Welfare has a future yet

August 28, 1998

Howard Glennerster's article ("Priorities for welfare", THES, August 7) raises issues that go to the heart of current debates.

He points out that although real incomes and consumption standards, at least for the better-off, have risen sharply over the past two decades, state spending on education, the National Health Service, social housing, benefits, pensions and the rest of the welfare state has remained roughly constant.

The result is that, despite the considerable efforts of administrators and policy-makers, standards in state welfare fall behind what is available (at least, to more affluent groups) in the private sector.

He concludes that the only viable future is for the welfare state to focus on its core business (health care, schools and the poor) and involve the private sector and private funding in everything else - a message that is in tune with government thinking.

This is a counsel of despair. Many people cannot afford to pay the full costs of university education for their children (if that is to be a mass service), social care in old age, sickness, disability and pension insurance, let alone all at the same time. The fiasco of personal pension mis-selling should warn us of the risks involved in enlisting the support of private agencies. One solution to the problem of stagnation in state welfare spending is to increase the amount spent - perhaps to the levels found in the major European Union member states.

While affluent minorities may be in a position to turn their backs on state welfare, there is ample evidence that the mass of the population is willing to pay higher taxes for better services, provided government can convince them that they will actually get improvements in provision that they value in return for their money.

The call for a retreat to "core business" is premature.

Peter Taylor-Gooby, Professor of social policy, University of Kent

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