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New ideas for social care reform must come from the grassroots

Posted on 16/08/2016 by


The welfare system needs a revolution, but change should be from the bottom up

Seventy years on from the creation of the welfare state and social care is one of the biggest, most important and yet most neglected social policies. Now another new government needs to face up to the vital need for radical reform. The spending cuts made in the name of austerity over the last six years have especially hit local authority social care. This in turn has particularly hurt the growing numbers of older and disabled people needing help, including mental health service users and people with learning difficulties. While the rhetoric surrounding social care has been all about integration, the tendency is still to treat it in isolation.

Despite social policy needing a rethink, discussions about welfare have become very narrow, largely framed solely in terms of benefits policy, separating off housing, health, employment and education as if they are altogether different issues. It has also become heavily polarised. On the one hand there is the dominant discourse framed largely in terms of restricting access to benefits andfrequently stereotyping disabled people and other claimants as scroungers rather than strivers. On the other is the grassroots reality, like that presented by Ken Loach’s award-winning film I, Daniel Blake, which shows the human face of welfare reform.

The launch debate for a new participatory social policy text, All Our Welfare, highlighted that there really are alternatives, both to old-style welfare state and current neoliberal privatising welfare reform. David Brindle, the Guardian’s public service editor who chaired the debate, referred to the post-war welfare state as a revolution, and asked what kind of revolution we need now.

On the panel, John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, emphasised the importance of developing a new narrative for a new welfare state, reminding us that its founders not only created a new architecture, but also “won the argument” so that for years Conservative governments continued to protect it. “It’s narrative that wins,” he said. He acknowledged that “we knew the welfare state had to change. We understood it as a set of institutions and relationships so you sought to change those relationships.” He stressed the importance of needs being identified by people themselves in a new welfare state. 

This was a different kind of welfare debate because it included the groups more often talked about than having a chance to do the talking. Representatives ofDisabled People Against CutsShaping Our Lives, other disabled people’s and service user organisations, campaigners and user researchers, were present in force as well as the policymakers, academics and researchers more often encountered.

Natalie Bennett, outgoing leader of the Green party, making the case for a sustainable system of welfare, said that “clearly the neoliberal project has failed. We need to think how political change happens. Real political change happens in big leaps” – and that is what we must work for.

Panellist and social work practitioner Suzy Croft stressed that: “we all need support at some time in our life”, rejecting the division of society into a wealth creating “us” and dependent “them”. Winvisible, the disabled women’s organisation, argued that “disability is work in an inaccessible society”. On the panel, Chris Goulden, poverty lead at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, highlighted the way people with lived experience were increasingly informing anti-poverty discussions and developments.

This was one occasion that demonstrated that there are very different ideas out there about a future for social care and welfare, which come from the bottom up. But they tend to be hidden or devalued and we need foster these green shoots. This is perhaps already beginning to happen. While the media focuses attention on “benefits tourists”, stigmatises refugees and criticises people receiving benefits, social networking is enabling disabled people and other service users to develop their own conversations and new forms of collective action. It seems to me that people are increasingly seeking their information directly by word of mouth, talking face to face, helped by a renaissance in activism and public meetings that was first seen during the Scottish independence referendum.

For me, the key question posed by writing All Our Welfare was, how should people look after each other in a 21st century society? The launch debate showed that there are already many answers in the making – if they are only allowed space to surface. With a new prime minister who talks up rights and social justice, there is no excuse for delay.

Source: The Guardian