As Theresa May’s government continues to bed in, commentators suggest that her approach to social security may be different from the Cameron/Osborne slash and burn approach. But what will take its place and what difference will it make to disabled people? Ruth Patrick reports.
Standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, newly appointed Prime Minister Theresa May declared her mission “to make Britain a country that works for everyone.” She promised that hers would be a Government that would act to make sure that everyone can get on and succeed, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity or age. Disability was not mentioned: let’s hope it was an accidental rather than a deliberate omission.
May has set to work on building this better Britain, with the first meeting of her newly formed Social Reform Cabinet Committee. The Committee, which brings together secretaries of state from nine government departments, will meet regularly. It is charged with leading the Government’s efforts to increase social mobility and deliver social justice for all. In a Britain that has been scarred by successive rounds of welfare reform and cuts in the name of austerity, this is no small task.
Commentators suggest that May could be considering a move away from the budget slashing approach of Cameron and Osborne, particularly on welfare. This would be very welcomed by the many thousands who have been adversely affected by recent reforms. There are also whispers that she might be persuaded by the case for offering more contributory benefits, and so reaffirming the link between previous contributions paid in and benefits received. This was a founding feature of the post-war welfare state under Beveridge, but his system of social insurance has been gradually eroded and downgraded over the years.
Today, measures to focus once more on contributory benefits could be part of efforts to rebuild public support for social security. They appeal to ideas of fairness, where those individuals who have paid into the system can accept more support in times of need.
Certainly, there seems to be a growing interest in the potential of increasing the contributory element within our benefits system. In the same week that May’s committee met, the left-leaning think tank the Fabian Society released a report on the future of social security (pdf download opens in new window) that included suggestions for increasing the role of contributory benefits.
Proposals included giving more of a central role to National Insurance, and increases to employment-related benefits so they are paid at the same rate as the state pension. The Fabians also suggest measures to better reward and recognise the contribution made by carers, and recognise the need to ensure that more of the population is supported to build up National Insurance contributions.
All these proposed reforms suggest a new direction of travel for social security, and one that does perhaps have scope to rekindle some public backing for our much maligned ‘welfare’ system.
But what impact would they have for those disabled people as well as those who are ill who are simply unable to participate in paid employment and so ‘contribute’ in this narrow sense?
It seems likely that such individuals would be excluded from these forms of social insurance and certainly the higher levels of employment-related benefits. Their non-work would see them once again cast aside as non-contributing welfare dependents.
Of course, the Fabians’ focus on trying to better recognise caring within the contributory system is important, particularly given the disproportionate number of disabled people who are also carers. But we also need a benefits system that recognises the other ways in which people can contribute outside of paid employment, through volunteering, providing informal aid and support to friends and neighbours, and through parenting work. Only then will a contributory-based benefits system be capable of delivering a fairer Britain for all, and one of which May’s newly formed Social Reform committee could rightly be proud.