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About this book

In this fourth edition of the best-selling core introductory textbook, Pete Alcock and Margaret May provide an essential up-to-date guide on social policy. Continuing with the unbeaten narrative style and accessible approach of the previous editions, the authors explore the major topics of social policy in a clear and digestible way. By breaking down the complexities behind policy developments and their outcomes, it demonstrates the relationship between core areas of policy and the society we live in.

Engaging, accessible and comprehensive, this is the ideal book for introductory courses on Social Policy and the perfect companion for practitioners who need to keep up to date and informed about the latest developments in the field.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Development of Social Policy

1. Introduction: The Development of Social Policy

Summary of Key Points
  • Social policy is a unique subject, but is closely linked to the other social sciences and studied by students undertaking a wide range of social science courses and professional qualifications.
  • Over time the scope of analysis and debate in the subject has broadened, captured in the change in title from social administration to social policy.
  • Academic study of social policy has always been closely linked to policy practice, with leading academics sometimes acting as advisers to government.
  • The creation of the ‘welfare state’ by the post-war Labour government established public services to meet welfare needs.
  • Criticisms of state welfare from the New Left and the New Right have argued that the continued expansion of state welfare is not sustainable. In the last quarter of the last century this seemed to be borne out as an economic crisis led to retrenchment in social policy planning and welfare expenditure.
  • At the beginning of the twenty-first century a Third Way, between the left and the right, was championed by government in the UK.
  • Following the economic recession of 2008/09 there has been pressure to reduce public spending on welfare provision in the UK, and elsewhere.
  • Social policy can no longer be studied solely within national boundaries, and comparative analysis of welfare in different countries has revealed that in different countries there are different mixes of welfare services.
  • It is how this ‘welfare mix’ operates, and changes, in Britain that is the core concern of students of social policy.
  • This mix also varies within Britain now, as a result of the devolution of much social policy planning to the separate administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

Structures and Contexts


2. The State

Summary of Key Points
  • State provision of welfare is an essential element of social policy, for only the state has the power and the legitimacy to act on behalf of all citizens.
  • The provision of welfare through the state has operated both to support economic growth and protect citizens from some of the social problems caused by economic markets.
  • The welfare reforms of the 1940s have sometimes been argued as leading to the establishment of the ‘Keynes/Beveridge welfare state’ in Britain.
  • Expenditure on state welfare grew gradually both in absolute and relative terms throughout the last century, and in particular after the post-war reforms.
  • The British state is made up of an executive (the Cabinet), a legislature (Parliament) and a judiciary (the courts). However, much control over policy is in practice held by civil servants working in government departments.
  • Policy-making in the UK is partly devolved to the different national administrations and to local government.
  • As well as acting as a provider of services the state also commissions and regulates other providers, and acts as a major employer.
  • The continued expansion of state welfare has been questioned by ever-increasing demands for services and debate about the limits of public expenditure on welfare, with significant cuts planned in the early 2010s to respond to high levels of government borrowing.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

3. The Market

Summary of Key Points
  • Markets, or commercial provision of welfare, exist in all countries, but the balance between the state and the market within the welfare mix varies significantly across different countries.
  • The proponents of free markets argue that they constitute a natural social order and that state intervention will inevitably distort this by reducing choice and introducing inefficient monopoly providers.
  • Critics of free markets argue that state intervention is needed to support and control market activity, to ensure that those who cannot afford market prices are not excluded, and to meet those needs which markets cannot address.
  • Private market provision exists alongside public services in all areas of welfare in, including those such as health and schooling where public provision is free for all.
  • In the 1980s a policy of ‘privatization’ encouraged the development of a wider range of market-based welfare, although basic state services were largely retained.
  • Quasi-markets are an attempt to use market principles of choice and competition to shape state welfare practice. They were introduced in a number of British public services in the 1990s.
  • Private investment in public services has been encouraged since the 1990s through joint capital programmes such as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and partnership funding for academies and free schools.
  • In the twenty-first century under Labour and the Coalition, the state’s role as service procurer and enabler has been extended and the contracting out of public services has expanded the role of commercial providers of welfare, especially in England.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

4. The Third Sector

Summary of Key Points
  • The third sector includes voluntary and community organizations, charities, social enterprises and cooperatives. It is broader than, but includes, what has traditionally been referred to as the voluntary and community sector.
  • The third sector overlaps with the other sectors and in particular has a complex and changing relationship with the state.
  • All voluntary organizations require funding and many have complex packages of finance from a range of different sources.
  • In 2010 UK charity income was around £37 billion and had grown significantly over the previous decade.
  • Voluntary organizations vary in aims and structure; they are thus uneven in their distribution and sometimes narrow in their focus. They do not guarantee a comprehensive approach to service provision.
  • ‘Umbrella’ or infrastructure agencies play an important role in supporting and representing voluntary organizations and the sector more generally.
  • Public support for the third sector from central and local government has continued despite the development of state welfare services.
  • Voluntary organizations are being encouraged to bid to take over the delivery of some public services.
  • Government policy has included active promotion of partnership working between the state and voluntary organizations, including the development of a formal Compact to govern relations and considerable investment of public resources to support capacity building and organizational development.
  • The Coalition government sees voluntary and community organizations as a central part of its Big Society agenda in England, although state funding for the sector has been cut.
  • Policy-making in the devolved administrations has largely developed on similar lines to that in England.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

5. Informal Welfare

Summary of Key Points
  • Informal welfare is family, friends and neighbours providing a range of services through helping networks.
  • The continuing existence of informal care and support is assumed by the other provider sectors in the planning of welfare provision.
  • Informal care is not organized or regulated and in practice is based on individual dedication and goodwill or reciprocal commitments.
  • Informal care is sometimes referred to as ‘community care’, although in practice this means care within communities, not care by communities.
  • The form and structure of informal welfare is affected by changes and developments in the other sectors.
  • Support for childcare, especially of very young children, has grown but is still limited despite commitments to ‘family friendly’ provisions.
  • The availability of family members to provide informal care has been affected by broader demographic and social changes.
  • The needs of carers may not be the same as those they care for.
  • Social security benefits are available for those unable to enter paid employment because of caring responsibilities, and other forms of support have also been developed, though these are not extensive.
  • Support for the personal and care costs of adults needing long-term care varies across the devolved administrations.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

6. Devolution and Local Control

Summary of Key Points
  • The UK is only in part a ‘United Kingdom’. There is significant devolution of policy-making powers to separate elected governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Devolution of policy-making has been extended further over the last decade with a referendum on Scottish independence planned for 2014.
  • Local government became established in Britain by the end of the nineteenth century. However, Britain retains a relatively unitary and centralized state structure.
  • Local councils played a key role in the development of much economic and social policy provision, although the extent of local government powers was in decline throughout much of the last century as the balance between central and local control of policy planning shifted.
  • Local authority income is made up of local taxes (Council Tax), charges for services and grants from central government. The balance between these has changed significantly over time.
  • In the 1980s cash limits and cutbacks in government grants were used to control local government, leading to conflict with central government over the extent of local autonomy over service planning.
  • Further reductions in local autonomy have followed from the contracting out of some local services and transfer of housing and schools to independent providers.
  • New initiatives in local governance have meant a shift in the role of local councils from service provision to that of enabling authorities working in partnership with a range of other local agencies.
  • In England the Coalition government has introduced renewed commitments to ‘localism’ with the aim of devolving greater policy-making powers to LAs, and encouraging further ‘double devolution’ of powers to local communities.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

7. International and European Influences

Summary of Key Points
  • Global economic forces now influence economic and social policy in all countries, although the extent of this influence is disputed by commentators.
  • Global agencies play an influential role in determining the development of social policy across the world.
  • Comparative analysis of different ‘welfare regimes’ has extended understanding of the international context of social policy.
  • Policy transfer is the adoption of policy ideas from one country into another.
  • The European Union (EU) was initially developed to promote economic collaboration in Western continental Europe and has since extended across much of Europe.
  • Social policy regimes within the EU are diverse, but member states are committed to elements of joint planning and coordinated practices.
  • EU social policy has developed in phases with shared policy planning becoming more extensive in each stage.
  • EU social programmes target support to regions within the Union with acute social and economic problems, thus leading to a redistribution of resources across (and within) member states.
  • Since joining the EU in 1973 Britain has often been a reluctant partner in European initiatives, and the two main political parties have been divided in their views on membership.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

Key Policy Areas


8. Social Security

Summary of Key Points
  • Social security involves the redistribution of resources within society. This takes place through market, voluntary and informal transfers as well as the provision of state benefits.
  • Public expenditure on social security has been rising both in absolute terms and as a proportion of GDP.
  • Social security is administered by independent agencies under the overall control of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
  • Redistribution through benefits may be horizontal or vertical, and the difference between these also leads to different principles for provision based on insurance or assistance.
  • The development of social security policy has seen shifts between insurance and assistance benefits, with means-testing becoming more prevalent in recent decades.
  • Benefit entitlement varies for different groups of claimants including pensioners, single parents, the unemployed, the long-term sick and disabled and those on low wages.
  • Non-take-up of benefits is a significant problem, especially for means-tested support.
  • Means-testing of benefits also leads to unemployment and poverty traps.
  • The 1997–2010 Labour governments introduced new pension provisions, increased benefits for families with children and expanded the role of tax credits to encourage claimants to move from ‘welfare to work’.
  • The Coalition government has cut social security spending and instigated further changes designed to shift claimants into work.
  • A Universal Credit system is being phased in and other measures to simplify provision and increase private savings are planned, but social security reform remains a complex and highly contested process.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

9. Health

Summary of Key Points
  • Health policy aims both to improve health and treat illness; at times these may lead to different priorities for policy development.
  • Measuring health needs is complex. Mortality and morbidity rates are used for this. They show improvements over time, but continuing inequalities between different social groups and areas.
  • The National Health Service (NHS) was established in 1948 on a tax-funded, universal basis, free at the point of use.
  • The NHS has been reorganized frequently with different structures now found in the four jurisdictions of the UK.
  • There are also significant variations in some aspects of health policy across the devolved administrations.
  • Promoting health and wellbeing at individual and social levels is now supported by governments across the UK.
  • After a period of substantial growth, expenditure on the NHS is being reined back, renewing debates over sources of funding and the rationing of services.
  • Although the NHS is largely free, there are charges for some services, particularly in England.
  • Commercial and third sector organizations deliver services outside the NHS and also sell medical insurance; and in England particularly the use of private finance for capital investment to supplement public spending has grown.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

10. Housing

Summary of Key Points
  • Housing policy aims to balance private housing markets with public housing needs.
  • Fluctuations in the supply of and demand for housing have strongly influenced policy-making leading to major shifts in approach over time.
  • Housing provision is structured by the existence of tenure divisions, the main forms being owner-occupation and renting from public, private and registered social housing providers.
  • Exploitation of private tenants set the scene for the development of housing policy in the early twentieth century.
  • At the end of the First World War government accepted responsibility for providing homes for all households requiring adequate housing.
  • Owner-occupation began to grow with the increasing availability of mortgages, becoming the major tenure in the second half of the century.
  • Public rented provision expanded rapidly after the Second World War, but declined from the 1980s with Housing Associations (HAs) and other registered providers becoming the main suppliers of social housing.
  • After shrinking for most of the last century private renting has recently risen.
  • Private and social housing rents have increased since the 1980s, with tenants on low incomes entitled to means-tested support, although this has recently been cut and integrated into the Universal Credit (UC).
  • House building has fallen significantly since the late twentieth century.
  • Labour’s housing policy in England reflected a commitment to raising basic standards, increasing choice for tenants and owners and, belatedly, boosting supply.
  • Housing poilcy under the Coalition government in England has moved towards a more marketized approach and been closely linked to changes in welfare support.
  • Tackling homelessness has become a major concern for policy-makers, altnough the approaches taken now vary across the UK.
  • Devolution has led to increased differences in housing policy within the UK.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

11. Social Care Services

Summary of Key Points
  • Social care encompasses individual services and social work for vulnerable children and adults in need supplied by local authorities (LAs) in partnership with other statutory, commercial and voluntary agencies.
  • The early development of social care was dominated by voluntary provision, and only in the welfare reforms of the 1940s were statutory services established in LAs.
  • In 1971 provision for children and adults was consolidated into generic Social Service Departments (SSDs); but the 2000s saw a return to separate services in England and in some Scottish LAs.
  • Devolution has brought increasing divergence in some aspects of policy.
  • High-profile media reporting of child abuse has on occasions created pressure for changes in policy and practice, yet agencies constantly have to deal with large numbers of children at risk.
  • Work with child offenders has fluctuated between welfare and justice approaches and both continue to influence policy-making.
  • Both child and adult provision are based on a mixed economy of care involving commercial and voluntary providers and an emphasis on partnership working.
  • There has been a significant move away from residential care to community care tor adults, and to fostering in children’s services.
  • Adult care has shifted to a system in which users are more actively involved in pianning, designing and purchasing services.
  • There is mounting pressure to establish effective arrangements for funaing and meeting adult care needs.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

12. Education

Summary of Key Points
  • There are two contrasting views of education: liberal education and training.
  • Education is a major contributor to the development of human capital and is regarded as a continuing need for all citizens.
  • There are different levels of education provision: early years, primary, secondary, further, higher and continuing, though the last three are increasingly seen in terms of lifelong learning.
  • Education policy has been devolved to the administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and in some respects developed on different lines within the UK.
  • Public schools still offer private education to a minority of children from wealthy backgrounds.
  • Universal state education up to 15 was introduced in 1944.
  • From the late 1960s comprehensive schools replaced the tripartite system of secondary education.
  • A national school curriculum was introduced in 1988 and more power devolved to schools. Recent reforms have changed the former and enabled schools in England to become self-governing Academies.
  • School education aims to guarantee minimum standards and especially in England to provide choice for parents and pupils.
  • Further and higher education (FE, HE) have expanded significantly since the late twentieth century, bringing changes in their funding and governance and, particularly in England, increasing marketization. Continuing education has also become more important.
  • Concerns over equality of opportunity in education have led governments to target extra resources on certain schools or categories of learners.
  • Concerns over standards have led to new modes of quality assurance and performance management.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

13. Employment

Summary of Key Points
  • Employment policy was not one of the major public programmes developed in the welfare reforms of the 1940s, but it has since become a key area of social policy.
  • Responsibility for employment policy alongside social security policy lies mainly with the UK government and has not been devolved to the other administrations.
  • Policy-making has fluctuated between supply-side and demand-side approaches to the promotion of employment.
  • Labour markets have altered dramatically over the past half-century and become more diverse.
  • Women’s participation in paid employment has increased gradually since the 1950s.
  • Since the 1970s governments have pursued more interventionist policies to promote employment, with recent administrations making welfare to work a policy priority.
  • EU policy has been significant in expanding employment rights in the UK.
  • Employment protection has grown in scale, including health and safety, working conditions and provisions against discrimination at work.
  • Employment regulation also covers collective labour arrangements and the rights, and limits, of trade union action.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

Theories and Debates


14. Ideologies of Welfare

Summary of Key Points
  • Ideologies structure our views of the world. They are critical and prescriptive, leading to disagreement and debate about what should be done. Those influencing social policy are called ‘ideologies of welfare’.
  • Ideologies of welfare have often been located along a continuum from left (pro-state) to right (promarket) positions, although not all can be contained within such a simplistic framework.
  • Neoliberalism argues that state provision of welfare is incompatible with free market economic growth and leads to a ‘dependency culture’, although few supporters advocate complete withdrawal of state welfare support.
  • Support for the Middle Way was part of the Butskelliteconsensuson welfare that emerged in the midtwentieth century and also underpins aspects of the Coalition government approach in the new century. They support collective welfare provision in partnership with market-based economic growth.
  • Social democrats believe that capitalist societies can (and should) be reformed to meet the welfare needs of all citizens. Social democracy is generally distinguished from democratic socialism, which advocates the ultimate replacement of all capitalist relations.
  • Marxists argue that state welfare provision within capitalism is inherently unstable and will lead to failure and conflict, although socialist alternatives have not proved viable in practice.
  • New social movements challenge the left/right orthodoxy of welfare ideologies by pointing to other social divisions and socioeconomic issues that underpin welfare policy and practice.
  • Postmodernists argue that single ideological frameworks cannot provide an effective basis for analysis of complex societies, and that ideological analysis should concentrate upon how such frameworks are constructed and influence policy development.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

15. Economic Development

Summary of Key Points
  • Economic policy and social policy are closely interrelated, with changes in one resulting in changes in the other.
  • The need to promote economic growth now lies at the heart of all economic policy planning.
  • Capitalism is based on market exchanges of goods and services and on employment of workers in the labour market. However, modern economies also include non-market provision of some services and state intervention within markets.
  • The laissez-faire approach of classical economics led to hardship and periods of recession in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Keynesian economic planning was based on government intervention to stimulate economic growth at times of low demand and was linked to social policy commitments to promote full employment.
  • In the 1970s Britain’s relatively weak international trading position led to problems of inflation and unemployment which could not be controlled by Keynesian economic management.
  • Monetarists argue that reductions in public expenditure may be necessary to control the supply of money and so reduce inflation within the economy.
  • In the 1980s rising unemployment and a deficit trading balance led to a shift from monetarism to supply-side economics with tax cuts and deregulation aimed at stimulating economic growth.
  • High levels of borrowing in the early 1990s followed by rises in the interest rates charged on loans led to another recession in the British economy.
  • Since the beginning of this century all advanced economies have had to adapt to the need to compete within a global economic context. This led the Labour governments to make control over inflation and the creation of a stable climate for economic growth the core features of its economic, and social, policy planning.
  • In 2008 a global economic recession was triggered by the imminent failure of international banks due to speculation on risky loans and the unsustainable growth of credit.
  • Since 2010 economic policy in the UK has been dominated by government commitment to reduce the future scale of public borrowing by cutting public expenditure. This has also taken even more extreme forms in a number of European countries within the Eurozone.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

16. Paying for Welfare

Summary of Key Points
  • Welfare services must be paid for, although patterns of spending, including public spending, vary widely across welfare capitalist countries.
  • Some economists have argued that there is a ‘trade-off’ between the goals of equity and efficiency in the funding of welfare provision, although this is disputed by others.
  • Public spending decisions are announced in the annual Budget, but they are also subject to longerterm planning by government as part of a regular Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).
  • Public expenditure redistributes resources vertically (between social groups) and horizontally (across the life course of citizens).
  • Taxation includes both direct taxes on incomes and indirect taxes on the purchase of goods and services.
  • Public spending includes subsidies paid to low-income earners, although where these take the form of tax credits they do not appear in public expenditure accounts.
  • Fees are charged for most private welfare services, and charges also play a significant role in raising revenue from the users of some public welfare services.
  • Charitable giving can take a number of forms. It is important to third sector welfare providers but may also be used to support public welfare services, and is now directly encouraged by government.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

17. Social Divisions

Summary of Key Points
  • Britain is a divided society within which the experiences and needs of different social groups are varied and diverse, and may even come into conflict.
  • Class differences linked to economic status continue to divide British society, although social policy has acted to reduce some inequalities between classes and to promote mobility across classes.
  • Gender inequalities within social policy have flowed in large part from the assumptions about the different roles of men and women in employment and family structures, which underpinned much of the welfare reform of the last century.
  • Britain is a multicultural society with a wide range of different ethnic groups whose differing needs and circumstances have not always been recognized within the provision of welfare services.
  • Racism directed at Britain’s black population has led to discrimination and disadvantage within welfare provision.
  • Families with children are disproportionately disadvantaged with around one-third of children in poverty compared to around a quarter of adults.
  • Ageism within social policy planning has led to assumptions about ‘dependency’ in old age and to concerns that the growing proportion of older people in society will constitute a burden on future generations.
  • Disability covers a wide range of different circumstances and needs, but generally means that people with disabilities need support to reach the standards of living enjoyed by others, yet disabled people are more likely to be unemployed and poor.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

18. Delivering Welfare

Summary of Key Points
  • Provision of welfare services is made on both universal and selective bases.
  • Social policy analysis in the past often concentrated upon the providers rather than the users of welfare services.
  • Access to welfare services is ‘rationed’ by a range of formal and informal mechanisms.
  • The bureaucratic and paternalistic nature of some public services has sometimes operated to exclude users from having much control over these services through lack of exit or voice.
  • New Public Management practices imported business management ethos and methods into public service delivery in the late twentieth century.
  • Performance management has sometimes led to a focus upon inputs and outputs within public services, rather than the outcomes of these.
  • Independent audit and inspection of service providers has developed as a means of ensuring public accountability of services as an alternative to individual complaints or appeals.
  • Modernization of public services under Labour led to new commitments to partnership working between agencies both within the state and across different welfare providers.
  • The replacement of government with governance involved a shift from electoral to ‘deliberative’ democracy.
  • Personalization and co-production are being promoted to give users more control over the services they receive.
  • Public service reform now embraces a shift to encouragement of and support for commercial and third sector providers of welfare services.
  • Commissioning of services from non-state providers has been shifting towards an outcome focus and more emphasis on ‘payment by results’.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May

19. The Future of Social Policy

Summary of Key Points
  • The last century saw the establishment of state welfare in Britain and the transformation of the country into a ‘welfare capitalist’ economy.
  • Social policy provision extends beyond state welfare and is best described as a welfare mix.
  • The development of social policy is affected by the political, ideological and economic contexts in which it is located.
  • The impact of economic recession and the public sector deficit have led the government to plan for major changes to British social policy over the coming decade.
  • Analysis of the future of social policy must balance contextual analysis with practical policy planning.
Pete Alcock, Margaret May
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