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Ed Samuel/

Politicians who would reform the welfare state should listen to those that use it

Current welfare reform policy has been sold, successfully, on the idea that it would save money, increase personal independence and prevent abuse of the system. But rather than save money, the evidence so far suggests that welfare reform has been increasingly wasteful, encourages rather than reduces welfare dependence, and is linked to a rise in suicides and deaths following the withdrawal of benefits after claimants were wrongly judged “fit to work”.

Welfare needs reform, but not in any of the previous directions it has taken – an altogether new approach is needed.

For example, the roll-out of the simplified Universal Credit benefit is now massively over-budget and much delayed. Those seeking help from the welfare system have to present themselves as hopelessly incapable if they are to have any chance of securing their entitlement, which only reinforces negative stereotypes.

Researchers from Liverpool and Oxford universities found that for every 10,000 work capability assessments conducted to determine the fitness of disabled people and those with long-term conditions, there were an estimated six extra suicides, an additional 2,700 cases of reported mental health problems, and general practitioners prescribed an extra 7,020 antidepressants. Almost 90 people a month are dying after being declared fit for work after a work capability assessment, according to the Department for Work and Pensions’ own figures.

These are hardly the statistics we would associate with cost-effective, well-targeted reforms, let alone those consistent with the values we associate with a wealthy western society. They highlight the growing gap between politicians and those using the welfare system at a time of increasing need, poverty and inequality.

When ‘choice’ is no choice at all

They also point to a growing gulf between the consumerist rhetoric of governments like the present Conservative administration, and the rights and needs of people on the receiving end of social policy. Cuts to welfare, social care, the chronically underfunded mental health services, and the benefits system affect millions of people on lower incomes who rely on them – even though today more working age claimants are already in paid employment.

These are not some imagined underclass to be stereotyped as “scroungers” rather than “strivers”. The typical user of the welfare state is “everyman”. In my family alone that includes my niece Hannah (aged nine) who receives an NHS personal budget for her type 1 diabetes, my daughters Esther, a mother of three who got family credit to supplement her income as a local authority worker, and Catherine, who benefited from the local Sure Start childcare scheme, my mother who was offered wonderful free hospice care, and me, who received income support while I was using mental health services. And so on and so on.

Listening costs little and could save a lot. Arthimedes/

Given all the talk common today of “public involvement” and “patient choice”, this rift is hard to reconcile. If we want to provide sustainable social care policies that match the changes in British demographics – with many more older, very old and disabled people – then we need a very different approach. This does not mean a return to the old top-down, “mother knows best” Fabian welfare politics that were so often experienced as demeaning and stigmatising.

Involve more people, gain more insight

What’s required is a participatory approach to welfare, like that pioneered by disabled people and organisations supporting them over the last 25 years, in which the people using the service are listened to for a better idea of how they use the service, how changes effect them, and how they could be improved. What we need is a great deal more of hearing it straight from horses mouth. My new approach is to do exactly that, combining research with the experiences of users of the welfare state aged three to 91, including my own family, who can offer insights politicians would do well to take note of.

My nephew Frank says:

That time spent unemployed and attending the job centre weekly was eye opening … I have paid back the amount I claimed over the period I was unemployed many, many times, yet for the entire time I and others in my situation were encouraged to go after minimum wage, unskilled jobs which would only increase pressure on an already saturated sector of the job market.

In the same way we pay for roads we won’t drive on and street lights we won’t walk under, paying for a welfare state ensures at least a basic level of quality of life and options for people we won’t ever be familiar with, but would wish they would receive if we did know them … offering them sensible and suitable options relevant to their circumstances, and supporting them in their aspirations.

It’s time politicians and policymakers listened to the people for whom the welfare state was created and whose lives to varying degrees depend upon it and listen to what they say. This is more likely to ensure the welfare state survives for the future than relying on their own narrow, inherited and rarely evidenced ideological views. If the state provided the services and support that are really needed rather than those policymakers think are needed would result in better use of resources.

There is already some evidence that MPs are listening more to their constituents when making policy. For the future, we must hope they listen to more of us, more often.

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