Futures of Social Policy

Recently I was sat on the train to work and there were a group of people around me, one of whom was American. At one point they passed their passport over to a British member of the group to have a look at their visa. On this was stamped “No recourse to public funds”. The British person asked what this meant. I interjected and explained that it meant that they could get basically nothing off the state – they would only get emergency treatment off the NHS (all other treatment would be billed to them) and if they found themselves destitute or out-of-work then their local authority had a duty to support them under the last vestiges of the Elizabethan Poor Law, but essentially this just means they don’t starve to death before they are deported. The reality of the system is wildly more complex than this, but this is the essentials of it.

 

Why am I talking about this American on my train? In September 2015 the photo of the body of drowned Syrian boy Alyan Kurdi  [warning, link contains distressing images] washed up on a beach in Turkey shocked the world. World leaders, particularly in Europe, were embarrassed into action. German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened up her country to refugees. Prime Minister David Cameron announced an enhanced scheme to move the most vulnerable Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon (where over one million Syrians now live) and Jordan to the UK.

 

Barely a year later, the Daily Mail is poking its long-lenses through bushes in Devon to take photos of children who have been settled in the UK from the camp in Calais called “The Jungle”. These children are not like Alyan, they’re not cute. They’re teenagers who have travelled thousands of miles across Europe, often trafficked by human traffickers who exploit their vulnerability. They have been through hell. If someone took photos of under-18s with a long-lens in any other circumstances, the chances are they would be vilified for offences against children. But in post-Brexit Britain this is the situation we find ourselves in.

 

What relevance does this have for social policy? Why does my American with “no recourse to public funds” matter here? Because it goes to the heart of what social policy is about: who gets what and why? It is also an immediate challenge. For the EU, the movement of displaced people into the single-market and Schengen travel area is one of the greatest existential threats the Union has ever faced. The European Research Council are focusing on this area as a key area for investment in future academic research by universities in the EU. This vast movement of people puts strains on the resources of countries who have to pay to support these people and countries have to decide who deserves such support.

 

As we have discussed in the module, in various ways, welfare state represent a social contract. For example, in the post-war period people gave up their right to individually organise their own welfare through a mix of private, co-operative and voluntary provision, and accepted being forced by the state to contribute to collective responsibility, in return for the social protections this offered. As discussed in the blog post on Marshall, one way of understanding this is as a social citizenship. Marshall’s logic is sound, although it is tainted with what historians would term a “Whiggish” approach to the constant improvement of our lot. Humanity and “civilisation” have progressed through legal and political citizenship to end up with social citizenship; it’s very neat, but not necessarily plausible. Those of you who did coursework essay question one will have been uncovering the fact that the expansiveness of Marshall’s concept of a social citizenship is curtailed by who we define as a citizen. Most obviously, in the post-war welfare state, women and children were only really “citizens” as the wives and children of working men. The breadwinner man was the citizen.

 

So, we have this model of social citizenship, but does this extend to all six billion plus humans on the planet? No, of course not. As I discussed earlier in semester, the easiest way to curtail the notion of citizenship is to put a border around an area and call everyone within it a citizen of X country. And now we get to the crux of why migration matters to social policy. Migrants, by definition, have not contributed, directly through taxes or social insurance payments, or in-kind, to the social citizenship of the country they have arrived into. Yet, the reason they desperately try and get to Europe on flimsy, over-loaded boats across the Mediterranean, is because they see the opportunities that a healthy economy, supporting a good welfare state would provide them. It provides a secure basis for them when they flea the horrors of war, violence and oppression.

 

Yet we do not extend support. These people “have no recourse to public funds”. If you think this is a particularly British issue, this description of Sweden by Hinde (2016: 68-71) will be of interest:

‘The snow is beginning to drift against the chain-link fence that separates the railway line from the woods in the Stockholm suburb of Flemingsberg, a new-build satellite town a short ride by commuter train from Stockholm’s central station. The thermometer is below zero … at the other end of the platforms, a woman in a head-scarf carrying a blue IKEA bag stuffed with cushions head off from the station’s back entrance … her destination is an abandoned bridge abutment stacked with caravans and wood shacks … This little parade of homes houses around 40 Roma migrants … Citizens mostly of Romania, they fit into neither the EU ideals of skilled mobile labour, nor into the diverse group of political and economic migrants whom Sweden’s generous asylum policies seeks to aid … those arriving in Sweden without financial means are forced onto an unregulated black market or compelled to live in temporary camps…’

 

The briefest of internet searches on the ways Australia has treated asylum seekers held in camps on the pacific islands, such as Nairu, should horrify you as to how a country can treat “outsiders” so horrifically – see it in cartoon form here.

 

Of course, almost no country in the world is as vindictive as to refuse help to all foreign nationals. Most countries abide by the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and offering immediate help, support and asylum to people fleeing war, torture of other degrading and inhuman treatment. Even that process though leads to rationing of resources in some way – such as the utterly despicable way some asylum seekers in the UK have to prove they are gay.

 

But, let’s take a step back here. Are in-migrants that much of a burden on the countries they move to? The answer is, pretty much, a resounding no. As the very highly respected National Institute for Economic and Social Research demonstrated, the group that caused so much disgusting hate to be spouted during the EU referendum, migrants from the EU member states (A8 migrants) that joined after 2008, have overall led to a substantial economic boost to the country’s economy. Migrants, generally, tend to be younger than the average population. It also costs a lot to move between countries, and it’s a very disruptive process (if you have felt awkward on a two week holiday in Benidorm when no one speaks English around you, you’ll have a very slight inkling of what this feels like; if you’re an international student at this University, you’ll know even more of what this feels like). Therefore migrants tend to be reasonably well-educated, reasonably well-off. Further when they arrive they tend to do work they are underqualified for, very well, until they are successfully integrated into the society when they might end up doing the work they are qualified to do. This report by my colleagues comparing A8 migrants to migrants from older EU member states, who live in Scotland, shows this. There’s loads of other benefits migrants bring to a country, but you can study that in Marina Shapira’s module in third or fourth year.

 

Further, in the UK with a population of nearly 70 million, the flows of migration we experience are relatively small. So, in sum, we’re not talking about a big group of people, and they largely produce benefits for the countries they end up settling in. And they definitely do not represent a massive burden on the welfare state, or the other social policy benefits of social citizenship (education, healthcare etc.). Why then, we should ask, are this group so vilified? In her book Revolting Subjects, Tyler counts refugees and in-migrants as one of the major groups in British society that are now made abject. We can think of abjection as a social emotion. Disgust is what one individual feels in response to something, or someone, we are repulsed by. Abjection is this on a social level – where social discourses, particularly in the media, make a group the subject of disgust. Other groups would be gypsies and travellers, lone parents. This abjection drives an irrational hatred of the group being made abject, and a feeling of alienation and exclusion on their part as a result of this. This abjection leads to the over-reaction to the issue of benefits for in-migrants and asylum seekers.

 

If we go back to the second lecture of semester, I showed you all my “tax statement”. On this I highlighted the very large section of the expenditure that is given over to pensions. Indeed, the state pension is subject to the “triple-lock”: every year it will rise at the same rate as average wages, prices or by 2.5%. This means that the UK state pension will always rise. This is in a context where other benefits, to working-age recipients, have been frozen, their eligibility criteria reduced, and their conditions made particularly strict and arbitrary. Record numbers of people use foodbanks because they have no other choice.

 

When we consider that giant chunk of UK Government expenditure that goes on the State Pension, and that due to the triple-lock, it will always grow exponentially as part of a shrinking, or static, total government managed expenditure, we might suppose that older people are almost anti-abject. This benefit to older people seemingly cannot be questioned – they have earned it through their working lives; whereas the families who struggle to get sustained employment in an economy dominated by low-paid, low-skilled, insecure employment are vilified as “lazy”.

 

An example of the deservingness of older people is the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. They have been very successful in making one policy decision seem unfair. For over a decade the UK Government has been increasing the retirement age of women in line with that of men (in 1945 these were set at 60 and 65). This is because women live longer than men; women are now working in far greater numbers; and to provide gender equality. One cohort of women, those born after April 1951, have been subject to a particularly large jump in their retirement age. The campaign is fierce, with SNP MP Mhairi Black regularly speaking on behalf of the campaign in Westminster. Most people agree that the communication of the change to women has been quite appalling.

 

What I want to focus on here is many of the arguments made by the campaign – these increasingly focus on the “fairness” that women have “paid into” a national insurance fund therefore they should get the benefits they were promised by Beveridge in 1945 (see their Twitter feed). Another argument is that while the retirement age is increasing, the process of in equalising it means the increase for women is much greater than it is for men. This is quite a different argument to just suggesting that the implementation of the changes was poor with little communication with the women affected. As those of you who did coursework essay question three have discovered, questions of fairness are complex and relative. What is fair to one person may be grossly unfair to another; we end up relying on moral imperatives that are inherently subjective. I could go off on a tangent here to discuss one of my favourite topics, Habermas’ theory of communicative action here, but I shall say you that. Suffice to say, moral, normative arguments are easy to make, but trickier to defend. However, in this case they seem to be persuasive, and many people support the WASPI campaign and the emotive message of “unfairness” that it communicates.

 

But the benefits to older people are increasingly being questioned. Comment pieces that pitch the “baby-boomers” against “the millennials” regular pop up – the latest incarnation being to blame the election of the Fascist Donald Trump on the baby-boomer generation. This generation – like my mum – now retired could take advantage of the high post-war economic growth, low socio-economic inequality, high returns to labour from production in the form of high and increasing wages in return for productivity increases; a house building boom followed by a sustained period of low house-building, inflating house prices; free healthcare; free education. The “millennials” are inheriting a world with disgusting right-wing politics, a completely fucked environment, a limping global economy, and have to pay for the benefits of the previous generation through their meagre earnings in the “gig economy” – as the recent Industrial Tribunal decision against Uber highlighted.

 

This has led to a concern with intergenerational equity – that the older generation are gaining disproportionate unfair benefits. The triple-lock is being questioned even by a House of Commons Select Committee. Do we need to make baby-boomer abject to question their benefits and redistribute resources more fairly? In chapters six and seven of Good Times, Bad Times, Hills provides a resounding no in answer to this question. As he highlights using the Wealth and Assets Survey, the inequalities within generations are far greater than the inequalities between generations. And, it’s fairly obvious, that wealth is something you accumulate over time. I save regularly, therefore I am wealthier each month. This is not, necessarily, unfair on someone ten years younger than me; it might be unfair on people the same age as me who cannot afford to save. What we do see is that successive generations are saving less at any given age.

 

if-chart

 

The longest wave is how this intragenerational inequality is transmitted through successive generations through inheritance – the “bank of mum and dad” – the focus of chapter seven in Hill’s book. This means that many people transmit their wealth through their family – using their wealth to help their children get on the property ladder, for example, further exacerbating existing inequalities. As Hills points out, one of the few things that mitigates against this, particularly in England, is the means test for social care in later life takes into account assets – basically people have to sell their home and use their savings and pension to pay for their care. This is inadvertently progressive – poorer people get their care for free, or at very low cost because of it. And yet it causes uproar: why I have to sell my house I’ve worked hard for to pay for my care?

 

I find this very odd. We can use the experience of council housing to critically question this – back in 1980 over half of households in Scotland rented their home from their local council, as Taylor Swift told you. Yet 30 years later we talk about home-ownership as being “naturally” what people aspire to. Well, inheriting substantial sums from parents was similarly once much less common; the notion that one should pay a substantial Inheritance Tax upon death had support across the political spectrum. Those on the right and left could both see if was unfair for people to have a gross advantage because of their parents’ wealth. Yet now you can win elections on the basis of not taxing the wealth people have worked hard to collect and want to pass onto their children, presumably so their children don’t have to work quite so hard?

 

Further, in the UK we do not really tax wealth. In particular, we do not have an efficient property of wealth tax, therefore if someone invests their income in housing or other property and just does nothing, it is extremely likely to increase in value, without being used, at no major cost to the owner. All of this adds up to a country with growing polarisation – a minority of people with skilled, secure jobs earn enough to accumulate relatively vast amounts of wealth that is then transmitted, and amplified, down the generations as their children do better in education, get better jobs, and use their inherited wealth to increase their own wealth. Meanwhile the majority of people have seen their earnings stagnate, with growing poorly paid self-employment in the “gig-economy” and the proliferation of zero hours contracts and low-skilled shift work. These people simply do not have the income to start accumulating wealth. And yet, to return to the start of this lecture, we focus on immigrants “stealing” our resources in our political rage?

 

So the hear-and-now in social policy is a pretty grim situation. With policies like the Benefits Cap, and the slow roll-out of Universal Credit, it does not look like things are going to get better anytime soon. The political discourse has made all recipients of benefits, except the State Pension, abject. We must get the benefits bill down, so the politicians tell us (on all sides). Changes are marginal: making Work-Capability Assessments slightly less horrific so there’s fewer headlines about people dying after being found “fit for work”; the Scottish Government changing Universal Credit payments to fortnightly, instead of monthly. What is the future going to look like?

 

The current Channel 4 drama Humans actually gives, what many people think, is a likely portrayal of what is likely to happen. Since the 1960s, Minority World countries have seen the number of people employed in manufacturing industry collapse as machines replaced unskilled labour. One skilled worker could control an entire assembly line. This saw shifts of work to the service industries and jobs where the skills of humans were needed. We are now on the cusp of a world where Artificial Intelligence, and more banal technology, will take another swathe of jobs out of the economy. A bank of self-service checkouts in a supermarket can mean you have two members of staff processing 20 customers at a time, rather than just operating one checkout. In systems like railways, humans are now the weakest link in safety – if they were automated they would run perfectly safely until something went only slightly wrong and then the system would come to a halt with everyone safe. The motor industry is investing in self-driving vehicles, and a substantial portion of this investment is going into Heavy Goods Vehicles, that will travel in convoys without drivers, revolutionising the transport of goods. Artificial intelligence could readily replace basic administrative jobs. On my phone, Google Now automatically populates my calendar with train and flight details from the booking emails; it then tells me when I need to leave to get to the station or airport on time. It listens in the background and when, after I’ve been chatting about something it will automatically fill in the search bar for that topic. It is my PA. You might think this is fanciful – that the unique skills that a human has could never be replaced. But think about a lot of jobs, and they are actually very basic processes that would be easy to automate. Last year a report by researchers at the University of Oxford and the consultants Deloitte caused quite a stir by highlighting just how many jobs might go.

 

What does this mean for social policy? Firstly it means the delivery of policy will be very different. One of the challenges with the implementation of Universal Credit has been the idea that the Department for Work and Pensions would collect live income information on claimants and adjust their UC payments on a monthly basis. This is almost impossible at the moment. It probably won’t be impossible sooner than you think. It’s not inconceivable that in a decade, electronic monitoring in someone’s home, and their health data collected from their mobile devices, can be combined with an artificial intelligence asking questions to develop a care plan, monitor it on an ongoing basis, and alter it when care needs change. This might seem inconceivable, almost unethical now, but it is what is being worked on.

 

Also concerning for social policy is the predictions of the millions of people who will lose their jobs. Will we see the division between those with high skills that can’t be automated (including those that actually build the AI) and others who are left unemployable? One response to this, which I discussed with Professor Kirstein Rummery, is the idea of a Basic Income. The idea is that this would stop people from literally dying, and allow them to explore the creative opportunities of the new economy. There is growing support for a Basic Income, and experiments keep proliferating, the latest being in the Canadian Province of Ontario. Most of the pros and cons of these schemes are discussed in my earlier podcast. The trouble is, it hasn’t been done yet, so we don’t have evidence about what the impact might be. Rather we can just philosophise and theorise on whether it is right-or-wrong.

 

To wrap this lecture up and try and make some sense of the journey we’ve come on, let’s try and conclude. Changes in our world and our global context are putting pressures on our social policy policies and frameworks; I used the example of the wars across the world causing people to flee, but in future this is just as likely to be sea-level rises caused by global warming. And our policy discourses focus on this, and policy is made on the basis of a very small number of people making a very small impact on an overall budget of many billions of pounds. Is this what we should be debating when we consider social policy? No, basically. There are bigger challenges we face right now in terms of socio-economic inequalities and how resources are distributed in our society that we need to have a debate about. The question might be, in our current post-truth world, can we have such a discussion without resorting to discourses of hatred and abjection? If millions of working people are thrown out of work by automation, who are they going to blame?

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