Election focus: Manifestos on welfare should be about engagement, dignity and respect


Ruth Patrick

In this blog post, part of our Election Focus series, Ruth Patrick offers suggestions for what should be included in party manifestos on welfare reform, based on the six years of research into individuals’ experiences of social security and welfare reform in her book, For whose benefit?

Too often General Election campaigns seem – yet another – opportunity for politicians to talk ‘tough’ on ‘welfare’ as they compete to be seen as the party who will finally rid Britain of its supposed problem of ‘welfare dependency’. 2010 featured billboards with David Cameron finger pointing as he pledged: ‘let’s cut benefits for those who refuse work’.

In the run up to the 2015 election, Rachel Reeves, then shadowing the Department for Work and Pensions brief, was quoted saying: “we are not the party of people on benefits” disowning millions of potential voters.

And now another election. With the dominance of Brexit, as yet we have not heard much on ‘welfare’ and it may well be crowded out by policy debates in other areas. Corbyn’s Labour can be expected to offer up a more egalitarian social security agenda but the scope for this to gain traction and support from the public may be limited.

Over the past six years, I have been researching individuals’ experiences of social security and welfare reform to explore the extent of the (mis)match between policy rhetoric and lived experiences.

“The current policy agenda is creating a climate of chronic insecurity.”

What this has revealed is the ways in which the current policy agenda is creating a climate of chronic insecurity, with welfare reform often failing to support sustainable transitions from ‘welfare’ to ‘work’. It has also shown the reach and harm caused by the stigma attached to the receipt of out-of-work benefits.

If – and let’s be honest, it’s not a likely prospect – any of the main political parties were to ask my advice on what should feature in their manifestos on ‘welfare’, I could very eagerly offer some simple (but hopefully) effective reforms.

Firstly, it would require a fundamental but inexpensive change but the next government should commit to a meaningful and sustained listening to, and engagement with, those with direct experiences of poverty and welfare reform. Those who have experiences of the social security system have the expertise that comes with experience, and this expertise needs to be incorporated into policy design and implementation. In fact, the next Westminster Government could learn a lot from its colleagues at Holyrood in Scotland, which is convening ‘Experience Panels’ where those with direct experiences of benefits will come together to help shape the direction of new devolved powers within the Scottish social security system.

“This expertise needs to be incorporated into policy design and implementation.”

A second reform – and another where Scotland is already providing an example – is in seeking to embed principles of dignity and respect within the benefits system. These principles underpin the Scottish Government’s new agenda for social security.

Ensuring that people who attend Job Centre Plus appointments, or ring the Department for Work and Pensions, are treated with respect and as citizens with rights (as well as obligations) could be one important way to challenge the stigma of claiming benefits. It could also be more likely to improve outcomes. My research showed that individuals were far more likely to respond positively to directions from Job Centre and Work Programme advisers when they were founded in respectful and positive relationships.

When asked to draw a picture of their ‘perfect’ back-to-work adviser, individuals often had simple (and cost-free) requests as the reproduction of Karen and James’ images show:

Patrick Figure Four


Patrick Figure Five

They wanted advisers to be polite, to listen and to say ‘would you like to’ rather than ‘you must’. These are straightforward but fundamental changes in culture that could make a big difference.

“May and Corbyn should use their manifestos to challenge the assumptions that underpin the contemporary narrative on ‘welfare’.”

More ambitiously, May and Corbyn should use their manifestos to challenge the assumptions that underpin the contemporary narrative on ‘welfare’. Here, it would be great to see some recognition that we are all ‘dependants’, and that – as John Hills’ research in Good times, bad times shows, many of us will be dependent on areas of the benefit system at some point in our lives. Rather than shore up false (if powerful) dichotomies between ‘welfare dependants’ and ‘hard working families’, politicians should seek to govern for us all and to recognise that we all rely upon one another and on the state.

Linked to this, politicians should give up a rhetoric that suggests that benefits are a ‘lifestyle choice’ and that conditionality is needed to support (but ultimately compel) individuals to make the right choices and move into paid work. In fact, people most often want to enter work – where it is a realistic option – and need effectively tailored support rather than yet more threats and conditions. Tied to this, there is a pressing need for more opportunities (more radically the right) to good quality, secure employment that enables individuals to escape poverty.

That’s my wish list for a reformed social security system. Now I just need to get Theresa May to sign up!


Patrick_For whose benefit-webFor whose benefit: The everyday realities of welfare reform by Ruth Patrick is currently available with 50% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £12.49.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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