Welfare reform exhibits a well-known ‘trilemma’: out of the three main goals of policy - helping the poorest, incentivising work and saving, and containing expenditure – it is possible to choose any two but never all three. This, in essence, is why the contributory principle, which was only ever partially embedded in the welfare state, has been consistently eroded by governments of all parties. As John Hills, perhaps the UK’s leading welfare expert, argued in a paper back in 2003:
' under governments of the Left, arguments in favour of inclusion have been predominant, non-contributory benefits expanded and contribution conditions softened; under those of the Right, the emphasis has been on focussing limited resources on the poorest through means-testing’
Those on the political right are particularly prone to criticise what they allege to be a ‘something for nothing’ welfare culture. The celebration of Margaret Thatcher’s reign occasioned by the release of a biopic may therefore be somewhat tempered by the recognition that reforms to pensions and benefits during her time in office were a major assault on the contributory principle. The current Government is making further inroads into what is left. The Employment and Support Allowance is in part a form of insurance against losing employment through ill health. Those who have paid into National Insurance were implicitly buying this protection, but now it is being cut back.
The idea that what you get out of the welfare state might in some way reflect what you put in is not, however, something which should be consigned to history. Reviving this idea might be part of addressing ‘the paradox of entitlement’, the subject of several of my recent posts.
Yesterday saw an alliance of organisations (including the RSA) representing a wide array of interests and views calling on the Government and opposition to work swiftly towards a new funding regime for social care. The Coalition appeared to knock the recommendations of the Dilnot Commission on Social Care funding into the long grass when they were published last July, but talks are forthcoming to try to develop a new cross party consensus on reform.
Social care is in crisis and – as I have suggested in past posts – it may now represent the first major area of welfare provision since the creation of the modern welfare state demonstrably to deteriorate. Many in the sector argue that a new funding regime is the essential prerequisite for creating a more stable system capable of providing decency to all in frail old age.
In a sense the Dilnot package includes a modern form of the contributory principle. The Commission proposed a state guarantee to pick up all social care costs above a fixed limit (£35,000 was suggested by the Commission). As well as addressing the perceived unfairness of older people giving up lifetime's assets to pay for care, through capping the total an individual can be asked to pay this proposal seeks to create the basis for a market in social care insurance. Dilnot also proposed that the means test limit below which people are not required to pay for any care should be significantly increased.
Some on the left criticised Dilnot on the grounds that his package was more geared to helping the middle class than the poor. But any attempt to create a financially sustainable system in which all have a stake involves combining a universal safety net with a partnership between the state and those who can afford to meet some of their care costs.
Another response to an ageing society is the auto-enrolment pensions system designed by Labour but from later this year being gradually rolled out by the Coalition. Indeed in combining individual contributions, employer contributions and a Government contribution (through a tax break) the new system echoes one of the first manifestations of the modern welfare state: Lloyd George’s famous ‘Ninepence for Fourpence’ health insurance scheme unveiled in 1911.
The student loan system too is a form of contributory welfare. Students’ courses are funded by a combination of direct funding and underwriting of loans by the state and income contingent student contributions.
It is well understood that the classic Beveridge model contributory system has largely withered away. It is less often noted that new models and proposals for state-individual contributory partnerships are emerging. Squeezed budgets and rising costs mean that new contributory arrangements are necessary - indeed inevitable - if universal entitlements (including core public services) are to be protected.
An important task for politicians and thought leaders is to explore the rationale, values and expectations necessary to underpin a new contributory principle.