out in practice: but one of the unrecognised consequences of this restriction is that the structure of healthcare policy might have influenced the broad approach. Healthcare is delivered through a wide variety of interrelated institutions: general practices, hospitals, local authority social service departments, privately run nursing homes, residential care homes, and so on: and, because everyone’s healthcare needs are different, constant complex detailed negotiation between a wide variety of individuals and institutions is an inevitable characteristic of healthcare provision. The inclusive equality developed in Witcher’s book is designed to deliver social justice in precisely this kind of situation.

The question that those of us working in different social policy fields are left with is this: Is there anything in this approach that we might be able to transfer to different social policy fields? Take the benefits system: This provides money and not personal care; and it has to treat everyone the same, and so needs to be organised nationally (or perhaps locally if the benefits relate to local conditions). Individual negotiation is restricted to the most stigmatising parts of the service: for instance, a claimant might attempt to persuade a benefits officer that the man living in her household is her lodger and that she is not cohabiting with him. There is an excellent case for banishing all scope for bureaucratic interference in people’s lives, and therefore for banishing all scope for such negotiation. Universal and unconditional benefits would offer significant advantages over conditional benefits: and such unconditional benefits are at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum to responsive healthcare in terms of recipient involvement in decision-making. In the benefits field, the benefits most likely to secure inclusive equality are those that would cohere least well with the approach suggested in this book.

But having said that: this is a most important book. By taking a particular social field and asking how best to secure inclusive equality within it, the author encourages all of us involved in social policy to study the options available in our own policy fields, and to ask the question: How in this particular social policy field can we ensure greater inclusive equality? In the benefits field, the answer is clear: universal benefits, in the context of which recipients will be making no decisions at all.