Is the future of the welfare state really a human rights issue?


Arguments that social and welfare support should be seen as part of the human rights agenda are not backed by popular opinion or the views of those directly involved in this field, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC.

A study led by Dr Hartley Dean, at the Universities of Luton and Nottingham, found working-age adults and social services and welfare professionals can be more likely than current New Labour or 'third way' thinkers to acknowledge people's dependency on one another and that certain human rights are not negotiable.

Like New Labour, however, the same groups also emphasise the importance of individual responsibility when it comes to support from the state.

Dr Dean said: "This individualistic approach to responsibility is about morality rather than ethics. It goes against arguments that social and welfare rights should be seen as part of the human rights agenda."

The aim of the project was to investigate how, if at all, the introduction in the UK of the Human Rights Act and what has flown from it may change the ways in which the welfare state and its future are envisaged.

Two sets of in-depth interviews took place, the first with a cross-section of working-age adults with widely differing incomes, and the second with social security benefits officials and social workers involved in care provision for elderly and disabled people.

The study found that whilst dependency has strongly negative connotations, people accept by and large that interdependency is an inevitable feature of human life. Even when people deny that they are themselves dependent, they may be pleased that they can be of help to others.

While the cross-section of adults generally recognised that certain human rights were fundamental, most felt that social or welfare rights were somehow different. Generally they felt that benefits should be conditional on the contributions the individual has made, and his or her behaviour, rather than provided on a universal basis.

The views of those involved in welfare work were not very different. However, welfare providers were more likely to accept the inevitability of people's dependence on each other.

Benefits administrators were even more inclined to emphasise individual responsibility, though social workers rather less so.

Whilst the administrators erred towards a managerially regulated 'customer service' culture, welfare staff were more accustomed to a paternalistic professional tradition.

The providers of welfare services, as a result of their commitment to a public service ethos, appear to be more supportive of state provision than the public themselves. But because of the threat that human rights laws are perceived to pose to their own freedom of action, they seem to be even less keen on the idea that social and welfare support should come under this umbrella.

The study argues that political claims that state welfare breeds a 'dependency culture' appear - despite social scientific evidence to the contrary - to have been widely accepted by the public.

Politically sustained animosity towards refugees and asylum seekers appears to fuel popular arguments about the limits that should be placed on universal rights to social welfare support, it says.

"On the other hand," said Dr Dean, "in spite of relentless retreat on the part of policymakers from the principles of social insurance, these are widely supported as a way of reconciling individual responsibility with state provision."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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