Rhetoric and Reform

Rhetoric and Reform

The rhetoric surrounding the Brown government’s latest plans for welfare reform – published in a green paper today – has been fascinating. As Polly Toynbee notes in the Guardian, James Purnell has been spinning like crazy ahead of its publication, with wildly different messages for different audiences, though as she points out, the overall message was simply ‘tough, tough, tough’.

Like practically every secretary of state responsible for social security in the post-war era, Purnell claims his reforms hark back to the principles of Beveridge. (The most notable example here was John Moore who, when defending Thatcher’s reforms of the late 1980s, suggested that the slashing of benefits for 16 & 17 year olds was a return to Beveridge on the grounds that Beveridge’s original plans had not covered people under the age of 18.) Purnell’s arguments rest on the claim that Beveridge’s deeply held principle of individual responsibility has been ‘left… out of the equation‘ of social policy, being overlooked from the 1960s onwards. (To stress his Beveridgean credentials on this, Purnell begins his foreword with a direct quotation from the Beveridge report.)

It is striking, as Toynbee again notes, that this line of rhetoric foregrounds so many of the core criticisms of welfare that the right have made since the 1970s and downplays many of the more nuanced parts of the proposals the government make in the green paper; as such, ‘Purnell missed the chance to take ideas about welfare away from endless punishment into Labour terrain, showing what really works in easing impoverishment, illiteracy, and all that leads to unemployment’.

Brown’s introduction to the paper sings from the same hymn sheet, arguing that ‘In 1997, this Government inherited a welfare state weighted heavily towards rewarding and supporting people who were not actively seeking to improve their situation’. He then talks tough while dodging the normative debates, blaming it all on the out-of-control macro forces – ‘in a globalised world, we simply cannot afford the high price of large numbers of people on benefits’ – before rounding off with some classic competition state style rhetoric: ‘we need people in work, making the best use of their talents and helping us compete’.

So far, so clear, but this little passage in Brown’s introduction struck me as being rather bizzare:

‘These reforms will ensure we have a world-class welfare system that maximises the numbers in employment and minimises the numbers on benefit. They reflect our drive towards world-class public services across the board – delivering personalised services tailored to individual needs, giving more freedom to frontline professionals and increasing people’s control over the services and support they choose to access’.

Ah… the rhetoric of ‘world class’. What does it mean in this context? And how might it be measured or benchmarked? And how does more conditionality in social security tie in with giving people more control over world-class public services? And is it really possible to combine giving more freedom to frontline professionals while also increasing people’s control over the services these professionals deliver?

I foresee a thousand new social policy essay questions…