We need a shift in priorities to make welfare reform truly meaningful

If we are to achieve a welfare system that meets the demands of the 21st century, then radical action, and a shift in priorities is required to make reforms truly meaningful.

If we are to achieve a welfare system that meets the demands of the 21st century, then radical action, and a shift in priorities is required to make reforms truly meaningful. Furthermore, without the introduction of the higher Living Wage to replace the National Minimum Wage as the basic hourly rate, any future welfare reforms will be merely “a sticking-plaster on economic policy”.

These are the conclusions of Hilary Cottam, co-founder of Participle, an organisation which has been working with local authorities and welfare recipients across the UK to rethink, scale, and redesign services on the frontline.

Speaking at a meeting of the New Political Economy Network earlier this week, Cottam said that the next stage in the development of “social security” must prioritise strengthening social relationships and integration, and the long-existing debate surrounding welfare had “missed the point” by allowing economics to define it, rather than the developmental, “human” side of the coin.

She said:

“Over the last ten or fifteen years we have seen the welfare state expanding very fast to deal with problems in the economic paradigms; so, increasing capital surplus, decreasing the real level of wages, the resulting increase in inequalities – and so we have seen this increasingly complex rise of the services on offer, and in-work benefits.”

She remarked that the notion of the welfare state as supportive of capital redistribution and collective experience was at odds with its operation, which she described as “extremely disempowering”, and hugely problematic “if people are meant to meet their everyday needs through the welfare state”.

Cottam added:

“Social re-balancing through welfare is very problematic for everybody who’s receiving it, because as we perceive the welfare state from working on it, it is very paternalistic, it is very energy-sapping, and it is very undermining. And so there is this process, for whatever you are receiving, of constant assessment, of constant referrals, and constant monitoring, which take up your time and are emotionally draining.”

To illustrate her points, Cottam drew on the findings of LIFE, a Participle collaboration with Swindon borough council which has spent the last two years working with families in “constant crisis”, of which Cottam believes there are more than 100,000 in the UK.

LIFE’s approach unites workers with willing families on “the underbelly of capitalism”, who are dealing with complex problems, along with unemployment, to enable a family-led route to a better life. At present, Cottam said:

“The welfare state is very good at gripping people, holding them, often not letting them fall any further down, but not producing any real change.”

By contrast, the LIFE project has shown that Participle’s vision of a reciprocal or “relational” welfare system is effective in both “human” and economic terms.

LIFE families begin by interviewing LIFE-trained workers to select the members of their ‘team’ who will then go on to work closely with each member of the family to work through problems, discover and develop personal aspirations, and strengthen familial and social ties. All this goes towards building the confidence and capability of families, with long-lasting impact because they have led the change themselves; the process is mutually beneficial.

Cottam said:

“It takes an average of two years for families to move from crisis to stability with us. Obviously it’s not linear, families go forwards and backwards, there are very complicated inter-generational issues.

“But the live team, who are selected by the families, are existing frontline workers, so I think what is really important is that the same workers are working in a different structure with real support, and are allowed to spend 80% of their time with the families on real work, are supporting bringing about really radical change.”

Resetting this ratio of hands-on time to bureaucracy in the welfare system is paramount. In Swindon, Participle discovered that “86 per cent of the social worker’s time is currently spent filling out forms, and discussing those forms with their colleagues”. Yet what Cottam described as “much, much more shocking” was that the remaining 14 per cent of time social workers spent with the families or individuals “was not actually spent in any way with them developmentally”, and was instead a continuation of the administrative aspect, which is:

“…of course… very difficult for both the families and the workers.”

Such problems, said Cottam, reflect a “much bigger breakdown” of the relationship between the state and the citizen, where “families don’t feel properly listened to or understood”.

The Government needs to champion a well-rounded, systemic approach to enabling welfare recipients to progress, for a more meaningful investment of public sector money, rather than one based on providing separate services which compartmentalise issues and add to administrative costs. This is about having “a vision about where we think we are trying to get to”, said Cottam, “rather than the problems we are trying to manage.

She concluded:

“It would be a completely different debate if we did that.”

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.