Welfare Reform

Society at a Crossroads – Opinion piece by Dr. Simon Duffy for U4Change debate


This short essay has been developed for United for Change members, but in tandem with another essay which was developed for SWSCMedia. Here I consider the same questions and wonder how these issues apply to policy makers and other agents of social change.

1. Personal budgets

Personal budgets were developed as one useful tool to support the liberation and greater citizenship of all disabled people. The model proved effective and led to a radical change in central government policy from tacit resistance to extreme enthusiasm. At the heart of personal budgets was the notion that support and services should be made accountable – not to the state, but to the citizen.

Unfortunately we have found that this government enthusiasm is a mixed blessing. Especially because it does not imply:

  • Coherent legislation
  • Thoughtful implementation
  • Careful system redesign

Policy-makers hope personal budgets will deliver enormous benefits – but there is little attention to the essential details that make such hopes feasible. Moreover there is frequently scant attention paid to the reality of personal budgets. London-based think tanks often recast personal budgets as a ‘market reform’ despite all the evidence that its success is rooted in active citizenship and community inclusion.


2. Citizenship

Another symptom of policy confusion is the incoherence of our goals. The purpose of personal budgets – and many other good and useful innovations – was to help disabled people (and many others) achieve effective citizenship. Citizenship – not in the sense of ‘passport-holding’ – but citizenship as being a full and equal member of society who is seen to belong.

This means:

  1. Having lives of purpose
  2. Being free to make our own decisions
  3. Having sufficient money to pursue (if not achieve) our goals
  4. A real home where we belong
  5. Good help and assistance
  6. Getting stuck into life – work, volunteering, contribution
  7. Love, in all its many forms

But is this the goal of policy-makers?

In fact we still focus on services, systems, regulations and commissioning. We are locked in a confused and repeating pattern. We say we want something – but we then pursue processes that will never achieve the goal we say we want.


3. Poverty 

It is bemusing to listen to conversations about benefits even amongst senior policy-makers and those committed to social justice. Frequently we hear serious people just accept statements like:

Cuts must be made. The benefit bill is too great. Benefit fraud is rife.

We are trying to have a conversation where all our assumptions are false. The truth is:

  • After tax the cost of benefits is only £27 billion – less than 3% of GDP
  • Benefit fraud is insignificant – 0.57% of benefits and pensions
  • Tax fraud is £15 billion
  • Unclaimed benefits is £17 billion
  • Planned cuts are £22 billion

How have we arrived at a place where lies are passed off as truth so universally, so casually and with so little challenge in the media or in academia?


4. Relationships

One of the other strange features of our society is the way in which we try to regulate – not just disabled people – but ourselves.

  • Teachers must work to a curriculum defined in Whitehall
  • Health and social care are regulated by a vast Quango – CQC
  • The NHS is enmeshed in complex systems of target-setting
  • Social workers are expected to work to constantly growing procedures

Where is our humanity? Where is our trust? Where are relationships – the real means by which society develops. Human relationships cannot be reduced to a set of rules or a standardised process.

This is a particularly slippery issue.

We all fear bureaucracy and interference, but we all want ‘solutions’ – we want politicians to tell us everything will be alright. Politicians then seek out the policy-maker who will validate some plausible and robust response. And so:

  • New law are created
  • Regulations are published
  • Inspection regimes are changed
  • New accreditation systems created
  • Training and education is altered
  • New priorities are set
  • Organisations are reshuffled – divided, merged or floated off

We must all know this to be largely farce. Usually the rationale of the latest response is simply the opposite of the rationale of the last response. Systems are changed – but what does not change is the growing mountain of complex bureaucracy. Systems never seem to get simpler or more enabling.

Can we change this pattern? Can we bring integrity back into policy-making and stop pandering to the politician’s need for a ‘solution’ even when its no solution.


5. Community

One of the most important approaches to bring about social change is to help people help themselves. This is a particularly powerful strategy when it is focused on peer support groups. Emerging self-help groups, like the Personalisation Forum Group, demonstrate the power of people helping each other – to both challenge the system and to build practical alternatives.

In fact it is fascinating to work with such groups. It is interesting to see how our notion of community and our expectation of such community action is often framed by our own notion of what our fellow citizens should do – should care about – but we are often surprised.

It is interesting to note that many of the new groups that are emerging are developing in opposition to what government wants. I am not sure who is meekly lining up to volunteer for the Prime Minister’s Big Society. But I do know lots of people who are now animated like they have never been animated before – not just against the cuts, but often against injustices that are written into the DNA of the welfare state – like the current mental health system.


6. Cuts

It is particularly interesting to note how austerity is treated as a natural fact – and its consequences are just seen as inevitable. But the policy choices which are being made are extreme and vicious.

The UK government has focused most of its cuts on public spending in just two areas (a) benefits and (b) local government – 60% of which is on social care. Never before have we seen such a direct assault on the basic fabric of the welfare state. As it stands:

  • People in poverty (1 in 5 of us) bear 39% of all the cuts
  • Disabled people (1 in 13 of us) bear 29% of all the cuts
  • People with severe disabilities (1 in 50 of us) bear 15% of all the cuts


All of this has gone unreported. The political strategy of blaming the poor for poverty and implying that disabled people are scrounger or fraudsters has been very successful. No resistance has come from the mainstream media, the big charities or academia. The Labour Party seems either to share the same beliefs (perhaps in a milder form) or is staying quiet because it believes its more risky to be seen as being on the same side as disabled people and those in poverty.

This is very scary, and it reminds me of the moral panic that took hold in the nineteenth-century and then accelerated in the twentieth-century. suddenly the most horrific deeds were carried out – all supported by the ‘great and the good.’

7. Welfare State

The UK is the third most unequal developed country in the world (after the USA and Portugal) and the growth rate of inequality in this country is now higher than that in the USA. The welfare system is stigmatising and damaging and requires significant reform.

Not the kind of reform currently underway – cuts dressed up as reforms – real reform.


We need to rethink the welfare state from the bottom-up. We need to pay more attention to:

  • Human rights and basic entitlements
  • The restoration of power to citizens and local communities
  • Constitutional reform and checks and balances

It is not the welfare state that is wrong, it is the Fabian welfare state. Perhaps we should consider the wisdom of G K Chesterton who argued against George Bernard Shaw that the common man could be trusted to make his own decisions, to have real property and clear rights:

We say there ought to be in the world a great mass of scattered powers, privileges, limits, points of resistance, so that the mass of Commons may resist tyranny. And we say that there is a permanent possibility of that central direction, however much it may have been appointed to distribute money equally, becoming a tyranny.

G K Chesterton’s analysis of the risks of an unduly centralised bureaucracy trying to rule over the lives of ordinary people has proved correct. But instead or rethinking the welfare state we are in danger of creating a shrunken and twisted version of the welfare state – more stigmatising, more mean-spirited and more disempowering.


It is easy to declare a crisis – a great moment of turning. It is far more likely that we will just carry on through the mess, with some things getting a lot worse, but hoping for the ‘recovery’ – which means a few new jobs, a few new perks, some new funding programmes and other titbits for policy-makers.

But isn’t it time to seek a deeper change?

  1. Make the case for robust rights and entitlements.
  2. Focus on citizenship, not services and processes.
  3. Challenge poverty and injustice – get citizen incomes under the spotlight
  4. Defend ourselves from the illusion of bureaucratic solutions
  5. Move power back to local communities and enable real innovation.
  6. Build a powerful and connected campaign for social justice
  7. Redesign the welfare state – not watering it down – rethinking the whole approach

None of this is easy or without controversy. But we must turn our attention to building something better – together.

I would encourage you to join the Campaign for a Fair Society and to subscribe to The Centre for Welfare Reform and I’d be happy to hear from any one who would like to help.

Further Reading

If you are interested in finding out more about these ideas then there are many things you could read. Here are just seven – matching the themes I’ve set out:

  1. Travelling Hopefully – latest thoughts on personalisation
  2. Keys to Citizenship – a guide to designing individual services
  3. A Fair Income – thoughts on reforming the benefit system
  4. An Apology – thoughts on assessment and the RAS
  5. Peer Power – an example of excellent independent social work in practice
  6. A Fair Society? how the cuts target disabled people – an analysis of the cuts
  7. Manifesto for a Fair Society – ideas for a reformed welfare state

Dr. SImon J. Duffy (@simonjduffy) is the Director of The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Join us @U4Change for a live Twitter debate on “Personalisation and the Cuts & Welfare Reform” in a cross-chat with @SWSCmedia on Tuesday (2 April 2013) 8:00 PM BST / 3:00 PM DST. using the Hashtag #U4Change and #SWSCmedia.



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