Social Policy: Theory and Practice, by Paul Spicker

Policy Press, 2014, xii + 499 pp, 1 4473 1609 1, hbk, £70, 1 4473 1610 7, pbk, £23.99

This third edition of Paul Spicker’s Social Policy combines updated material from two previous books: Social Policy: Themes and approaches, and Policy Analysis for Practice. The subtitle of the new edition of Social Policy, Theory and practice, is accurate. As Spicker puts it: ‘Social policy has always been study for a purpose’ (p.3).

The book is organised in four parts: a study of society (welfare, inequalities, social problems and responses to them, needs, and indicators), policy (how policy-making works, models of welfare, principles and values, strategies, policy analysis), the organisation and delivery of welfare (welfare sectors, public services and bureaucracies, service delivery, recipients, administration), and methods and approaches (research, evidence, application). The book is comprehensive and is an excellent resource for lecturers, students, and researchers. The guide to sources, the glossary, and the indexes, add to the book’s usefulness (although the index might have employed additional subentries).

The volume is not a detailed discussion of particular social policy fields. For that, the reader will need to refer to more specialised volumes. What this book does offer is a general education in how to study social policy in order to provide a context for detailed study of particular fields – and sometimes the text boxes provide illustrations of that process. So, for instance, a section on ‘universality’ is followed by a description of Liberia’s health care system.

One very good reason for not arranging the book into different social policy fields is, as Spicker makes clear in relation to poverty (p.222), that the different fields are all connected. For instance: any relevant strategy to improve a population’s health will need to provide for adequate income, good healthcare, high quality housing, and reliable sanitation.

The book raises some interesting questions for those of us interested in the reform of the benefits system – for instance: Should payment of a universal benefit be paid automatically, or is it important to enable people to exercise choice, and therefore to require them to make a claim for the benefit? (p.333). The book also provides some important arguments for universal benefits:

The argument for universality is the argument against selective approaches: the process of selection is inefficient, inequitable, difficult to administer, and it fails to reach people. By contrast, universal social provision can reach everyone, on the same terms. The degree of uniformity simplifies administration … . But there are also positive reasons for universality. One is the view that everyone has basic needs, and those needs can often be supplied more simply and effectively through general provision to everyone. … Second, universality has been seen as a way of establishing a different kind of society – one in which every citizen has a right to basic services, and the basic texture and pattern of social life is one in which people do not suffer unjustifiable disadvantages. (pp.218-9)

Social Policy: Theory and practice comes highly recommended as a thorough and stimulating introduction to the field.