Conference report: Social Policy Association Conference 2014

at the University of Sheffield

Monday, 14th to Wednesday, 16th July. 2014

Social Policy Confronting Change: Resistance, Resilience and Radicalism.

More than 250 delegates attended the annual SPA conference, returning for its second year in Sheffield. Although most hailed from the UK, there was a substantial minority who came from overseas, from Maynouth, Cork, Lisbon, Bologna, Rotterdam, Rhodes, Toronto, Illinois, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong, Monash, Sydney, Jindal, Ashkelon and Cape, among other places.

The SPA is always a friendly conference, and this was no different. It has usually been characterised by papers that report the results of academics’ separate and often narrowly focussed research projects, often into the adverse effects of some aspect of current social policy on the population. Thus it is reactive, and divided. I have often wished that the conference as a whole would take a stand against government policy, and give a clear message to governments as to the sort of policies that this body would advocate. Given the dire, and worsening, condition of the welfare state as it is slowly (or sometimes quickly) being dismantled in front of our eyes, it is not surprising that a little more advocacy has crept into the papers this year, and particularly in the plenaries.

Anna Coote has had experience of advocacy in her former roles, and is now Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation. Her plenary paper entitled ‘Towards a New Social Settlement: People, Planet and Economy’ argues that ‘society and environment are profoundly linked and interdependent, and that the economy should serve the interests of both, rather than the other way around. Planning for a socially just and more equal society should be anchored in this understanding.’ She outlined the development of the NEF’s ideas in its forthcoming document with the same title, due out later this year.

Fiona Williams’ paper, ‘The Commons of Welfare: activism, critique and criticality in Social Policy’, drew out ‘some of the key methods and insights to have emerged from … various grass-roots social justice activism, social movements and contestation, … since the 1980s. … it focused on two areas: first, the notion of ‘crisis’, and second, that aspect of critical analysis that goes beyond critique to criticality… to examine how far existing voices and practices of resistance allow imagination of different futures, and to ask what would be the material and ethical bases of those futures (for social policy) … How are we to live our lives?’

There was a special plenary, in which Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York, held us spell-bound, as without any visual aids to distract us, she recalled the many and varied stages and events that have been used to sweep away the protection for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, in the race towards neo-liberalism in the USA.

In the fourth and last plenary session, in his talk entitled ‘Confronting Demographic Change: Why we need a Social Policy on Ageing’, Alan Walker argued that the ‘media and policy responses to ageing are framed within a highly restrictive public burden ideology, which closes down debates about alternative approaches.’ Drawing on research from the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme, he made a convincing case for changing the emphasis of public policy towards ‘Active Ageing’, a programme of preventative measures to ensure that the best physical, mental and emotional health is maintained throughout life, starting with investment before birth for pregnant mothers.

There were eight parallel sessions in which over 170 papers were presented. Out of many interesting papers, three sessions have stuck in my mind as being of special interest. Michael Hill, in his paper ‘The Politics of Austerity’, distinguished between austerity as applied to government, in which the government has to live within its own means, and government requiring austerity of citizens, and examined them from a historical point of view. In ‘Austerity: more than the sum of its parts’, Kevin Farnsworth and Zoe Irving distinguished between the causes of the recession starting in 2008, and the policy response chosen by governments – that of ‘austerity’ – comprising cuts in public expenditure, a freeze in benefits, and real wage reductions in the public sector.

Ian Gough’s paper, ‘Climate Change and Sustainable Welfare: An argument for the Centrality of Human Needs’, neatly fitted in with Anna Coote’s earlier plenary. In a separate paper, ‘Time and Sustainability: the Impact of a Shorter Working Week’, Anna examined in detail one aspect of her New Social Settlement, in which time, money, consumer goods and planetary boundaries would be interdependent. She discussed the distribution of paid and unpaid time – across the day for individuals, and between social groups, and their effect on health and social well-being. Shorter, more flexible hours of paid work could lead to ‘a more equal and environmentally sustainable distribution of paid and unpaid time’.

In the last paper session of the conference, three excellent papers looked at different aspects of poverty. Rita Griffiths’ ‘No love on the dole: Do UK means-tested welfare benefits discourage two parent families?’ suggested that they did have an impact on household formation. ‘”Cultures of Worklessness”, Cross-Generational Inequality & the Reproduction (and deepening) of Class Disadvantage’, by Robert MacDonald and Tracy Shildrick could find no evidence for the existence of ‘families where three generations have never worked’, nor for a ‘culture of worklessness’, and yet there is still a persistence of long-term unemployment and poverty experienced across generations of the same families, which can be better explained by a failure of the systems of education and training. Fran Bennett’s ‘Gender and Poverty: Inside the Household and Across the Life Course’ distinguishes between gender inequalities and gender poverty, although they can be related. ‘Hidden poverty’ may exist, where individuals are financially dependent within couple households, and thus are at risk of future poverty. Analyses must look both within the household and across the life course. The paper critically investigates the potential of some methodological approaches to achieve this more comprehensive and nuanced exploration of the links between gender and poverty. An independent income could enable currently financially dependent individuals to negotiate a fairer relationship with their partners.

At the AGM, it was agreed that the next SPA conference will be hosted by the University of Ulster at Belfast Metropolitan College in the famous ‘Titanic Quarter’ of Belfast, 6-8 July 2015, and again in 2016.

The SPA conference benefited from glorious sunny weather, which helped to lift spirits in the face of the effects of the government’s savage social policy, of which we are all so much aware in our work.