Why we need a new conversation about social security

This moment of opportunity to explore post-pandemic futures will pass, so it’s urgent that people’s lived experience is part of a new conversation about how we build a better social security system. Ruth Patrick and Jim Kaufman, of the Covid Realities research programme, talk about the steps needed to make that happen.

As the October £20 cut to Universal Credit looms, calls for the increase to be made permanent and extended, for example to those claiming legacy benefits or subject to the benefit cap, are growing. Earlier this week, Sir David Freud, a former Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, and key architect of Universal Credit, added his name to these calls, also arguing that increases made to Housing Benefit should be kept and that cuts to social security made after 2015 were a mistake.

While it’s undoubtedly positive to hear Freud make these calls, we need to look carefully and critically at who is being included in, and excluded from, conversations about the future of social security post-pandemic. Too often, talk about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’ relies on a narrow range of elite perspectives and forms of expertise. We hear a great deal from politicians, think tanks, and third sector representatives, all of whom have important expertise to share. But we hear rather less from those with other forms of knowledge and expertise, most importantly, the expertise that comes with lived experience of poverty and reliance on social security for all or most of your income.

Covid Realities is a major research programme working in partnership with parents and carers living on a low income to document and share their experiences of the pandemic through online diaries and discussion groups. As part of this programme, we have worked hard, and with parents, to create a safe, virtual space for people living on a low-income to come together, share their experiences and develop both practical recommendations for change but also a broader vision for a fundamentally different (and better) social security system.

The participants in Covid Realities understand better than anyone the practical realities of how and where the existing social security system does, or doesn’t, work. These people also understand better than anyone the impact that changes to the system can make, for better or worse. We are working with parents like Winter, who articulates the impact a £20 cut Universal Credit would have:

(It) is the difference between paying our bills and not being able to pay some of them. And if one-off expenses crop up (such as)... new shoes for kids...then you can’t cover it. Any changes to benefits are very stressful.

Alongside specific observations and recommendations, participants also engage in discussion of the principles and visions that underpin social security policy. We are working with parents like Catherine, who wants to see radical changes to social security in the coming months and years:

We’re asking for a fundamental change in the way we are seen and treated within the system. We want to be respected enough to not have to prove ourselves at every single turn. We want enough money to live on so we can concentrate on improving our lot.

When we exclude the voices of people like Catherine and Winter from debates about the future of social security, we miss out on vital expertise. This applies both to the specific social security policy context, but also to broader discussions about how we craft a more compassionate and socially-just Britain post-pandemic. Against this context, talk of the need for a second Beveridge report, presumably led by an ex-civil servant or ‘leading expert’, seems regressive and unambitious. Instead, we need a more expansive and inclusive conversation that incorporates a true diversity of voices and perspectives.

If the Government really wants to ‘level up’, it must attend to how change happens, as well as what needs to change. Here, there is a need for an imaginative processes of engagement that recognises different forms of knowledge and expertise, and is capable of undermining the stubborn and unwarranted differences in power and authority that often exist between them. These processes must also be able to address barriers to participation, which cannot be assumed. It should not surprise any of us that much can be learned here from what is already happening among groups led by people with lived experience – the pioneering work of Poverty2Solutions for example, or the APLE Collective, that brings together lived experience groups from across the UK.

We all have a role to play in making the conversation about the future Britain we want more inclusive. In our own spheres of work, for example, we can seek to open-up the debates we are already having, and be ready to be critical or, even better, suggest positive change when invited to participate in narrow discussions that are exclusive and exclusionary. Admittedly, none of this is easy, but the most important things often aren’t.

We also need to find ways of talking about the importance of keeping, and even extending the £20 increase to Universal Credit, while also exploring broader, more radical proposals for reform. This might include action to improve the way people are treated by the social security system, something which experts by experience repeatedly emphasise as particularly important. It might also include discussion of the appropriate place for welfare conditionality and sanctions in a reimagined social security system.

Clearing space for the broader debate whilst also addressing immediate, time-sensitive policy issues is challenging. It is also essential if we want to actively shape the future of social security in line with our aspirations. Making the immediate case against the £20 cut to Universal Credit needs to form the basis of a broader case that social security is an essential and positive part of a decent and socially-just society. There is an urgency to this, given the impending cut in October, and the sense that this moment of opportunity to explore post-pandemic futures will pass. That urgency should motivate us all to act; doing what each of us can to both broaden the scope of these debates, and who is involved in them. We can and must work together to create a new conversation about how we build a better social security system.

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.