An introduction to Social Policy

Paul Spicker

Social policy in the UK

How to fix the welfare state

The government of welfare in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is a unitary state in which central government substantially directs most government activity. However, the structure of services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland differs in certain respects. Each region has both a Secretary of State and administrative department situated in central government, and its own assembly and executive, which take on the role in the region of certain central government ministries. The laws which apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland are different from those in England and Wales. The Scottish Parliament has in consequence very much more influence than its Welsh counterpart, and the Scottish Government (a name confusingly used for both government and executive) has the role of a civil service for Scotland, with a social policy in its own right. The administrative structure in Northern Ireland is significantly different: personal social services are the responsibility of the Health Board (as they are in the Republic of Ireland) and social security and housing fall under the Department for Social Development.

This framework changes frequently. The most important changes in recent years have been the reformation of the Department of Social Security into the Department of Work and Pensions, the significant transfer of income maintenance to the Inland Revenue (now HMRC, for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs), and the demolition of the Department of Transport, the Regions and Local Government, whose key social policy responsibilities were placed in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and have now been relocated mainly into Communities and Local Government. At Departmental level, there is a wide range of national 'agencies' - not listed in the table which follows - which have specialist functions in relation to issues like procurement, IT and finance; some have expert or advisory roles.

The administration of welfare in the UK

The administration of the welfare state has undergone two major reforms since its inception. The first phase, covering the 1960s and 1970s, saw central government reformed in order to allow the planning and control of public expenditure by the Treasury. The aims of this reform were managerial efficiency and economic planning. The effect was to create a system in which the Treasury allocated resources to departments, and departments to services.

The second phase, which has led in the 1980s and 1990s to restructuring of the civil service and the administration of welfare, was called the "new public management". It has three main elements:

In recent years, the work of many central government agencies serving government, like the DWP's information technology services or the DoH's laboratories, have been privatised or contracted out; the main role of the agencies that remain is direct service provision to the public. The National Health Service in England was reformed in 2012 to permit a higher level of 'commissioning', or purchase of external services.


The powers of the Scottish Government are devolved from Westminster.  The presumption is that all powers are reserved unless specific delegation ahs been made.  Devolved powers include health, housing, social care, education, local government and law. After the referendum on independence, some reserved powers relating to social security and taxation have been devolved (mainly income tax rates and benefits relating to disability), but the bulk of the activity in those areas remains the responsibility of the UK government.  

Currently the responsibilities of Scottish Ministers are divided between

The civil service - also, confusingly, known as the Scottish Government - has been reorganised into "directorates" which do not correspond closely to these briefs.

Despite the nominal division of labour, policy in Scotland is still strongly influenced by Westminster. Economic development is the responsibility of the Scottish government, and aspects of emploability training are being devolved, but individualised employability provisions introduced by the Department for Work and Pensions, and key policies such as welfare conditionality, have been excluded. Although education has been independent throughout the history of the Union, Scotland now has a national curriculum directly comparable to the English system. In many instances, such as the introduction of civil partnerships, the Scottish Parliament has referred decisions to Westminster to legislate under the provisions of the "Sewel convention".

Local government

Local government grew, in England and Wales, from the administration of the Poor Laws. When local services for health, social assistance and education were established during the 19th century, someone had to be responsible for their delivery; the powers were given to the Poor Law guardians, and subsequently this became the core of a reformed local government system. In Scotland, the local administration was more developed, being based on the police burghs, but many of the reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries were driven by English approaches.

Local government lost many of its powers after the war - including responsibility for health, social security and public utilities - and has progressively declined in influence since. The structure of local government was reformed in the 1970s, to form two main tiers (county and district) in most of Britain; in 1996 local government was focused in a single administrative tier, though some two-tier authorities have been retained.

The UK has a highly centralised system of government, and the powers of local government are very limited. Central government exercises considerable controls over local action: they include

The main power local government has is one of conservative resistance, usually in the form of a failure to put central government policies immediately into effect. Political scientists refer to this kind of institutional obstacle as 'veto points'.

The Poor Law

British social policy was dominated by the Poor Laws, first passed in 1598 and continuing till 1948. The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 provided for

The parish was the basic unit of administration. There was, however, no general mechanism through which this could be enforced, and the Poor Law's operation was inconsistent between areas.

Picture: Men in Marylebone Workhouse. Pre-1923 image in public domain.

Men in the St Marylebone workhouse, c. 1903.
Image in the public domain

The changes of the industrial revolution led to the development of the towns, rapid population growth, and the first experience of modern unemployment and the trade cycle. All this caused increasing poor rates. The Poor Law Commission of 1834 emphasised two principles:

The Poor Laws were much hated, and much of the development of social services in the 20th century - including national insurance, means tests and health care - were framed to avoid having to rely on them.

The Welfare State in Britain

William Beveridge

William Beveridge, the architect of
the 1942 plan for social security.

The Beveridge Report of 1942 proposed a system of National Insurance, based on three 'assumptions':

The report became a major propaganda weapon, with both major parties committed to its introduction. During the war, the coalition government also committed itself to full employment through Keynesian policies, free universal secondary education, and the introduction of family allowances. The Labour Government was elected in 1945, and introduced three key acts:

These Acts were timed to come into force on the same day, 7th June 1948. The 1948 Children Act was another important element.

The welfare state after 1948

Cartoon: Two people sleeping rough.

"And when it gets really cold, just remember we're the envy of Europe."

Cartoon (c) Bill McArthur; reproduced by permission.

The key elements of the "Welfare State" were understood as being

Contemporary arguments emphasised the inter-related nature of these services, and the importance of each for the others. However, the administrative division between services was reinforced by reactions against the unifying and all-embracing nature of the Poor Law, which led to a strong distinction being made between income maintenance, health and welfare services.

The 'Welfare State' was not intended to respond to poverty; that was what the Poor Law had done. The main purpose was to encourage the provision of the social services on the same basis as the public services - roads, libraries and so forth - an 'institutional' model of welfare. Criticisms of the Welfare State in later years, however, were to concentrate increasingly on the problem of poverty, and debates in the UK are increasingly residual in tone.

Economic policy

British economic policy 1944-79

In 1944, the coalition government formally committed itself to the maintenance of full employment through Keynesian policies. The economy was seen as vulnerable to the trade cycle, fluctuations in economic development which arose because different sectors of industry were out of phase with each other. To achieve stable growth, governments had to encourage spending during slumps, and discourage it during booms. This stabilisation was not particularly successful. In part, this was because governments lacked the ability to respond precisely and at the appropriate times; in part, too, no government wished to damp down a boom. The problem was known in the 1950s as 'stop go'. However, virtually full employment was maintained, with little inflation, throughout the period when Keynesian policies were operated.

Perhaps more important, certain problems in the British economy were obvious by the late 1950s. Britain was growing more slowly than any of its competitors. It was over reliant on the 'old staples' - coal, cotton and heavy engineering - which were inefficient, outdated, and producing goods with little appeal to consumers. The Wilson government, 1964-1970, attempted to change the balance through economic planning. The Heath government, in 1970, proposed a programme which contained many of the elements of what is now called 'Thatcherism', including a refusal to support industries that were 'lame ducks'. The problems of manufacturing industry - in particular, Rolls Royce, which was essential for defence as well as for the economy - led the government to make a 'U turn' and to support manufacturing industry. However, convinced that traditional Keynesianism did not work, the government attempted a "rush for growth" and flooded the economy with money. The idea was to stimulate growth and to crash through all the barriers at one bound. The conventional Keynesian analysis suggested that this would stimulate the economy to some degree, but production would not be able to keep up causing inflation and the money would be spent abroad, on consumer goods. That is precisely what happened. Without the oil crisis, there would still have been the largest balance of payments deficit to that date.

The mid-1970s were consequence marked by retrenchment and "cuts", though those were cuts in expected growth rather than in actual expenditure. The government apparatus for control, devised during a period of expansion, was turned to the reduction of expenditure. Unemployment grew by the end of the period to one million.

The reformed economy

The Conservative government elected in 1979 undertook to deal with Britain's fundamental economic problem - its over-reliance on outdated industry. The decision was taken to accept the consequences of restructuring, exacerbating the depression, rather than moderating and slowing its effects through counter-cyclical measures. Unemployment more than trebled, from one million to over three million on the official figures, and there was a major shift away from manufacturing industry. Many local economies have never recovered.

Forty years later, the British economy looks very different. Manufacturing, and primary production in particular, have shrivelled. Unemployment has seemed to reduce, but this disguises long-term changes in the workforce - for example, the release from the labour market of people designated as having incapacity or disability, and single parents. There has been a casualisation of a large section of the labour market, sometimes referred to as a 'dual labour market' , but equally involving a growth of marginal employment, characterised by low-paid, insecure and short term employment.

The recession of 2008 emphasised the economy's dependence on the financial sector, and its vulnerability. The claims of government notwithstanding, the UK's economic performance has been sluggish, and inferior to other developed economies such as Germany, Canada, Australia or Sweden. Cuts in public spending were followed by a lengthy period of limited or zero growth. Government policy was presented in terms of 'austerity', and of reducing the deficit in government expenditure.  That implied reduction of economic actvity during a slump.

Further reading

N Timmins, The five giants, Fontana 1996.
P Alcock, Social policy in Britain, Macmillan 2008.
J Baldock et al (eds), Social Policy, Oxford University Press, 2011
H Glennerster, Understanding the cost of welfare, Policy Press 2017
P Spicker, How to fix the welfare state, Policy Press 2022.

The main academic journal focusing mainly on British social policy is the Journal of Social Policy.