There has been a lot of talk recently about the value of the welfare state and why on earth we should have one, should it be a safety net or something more, or even less. What I want to do here is to try and describe what I think the welfare state should look like and why. It won’t be perfect, so please do feel free to throw stones at it, but in doing so, I would ask you to think about what would you do differently, and why.
What is a Welfare state? Simply, it is a state that looks after the welfare of its citizens. I think we are lucky in the UK to have had a state system that has done that for many years, and now we do not appreciate just how much. In thinking about this post, my thoughts turn to other countries which have regimes and governments who do not look after their citizens and are more interested in lining their own pockets.
I believe that we as a society have a form of collective conscience and memory and we have learned many things about survival and growth, and it is the Governments role to keep, foster and employ that knowledge, for the good of everyone, particularly future generations. That must also be tempered with responsibility and the awareness that one size does not fit all, something that many a government has tripped itself up on.
Take the NHS, the ability to get medical treatment, free at the point of use. It is easy to forget just how expensive medical treatment really is. We get treatment that would, in another country cost thousands, and if you can;t afford it or don’t have the right insurance, then tough. Last weekend, we thought Leo (youngest baby) may have broken his fingers when he trapped them in a door, and we jumped in the car and made our way to Hospital without a thought of the cost, however in the likes of the USA, you would need to check your insurance cover first, befor thinking about if you could afford it. S it happens, by the time we got there, he was ok and we didnt go in, but I’m pleased I could make that decision on actual need and not the cost. And because it is a nationalised system, it is also a mechanism for protecting the society as a whole. I used the example of vaccination programmes in another post, as a highlight of this.
But lets also look at more mundane matters, things like local planning and building control. The State has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. We know that building houses too close together, with the wrong materials lead to unpleasant conditions. I have heard of planners looking at designs and their ability to mitigate out anti social behaviour. This is also a good contemporary example where it can break, such as the design of Kingsway had mandate from top level Government to force a reduction in car use, therefore restrict/minimise parking, so local planning has had to enforce things which have made a rubbish situation for local residents now. While this is an example of government getting it wrong (IMHO) they were doing it for the right reasons, IE they were trying to drive our “green” agenda. The system has learned from this though and the future parts of the development have been changed to ahve better parking.
Moving onto benefits. There are so many benefits out there, its stunning. But each and every one was brought in with a good purpose in mind. Disability benefit, Job Seekers, Maternity Grants, Child benefit. Some of these are safety nets, but some of these are timly “helping hands”. I think that is another great example of the collective knowledge of the state, knowing and understanding that various periods can be harder than anticipated and being there to help.
We know that the birth of the first child is a hugely life changing event, I remember doing the nursery, attending all the Anti Natal courses, knowing what to do when etc. But the reality is you don’t really know what is round the corner until it happens. So while we are as confident as we can be, nature has a habit of throwing some curve balls at us. hat is why I like the maternity Grant, and the Free Prescriptions for mothers. It shows that the collective knowledge of the state understanding that with the best will in the world, new parents may not get what they expect and that the state can help by providing the right thing at the right time.
Local government services that many do take for granted (I probably do too) is things like Waste Collection, Park maintenance, public buildings, children’s services, etc etc.
There is of course a balance to this and that is that it does not come for free. Workers and Businesses pay tax to the Government to provide it. unfortunately we have got to the state where some (many) do not see the connection, and believe it comes from an unlimited pot of cash. And a subset of that do not see the imperative for them to contribute to it. So what can be done around that? Better education is needed for one. As kids grow up they should be learning just how the system works, as they are going to inherit it one day. Also the Justice system (also funded by the tax payer) needs to be able to act upon those who abuse the system.
I guess it all comes down to humanity too. There will always be those who try to duck out of their responsibilities (and I include not only benefit cheats, but also Tax Avoiders and Tax Cheats too). But I think the welfare state is a great ideal to help the many.
So, where is the future for welfare? With a shrinking NHS and a pulling back on local government services, I fear we will be throwing the baby out with the bath water to get to an economic nirvana. In my opinion, Welfare needs to exist, as it creates a backbone for our country, not just a safety net. However it needs to be effective, accountable and fair for all. That includes not only making sure that those who need help get it, but also that we do not bow to trial by Tabloid.
So I guess my challenge to myself (and you) is this, to think about what do we want from a welfare state? what services do we feel we need? and what do we receive that we would be happy to lose?
- “Douglas Alexander: “welfare to work requires there to be work”” and related posts (labourmatters.com)
- Spending cuts: Liverpool facing ‘worse than the worst-case scenario’ (guardian.co.uk)