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The welfare state is vital, but not as we know it

The welfare state of the future desperately needs to adapt to the demands of a modern economy.

That was the overwhelming opinion of the audience at the first of Brunel’s Big Question debates, held to celebrate the university’s 50th Anniversary year.

Inviting a panel that included Brunel’s own Emeritus Professor Peter Beresford OBE, campaigner for social justice Rev Paul Nicolson, television personality and newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins, and research fellow for the Centre for Policy Studies Harriet Sergeant, it was a passionate debate in which the audience played a key role.

As he introduced the event, chair and Public Services Editor of The Guardian David Brindle said the welfare state was now “at a junction” which called for people to listen to a wide range of issues on a subject that clearly divided opinion.

The first part of the debate, however, was characterised by a number of audience members who exercised their right to peaceful protest about Miss Hopkins’ inclusion on the panel by standing, turning their backs and walking out of the auditorium – leaving the rest of the audience to continue the debate without them.

When later challenged about the response, Miss Hopkins told the audience that, more than anyone, she accepted other people’s viewpoints no matter how far removed they were from her own, adding, “It is one of the most beautiful things there is to listen to alternative views”.

Turning to the role of the NHS in today’s society, the panel debated increasing financial pressures and calls for change.

Ms Sergeant said: “We’re spending a huge amount of money to keep people poor. A cradle to grave welfare state needs to be creative,” adding that people didn’t need a safety net but a trampoline and that the best ideas would come from the bottom, not from the managers at the top.

Miss Hopkins added that the fault of the NHS was that it “isn’t free at the point of need, it’s free at the point of use”, adding that people wouldn’t change the way they used the NHS until others stopped picking up the bill. She said the model of private healthcare adopted by the US was the ideal, and inevitable, solution.

Rev Nicolson, however, defended the NHS as a resource for everyone, saying: “I wouldn’t be here if not for a free NHS.” He agreed that general taxation, though, couldn’t manage the burden forever and called for a shift from general taxation to land value tax.

Focusing on the benefits system, Prof Beresford asked the audience why benefits abuse was always society’s focus, even though tax avoidance and evasion were much bigger problems adding, “Who is being abused here?”

But drawing murmurs from the audience, Miss Hopkins said: “How do we end up having seven children and not be able to pay for them? You can’t afford everything in life…suck it up.”

The debate then prompted one audience member to talk passionately about her own experience of benefits which she said “came at a very frightening time” for her family.

And Prof Beresford responded by saying it wasn’t fair that people felt they had a moral entitlement to condemn others.

In summing up the debate, Prof Beresford said that nobody had talked about “the unbelievably radical changes” that had taken place since the introduction of the welfare state 70 years ago. Those changes to social mobility and gender equality, he said, came from the will of the people and not the House of Lords. Now is our chance to reinforce that as active citizens, he added.

To close the event, Mr Brindle asked the audience to vote on the question of the night – does the welfare state have a place in a modern economy?

An overwhelming majority raised their green cards to vote ‘yes’. But when the question was changed to ‘does the welfare state, in the state we have it, have a place in a modern economy?’ the green cards were almost entirely replaced with red ones.

The Big Question debates form part of Brunel University London’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. Three further debates on big topical issues will be held next year. To find out more about all the events the university has planned to celebrate its 50th, visit www.brunel.ac.uk/fifty.