Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: welfare reform (page 1 of 2)

Why Welfare Reform is Wicked

The term welfare reform might naturally suggest improvements in welfare systems. However the term is usually, although not always, used by those who have a negative view of the welfare state and who propose policies to reduce the level of welfare provision. A cynic might argue that the word ‘reform’ has been chosen precisely because it disguises their real intentions and implies an improvement that doesn’t exist. However, critics of the welfare state do believe that cuts to the welfare state are an improvement, by the light of their own theory.

One of the areas upon which critics of the welfare state have placed a great deal of emphasis is the fact that providing income security might reduce our incentive to do paid work, and that this may be damaging to society as a whole or to an individual, who might actually benefit from working. However, plausible as this may sound, it should be noted that countries with high levels of income security, like Denmark, also tend to have low levels of unemployment.

It is also worth noting that the term ‘welfare’ is also ambiguous. The welfare state is best understood as combining a system of income security with systems of education, healthcare, housing and disability support. However often the term ‘welfare’ is associated simply with income security or benefit payments. This may be because income security systems are designed in ways which seem more exclusive and less universal than other systems. For example, in the UK most people benefit from free education, but don’t tend to consider this as part of the welfare system, while fewer people rely on benefits. Moreover, some benefits, say pensions, are universal and people receiving pensions don’t think of themselves as being ‘on benefits.’

So, although the best definition of welfare reform might be as an improvement in welfare systems it seems that the actual definition in practice is very different. Welfare reform in practice involves reducing income security for targeted groups, who are treated as in some way different or less important than the ‘ordinary citizen’ who is encouraged to see their own welfare entitlements as being of a very different kind.

The idea of welfare reform is not only confusing, but so are the actual means used to make the cuts and other changes. Overall I think it is possible to identify 7 different kinds of welfare reform, although in practice some or all of these policies may be mixed together in different ways in different policies:

  1. Direct cuts in income
  2. Increased means-testing by income
  3. Increased means-testing by other factors
  4. Reduced rate of growth in benefits
  5. Reduced eligibility
  6. Increased disadvantage
  7. Increased control for the sake of control

Here are some examples from recent changes in the UK of how welfare reform operates in practice and how it uses these different policies.

A recent example of a direct cut in income is contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 which cuts income for new ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) claimants in the work-related activity group from £103 to £73 per week. This is a major cut in income, however it has been introduced for new claimants, which means existing claimants do not experience the cut and new claimants won’t realise they’ve been ‘cut.’ This is a typical strategy for introducing cuts which aims to reduce likely resistance.

Sometimes cuts are made by increasing the level of means-testing, or in other words, by demanding that people are poor enough to be eligible. For instance the Welfare Reform Act 2012 introduced a year’s time limit for contributory ESA (a non-means-tested benefit) after which people would have to be means-tested for ESA. Note that means-testing has been introduced at both ends of the scale, for instance, people on higher incomes can no longer receive Child Benefit.

Often the word means-testing is used only to refer to reducing a benefit as income increased, however there are other factors which can be taken into account in order to reduce eligibility, for example, savings, housing or your family situation. For instance, an important cut, which targeted disabled people, was the introduction of the bedroom tax. This was another element of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which reduced people’s Housing Benefit if the system decided they had a spare bedroom.

Since 2010 many benefit cuts have been introduced by means of reducing the rate of growth in benefits, by changing indexation or by freezing any increase for a fixed number of years. This seems like a highly technical change, but it actually is the most important change in terms of the overall level of spending. If benefits do not grow with the economy or with average wages then relative poverty will increase and people will feel poorer. Also, if basic living costs increase above the average rate, then people will also be absolutely poorer. This has happened in the UK as housing and heating costs have risen above the general rate of inflation.

The fifth important change is in the eligibility of any benefit. Since 2010 there have been very many changes which ensure that people will no longer be classed as eligible for a particular benefit. Some changes are obvious, more are quite subtle and complex. An obvious change was the closing down of the Independent Living Fund in England, which ended the ability of disabled people to get funds to support their ability to live independently from central government. Changes to ESA and to PIP (Personal Independence Payment) have been connected closely to the use of new assessment regimes, which involve new tests for how disabled someone is and the privatisation of those tests to private agencies who may have less reason to be more humane in their handling of such assessments.

Another important strategy for reducing benefits is to reduce demand, that is to to discourage people applying for benefits that they are entitled to. There are a number of ways in which current approaches to welfare reform seem to rely on this strategy. The negative stigma associated with benefits is already significant, however politicians and government departments have encouraged further stigma and this may be encouraging people to avoid the system altogether. Furthermore, the increased use of sanctions and so-called ‘conditionality’ programmes, like the Work Programme, which demand regular attendance at benefit offices or training centres, can also serve to make the indirect cost of benefits seem too great.

Finally, some kinds of welfare reform seem to be designed simply to exercise control over people who need benefits. For instance the Work Programme, which is supposedly designed to help people get work, has had a poor record helping disabled people into work, and ia itself very expensive. It may be that it’s true purpose is to exercise control over people and to ensure that they have reduced freedom. Similarly the new system of Universal Credit seems an expensive solution for providing income security, but it requires very close monitoring of the weekly activities of people on low incomes. It may be that this kind of social control of people on low incomes is also one of the objectives of welfare reform.

The paradoxical point we’ve reached in the evolution of the welfare state is that those who are bent on destroying the welfare state claim that they want to save it. Their use of the term ‘welfare reform’ has been combined with a range of strategies that have been highly effective:

  1. Seize the centre ground – They claim that they are reforming the welfare state and this claim, while hard to justify, goes largely unchallenged.
  2. Narrow the definition of welfare – They encourage people to think of welfare as something that applies to ‘other people’ not to themselves
  3. Pander to our worst instincts – We’ve accepted lies about benefit fraud and the laziness of people in poverty which are used to fuel prejudice and injustice.
  4. Confuse people with technical mumbo-jumbo – New policies are dressed up in a complex web of meaningless or deceitful acronyms which disguise the true impact of any change.
  5. Act with haste on many different fronts – So much has been done so quickly that people don’t know what to look at next and as they try to fight the next injustice they must accept the last one as a battle lost.
  6. Scorn all criticism – Anyone, whether they be a vicar, a disabled person, an academic or the leader of the Labour Party, who dares to suggest that any of this is wrong is treated as a fool.

The UK is currently in the midst of another General Election, called because Theresa May wants to cash in her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ winnings. Unlike the 2015 General Election it is some comfort to see that the Labour Party is now clearly opposed to austerity and to this kind of wicked ‘welfare reform.’

The political odds stacked against the Labour Party are horrendous; but I do not see how we can begin to hope for something better unless we’re prepared to be honest about what’s wrong.
Welfare reform has been a wicked failure and we need to somehow find the right language and alternative policies which can reveal, challenge and reverse its impacts.

Is a Pro-Community Welfare State Possible?

In the space of a few days I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two workshops where we explored the question of how to narrow the gap between public services (the official welfare state) and the community. Each event was inspiring, with stories of exciting innovations that demonstrate the power of community action and the ability of the state, sometimes with a little help, to act as an agent for positive social change. There is a clear appetite for a new settlement, a new kind of pro-community welfare state, one which works in harmony with its citizens, not against them.

Now I know that for many fellow campaigners against the UK’s austerity policies even to discuss these ideas is to move dangerously close to the Big Society Bullshit that has been used as a screen by Government to disguise more than six years of cuts, stigma and increasing inequality. Some believe that the old welfare state was just fine, and that we must go back to the 1945 system; others recognise that all was not perfect, but think that any criticism of the old system, at this time, just provides dangerous ammunition for the new barbarians.

I certainly have some sympathy with both positions. The old welfare system had many virtues which we have lost sight of, including a much greater faith in the ability of officials in the welfare system to make sensible decisions, at a local level. Much of this freedom and flexibility has disappeared as Whitehall has taken over the ‘management’ of the welfare state. I also recognise that the Coalition Government did a brilliant job of covering its tracks. For every vicious cut they imposed there was some wacky new programme (usually funded by the Cabinet Office) that was used to grab headlines and scatter glitter over gaping wounds. We live in a cynical age.

But I don’t think we can hold back from considering some of the fundamental flaws in how the welfare state has evolved over the past few decades. It is particularly important to consider some of the deeper factors, which are much harder to see, but which not only damage the welfare state but also enable the Big Society Bullshit to gain credibility.

The best lies are wrapped around a small nugget of truth, and repeated lies cannot be defeated unless you can share some deeper, stronger and more hopeful truth.

To begin with I think it’s important to remember why we need the welfare state. The welfare state is a compensatory mechanisms that helps us deal with two kinds of inequality: inequality of wealth (income and assets) and inequality of need (disability, illness and age). The more equal a society is in wealth then the less you need systems of benefits, taxes and social housing to rebalance things. However, even if wealth were equal you would still need to deal with the fact that some people will also need further help which they cannot get on their own.

Now it is important to note that this second problem is also linked to how willing people are to do what is right without payment. Inequality of need is no problem in a community that naturally organises itself to meet those extra needs; however in a society where doctors, nurses and social workers want to be paid, and to be paid well, for using expert skills then inequality of need will also require additional welfare systems to ensure these important additional needs are also met.

So the purpose of the welfare state is to compensate, not just for inequality, but also for the insecurity that comes from knowing that you might have needs, and that nobody will be willing to help you meet them without payment.

Now, in the way of a thought experiment, let us imagine that you are the ruler of a community that already has a welfare state; and now imagine that (for some strange reason) you want to destroy the welfare system, but in a way that people won’t notice. Here are some strategies you could use:

  1. Forget about the importance of inequality, spend less on making the poor less poor, but spend more on services instead. In this way public spending will remain high, but inequality will grow. This is what the UK has done, spending about 50% less on poverty now than it did in 1977. In this way, fundamental needs will grow but the system will appear unable to help them. This helps to undermine the whole system.
  2. Encourage inequality within public services themselves. The Chief Executive of the NHS is paid about £200,000 – 50 times more than the poorest 10% of UK citizens who live on about £4,000 per year. Charity chiefs can earn similar amounts (e.g. £175,000 for the CEO of Mencap). In this way the public and charitable sectors can create the inequality that they are supposed to be there to solve.
  3. Make the poor poorer through hidden taxes. For instance the poorest 10% pay 50% of their income in taxes, meaning that their real income is closer to £2,000 per year (about £40 per week). In this way the poor are tricked into paying the salaries of those who should be helping them.
  4. Then create extra taxes, just for those people who have higher needs. This is called means-testing or charging, and it means that if you have a disability you will only get support if you are very poor or if you are prepared to pay the high ‘disability taxes’ imposed by the adult social care system. For this reason many people opt out of the welfare state and start to believe that that the system only exists for ‘them’ (the poorest, the most unworthy). At the same time the poor have to make themselves even poorer just in order to get vital services.
  5. Associate the welfare state with stigma, control and a sense of unworthiness; in this way people will not want to support it, use it or value it. Spending public money on campaigns which suggest people on benefits might be “benefit thieves” has been a highly successful means of spreading fear and mistrust through the general public. Today people believe benefit fraud is rife, whereas it is actually statistically insignificant.
  6. Pretend that public services are inadequate and will be better managed by private sector companies. This has the double benefit of reducing people’s sense of control and faith in the system, while adding to the inherent inequality of public services (frontline workers salaries are pushed down, profits are sucked out, yet senior public officials can now earn more as ‘commissioners’ rather than providers).
  7. Talk about the need for communities to take back control, for citizens to be empowered and then dismantle any of the remaining systems of support. And here we are today – Big Society Bullshit.

Some of you this may think that this is an unduly critical view of public policy over the past 40 years or so; others may think this is simply a restatement of what many others have been arguing for some time – “It’s the workings of capitalism; it’s the ideology of neoliberalism.”

So I’ll end by considering the question of motivation. Who wants to destroy the welfare state and why?

I asked you to consider how you would destroy the welfare state from within. But personally I find it difficult to believe that most of the politicians and the civil servants responsible for the welfare state have really been trying to destroy the welfare state. (But I may be being naive). In my experience (most of) our rulers want to do the right thing, but they do not understand the systems they control and act in order to gain short-term political advantage. Rationality and wisdom is harder to attain in a position of power.

Nor do I think that, for most of this period, greed and corruption by commercial companies has been the biggest factor in the destruction of the welfare state (although I think things have now changed, and it is certainly a significant factor today).

However I do think that shallow thinking has played its part; but I think that state socialism has been nearly as damaging as the kind of narrow economic liberalism that has now been relabelled as ‘neoliberalism’. It we think of people as merely animals, seeking selfish material benefit, then our thinking about the demands of justice and the organisation of society will be utterly inadequate.

So what are the real driving forces that continue to undermine the welfare state? Here are five poisons that I believe are eating away at the welfare state from within. I do not think they are the only corrosive factors at work, but I think they are important internal factors which should be given more attention as we try to think our way out of our current problems:

1. Centralisation – The more that decisions are taken centrally then the fewer the people involved in those decision, the easier corruption and the easier it is for powerful groups to get advantage over less powerful groups. Elites speak to elites, and after dinner comes the contracts, or the increased salaries for senior staff.

2. Meritocracy – The more hierarchical and the less democratic a society then the easier it is for its rulers to believe that they deserve their power, the money (that they award themselves) and their many other privileges. Meritocracy has always been the ideology of aristocracies – ‘we rule because we are the best’. The fact that the best are now the likes of Donald Trump, rather than the landed gentry, is merely a matter of detail.

3. Inequality – The welfare state exists because of inequality, but progressively it has treated inequality as an unavoidable fact, not as a problem that it was designed to tackle. Inequality make the poorest, not just poor, but weak and demoralised. Inequality makes the rich complacent and heartless. Today the welfare state not only fails to respond to poverty, it makes the problem worse by creating new kinds inequalities within public services themselves.

4. Insecurity – The ongoing dilemma for the welfare state, one that can be witnessed in the writings of Beveridge, Marshall and its other early designers, is the fear that the welfare state will give people too much security and encourage laziness or undue dependence. For this reason income security (unlike health security) has always been viciously means-tested. Strangely, as economic insecurity continues to grow in our increasingly global and technological economy, the state now works to increase this sense of insecurity through damaging changes to the benefits system. This toxic insecurity means that if people are unable to find paid work they are then punished if they volunteer or act like a citizen. The need to keep the poorest under control and feeling insecure eats away at the legitimacy of the system and further enables paternalism or bullying.

5. Individualism – The welfare state has been built around a highly individualised conception of the citizen. Family, friendship and community disappear in its gaze; instead bureaucratically defined solutions are offered to mere individuals. There is no role for collaboration, solidarity or cooperation in the modern welfare state, because all of those things move the centre of power towards community and treat the person as a citizen, not as a unit. Atomised we are weak – and that is how the system seems to want us.

The irony is that creating a good welfare state, or at least a much better welfare state, is quite possible. There is nothing inevitable about the ongoing decline of the welfare state. But in order to reverse the current decline we will need to think much harder about the real and underlying problems built into the current system itself.

Some of these problems cannot be solved by ‘policy’ (encouraging our rulers to have better ideas). The solutions we really need are constitutional, they require rethinking the fundamental structures of our democracy and our society. Unless we are prepared to do that thinking and begin advocating for more fundamental changes the legacy we were handed by our grandparents and great-grandparents will wither and die on our watch.

At The Heart of A New Welfare State

Last week I attended a very interesting meeting in Sheffield. The event was part of the farewell tour of the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA). After ten years of campaigning for the voluntary sector to retain its integrity, its founders have decided to close down the organisation. I suspect many in the voluntary sector will breath a huge sigh of relief, for their message was robust and rarely welcome.

Primarily NCIA argued that the voluntary sector had abandoned its proper role and become complicit with the dismantling of the welfare state. This is not a recent problem, but it is certainly a problem that has become sharper today. Key elements in the decline of the voluntary sector include:

  • Taking over the work of public services – often by diluting or reducing the cost of those services.
  • Entering into a cosy relationship with Government – failing to challenge and advocate on behalf of the welfare state or of oppressed minority groups.
  • Accepting the nostrums of managerialism and becoming increasingly unequal and bureaucratic in form – aping the private sector.
  • Collaborating with the private sector (the likes of A4E, Serco and G4S) as they dismantle public sector services.
  • Abandoning respect for the principle of citizen action, even using labour from the dreadful workfare scheme – failing to keep volunteering voluntary

Andy Benson, one of the founders of NCIA challenged the audience. He argued that today the voluntary sector must choose between increasing compliance and ultimate irrelevance, or it must stand up for local communities and resist the temptations offered by government. I must say that my sympathies were largely with Andy, although with some caveats.

My own experience of this process began when, as ‘Contracts Director’ for Southwark Consortium we began negotiations with the NHS to take on their learning disability services. I do not feel bad about this. I think the nature of NHS services (and their image) was inconsistent with the ideals of inclusion and of empowerment. After all, it was the NHS that ran the institutions – not everything done under the banner of the ‘public sector’ is good.

I also spent much of my time working on systems and writing in an effort to ‘interpret’ the emerging purchaser-provider split in a way that could be empowering and innovative. This led to the publication of my book Unlocking the Imagination and the Citizenship Model. However, looking backwards, none of this was taken up. Instead the voluntary sector has become captured by the crazy world of tendering and commissioning. Power moved upwards, not downwards; and those in power rarely knew what to do with the power that they’d been handed.

Today I spend much of my time on campaigning work, trying to help people stick up for social justice and exploring how we might redesign the welfare state in a spirit of justice. 20 years ago I would never have believed that any Government could have attacked disabled people and those in poverty in the way that ours has over the last few years. I would have expected charity leaders to speak out, to get on the media, to resist these bad practices, in the strongest possible terms. However, as NCIA has correctly argued, this is not what has happened, instead:

  • Many in the voluntary sector have tried to use this moment to negotiate for an increased share of business as the state’s role is dismantled (a battle it is largely losing to the private sector).
  • Senior leaders tell me they cannot speak out because they will lose their place of influence at the table with politicians and civil servants.
  • Other say that the Lobbying Act ties their hands – they cannot both appeal for donations and appear as a ‘lobbyist.’

Whatever their reasons it is clear that many of the charities that are closely connected to Whitehall and Westminster are not prepared to resist. They do not think that this is their role.

Personally I am not sure what where we go from here. The last 5 years saw a bubbling up of important and innovative grass roots organisations: Justice for LB, Spartacus Network, New Approach, Pat’s Petition, WOW Campaign, DPAC and many others. These groups – in different ways – have used the internet and social media with great skill to mobilise support, draw attention to issues and offer thoughtful solutions. However none of us can yet call these efforts an outright success. On their own they seem to lack the necessary clout.

A slightly different technique, perhaps a hybrid approach, has been developed by Learning Disability Alliance England. Drawing together groups and individuals has enabled the communication of some powerful and radical messages, often with support behind the scenes from the more traditional organisations that are too fearful to speak out on their own. There is a power in numbers and in national and regional structure. However this is also, on its own, inadequate.

My suspicion, and I am still musing on this now, with no sense of certainty, is that we will need to try and pull off at least 5 difficult things at once:

  1. We cannot rely on a mere defensive or negative vision of the welfare state we want to protect – we need to be able to define and communicate a more powerful vision of a modernised welfare state.
  2. We need to organise around key groups and build creative alliances between these groups. For example advocates of the rights of people with learning disabilities need to make common cause with advocates for the rights of asylum seekers. But without merging the issues or obscuring different perspectives and ensuring that it is people themselves who lead the way.
  3. We need to build alliances with other parts of civil society. I still believe, some charity leaders can display the necessary courage to speak out, but they need to be part of a broader alliance. The churches have all offered some of the best resistance to date (although still very muted). Trade unions need to become important allies.
  4. Above all we need to avoid the temptation to demonise politicians or refuse to be political. Most politicians are not bad people, they want to do the right thing (while of course achieving power and glory). They are very sensitive to what ‘sells’ and what people ‘think they want.’ We live in a democracy (of sorts) and if we want a just welfare state we cannot be afraid to get political – to make friends – as well as the odd enemy.
  5. We do need to bring in the big numbers – the people. Petitions have been a good way of doing this to date, but these are at their most effective on relatively simple issues. Politics is about the people, not just the ‘elites.’

The first task if of course critical. It is near impossible to build any alliance if there is no shared vision. But building an alternative, positive and inspiring vision for the welfare state in the twenty-first century is far from easy. Especially when power and money is poured into developing the kind of bastardised version of welfare reform that is now on offer.

However one positive starting point may be this. A new welfare state must be a welfare state that is easier to defend from injustice and in which civil society plays an active part. In other words, by trying to fight for justice now we will learn what it takes to protect and sustain a just welfare state into the future.

In a sense the voluntary sector should be the beating heart of a new welfare state, capable of speaking out and keeping us true. Redesigning the welfare state, in a spirit of justice, means getting that heart beating and ensuring that it can beat strongly into the future. So, in the process of fighting for justice and resisting the attacks on the welfare state we must also build a voluntary sector, or more broadly, a civil society, that is capable of keeping the welfare state true in the future. That will be a different kind of civil society – a living ‘constitution’ for the welfare state.

I hope then that the work of NCIA is not in vain. If they lay down the torch now then others of us must pick it up. But when we do so we must see ourselves as not just defending something in the past, but as building something anew.

Clever Clever Tories

Recently I was asked on Twitter what was the best rebuttal for the Government’s policy of setting a Benefit Cap; this was shortly after watching a Labour leadership candidate back the Benefit Cap when challenged directly by a BBC journalist.

Clever, clever Tories.

If anyone doubts the cleverness of those in power then consider this:

The Government has devastated the income of the poorest, not by the Benefit Cap, but by a whole series of technical changes to how benefits are claimed and calculated. The poorest 10% of families lost 9% of their post-tax income in the last 5 years – down from a mere £100 per week. Yet the policy which the BBC uses as a litmus test for welfare reform is the Benefit Cap – a policy which applies to very few people (0.1% of families) most of whom live in London and where benefits are simply being used to subsidise excessive rents and therefore actually fund landlords.

Clever, clever Tories

There is no doubt indeed that we are dealing with some very intelligent and cunning people.

This Government’s policy can usefully be divided between:

  • Real policy – which is hard to see but which largely functions to impoverish the poor and to pander to the wallets of middle-earners and the truly wealthy.
  • Apparent policy – which is easy to see and which panders to social prejudices, the need for simplification demanded by journalists and which puts social justice on the back foot.

Of course one of the advantages of Government is that you can instruct your civil service to do most of the work of designing and defending these disgraceful policies. It is hard to compete with the billions invested in defending injustice.

However, perhaps we should think like Sir Frances Drake, when faced by the Spanish Armada: small and sprightly ships, connected by strategy, but attacking from different directions may be what we need.

There is a Revolution Going On

There is a revolution going on. We are beginning to realise that everyone, every human being is important. We are beginning to see that every human being is beautiful. At the heart of this revolution are not the powerful, the wealthy or intelligent. It is people with disabilities who are showing us what is important – love, community and the freedom to be ourselves.

This was the message of Jean Vanier as he received the Templeton Prize – at St Martins in the Fields on Monday evening. His acceptance speech was powerful and direct.
For me it was a blessing to feel the blast of his optimism. As he said, in 1945 we had Hiroshima and the uncovering of Auschwitz; and of course we don’t have to look too hard to see further ugliness. But surely he is right to claim that something of importance did happen then – a new chapter did open. Not only did we begin to recognise the importance of human rights but also – slowly, all too slowly – we began the liberation of all those ‘others’ who had been trapped in institutions, deemed unworthy, by a society that had lost its moral compass.
This is a particular blessing only a few days after a UK General Election when the worst government in 75 years – a Government that has targeted disabled people for cuts and chosen to impoverish the poor – has been returned to power. Vanier captures exactly the fundamental flaw in the thinking and behaviour of the powerful – they behave as if the point of life is to climb higher and higher, to even clamber up upon the backs of the weak. But where are they going? What will they find when they get there? They will be empty and alone.
What must we do about our leaders, who are lost? Well – to begin with he suggests – we must pray for them.
A powerful message for me at least – for I know my own pride is such that I’d like nothing better than to enumerate their many failings. But he is right. They are lost. They know not what they do. Their cleverness is ultimately at their own expense – however many years in power they gain, however big the pile of money they amass. There is no joy in it. There is no beauty in it.
Despite our current problems I do not believe the current attack upon the human rights, the welfare state and justice will succeed. We have come too far to turn back to the hell that we’ve left behind. There are still signs of hope, amidst the darkness.
I have been particularly inspired by how many people have come together to support Learning Disability Alliance England since its creation in the Autumn of 2014. In just a few months we’ve united hundreds of people and organisations in a movement to stick up for the rights of people with learning disabilities. And this movement has been led by people with learning disabilities – friends like Karen Flood, Simon Cramp and Gary Bourlet have called upon different people to unite and work together. They have welcomed the respectful support of families, professionals and other allies. They’ve shown how much can be achieved when we come together in community.
This was so striking when we ran the Citizen Jury event to mark the political parties. It is true that the Conservative Party refused to attend (given their record this is not too surprising); but the others who attended, including Labour’s disability spokesperson Kate Green, engaged in an intense and respectful debate with people with learning disabilities and their families about the details of policy.
An old friend of mine, Virginia Moffatt (now at Ekklesia) reminded me that back in 1992 when she’d suggested that there be a hustings for people with learning disabilities in Southwark (where we both worked) that she had been faced with blank incomprehension. Today we are capable of having real and important debates with senior politicians. The election result may not have gone the way LDA England would have liked – but life is not always about winning and getting what you want. This development still marks another important step towards full citizenship for people with learning disabilities.
I am also encouraged by an event just a few days away – the wonderful punk rock band PKN – a band made up of people with learning disabilities – will be representing Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest. [Please cast your vote!] Again people with learning disabilities are refusing to be held back by other people’s ideas about what they can and cannot do. I have also just learned that Gavin Harding, a leading self-advocate with learning disabilities, has just become Mayor of Selby.
For me Vanier has already had a tremendous impact on my own thinking. In his commentary on the Gospel of St John Vanier writes:

Frequently it is only when those who are powerful experience failure, sickness, weakness or loneliness that they discover they are not self-sufficient and all-powerful, and that they need God and others. Out of their weakness and poverty they can then cry out to God and discover God in a new way as the God of love and tenderness, full of compassion and goodness.

I must say that for myself it has been a transformation to be in L’Arche. When I founded l’Arche it was to “be good” and to “do good” to people with disabilities. I had no idea how these people were going to do good to me! A bishop once told me: “You in L’Arche are responsible for a Copernican revolution: up until now we used to say that we should do good to the poor. You are saying that poor are doing good to you!” The people we are healing are in fact healing us, even if they do not realise it. They call us to love and awaken within us what is most precious: compassion.

Trying to ‘do good’ can quickly be a trap – it becomes about us, our pride, our glory, our achievements – and we can quickly tire and turn to blaming others. When we’re tempted in this way, we must see how empty all of this is. We all know we must die, and all our moments of power and glory are just vanities – that quickly pass away. What abides – is love.
Personally I am interested in exploring further what this Copernican revolution might look like for the welfare state as a whole. How can we live together in a way that accepts and honours mutual dependency? How can we invite contribution and challenge from those of whom society expects too little? How can we live in community? As Vanier says we need community, but real community is mucky, a little bit crazy and often quite annoying. But it is only this kind of community that can create the beauty, truth and the love we all need.
These kinds of questions demand that we reconsider many of our common assumptions about how best to organise society and the welfare state:
Income security – Does it make sense to impose the highest taxes on the poorest, and to load people with stigma or try and control them with sanctions and the patronising Work Programme?
Education – Why do we need to regulate teachers and schools as if Whitehall knows best? Why do we rank and exclude children who need more help to learn?
Health – Why do we heap unrealistic expectation on doctors and nurses? Why do we keep people in hospital when they would thrive better at home or in community?
Disability – Why do we force people to give up freedom just because they need some assistance? Why do we load special taxes on disabled people and the elderly?
Housing – Why are only some able to buy their own home? Why is it acceptable that some people can no longer be able to afford to live in their own communities because prices or rents have gone up?
The social problems we face today reflect the challenges Vanier describes. Justice means not just a fair set of rules and rights which individuals enable people to live decent lives; much more it means living together, valuing each other and creating a better world.
I will end with the Benediction (blessing) which was composed by Jean Vanier’s sister Therese and which ended the award ceremony:

May oppressed people and those who oppress them, free each other.
May those who are disabled and those who think they are not, help each other.
May those who need someone to listen, touch the hearts of those who are too busy.
May the homeless bring joy to those who open their doors reluctantly.
May the lonely heal those who think they are self-sufficient.
May the poor melt the hearts of the rich.
May seekers of truth give life to those who are satisfied that they have found it.
May the dying who do not wish to die be comforted by those who find it hard to live.
May the unloved be allowed to unlock the hearts of those who cannot love.
May prisoners find true freedom and liberate others from fear.
May those who sleep on the streets share their gentleness with those who cannot understand them.
May the hungry tear the veil from those who do not hunger after justice.
May those who live without hope, cleanse the hearts of their brothers and sisters who are afraid to live.
May the weak confound the strong and save them.
May violence be overcome with compassion.
May violence be absorbed by men and women of peace.
May violence succumb to those who are totally vulnerable, that we may be healed.


We Fell Asleep

We fell asleep.

We forgot that they don’t take care of us, we take care of each other.
We forgot that it’s the rich who need the poor, not the poor who need the rich.
We forgot that politicians work for us, we don’t work for them.

We forgot that government doesn’t innovate, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t create wealth, people do.
We forgot that government doesn’t know best, people do.

We forgot about citizenship.
We forgot about families.
We forgot about community.

We confused good with big.
We confused achievement with wealth.
We confused love with control.

We forgot that the welfare state was made by us, that it belongs to us and it needs to work for us.

It’s time to wake up.

Spending is a Poor Proxy for Justice

The welfare state needs defending – but we also need to rediscover what it is really for.

Since its creation the major focus has been on its size – should we spend more on it or less on it. But this is the wrong question.

Public expenditure is a poor proxy for public good. Public services are a poor proxy for the advance of human rights. Advancing state power is not the same as advancing citizenship. Paying one’s taxes is important, but it is only one important duty for citizens.

For example, I can increase spending on healthcare and pay the cleaners more – and so reduce inequality, or I can spend more on doctors – and increase inequality. I can spend less on healthcare, but also reduce income inequality overall, which will thereby increase health and well-being.

In other words, it’s not spending on its own that matters, it’s what you actually do with the money.

Welfare systems can promote welfare, but the relationship between welfare and the welfare state is complex. It depends on the design of the welfare system.

Sometimes welfare systems make things worse. For example, it is well known that the Western mental health systems are correlated with poorer mental health. Mental health systems either damage mental health or merely cope with mental health problems created by society. There is little evidence that mental health services really improve our mental health.

If we value the welfare state we should pay much more attention to how it really works – not naively accept the ideas promoted by policy-makers or special interest groups.

The idea of welfare reform has now been captured by those who are merely dismantling it. However our challenge is that while trying to defeat them we must still examine – what kind of welfare state we really want. If we want justice then welfare reform – not cuts and attacks on the poor – real reform is going to be essential.

How Do We Defend the Welfare State?

The second principle is that organisation of social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. Social insurance fully developed may provide income security; it is an attack upon Want. But Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, p. 6

If we are just interested in defending an existing social institution then we do not need to limit ourselves to any one justification or line of defence. Often it is helpful to have more than one argument, particularly as you will need to find common ground with people with whom you may not agree about everything. You may believe that your justification is the best or the only true justification, but this is not helpful as a defence of the welfare state if most people can’t see the truth of your justification.

For instance, the UK welfare state was largely developed by William Beveridge. But when Beveridge was making the case for his reforms he did not rely on any narrow moral or political theory, rather he tried to outline the central problems for which the welfare state was a solution. These were the the Five Giants: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

Rhetorically, evil can be much more helpful than good. For we can all quickly agree that something like the Five Giants are bad and agree that we will attack them. However we may find that we all define what is good in rather different ways. So while we may agree on the need to attack an evil we may have very different ideas about how to avoid an evil and what we should do instead.

So, from a design point of view, only knowing what you want to avoid is also something of a weakness. If we do not know what the welfare state is for – not just what it is against – then it can be rather hard to design it or defend it. We may find that we are so divided by our different conceptions of the good that we no longer agree on what it is we are fighting for.

In fact I think this is our current predicament. Sometimes critics of the welfare state seem to be against the welfare state, but it often turns out that they are really offering different visions of the welfare state. They still want to attack the Five Giants but they are arguing for different ways of attacking them. This does not make them right, nor does it make their arguments any less dangerous, but it means we are living at a time when it is no longer good enough to simply argue that any proposed policy change is a ‘threat to the welfare state’. Simplistic defences of the welfare state as ‘an obviously good thing’ have become far too weak.

It is no longer good enough to point – however truthfully – that a policy is an attack on the welfare state. The welfare state’s legitimacy has been weakened too much by decades of bad policy-making by Left and Right. Too many people are now convinced that the problems with the welfare state are so grave that they will allow government to fiddle with or undermine it – to their hearts content.

We will have to rethink our approach. We will have to develop a more positive account of what we are defending – one that can unite a wide range of different perspectives – but one that is specific enough to create a real challenge to the great erosion of rights we see today.

This is what the Campaign for a Fair Society is trying to do and why we have published a dynamic Manifesto for a Fair Society setting out key principles – as well as detailed proposals. It is also why we are going to invite anyone who has their own ideas to share those ideas with us. Its early days for this project – but if you think you could help I’d love to hear from you.

But, What Can We Do?

The Englishman does not like rows. It is almost impossible to get him to disturb himself, unless you are fool enough to make him both afraid and angry…

To understand the point at which the English patience breaks, we have only, I think, to remind ourselves what is the phrase most often heard in the English home. And that is: “Leave it alone!” “Tommy, leave the cat alone.” Leave your little sister alone, can’t you.” “Oh leave the boy alone; he’ll grow out of it.” “Leave the young people alone to fight their own battles.” And then: “Curse these government departments, why can’t they leave us alone?” And so, with rising irritation, as the Englishman looks at the world: “Here, you, leave those wretched Jews alone.” “Leave the Poles alone, I tell you.” And finally, in quite unmistakeable tones: “Now then, you blue-pencilled bastard, you bloody well leave ME alone, or I’ll knock your bleeding block off.”

The Englishman will interfere in the world, he will have his fingers in every trade pie, he will collect countries as he collects junk, but he cannot bear to see things chivvied about, and he will not tolerate being chivvied himself… We who are the least racial of all nations, who care least about folk-customs, are the most attached to tradition and old laws. Don’t chivvy things. I know only one constant exception to the rule against chivvying. The English people have always, incessantly and unmercifully, chivvied their governments: and for a very good reason. A government must be either servant or master. If you do not chivvy it, it may chivvy you.

Dorothy L Sayers from The Mysterious English (1940) in Unpopular Opinions 

[Note – The blue pencil was the censor’s pencil – so for “blue-pencilled” read your own favourite extreme swear word.]

Dorothy L Sayers is well known for writing the Peter Wimsey detective stories; she is much less well known for being an excellent Christian theologian, feminist and translator. Her writings are always sharply realistic and radical (in its primary sense) while also being imaginative and rich. Some of you may not forgive her for her old-fashioned English prejudices, but, as this is from a wartime speech, perhaps most of you will.

This passage stayed in my mind because of the idea that we must chivvy government unless we want to be chivvied ourselves. I wanted to use this idea to help me think about what we can actually do to challenge the outrageously unfair cuts and income reductions being targeted at disabled people.

I have argued previously that the most extreme attack on disabled people in living memory is being disguised by the language of austerity. The reason that the cuts target disabled people is political, not economic, and it is rooted in the failure of the current democratic system to protect minority groups. I have also argued that the success of this intentional government strategy has been made possible because so many groups have become complicit with it (even if they privately disagree with it). Civil servants in the DWP, social workers, local authorities, voluntary organisations, charities and even some disability advocacy groups are all drawn into the business of implementing or (as some see it) ‘mitigating’ the impact of a fundamentally unjust policy.

The lesson of history is that we rarely forgive those who try to justify their actions by claiming they were joining in with something wicked in order to make it a little less bad.

But, what can we do?

As Sayers observation reminds us, the answer has to be political – and this can’t just be left to normal opposition politics. We must use every means available to chivvy our own government, and we certainly should not stop simply because they have managed to get unjust laws passed.

The Labour Party has, so far, been muted in defending the rights of disabled people – but it has now agreed to hold an opposition day debate early in 2013 to discuss the government’s failure to assess the combined impact of its policies on disabled people. So perhaps we are seeing some new signs of moral life. Or perhaps the Labour Party is finally beginning to believe there may be some votes to be found in defending the rights of disabled people. Whatever the reason, it is vital that we do whatever we can to make the cause of disabled people politically attractive. This means presenting politicians with what they value: statistics and stories – particularly when the latter comes with attractive photo opportunities.

So, Strategy One must be to make our case in terms that can be used by supportive politicians. This does not just have to be the Labour Party. Nationalist parties, the Liberal Democrats and even the more thoughtful members of the Conservative Party need the ammunition by which to fight the necessary political battles.

The media have also been very disappointing in their coverage of the assault on disability rights. Coverage has been negligible and confused. Even serious journalists like John Humphrys have been fooled into taking the idea that the government’s welfare reforms are serious attempts at reform. Few seem to follow the logic of the government’s declared fiscal intentions. You cannot reduce poverty, reduce inequality or improve incentives for the poorest by cutting the benefit bill. The answer lies in radically redesigning the whole tax and benefit system. The coverage of social care has been even more extraordinarily complacent. In 2010 the government declared it was ‘protecting social care’, while putting in place a budget that ensured social care will be cut by 33% in real terms by 2015. Already over £4 billion has been cut from services for children and adults with the highest needs. Yet no journalist seems to have thought that this act of deception was a story worth telling.

I have now completed a major report on the cuts, and how they target disabled people. I produced this report on behalf of the Campaign for a Fair Society because I believe we need to support campaigns like this, ones that offer a positive alternative to current injustice.

The main findings are in this info-graphic:

But again, there are signs that the times may be changing. There are now growing numbers of media stories about the impact of the cuts on disabled people. The nonsensical claim that our economic woes can be solved by taking money from the poorest, to pay off debts created by the better off, is also starting to appear even more absurd as the economic crisis continues.

So, Strategy Two must be to help journalists to find the stories that will engage newspaper readers and television watchers. Statistics and human stories are likely to matter most. But we also need to support and encourage any spokespeople from the disability movement who can effectively connect to ordinary people’s concerns and to help people see through the lies and statistical manipulations the are being used to justify these cuts. The Spartacus community and their many friends are already showing us how effectively this can be done, even on very limited resources.

However this touches on one of the most profoundly difficult issues that the disability movement will need to address: who are its leaders? The problem of collusion is here acute, because many organisations have found themselves so dependent on government funding that they dare not speak out against what is happening. Moreover, many organisations, who might appear to be independent of government, are really satellite organisations – effectively owned and controlled by government. Some of these organisations, big charities, quangos and sub-contracted consultancy organisations, present themselves as speaking for disabled people, older people, social care, or whomever. But they have been been utterly quiescent.

It may be useful to picture this problem in more old fashioned terms. The king always has noblemen and courtiers, who jealously guard their access to the king and who try to act as the conduit by which messages from outside reach the king. No courtier worth his salt would allow a common peasant to gain access to the king and to present his case directly. Moreover, in fairy stories, the sign of a good and just king has always been that he would not allow himself to be blinded by the encircling courtiers who compete for his attention but would always speak directly with his people.

Perhaps we should remember this and try to ensure that we are not short-changed by government funded spokespersons. Sometimes it is best to say ‘I will speak for myself.’

So, Strategy Three might be to make collusion with government more expensive and less attractive. For instance, organisations who have failed to adequately represent the interests of those they should be protecting could be named and shamed. A boycott could be organised of any organisation that declared itself to be representing disabled people, but which did not meet a reasonable standard for honesty and forthrightness. In other words, we should not put up with quangos and charities that don’t chivvy.

Another approach that we could explore is direct action. Getting large numbers on the streets certainly may help – but is unlikely to be decisive. (Reductions in disability income also make it harder and harder for people to be able to take this kind of direct action.) Perhaps the key is to focus on areas where the madness of the government’s strategy is easiest to expose.

So, Strategy Four would be to find forms of action that underline the absurdity of a policy which tries to solve a problem of household and government debit by robbing the very people who have no money. It occurs to me that one approach might be to focus on something like social care charging – or what it really is – the disability tax. As it currently stands disabled people could refuse to pay this tax and CEOs of charities supporting people who pay it could also refuse and could take personal responsibility for this. If CEOs and disabled people were to be sent to prison for non-payment we would certainly have the best possible new story:

Government jails people (at £40,000 per head) for refusing to pay a grossly unfair tax (far more unfair than even the poll tax) and one that costs almost as much to collect as it actually raises. 

Historically the refusal to pay an unjust tax has often been an effective form of civil resistance. But perhaps there are better forms of direct action and perhaps, if we are lucky, the public will finally wake up to what is being done in its name without such extreme methods.

To end, I want to return to my wartime theme and two important, but relatively unknown, events. Few people seem to know that the Holocaust began with attacks on disabled people. In fact the first gas chambers were designed for disabled people. Only after murdering over 100,000 disabled people inside institutions were these gas chambers packed up and sent East to the concentration camps, to be used on the Jews. It was strange and disturbing to notice that, when a short documentary on eugenics was presented during the BBC 2012 Olympics, no mention was made of these facts.

Most people also do not know that Denmark, despite being occupied by Germany, managed to protect almost all its own Jewish population, and also the Jews that had fled there from elsewhere. The Danes can be very proud that they did not collude, they resisted. When the Germans finally imposed martial law in order to murder Jews living in Denmark there was widespread action to hide and protect people, with Danish fishermen taking many to protection in Sweden. Even living under martial law, Danish civil servants harried their German counterparts to ensure that captured Jews were sent to the Theresienstadt. In the end only 51 were killed.

This may seem an extreme way of presenting our options, but this is our choice. We will either collude, and go quietly along with government, deciding that our own jobs, homes and families are more important than them, disabled people. Not realising that the them are us. Or we resist. We find the courage to stand-up for others, even when they are do not seem the same as us. There is no middle ground which isn’t collusion.

So, Strategy Five might be to find some form of campaigning which would enable many more people to express their revulsion at what is being carried out in their name. To do this we need to reach out beyond our own networks and groups and to get into streets, markets and homes. Perhaps it would be worth using an old fashioned method like a national petition which we could get hundreds of thousands to sign. Developing such a petition would even be a good mechanism for distinguishing the groups that were prepared to resist from the groups that were happy to collude.

This all needs more thought, but here’s my first draft for a national petition:

We call on the government to reverse the Welfare Reform Act, to increase social care funding in line with funding for the NHS, to end the disability tax (so-called social care charging) and to redesign the welfare system so that its fair for everyone.

I am sure someone else can do better than this – but I do think its time to clarify what we are fighting against and what we want in its place. We cannot chivvy government without some powerful and clear messages – and messages that could have political impact.

We also cannot make this work without real people in local communities being able to organise and lead practical campaigning. But here the disability movement does have strength. For example, in Doncaster (the seat of Ed Milliband) the are at least two active, utterly independent and powerful groups: Active Independence and the Personalisation Forum Group. If groups like these could join together in a national network around some shared messages then the impact could be very powerful.

Complicity and the Cuts

I know a wise old Buddhist monk who, in a speech to his fellow countrymen, once said he’d love to know why someone who boasts that he is the cleverest, the strongest, the bravest or the most gifted man on earth is thought ridiculous and embarrassing, whereas if, instead of ‘I’; he says, ‘we are the most intelligent, the strongest, the bravest and the most gifted people on earth’ his fellow countryman applaud enthusiastically and call him a patriot.

E H Gombrich from A Little History of the World

Our own vanity, our own desire to be on the inside of the club, is one of the most dangerous human tendencies. It turns out that we will sell our souls very cheaply, as long as we feel we are inside the in-group.

There often seems to be a difference between doing evil and standing back and letting someone else do evil – one is the sin of commission, the other the sin of omission. But both are sins, and the difference between these two kinds of sin can be very fine indeed. In fact, sometimes, not to resist evil is to join in with evil – to be complicit.

For example, currently in the UK, we are seeing the most significant direct attack on the rights and conditions of the poor and of disabled people. By 2015 spending on services for disabled children and adults will have been cut by 33% and the government hopes to cut benefits by £22 billion – about 20% of the current spending on benefits.

You can read more about this in our report – A Fair Society? how the cuts target disabled people.

This is in a country that is already the third most unequal developed country in the world. This is a policy which is far more extreme and far more negative than anything for which Margaret Thatcher is blamed.

Yet, many of the organisations that one would expect to stand up to government, to point out the error of its ways, are silent. A Labour politician justified their own muted response to the cuts by observing that none of the big charities had really come out against the cuts – and the MP is right. Where are the big charities and advocacy organisations and why have they not stood up to government, carried out the necessary research and organised effective PR?

It is impossible to know for certain why so many organisations are so quiet. There are many possible reasons:

  • Some may be focusing on getting themselves ready for the storm – cutting posts, saving money.
  • Some may be worried that they will lose lucrative central government funding if they become too challenging.
  • Some may feel that they must be nice to government in order to negotiate with it – to get on the inside track and to reduce any harm it intends.
  • Some may seek the honour of peerages, knighthoods, awards and all the other trappings of status that are so keenly distributed by our leaders.

Perhaps some do not even understand how bad things are, and how much worse they are going to be. In 2010 the Campaign for a Fair Society published data showing that social care would be severely cut. Not only was this not picked up by the media, it was not even picked up by many in the mainstream of the disability movement. Many seemed to accept the false claim that social care had been ‘protected’ simply because this is what the government had said.

For more information on the statistical manipulations behind all this read this article in the Guardian.

Personally I have been particularly upset by how the organisations that are supposedly in the ‘vanguard’ of reforming social care – e.g. Think Local Act Personal (TLAP), In Control and Helen Sanderson Associates – barely mention the issue of cuts or the injustice of current government policy. For example, In Control’s website talks about:

With significant resource constraints and demographic growth, there are major challenges ahead.

“Significant resource constraint” hardly does justice to severe cuts that target disabled people. You cannot advocate the increased empowerment of disabled people through personalisation, while ignoring a 33% cut in social care funding.

There is one other very worrying reason why some organisations may be silent; and that is that some in the voluntary sector may even be seeking to benefit from these cuts, from the increased poverty and from the erosion of public services. This may seem an extreme statement – but it is interesting to look at the recent letter which was sent by leaders of the voluntary sector to government:

You can read their letter here.

The letter pleads that the voluntary sector be given the opportunity to take over public services and in addition it says:

Thirdly, as the Government’s welfare reforms take effect, we know that some of the most vulnerable people in our country will be affected – including children. Our sector will be at the frontline – helping individuals and families prepare for and manage change.

So, instead of arguing against the injustice of these reforms, the voluntary sector offers to pick up the pieces – on the government’s behalf – to help people “prepare for and manage change” – the change of having your income severely cut. This is a dreadful state of affairs. It’s as if, frightened of being steamrollered or forgotten, these groups have now chosen to join the powerful and to abandon the weak:

It is this kind of complicity that makes so many of us frightened for the future. It reveals the true nature of our current social situation. It seems we are no longer a society that believes in equality, citizenship or mutual support. We are a society where the powerful trample on those beneath them. For those of us in between – neither powerful nor weak, neither rich nor poor – then this is the time for making critical moral choices.

We must become complicit or we must resist – there is no room left to claim that this has got nothing to do with us – that it is someone else’s problem.

One strategy, one that has been used in the past, is to make complicity more expensive for those who lack moral fortitude. For instance, it may be possible to name, shame or boycott organisations that are becoming directly or indirectly complicit with government. These policies may seem extreme or divisive – but the risk of inaction is that fewer and fewer individuals and organisations will be left who have not succumbed.

The more of us who are caught up in the implementation of these dreadful policies then the more likely it is that they will succeed.

Thankfully the National Coalition of Independent Action has collected together the signatures of many other organisations who do not accept the approach set out in the ‘voluntary sector’s letter’ to government. If you are interested in supporting this approach you can contact NCIA:

Open Letter from NCIA

What’s Wrong with Welfare Dependency?

Discussions about dependency and welfare dependency are full of illogicality and moral confusion.

Within the political system the term ‘welfare dependency’ has become code for a bad thing which is damaging the social fabric and the moral character of the poor. Everyone seems to be against welfare dependency. But what is wrong with dependency?

A dependency – in this context – is a need for help, from another person. Its opposite would be independence. But is dependency bad and independence good? Obviously not. If we do not need each other then we do not belong. If we could live without love, support, education and assistance we would be living in a bubble. As Aristotle puts it:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be a beast or a god. He is no part of a state.  (Politics 1.2)

So need for others – dependency in this first sense – is not bad, it is good.

Of course there are many ways in which we can get help. It is not the needing of help that is the problem, it is the threat of powerlessness, slavery or abuse which can make dependency risky.

Some dependencies are secured by love. Children need parents, and their shared love acts to keep that need safe. Loving parents protect, nurture and support their child to develop. Although, as we know, even something as beautiful and as important as family love can become damaged or twisted.

Some dependencies are secured by justice. Our rights, private property and the law, act to ensure that we are not taken advantage of in our dealings with others. Civil society is full of institutions that, at their best, enable us to get what we need, without being harmed or abused.

However injustice, inequality and poverty always seem to develop in every society. It is poverty that creates the most toxic dependencies. If I cannot secure what I need then I become dependent on others in a way that seems to guarantee abuse – begging, slavery, exploitation and oppression.

It is for this reason that modern societies have developed welfare systems. Their purpose is to create systems of mutual assistance that enable people to avoid toxic dependency on others and to replace it with a healthy welfare dependency. Welfare systems create healthy dependencies when:

  • People are enabled to get enough to meet their needs – not too little, not too much
  • People get what they need as a matter of right – not by charity
  • People are treated with dignity and respect at every stage – not stigmatised or treated as less worthy

The problem with welfare in the UK, therefore, is not that it creates dependency. Dependency is good and inevitable. The problem is that the system is badly designed. It is certainly less toxic than a system with no welfare provision – which creates abject poverty and corrosive dependencies and beggary. But it is more toxic than an effective system of universal, guaranteed income security – ideally provided through an integrated tax and benefit system with no visible stigma.

If we are to avoid further savage attacks on the poor – in the name of reduced welfare dependency – we need to move to a universal system to which we would then all feel connected.

Internal Institutions

The individual and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is within him.

Idries Shah from The Caravan of Dreams

Idries Shah is an interesting Islamic scholar whose book I found in a second-hand book store recently. This passage stood out for me partly because of his interesting and unusual use of the word institution.

I tend to use the term ‘institution’ in one of two senses. I talk about institutions in a wholly negative sense when I refer to those campuses, asylums and hospitals that began as efforts to segregate the poor and needy and then accelerated during the period of eugenic panic when the objective was to remove people from humanity by effective sterilisation or murder.

However the word institution also has a second, much more positive sense, meaning any kind of human or social creation that has been established and which has stood the test of time. For example, the monarchy is an institution; Bolton Wanderers is an institution.

So what does Idries Shah mean by the patterns of coercive institutions which we find within us? What relevance has this to the challenge of reforming society?

One pattern, that we find in many revolutionaries, is the double-edged belief that power is all about unjust rulership. The revolutionary identifies the ruler as unjust, and may manage to overthrow that ruler; but they then end up living out exactly the same pattern of injustice. Is it that the revolutionary secretly knows no other way to rule than by cruelty and injustice? The dominant pattern which inspired his revolt ends up ruling him and dictating his actions.

Do we see an institutional pattern in those who seek to reform systems of welfare. They may believe the system is unjust, patronising and disempowering. So they seek to shift power – reorganising funding, organising new supports, reforming structures. But all the time their actions seem to suggest that people themselves are not really capable of solving any problems for themselves. We have to do it all for them; they are not good enough or strong enough. The battle to defeat paternalism can quickly become very patronising.

Idries Shah is not suggesting reform is impossible, nor that these patterns can be eradicated. Rather it seems to me that he is suggesting that these are temptations that we need to watch for and overcome. Revolutionaries must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing the tyrant with greater tyranny. Welfare reformers must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing one type of control with another.

The Absurdity of Injustice

Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things. And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible – like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable – like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.

G K Chesterton from All Things Considered

I love this thought from the ever insightful Chesterton and it rings a real bell.

I often meet people who agree that the current system is unfair: it’s unfair that disabled people don’t have effective rights to self-directed support; it’s unfair that only the rich can influence their child’s education; it’s unfair that the poorest pay the highest taxes; it’s unfair that too many people are placed in institutional and damaging settings if they are too old, unwell, angry or confused.

We spend nearly half of our GDP on welfare – handing this money over to Whitehall – and in return we get a system which satisfies almost nobody and which is designed in flagrant contradiction to the Declaration of Human Rights. We expect it to deliver safety and support for those with the greatest need, but instead we see it harming those in greatest need.

Yet very few people seem to feel that anything can be done about this injustice – it feels inevitable – part of the inherent wrongness of reality – as Chesterton puts it “the infamy of existence”.

But what strikes me at least is how absurd the current system is. Its not just wrong, it’s crazy:

  • We tax most those who can afford it least, increasing inequality and inefficiency
  • We fund expensive professional support, but won’t ensure people can meet their basic needs 
  • We subsidise incarceration and institutionalisation, but undermine communities and families
  • We target cuts on those who can least bear them

We need to wake up to the absurdity of the current welfare system.

This does not mean we don’t need a welfare system (even a bad system is better than no system). But we should start to confidently define the features of decent and fair system. And, as Chesterton also observes, this will be one that values all those things that are good: citizenship, family, community, expertise and justice. The challenge is to build a system that respects and supports all those good things – rather than undermining them.

The Eight Degrees of Charity

Level One – There are eight levels in charity, each level surpassing the other. The highest level beyond which there is none is a person who supports a Jew who has fallen into poverty [by] giving him a present or a loan, entering into partnership with him, or finding him work so that his hand shall be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms]. Concerning this [Leviticus 25:35] states “You shall support him, the stranger, the resident, and he shall live among you.” Implied is that you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.

Level Two – A lower level than this is one who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he recieved. For this is an observance of the mitzvah for its sake alone. This [type of giving] was exemplified by the secret chamber that existed in the Temple. The righteous would make donations there in secret and poor people of distinguished lineage would derive their livelihood from it in secret. A level close to this is giving to a charity fund. A person should not give to a charitable fund unless he knows that the person managing it is faithful, wise and capable of administering it in a proper manner as Rebbe Chananya ben Tradyon was.

Level Three – A lower level than this is an instance when the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the poor person does not know from whom he received. An example of this were the great Sages who would go in secret and money into the doorway of the poor. This is an appropriate way of giving charity and it is as good a quality if the trustees of the charitable fund are not conducting themselves appropriately.

Level Four – A lower level than this is an instance when the poor person knows from whom he took, but the donor does not know to whom he gave. An example of this were the great Sages who would bundle coins in a sheet and hang them over their shoulders and the poor would come and take them so they would not be embarrassed.

Level Five – A lower level than that is giving the poor person in his hand before he asks.

Level Six – A lower level than that is giving him after he asks.

Level Seven – A lower level than this is giving him less than what is a appropriate, but with a pleasant countenance.

 Level Eight – A lower that that is giving him with sadness.

Maimonides from the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Hilchot Matnot, Aniyim 7-14

This important analysis of the demands of social justice should be given to all students of social policy, political theory and theology. For it sets out more clearly than anything else I know the real challenge of charity and social justice.

We forget that many society’s before the welfare state have figured out systems of mutual care and support. For instance, Jewish society had a long history of making social justice part of the institutions of agriculture, work, religion and society. Moreover, as Maimonides shows, Jewish thinking has been particularly sensitive to the need to ensure that charity is always an act of justice – not patronage.

Another way to read Maimonides is in reverse – the quality of giving improves to the point that the act of giving becomes utterly invisible:

  1. Resentful giving
  2. Insufficient giving
  3. Giving only when asked
  4. Giving directly
  5. Not knowing to whom you are giving to
  6. Not knowing who gives to you
  7. Giving that is utterly private
  8. Giving that is not giving

In other words we ascend to that point where there is no sense of weakness, vulnerability and dependence. The gift is still there – but it is absorbed into everyday life in a way that feels rightful and proper to both.

To my mind our efforts to create a system of universal entitlements, without stigma, in order to reform the current welfare state are probably analogous to Level 2 giving. Such a system would not be necessary in a society where everybody already had enough and where mutual exchange and support were natural and universal. But we are not that society. We live in a time of great inequality and for most people the economy offers little fundamental security. Most of us do not own land we can rent, have savings or a guaranteed income. Our securities are collective and guaranteed through democratic politics – for better or worse.

Those who seek to dissolve rights in the name of charity have not paid attention to the fundamental questions of human dignity, respect and equal citizenship which is at the heart of social justice – “you should support him before he falls and becomes needy.”

The Good, Bad & Ugly of Welfare Reform

The Welfare Reform Bill is the most radical reform of the tax-benefit system since Beveridge. It is a mixture of the good, the bad and the very ugly.

At its best it recognizes the problem. It recognizes that the current system creates fears, burdens, taxes and bureaucracy for the very people who need the most support. This marks a break-through admission by the political system.

Unfortunately the solutions proposed are poorly designed. Universal Credit aims to provide a framework for integrating tax and benefits in order to engineer the required incentives. However this system will lead to increased confusion and uncertainty, especially as the necessary information technology systems are lacking.

The second proposal is to abandon Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and replace it with a more restricted benefit – Personal Independence Payments (PIP). This is despite the fact that DLA has been a highly successful benefit, subject to no significant abuse, creating no disincentives to work, and is vitally important to many disabled people.

What is truly ugly about these reforms is the way in which they are being used to drive down the cost of benefits. The government’s intention is to cut benefits by £18 billion, 20% of the whole budget. This will only increase income inequality in the UK, already the third most unequal developed country in the world.

There is a real problem in the benefit system; but these mean-spirited proposals are not the right solution. Instead we need both positive incentives and real securities.

This article was originally published in The House Magazine on the 19th January 2012.

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