12 August 2021

Changing social security for the better

“We’re asking for a fundamental change in the way we are seen and treated within the system. We want to be respected enough to not have to prove ourselves at every single turn. We want enough money to live on so we can concentrate on improving our lot. We want the common courtesy of advanced notice, clear explanations, appointments on time, and reciprocal understanding when things don’t happen as planned. We want work coaches to actually support us, encourage us, and believe in us. We want to be met with dignity and respect, as equals. If society sees the government viewing us differently, supporting us properly, treating us well, caring about us, then slowly it will too. Remove the stereotypes and talk to us as equals. Not scroungers. Not lay-abouts. Not uneducated. But as human beings, just like you, trying to do the best for our families, just like you.”
Covid Realities participant, extract from speech at parliamentary event, March 2021

In March 2021, parents and carers living on a low income met with parliamentarians over Zoom to mark a year of lockdown. At the meeting, facilitated as part of the Covid Realities research programme, parents set out what they believe needs to change if the future is to be a better one for all of us.

Catherine’s powerful call for change, articulated in the meeting and reproduced above, echoes arguments that she and other parents and carers taking part in Covid Realities have been making since the research programme began in April 2020. Her call to be treated with humanity and dignity, and for her family to receive an adequate income on social security, is at once modest and yet simultaneously radical, going against the grain of recent policy making.

COVID-19 has exposed the profound inadequacies of our social security system, hollowed out after a decade of cuts. But it also provides a unique opportunity for fundamental change, as demanded by Catherine. Campaigners have seized the moment, driving home the message that the temporary gains achieved during the pandemic – most notably, the £20 increase to universal credit – must be made permanent.

Without question, the £20 increase must be maintained. But we also need more radical and fundamental changes: to the social security system; to the values that shape it; to the way that people are treated within it; and to the expertise which is valued in the building and development of it.

As Catherine suggests, there is a vital duty for the government to uphold people’s rights and treat them with dignity. If our politicians show - through their policies and their rhetoric - that they recognise the contributions made by all in society, including those currently in receipt of social security, then we may start to see wider changes within society.

There is also a role for academics, for campaigners and for the media to pay attention to whose voices are included (and critically excluded) from debates about the future shape of our public services and social security system. As we emerge from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to interrogate and change our social security system. All of us can learn a great deal from the ambition and analysis of those, like Catherine, with direct experience of social security who set out a radical and hopeful agenda for a better system for us all.

This project was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.

Stephen Andrews
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