All Our Welfare: A new way forward

An end to ‘their’ welfare reform and a vision of taking forward our own welfare as service users

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of welfare reform or heavy end services like the psychiatric and criminal justice system or residential ‘services’, is unlikely to need telling that policies that are supposedly meant to have a positive or ‘rehabilitative’ purpose, can be a lot more ambiguous, not to say unpleasant.

Social policy imposed from above

Some social policy student text books still talk about social policy as if it was something that was there simply to improve people’s lives. Unfortunately, from the Victorian poor law, through the eugenics movement, Hitler’s Aktion T4 programme which murdered many disabled people, more recent schemes to sterilize people with learning difficulties, right down to our own current so-called ‘welfare reform’ policies, associated with rising levels of suicide, mental distress, homelessness and poverty, we know that social policy can serve negative as well as positive purposes.

A revolution in development

But if such ‘welfare reform’ can be seen as one kind of revolution, another has also been developing over the years. This has been a revolution from the bottom-up, in which people on the receiving end of social policy, including some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized people, have played the lead role. And it is time that this revolution was granted the greater visibility it warrants, although so far, as a discipline, social policy has paid only limited attention to it.

It is a non-violent revolution; a humanizing revolution; a revolution which has determinedly sought to connect the personal with the political and make us all rethink what we mean by social policy and a truly universalist and progressive welfare state.

The emergence of welfare service user movements

This is the revolution whose green shoots first began to appear in the late 1960s, which developed in the 1970s and 1980s and is now a truly global development, with its own movements, organisations, histories, cultures, literature, projects, knowledge, research and pioneers. This is a revolution built from the grassroots by disabled people, mental health service users, older people, people with long term conditions, people with learning difficulties, children and young people brought up in state care and many more. These movements have developed their own ‘user led organisations’; their own ideas and theories for change, improvement and securing people’s equal rights and needs – in all their diversity.

Moving to real involvement in social policy

This isn’t the kind of revolution that makes front page headlines, but it has and continues to lead to fundamental change for all people. And it has had fundamental implications for social policy. Historically social policy has tended to be policy which one group of people have shaped for another – with those on the receiving end often having little chance to be involved in the process or to shape it as they would want to see it. Although overshadowed with rhetoric and false promises, what is fundamentally different about social policy now is that service users and their organisations have put down a marker that they want and should be involved in changes and policies that impact on them. We certainly aren’t there yet, but this is one genie which I believe it will be impossible to put back in the bottle, however much resistance and attempts at subversion it encounters.

Participatory social policy for the future

And it is being part of this movement that has led me to write All Our Welfare, which I think I can honestly described as the first such detailed attempt to offer a vision of a future welfare state/social policy that builds on what many service user movements and organisations have highlighted and already achieved. This is a welfare state not based on paternalism as it was post-war, or on a deregulated market – as current policymakers are pushing for it to be, but a sustainable, environmentally positive, life enhancing, participatory social policy that seriously addresses diversity- in its construction, in its operation and in its provision. This is a welfare state that crucially draws fully and equally on the wisdom of people who ‘know what it is really like’ from their own 24/7 experience.

In the book I have tried to explore the old and the new welfare state from the perspectives of those on the receiving end, including my own and that of my family and countless other service users. I have drawn on the experiential knowledge of service users, treating it as having equal value to traditional ‘expert’ or ‘professional’ knowledge. But most important I have sought to set out in detail how we might have a participatory social policy; what it would look like and why ultimately it would be better, truly economical in a real sense and better for us all and our planet.

I hope that this book is the beginning of a discussion. All comments, ideas, suggestions, improvements will be gratefully received. Thank you.

All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy

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