The launch of a new book, All Our Welfare by Peter Beresford, Brunel’s Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, has been held in Westminster with a high profile public debate.
The discussion was chaired by David Brindle, Public Service editor of the Guardian, and the panel line up included Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, and Brunel alumnus; Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party; Chris Goulden, Head of Poverty at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Suzy Croft, social worker and former board member of the College of Social Work and Chair of the Association of Palliative Care Social Workers; and Professor Beresford.
The subject of the debate was: How Should We Look After Each Other In Twenty First Century Society.
John McDonnell commented: “It is not often that you read social policy books with tears in your eyes but that’s what this book did to me.
“I have absolute admiration of the welfare state created by the Atlee government, by the experience of the war, and the 1930s. It should never happen again,” he said, adding, “The welfare state transformed our lives.”
He recalled that his family moved into “a council prefab and then a house with Parker Morris standards. It was a day of celebration. You had trade union rights, two thirds of wages were controlled by collective bargaining. You had access to the law. Looking back on it now, it’s almost Nirvana,” he said.
By contrast, he remarked: “We have seen the systematic dismantling of the welfare state.” Referring to Professor Bereford’s book, Mr McDonnell said that the users of the welfare state should have a greater say in the development of its future shape.
Echoing the theme of the meeting, Natalie Bennett called for “the feasibility of a sustainable system of welfare.” She said: “Real political change happens in big leaps and that is what we must work towards.”
Suzy Croft stressed that “we all need support at some time in our life,” and she rejected the division of society into a system with a wealth creating ‘us’ and dependent ‘them’.
On the panel, Chris Goulden highlighted the way people with lived experience were increasingly informing anti-poverty discussions and developments.
This was a very different discussion to those dominating the headlines, where the focus has been on cutting benefits, criticising people receiving them and attacking refugees as ‘benefits tourists’.
Here, the voices of disabled people and other service users were equally represented and instead of the talk being about the failure of the welfare state it was about how it could become more helpful and empowering for the future.
Summing up, Professor Beresford said: “The welfare state was not about any one service or policy. It gave us the NHS, it gave us art for all, it gave us decent housing for ordinary people. It was about helping people make the most of their lives. It was about putting an end to economic depression and mass unemployment and equalising everybody’s chances.
“And it worked. It created wealth instead of leaving people dependent. What writing All Our Welfare has helped me to understand is how we can build a welfare state for the 21stcentury. It has to be one which values all our diversity, and one that enables us all to be involved in improving all our welfare.”
The well-attended meeting included many disabled people and other service users, including representatives of Disabled People Against Cuts, Shaping Our Lives, the Mental Health Resistance Network, WinVisible, the organisation of disabled women, as well other campaigners, researchers, policymakers and activists. These included Mo Stewart, a disabled researcher on welfare reform; Danny Dorling, Oxford Professor of Geography, as well as some delegates from abroad.
All Our Welfare: Towards Participatory Social Policy, by Peter Beresford, is published by Policy Press (ISBN 978-1447328940)
The book launch is linked to the Discover Society blog
and to the publisher’s website