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Rights and the Welfare State

Author: Simon Duffy

This article was first published by Children England in their publication Outlook. Our thanks for their permission to publish it here also. 

The welfare state should be a way of protecting our basic human and socio-economic rights. In fact it is not organised around the idea of rights, but around the idea of state-given gifts. This will only change when we organise ourselves as citizens to advocate for those rights and take personal and collective responsibility for their fulfilment.

The idea of human rights seems so familiar that we are rather prone to forget why rights are important. At a meeting with government officials in New Zealand I remember one civil servant saying, “Why do you keep going on about rights? Surely there are more important things than that?” to which I replied, “People have spent hundreds of years fighting for rights precisely so they can defend themselves from governments who think they know what’s more important.”

Rights help protect us from the power of the state and of other people. However, this gets trickier when we realise that many important rights mean we don’t just want to be ‘left alone’. Instead we often need to work together to ensure that we have the means to achieve our rights and build a life for ourselves and those we love. 

We can see this in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For instance, the Declaration talks about rights to social security, to an adequate standard of living, to education and the right of the family to determine that education. The Declaration also recognises, in Article 29, that these rights can only be made real if a community also recognises its duties to each other. For it is only these duties that make rights real.

However this way of thinking is almost completely absent from the way in which we think about the welfare state in England. While we may occasionally use the word ‘rights’ what we have really accepted is an entirely paternalistic vision of the welfare state: Government decides what’s important, Government gives us money or services, and our only duty (and we’re not even sure about this) is to pay our taxes.

England is proud of its democratic history, the Magna Carta and its role in defining and defending human rights. But we have applied none of these lessons to the development of our own welfare state. Perhaps this is not too surprising. Given the fear and insecurity created by industrialisation, given the era of revolution, terror and war from which we have only just emerged, it is understandable that our parents and grandparents looked to the state to provide education, work and healthcare. The early achievements of the welfare state were so great, and so important; may be it was too early to examine its foundations.

But today we can see many signs that human rights have not been built into the welfare state and that the welfare state is both paternalistic and fragile. These issues are at their sharpest for people with disabilities and their families. Let us compare the adult social care system in England with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which outlines the meaning of human rights for disability. For example, Article 19 says:

“States Parties to this Convention recognise the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others, and shall take effective and appropriate measures to facilitate full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of this right and their full inclusion and participation in the community.”

Now let us compare this basic human right with the reality of adult social care in England today:

  • First you may find you do not have any entitlement to any support at all. The threshold for support is usually set very high and it is not uncommon for families to find that any support that they offer is counted against them and treated as a reason not to provide state support.
  • Even if you are entitled to support you may find that the means-testing system (called charging) leaves you no better off. People on benefits often find they have to give away their benefits in order to get support. Often it’s just not worth it.
  • Even if you get a service it will be the system that usually decides how you will be supported and who will support you. Often this means accepting congregated day or residential services where you lose control of your whole lifestyle.
  • You can now insist on your right to take your personal budget and control it yourself. However if you do this then you will find that the system continues to place bureaucratic burdens on you, it usually cuts your budget and, at best, it provides minimal support for you to use that budget. In other words, the system makes exercising your rights much harder than accepting whatever the system chooses for you.
  • It turns out that, in a crisis, the Government will bail out the banks, subsidise mortgages for the middle-classes, cut taxes, but it will not protect people’s basic social rights. Social care in England has been cut by more than 30% since 2009 and this has happened with minimal resistance.

The adult social care system is simply not a right-based system - it is a paternalistic system that determines what people need and then gives it them - asking them to be just grateful for whatever is handed out. In the process it expects people to sacrifice their basic human rights to choice, control, privacy and dignity.

We see this most blatantly in the ‘procurement’ of human services where services go through a tendering process to determine who ‘wins’ the contract (usually those with the lowest price). Now there are many flaws in these systems, for they all tend to:

  • Encourage large national organisation to push out smaller organisations
  • Eliminate trust, innovation and flexibility
  • Drive down the salaries of front-lines staff
  • Export profits and leadership out of the local community

However the biggest problem of ‘procurement’ is its complete neglect of the human rights of those who receive support. While it is rarely commented upon, it is surely outrageous that a bureaucratic decision can determine who support me, who I live with, how I live and where I live. How can people with disabilities be sold off in block, by means of what my friend Peter Kinsella called a "reverse slave auction”, where the winner is the organisation who promises to offer support at the lowest price. 

In the end we must realise that declarations of rights, on their own, change nothing. The only way of getting rights into the blood stream of our society is to organise around those right. The disability movement has led the way, but it remains highly fragmented and limited in scope. Ultimately the issue of rights is not an issue for one narrow group - all of us are affected by the weakness of our social rights and by the concentration of power in government.

In the future people, families and their allies in the voluntary sector, need to build a more powerful alliance. We need to argue for change, not just in law or policy, but in our whole constitutional arrangements, in order to strengthen the place of rights in our welfare system. This is something we will only achieve when we recognise that human rights only come to life when we work together to achieve them.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Rights and the Welfare State © Simon Duffy 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.