Producing the next UK White Paper on Welfare Benefits: the Commission on Social Security, led by Experts by Experience
By Rosa Morris (Independent Researcher), Michael Orton (University of Warwick), and and Kate Summers (London School of Economics). Kate Summers (L) and Michael Orton (R) pictured.
This blog introduces a new project which aims to produce a White Paper style document on social security (welfare benefits) through a process led by Experts by Experience i.e. people whose expertise comes from lived experience of the current system rather than professional knowledge. The project is funded by Trust for London.
With Universal Credit making headlines the project is particularly timely, although social security (welfare benefits) is a topic of recurring policy, political and public interest. Central government legislation in the field goes back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws, the new Poor Law of 1834, Liberal Government reforms of the early twentieth century and then a series of Acts in the 1940s establishing Beveridge’s welfare state. The last decade has seen government pursuing an approach of ‘welfare reform’ embodied in the Welfare Reform Act 2013 of which the centre piece, Universal Credit, was first set out in a White Paper in November 2010.
The reason that this project is organised around producing a White Paper relates to criticisms of current debate about social security/welfare benefits, and the inter-linked issue of poverty. For example, Beresford (2017) argues there is a “well-rehearsed conversation” in which:
Researchers who produce ever more evidence about problems that are only too well known seem to think that by telling the government how much damage its policies are doing, it will magically stop imposing them. Or that if they show “the public” how bad things are, then “something will have to change”.
This leads to an argument that those concerned with social security need to take a more solutions-focused approach. Knight (2013) makes a similar point to Beresford, arguing that (in relation to poverty) (Knight, B. (2013) ‘Reframing Poverty’ Poverty 146: 14-17):
Nearly every week a new report appears, setting out some aspect of the problem and how it is getting worse. Reports describe rising debt, reduced benefits…the growing use of foodbanks, but despite this constant stream of commentary, little appears to change as a result.
Knight’s conclusion is that a focus on solutions is required. As he puts it:
The current social science literature is almost wholly descriptive and analytical about social problems, rather than practical and inspiring about their solutions…[what is needed is]…a solution focused literature.
The aim of producing a White Paper is therefore a means of encouraging those interested in the field to think about practical, concrete steps to improve the current system. Rather than producing ‘ever more evidence about problems that are only too well known’ or a ‘constant stream of commentary…that is almost wholly descriptive’ it means engaging in ideas for policy development and thinking through credible suggestions.
The reason the project is led by Experts by Experience relates to another discussion within the literature: the need for a far more participatory approach. The starting point is that debate about social security tends to be dominated by professional and technical experts, not those with lived experience of the system i.e. benefit claimants. Beveridge’s scheme was very much a top-down approach while Universal Credit was developed through work by a think tank, the Centre for Social Justice. The argument is that people with lived experience bring a perspective and expertise that can only be gained by having been a claimant and of which professional experts are ignorant. A parallel might be if issues relating to gender inequality were discussed only by men and women were ignored in debate, or at best allowed to provide testimony of problems but not be involved in policy development.
Thus, Beresford argues in relation to social security/poverty, that people with lived experience are currently used as “sad stories” or to illustrate statistics and that a different approach is required. Beresford contends that what is needed is to provide support for user-led organisations that can speak for people in poverty themselves, with such groups having shown their ability to achieve change with thought-through strategies, including parliamentary, campaigning, virtual and direct action:
user-led organisations point the way to real alternatives to welfare reform [and what is needed is to] support people in poverty to develop their own ideas and solutions for change instead of asking them how awful things are.
Knight takes a similar view, urging that people with lived experience are involved:
through commitment to ideas that bring positive changes in their communities. Rather than being victims of change, such an approach puts people on the front foot, helping to create the changes they want to see.
How to operationalise participatory approaches is, however, not necessarily specified: but it is what the current project is seeking to do. It began with setting up a project inception group consisting of members of two user-led groups, Inclusion London and London Unemployed Strategies. All members of the inception group were currently or recently in receipt of benefits. From the outset the decision-makers were these Experts by Experience. The project inception group worked through options and decided upon a Commission of Inquiry model. The group also took the decision that all Commissioners would be Experts by Experience and a mapping exercise was taken to ensure a diversity of experience of different benefits and to ensure the Commission reflects dimensions of gender, ethnicity, and so on.
The outcome is there are fourteen Commissioners in total, from a variety of claimant/user-led organisations and Deaf and Disabled People’s organisations. The Commissioners bring with them an exceptional breadth and depth of experience. In an inversion of standard power relations, the authors of this blog now serve as members of the Commission secretariat, working at the direction of the Commissioners.
Having established a model and way of working, the Commissioners decided to seek input to development of the White Paper which will be the outcome of their work. Adopting a solutions focus, the Commissioners have issued an appropriately named Call for Solutions, rather than a more standard call for evidence or consultation exercise. The Call for Solutions was formally launched in May 2019 with a deadline for responses of 31 July 2019. The link to the Call is here.
The online form for the Call for Solutions is itself instructive regarding the approach being taken. The questions in the form have all come out of discussions between the Commissioners and as such are informed by direct contact and knowledge of how the current social security system is experienced by claimants, rather than how policy makers view the system. Accessibility has been central at all stages of planning and designing how the Call will work in practice. Thus, the form is in Easy Read and British Sign Language and other formats are also available. The aim is to make the form accessible to people who are often shut out of more traditional ways of participation.
The online form is not the only method of making a submission. There is also a legislative theatre element, a poetry event and workshops are being held in close to twenty locations around the UK. Each will broaden the scope and range of submissions and increase inclusivity – as well as encouraging submissions from technical/professional experts.
Will the approach work? At the time of writing this blog it is too early to say but the process to date has been instructive in itself. The Experts by Experience have proved adept at cutting through complex issues to identify key questions and then express those questions in highly accessible ways. There is no reason to believe similar adroitness will not come to bear in the analysis of responses to the Call for Solutions, production of a Green Paper to consult on and finally publication of a White Paper style document.
Couching the project in terms of producing a White Paper serves as a device for promoting a solutions focus. But as the project develops, there is every reason to believe the outcome will be of sufficient quality to match a government produced document. The lead being taken by Experts by Experience and the emphasis on accessibility means the outcome will be strongly grounded in understanding of how the current system operates, its failings and the ways to improve it. Given the hugely problematic introduction of Universal Credit, the project may well produce a far more viable outcome.
For more information about the commission visit http://www.CommissionOnSocialSecurity.com