A radical process leads to radical proposals for a better social security system
by Michael Orton
Readers of Rethinking Poverty are warmly invited to give their views on proposals for a better social security (welfare benefits) system. The proposals are from a project called the Commission on Social Security and are available here. They offer a radically simplified system: a Guaranteed Decent Income, Child Benefit as a main pillar, an entirely new start on Disability Benefit, and benefit rates based on Minimum Income Standards.
The process behind the proposals is equally radical. All the Commissioners are Experts by Experience, ie people with lived experience of the benefits system, and the project follows a consensus-building approach including accessible, widespread consultation.
The Commission on Social Security project
The project came about as a result of many different conversations, between lots of different people over a long period of time. Those conversations revolved around a number of recurring themes:
- The current social security/welfare benefits system is failing.
- Identifying problems is not enough – setting out a more progressive system is a necessary first step in seeking change; in other words, a solutions-focused approach is required.
- Experts by Experience must be central in policy development.
- If major change is to happen, lots of different people need to start saying the same thing, so building consensus is vital.
These themes will be familiar to many. Barry Knight(1), for example, has previously argued that
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.
[people with lived experience need to be 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.
These points came together in 2018 when Trust for London agreed to fund a project based on the above themes. The project began with two non-negotiables: the aim was to set out proposals for a better social security system, in the form of a White Paper-style document, and Experts by Experience must take a central role. Beyond that, everything was up for discussion. The funding application was submitted by three people: Michael Orton (a researcher at the University of Warwick and author of this blog); Ellen Clifford (then at Inclusion London, a Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisation – DDPO) and Nick Phillips (coordinator at London Unemployed Strategies, which supports development of claimant groups).
Experts by Experience in the lead
To ensure the project not only includes Experts by Experience but is led by them, a Project Inception group was formed comprising people with lived experience of the benefits system. They were involved via Inclusion London and London Unemployed Strategies. Initial decisions of the Project Inception group included:
- A Commission of Inquiry model would be used.
- All Commissioners would be Experts by Experience.
- A secretariat, working under the direction of the Commissioners, would be set up.
The Project Inception group devised a matrix to ensure Commissioners reflected experience of different elements of the benefits system and different dimensions of equality. Through the group’s networks 16 Commissioners became involved, from a variety of claimant and user-led groups and DDPOs.
The Commission was launched in May 2019. Rather than making a standard call for evidence typical of Commissions of Inquiry, Commissioners chose to emphasise the solutions focus and instead issued a‘Call for Solutions’. A topic-based approach was used, covering core issues such as Universal Credit, sickness and disability benefits, sanctions and so on, inviting the submission of ideas and suggestions for how to improve the current system.
From the outset Commissioners sought to make their work as accessible and inclusive as possible, encouraging input from groups whose voice is invariably not heard in public debate. The Call for Solutions was therefore produced in Easy Read format with accompanying British Sign Language videos and audio. A series of workshops were held plus a legislative theatre element and a poetry day.
Outcomes of the Call for Solutions
Over a thousand responses were received to the Call for Solutions, with two key outcomes. First, the Call asked people what they thought of five principles which Commissioners had identified as needing to underpin social security. The response was overwhelming agreement. The five principles therefore became established as the basis for the Commission’s work. The social security system must:
- Make sure everyone has enough money to live – and to support extra costs, eg to do with disability and children.
- Treat everyone with dignity, respect and trust, and the belief that people should be able to choose for themselves.
- Be a public service with rights and entitlements.
- Be clear, user-friendly and accessible to all, involving people who have actual experience of the issues, from all impairment groups, in creating and running the system as a whole.
- Include access to free advice and support. Make sure people can access support to speak up, be heard or make a complaint.
Second, the Call for Solutions gave Commissioners a robust and rich basis for identifying areas of potential consensus. Commissioners devised their own coding framework to analyse responses. They then developed a series of briefing papers and took an iterative approach to them, drilling down to core issues and ideas.
The result is a series of proposals which are now out for public consultation (the deadline for responses is 31 October 2020). As noted above, the proposals offer a hugely simplified system including a Guaranteed Decent Income, Child Benefit as a main pillar, a new start on Disability Benefit, and benefit rates based on Minimum Income Standards. The consultation form is again in Easy Read with British Sign Language videos and audio. A programme of small-scale discussion events is taking place with groups such as Unite Community branches and Disabled People Against Cuts. A number of open sessions will also be held(2). Additional work is being done with a number of grassroots groups including one in an area of multiple deprivation in the North East, a disabled people’s group in East Anglia and the Bangladeshi community in East London.
Initial lessons from the project
The Commission on Social Security project stands as an example of a radical inversion of standard power relations: the Experts by Experience are the decision makers and other experts work as directed by them. A great deal of learning from the project will be captured in a forthcoming evaluation but there are a number of points that can be immediately highlighted. First, having Experts by Experience as Commissioners cut through organisational and interest group silos and fragmented debates about poverty, instead providing a holistic perspective. Second, there is a big emphasis on accessibility, and Commissioners set themselves high standards here. Not only are public documents produced in Easy Read but so are agendas for regular Commission meetings. Personal assistants and British Sign Language interpreters are employed as required.
Most importantly, a focus rooted in lived experience of the benefits system does provide some different perspectives to top-down policy development. To give just one example, in discussions about Universal Basic Income a key selling point is that it would be non-means-tested. However, from a claimant perspective means-testing would not end because it would still be required for housing and council tax support. Thus, what is considered a major advantage of UBI appears less so from a claimant viewpoint. When lived experience is of every penny counting, the greater priority is Minimum Income Standards and ensuring that those who need it most get as much money as possible.
The Commission has another year to run. Once final proposals are agreed there will be a major campaign based around the final White Paper-style document; this will include building an influencing network. But the first step is having something to campaign for and that’s what the current consultation is about. While the Commission takes the view that it is imperative that people with lived experience are central to new policy development, that’s not to say that only people with lived experience are involved. The Commission secretariat includes academics and practitioners, and input from advice workers, policy makers, pressure groups, think tanks, charities, trade unions and so on is all greatly welcomed. Readers of this blog are indeed warmly invited and strongly encouraged to contribute to the consultation using this link by the 31st October 2020.
- Barry Knight (2013) ‘Reframing Poverty’, Poverty 146: 14-17.
- For details of small-scale discussion sessions, and to join the Commission mailing list, please email Michael Orton at Orton@warwick.ac.uk.
Michael Orton is a researcher at the University of Warwick and Secretary to the Commission on Social Security.