IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Topic: Welfare and social security

A General Election to Challenge – or Intensify – Neoliberalism?

📥  Brexit, Political ideologies, Welfare and social security

Dr Bryn Jones is Senior Teaching Fellow in the University of Bath's Department of Social & Policy Sciences. Professor Mike O'Donnell is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Westminster.

Public sector retrenchment, deregulated markets and corporate takeovers of public and civil society spheres are contested topics in this election. Yet the protagonists do not directly acknowledge that these arise from the disruptive effects of the generation-long, neoliberal system.



Neoliberalism still underlies the current social unrest and political crisis – but its ideological hegemony is under threat. Trump, neo-nationalist populism across Europe and Brexit all express popular angst caused by neoliberal processes: de-industrialisation, public sector austerity, worsened living standards and insecure and/or poorly paid employment.

The stances of the main parties in the election reflect different orientations to this crisis. The Labour manifesto tends to over-emphasise selective aspects of neoliberal rule in order to project more statist alternatives. The orientation of the Conservatives is more tortuous.

Their manifesto hints at ideological retreats from neoliberalism. Yet an explicit rejection of ‘untrammelled free markets’ and ‘the cult of selfish individualism’ is not matched by any general reversal of fiscal austerity, or by increases in genuinely public sector activity, or reversals of privatised and corporate control of the servicing of public and personal needs.

A ‘Hard Brexit’

Thanks to an adroit move to capture the forces behind the fading UKIP project, the Tories are making a virtue of a ruthless break with the EU systems of regulated markets – even though such a ‘hard Brexit’ would mean more neoliberalism: subjecting British businesses, public services and workers to the rigours of harsher international trading arrangements, with greater freedoms for corporations from taxes and regulation. Labour’s more activist state framework of re-nationalisations, higher public spending and selective tax increases directly attacks key elements of neoliberal governance, but has two significant weaknesses.

Firstly, its ‘retro’ character ignores the fiscal and governance flaws in the traditional social democratic (SD) paradigm that enabled neoliberalism to discredit and supplant SD institutions. Secondly, Labour’s proposals lack a distinct and unifying thematic which attacks the core of the neoliberal paradigm in voter-friendly terms. Labour’s tepid stance on Brexit outcomes reinforces this weakness. Rather than confronting Theresa May’s tough Brexit position, Labour claims, unconvincingly, that it is not a defining issue. In short, in a period of acute national uncertainty and division some of Labour’s solutions look dated – ‘back to the future’ rather than innovative and timely.

Useful Ambiguity

The Conservatives’ strategy has been to surf the populist wave: flaunting a hard Brexit and severing trading agreements with the EU. Yet in other contexts May advances onto Labour territory: promising not only novel SD elements such as vague promises of worker representatives on company boards, but also guaranteeing to maintain EU-enshrined employment rights.

Such policies may be chimerical but their reportage creates useful ambiguity: even the TUC gave them guarded support. How are voters likely to react, and will the opposition parties’ campaigns at least open up neoliberalism’s hegemony to popular challenges?

Polls suggest a large Tory majority, a corresponding loss for Labour and modest gains for Lib Dems with little or no further progress for Greens, UKIP and the SNP. Such a Tory landslide depends on three plausible but uncertain conditions.

  1. May wins seats outside the Tory heartlands and votes from erstwhile Labour voters.
  2. Corbyn’s Labour fails to win, or loses support of, traditional and potential supporters: disadvantaged working classes, youth, minorities etc.
  3. The Lib Dems’ appeal to ‘Remain’ supporters from the EU referendum fails to convert into enough votes or seats.

Momentum and the progressive alliance

Labour’s massive advantage in terms of activists on the ground, especially its Momentum praetorian guard, could mobilise latent Labour voters to preclude the first two of these conditions. Other potential grass-roots checks on a sweeping Tory victory could be belated surges of voter registration amongst the young, transient and often politically disenchanted, promoted by the numerous tactical voting campaign groups, some derived from the EU Remain movement.

A further positive development is the necessarily belated launching of a Progressive Alliance. Supported by cross-party politicians and civil society activists and organisations, it aims to promote tactical voting to return sufficient progressive MPs for democratic checks on a potentially all-powerful Conservative government.

Together these initiatives could hold off Tories in marginal seats. Finally there is the question of whether the Tories ‘air war’ supremacy – financial and media superiority – can maintain a discursive integrity, avoiding internal dissent or refutations from opponents.

These political and ideological ramifications reflect the broader societal conflict over the neoliberal regime, with civil society forces trying to resurrect the public sphere and curb the dominance of the corporate and financial establishment, which Conservatives covertly seek to strengthen through Brexit. The worst-case Parliamentary scenario for the opposition parties would set back progressive alternatives rooted in equality, community, environmental and democratic reform movements.

Their common core is the pursuit of the cumulative emancipation, amelioration and improvement which flourished under post-war social democracy and post-60s social liberalism. Thomas Marshall placed the early upsurge of this project within a three-stage progression through the acquisition of legal, political and then social rights. In the vortex of Brexit’s economic upheaval, under a right–wing Tory Parliament and government, these rights could stall or even reverse.

Democratic Equality’s Fourth Phase

More positively, even if Labour’s retro Social Democracy fails and they are out of power, an emergent fourth phase of democratic equality could become politically plausible. Its key theme would be challenging neoliberal inequality by enhanced participation – the fostering of everyday democracy as a norm. Buttressed by a participation-linked basic income, it would be rooted in the lifeworld of civil society; for instance, extending support for family and neighbourhood caring networks.

Economic development would mean small and social enterprise development and regulating corporations’ local operations by social licensing with social stakeholder decision-making at board level. Transformation on this scale would require a legal and organisational framework encoding and securing participatory democracy – in parallel with more organic development through educational institutions, local bodies and workplaces.

This ‘bottom-up’ democracy would support aspects of a re-invigorated public sphere – consistent with, but advancing beyond that currently envisaged by social democrats. A scenario this ruthlessly sprung election threatens to suffocate.

This article originally appeared on the Policy Press Blog and draws on themes further explored in a book edited by Dr Jones and Professor O'Donnell:  Alternatives to Neoliberalism: Towards equality and democracy, recently published by Policy Press.


Basic Income – Have Austerity’s Chickens Come Home to Roost?

📥  Basic income, Public services, Welfare and social security

Dr Jurgen De Wispelaere is Policy Fellow at the IPR and Political Economy Research Fellow at the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF).

In the space of a mere five years, the idea of granting each citizen – or long-term resident in some proposals – an individual, universal and above all unconditional basic income has taken off like a rocket in established policy circles. The phrase “basic income’s time has come” is no longer the hallmark of the quasi-delusional battle cry of the seasoned utopian but can be heard – albeit perhaps with some trepidation – in the corridors of power across Europe and beyond.[1] Of course, talk is often cheap, and political talk is no exception. Expressions of support from stakeholders and decision-makers in previous years mostly took the form of cheap support: political statements not backed by commitments to expending political resources (time, money, political capital) and therefore of little value to furthering basic income policy.[2]



However, it would appear that “the times are a changin’”, as the famous Dylan song would have it. Surely, the recent policy interest in piloting basic income experiments across the world represents a serious political commitment to exploring the potential of basic income as a key component of the next stage of welfare reform? Finland has already embarked on the basic income train by paying out an unconditional basic income of €560 to 2,000 unemployed test subjects currently receiving basic unemployment benefits for the next two years.[3] Several municipalities in the Netherlands (Utrecht, Tilburg, Wageningen and Groningen, amongst others) and the Canadian province of Ontario are to follow suit in a few months, while local, regional and national governments across Europe are exploring similar options (e.g. Fife and Glasgow in Scotland; Barcelona in Spain).

What to make of this recent interest in basic income? What explains the surge in interest in universal and unconditional cash transfers across the ideological spectrum, including a willingness of some government actors to proceed with pilot schemes? Explanatory variables are no doubt manifold. One fashionable answer is to refer to the “rise of the robots”, where automation is said to irrevocably change labour markets including rendering vast numbers of jobs obsolete.[4] The threat of automation-driven technological unemployment at a scale we haven’t witnessed before is driving much of the tech-industry interest in basic income. However, the automation debate is in its infancy and the predictions of the labour market equivalent to a mass extinction event remain controversial.[5] In addition, as an explanation for the policy interest in basic income, time works against the automation argument. The rise of the robots is predicted to take another couple of decades to fully manifest, and politicians are not exactly famous for considering public policy in the long-term!

It is hard to avoid the observation that the recent “elevation” of basic income coincides with the occurrence of the financial crisis in 2007-2008, especially the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009, and the austerity response that followed suit. In a nutshell, austerity is a mechanism of kick-starting growth and recovery by means of drastically cutting public spending. Mark Blyth calls it “the austerity delusion”, a dangerous idea because it clearly doesn’t work – as evidenced by significantly increased debt-to-GDP ratios across European economies – while the idea itself remains stubbornly immune to rational refutation.[6] The idea is not just dangerous because it stubbornly fails, but in large part because the burden of failure is unequally distributed across the population and its social effects disproportionally felt by those at the bottom of the income distribution. Austerity increases risk of unemployment, poverty, social exclusion – even morbidity and mortality rates[7] – for a growing number of citizens.

The resulting division between insiders and outsiders is affecting both people’s wellbeing and the capability of government to institute policies aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in society.[8] At this point it is worth noting that austerity is nothing new when viewed from the perspective of welfare state development. Paul Pierson, almost two decades ago, referred to the new politics of the welfare state under conditions of “permanent austerity”, arguing that welfare state retrenchment employed a different logic from the expanding welfare state of the post-war decades.[9] From the Pierson perspective, austerity and welfare state retrenchment is mostly about changing political dynamics and finding ways to avoid (or shift) blame for unpopular reforms. Post-crisis austerity politics is partly a continuation of this welfare reform agenda but at the same time constitutes a break with governments having been granted a “license to cut” much deeper across a wider range of social programmes. Recent comparative research shows that while austerity had relatively little effect on social assistance budgets the impact on minimum income schemes is nevertheless serious and the tightening of minimum income schemes is at odds with the goal of “active inclusion” as mandated, for instance, by the 2008 European Commission Recommendation on active inclusion of people excluded from the labour market.[10]

The picture that is emerging after several years of austerity politics is one of European societies becoming increasingly socially, economically and politically divided – enter populism! – and governments apparently unable to turn the tide. The overall result of these recent policy developments has been increased pressure on the most vulnerable in society – the long-term unemployed, young labour market entrants, those operating at the margins of the labour market (the “precariat”), but increasingly as well, many who are poor while in work. Policymakers are becoming aware of the limits of increased conditionality and restrictions imposed on minimum income schemes. In this context, the interest in basic income could be seen as an attempt to square the austerity circle: the need for a policy that combines robust minimum income protection with the modernisation of welfare programme complexity, while retaining a strong focus on labour market activation and human capital-building as per the “social investment” agenda.[11] Instead of focusing on the de-commodifying effect of basic income – separating income from work – policymakers are emphasising its ability to combat poverty, unemployment and bureaucracy traps. In this perspective, basic income is not viewed as a utopian alternative to the welfare state, but to the contrary, a key instrument in its long-term survival by allowing the minimum income floor to be mainstreamed and modernised. Of course, squaring circles is hard work and in the first instance we need to know that basic income can deliver; hence, the focus on piloting and experimenting with basic income schemes in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, and so on as part of a broader approach to evidence-based policymaking.

It is early days so perhaps making an assessment as to whether the many experiments will generate results that support the basic income policy would be premature. It is moreover impossible to predict whether positive piloting experiences will lead to robust policy implementation. At this point we need serious political science research examining the conditions under which basic income can build up a robust constituency (for more on this, see Luke Martinelli's excellent blog on the subject), as well as long-lasting coalitions amongst decision-makers across the ideological spectrum.[12] However, even if – paradoxically – austerity has caused policymakers to conceive of basic income as a valid instrument in their “activation toolbox”, the resulting programme may still fall short of the more progressive aims, for which most basic income advocates push. This is serious cause for concern among those who insist that basic income is primarily an instrument of freedom and equality.[13] The answer to this worry is twofold, in my view. First, we should appreciate what even a modest basic income may accomplish given the dire prospects of continuing along the road we currently travel. Second, once anchored in our policy environment, political forces can focus on upgrading the modest (almost residual) basic income model to something more progressive, emancipatory and liberating. If successful – and, granted, for now it remains a big “if” – such a political strategy would certainly make sure that austerity’s chickens finally come home to roost!

This blog originally appeared in ISRF Bulletin Issue XIII: Today's Future - Challenges & Opportunities Across the Social Sciences. It builds on research conducted jointly by Dr De Wispeleare and Dr Luke Martinelli on the political economy of basic income in European welfare states. You can find out more about the IPR's work on basic income here.

[1] Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “Basic Income in Our Time: Improving Political Prospects Through Policy Learning?” Journal of Social Policy 45(4): 617-634.
[2] Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “The Struggle for Strategy: On the Politics of the Basic Income Proposal.” Politics, 36(2): 131-141.
[3] Olli Kangas, Miska Simanainen, and Pertti Honkanen (2017) “Basic Income in the Finnish Context.” Intereconomics 52(2): 87–91; Laura Kalliomaa-Puha, Anna-Kaisa Tuovinen, and Olli E Kangas (2016) “The Basic Income Experiment in Finland.” Journal of Social Security Law 23(2): 75–88.
[4] Martin Ford (2016) Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. New York: Basic Books; Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2016) The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. W.W Norton; Jerry Kaplan (2015) Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Yale University Press.
[5] Labour economist David Autor, for instance, insists firms and employees will adapt to the anticipated automation by shifting tasks within jobs; this argument offers an important antidote to the most pessimistic forecasts about layoffs. David H. Autor (2015) “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 29(3): 3–30.
[6] Mark Blyth (2013) “The Austerity Delusion: Why a Bad Idea Won Over the West.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2013.
[7] Aaron Reeves, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler (2014) “Economic Suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 205(3): 246–47.
[8] Johannes Lindvall and David Rueda (2013) “The Insider–Outsider Dilemma.” British Journal of Political Science 44(02): 460–75.
[9] Paul Pierson (2001) “Coping with Permanent Austerity: Welfare State Restructuring in Affluent Democracies.” In: P. Pierson (Ed.), The New Politics of the Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[10] Sarah Marchal, Ive Marx, and Natascha van Mechelen (2016) “Minimum Income Protection in the Austerity Tide.” IZA Journal of European Labor Studies: 1–20.
[11] Anton Hemerijck (2015) “The Quiet Paradigm Revolution of Social Investment.” Social Politics 22(2): 242–56.
[12] Joe Chrisp (2017) “Basic Income: Beyond Left and Right?” Juncture, 23: 266–270; Jurgen De Wispelaere (2016) “The Struggle for Strategy: On the Politics of the Basic Income Proposal.” Politics, 36(2): 131-141.
[13] Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght (2017) Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. Harvard University Press.


The Right to an Opinion: Measuring the Subjective Wellbeing of Children in Care

📥  Public services, Welfare and social security

Marsha Wood is Research Assistant at the IPR. This post draws, in part, on her work on children in care, which was also recently published in Sage's journal Adoption & Fostering

There are around 70,000 children and young people in care in England, mainly because of abuse and neglect. The impact of maltreatment can be long lasting and the quality of substitute care the child receives has a significant impact on their developmental recovery. Whilst some young people will have a positive experience during their time in care and will go on to flourish as adults, there are also many young people whose experiences are less positive, who leave care without having had opportunities for recovery and who remain unprepared for independent adult lives. Yet, we know very little about the factors which influence positive care experiences.



Whilst there is much rhetoric around wellbeing for adults and children in the general population, there is little understanding of how wellbeing measures translate for children who may have more specific needs, such as children in care – leaving huge gaps in our understanding of the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children and young people have the human right to express their opinions, and for these opinions to be given due weight in decisions affecting their lives – yet it seems that that the opinions of the most vulnerable groups are not always heard.

Different lives

Most children in care have had very different lives to the general population both before entering care and throughout their care journey. Children in care may identify broad aspects of importance similar to the general child population such as ‘family’, but their lived experiences of ‘family’ can be very different to those of the general child population – and, accordingly, their needs in relation to maintaining or developing positive family relationships may vary. For example, children in care do not live with their birth parents, and may or may not live with their siblings. Whilst some may not desire any contact with their birth family, many others will still feel strong bonds and ties, and desire contact with birth family members. Many will have a strong desire to live with their siblings, although this is not always possible, and regular contact can be key.

A further area of difference for children in care, as compared with the general child population, is around relationships with professionals. All children in care have a social worker whom they should know and have contact with, and many will have a range of other professionals in their lives. Children in care will have a foster carer or a key worker if they live in a residential home. Many will have had multiple carers and will have moved placements multiple times, or will have moved in and out of care – between the family home and foster or residential care. When children leave the care system as they enter adulthood, they often have to adjust to independent living far more rapidly than children in the general population. It is the role of children’s services to ensure that despite these complexities, children and young people have a positive care experience which counters any previous maltreatment and enables them to flourish into adulthood. But what factors need to be in place to ensure that children in care have positive lives, and how can we know when things are going wrong?

Subjective wellbeing

It is increasingly recognised that understanding subjective wellbeing – or asking people how they feel about their own lives – is key to developing policy that supports our quality of life, and we cannot just rely on objective wellbeing measures such as educational results or the number of teen pregnancies. The Measuring What Matters programme (Office of National Statistics, 2011), which began in England in 2010, concluded that people’s objective circumstances can improve, but this does not necessarily translate into feeling that life is improving. For example, crime can go down, but people may not necessarily feel more secure. Children in care may have more stable foster care placements, but does this actually mean that they feel more secure? There have been substantial efforts to identify what makes a good life and to find ways to measure it recently. The New Economic Foundation (NEF) has developed a model for measuring subjective wellbeing which identifies the key areas of wellbeing (e.g. happiness, life having meaning), and how personal resources (e.g. self-esteem, optimism) play a key role in maintaining wellbeing. The NEF model is useful, but may not go far enough for children in care who often have very limited personal resources upon which they can draw.

Measuring the wellbeing of children in care

Research (Ungar, 2013) highlights how children who have been subjected to traumatic experiences are less able to use their own resources and rely much more on external factors to maintain wellbeing. For children in care, the role of children’s services are key in supporting young people to develop the resources that they need to affect their well-being. Yet how we understand and measure the effectiveness of children’s services in ensuring a positive experience for children in care is barely thought through. Unicef (2016) have recommended that children’s voices should always be built into data collection processes, stating that children need to be able to shape the questions asked in surveys of their own lives and wellbeing.

Important work has been undertaken to create national surveys to measure the subjective wellbeing of children in the general population. For example, researchers from the Children’s Society and the University of York consulted with 8,000 children, asking what they thought were the most important ingredients for good life. Children identified a common set of domains: relationships (family and friends), environment (home, school, neighbourhood, possessions) satisfaction (with appearance, life overall), happiness (current, sense of a future and life worthwhile), safety (free form bullying) and choice (a say in decision-making, opportunities). These domains have informed various subjective wellbeing measures for children such as the international Children’s Worlds survey and those developed by the ONS in their work on national wellbeing in England. However, although the evidence base for children’s subjective wellbeing has improved overall, little is known about whether the domains identified for the subjective wellbeing of children in the general population apply to more specific groups of children – such as children in care.

Recent investigations

I recently worked on a research study conducted by the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, delivered in collaboration with the children’s rights charity Coram Voice, which has sought to address this gap. Alongside a participation worker from Coram Voice, I conducted focus groups with 140 children in care to identify what they thought were the key factors to a good care journey; the key messages that came from the young people were then used to develop a subjective wellbeing measure for looked-after children. The views and experiences expressed by the young people in the study illustrate factors that can support positive care experiences. Having opportunities to do things that they had never done before, like go-karting or horse riding, for example – or engaging in participation sessions with other young people in care, or going to parliament to represent people in care.

These positive experiences helped to build confidence and to reduce the feelings of stigma associated with being a child in care by enabling the young people to speak positively about their lives. The young people also talked about how much they valued having positive relationships with adults whom they could trust and whom they could rely on to be a consistent, long-term, committed person in their lives. Some spoke of the positive role models their carers had been and how they valued being given the chance to learn to be independent; some of being trusted with responsibilities, and being given second, third, fourth and even fifth chances when they made a mistake, proving understanding and commitment from care givers. Some also talked about the positive relationship they had with their social workers, valuing those in particular who did not judge them negatively and who showed an understanding of their previous experiences and how their behaviours might be linked to those experiences.

Unfortunately, not all of the children and young people who spoke in the focus groups for the study were able to talk about such positive experiences. The young people spoke about their need to be involved in the discussions and decisions being made about their lives and at least to be informed about key changes. For example, one five-year-old spoke about how scared he felt when he was picked up from school by his social worker and, instead of being driven the normal route home, found that he was being taken on a totally different journey, ending up at a house that was going to be his new home. He had no prior warning until he arrived at the house that he was moving to a new home.

Several young people talked about the many different social workers they had had, how sometimes they did not even know who their social worker was, or how every time they rang to speak to their social worker they would end up talking to a different staff member and would have to re-tell their story, making them feel misunderstood and judged. The word trust came up over and over again in the focus groups, yet often seemed to be something lacking in the relationships that the young people had, or – where they did have trusting relationships, for example with a sibling – something that wasn’t always recognised and supported by carers and professionals in terms of assisting the young person to keep in touch with that person.

The children and young people also spoke about the need for consistent support services. For example, one young person spoke about her feeling of devastation when she found out that she would lose the long-term support she had received from a mental health professional, whom she had worked with for years and who was the only person she felt she could open up to about past traumatic experiences, simply because she turned 18 and was suddenly no longer entitled to receive support from that person.

Many young people spoke of experiences where they felt that unnecessary attention was drawn to their status as a child in care – for example, being pulled out of class to go and see their social worker, or being seen out and about with a professional who wears their ID badge.

Addressing concerns

Some of the problems identified above might be easily solved; for example, informing professionals not to wear their ID badges when out in public with the children and young people could alleviate their embarrassment. Reminding social workers to inform the children and young people who they support about their annual leave arrangements and whom they should speak to in their absence would also be a simple but effective measure. Other problems are harder to address, however; the high turnover of social workers in many areas, for example, will be related to the high pressures and caseloads faced by many social workers in children’s services, and needs to be tackled primarily through better funding of social work services. High caseloads also affect the opportunities that social workers have to spend time with children and young people, to build the trust and understanding which help them ensure that the right supports can be put in place to aid recovery from past traumatic experiences. Although difficult to resolve, these problems cannot be ignored.

The long-term costs, to both the young people themselves and to society as a whole, of a negative experience in the care system far outweigh the costs associated with putting things right for the young whilst they are still in care. Yet, we need to know what is going wrong and where in order to put things right. We also need to know what is going right, and within which local authorities, in order to share good practice examples with other areas.

From the focus groups with the young people, the University of Bristol and Coram Voice developed three age- and length-appropriate surveys (4-7 year olds, 8-11 year olds and 11+) focusing on four domains: relationship, rights, recovery and resilience. The aim of the surveys is to alert local authorities to areas where they may be failing children in their care, and also where they are doing well, to support young people and to identify the practices in place that have a positive influence on children and young people’s wellbeing – and, from this, to share the learning with other authorities and influence national policy to drive improvements in children and young people’s wellbeing. The surveys have been piloted with 6 local authorities and this year are being used by another 17.

More work to do

This work, of course, only addresses part of the problem; there are groups within groups. Care leavers may have more specific needs relating to loneliness and independent living; young parents’ wellbeing needs will centre more around support to bring up their children and access to affordable childcare; refugees and asylum-seeking children and young people may have specific concerns around the complex rights and entitlements landscape they must navigate; and there remain questions as to how we understand the wellbeing of children in care who are under the age of four. It may be that further separate measures need to be developed to capture the needs of other groups of vulnerable young people. Coram Voice have recently secured money to develop a care leavers survey, which is a positive step forward in addressing the needs of more specific groups of vulnerable young people.

Findings from the current surveys are also beginning to illuminate potential questions for the care system. For example, initial findings indicate lower wellbeing scores for girls in care compared to boys, and raise questions over how the care system should operate in relation to different groups of young people. It may be that, as more local authorities take up the survey, other pictures start to emerge. For example, wellbeing experiences may differ for other groups also – such as those from minority ethnic backgrounds, those with disabilities, or those from certain age groups. As more local authorities take part, we can identify the problems that are locally specific as well as those that are cross cutting, in order to develop both local policy and target national developments.

Looking to the future

Children’s services are so financially constrained that they often feel they are only able to scratch the surface in their work with children and young people, and are unable to reach and therefore tackle the problems that lie beneath. Social workers’ cries for help to improve services are largely ignored. Instead ensues a rhetoric of blame towards social workers, who are working under severe resource constraints. Crisis points often materialise after children leave care. Although there is recognition of the need to support care-leavers, services are currently insufficient. Ofsted report that two-thirds of care-leaving services were judged to either require improvement or to be inadequate (House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, 2015). A recent report by the Children’s Society (2016) highlighted the problems of financial exclusion faced by care-leavers, with many young people falling into debt and financial difficulty and nearly 4,000 receiving benefit sanctions in 2015. In the year ending March 2015, 39% of care-leavers aged 19 to 21 were not in education, employment or training. Within two years of leaving the care system, a third of young care-leavers become homeless (Stein, 2010). Research also consistently shows that care-leavers are over-represented in studies on people in custody.

Returning to Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children and young people have the human right to express their opinions, and for these opinions to be given due weight in decisions affecting them. It is hoped that through measuring the subjective wellbeing of children in care using measures identified by the young people themselves, the most vulnerable young people in our society have more of an opportunity to voice their opinions – opinions that, by right, must not be ignored.


For more information about the research, please see Marsha's published paper or the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care studies' brochure on the project.



Office of National Statistics (2011) Measuring What Matters. London. Office for National Statistics.

House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. (2015) Care leavers’ transition to adulthood: Fifth Report of Session 2015-16. London. The House of Commons Library.

The Children’s Society (2016) The cost of being care free: The impact of poor financial education and removal of support on care leavers. London. The Children’s Society.

Ungar, M. (2013). Resilience after maltreatment: The importance of social services as facilitators of positive adaptation. Child abuse & neglect, 37(2), 110-115.

United Nations (1990) Convention on the Rights of the Child

Unicef (2016) Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries. Unicef.

Wade, J & Dixon, J. (2006,) Making a home, finding a job: investigating early housing and employment outcomes for young people leaving care, Child & Family Social Work, vol 11, no 3, pp 199–208.


Is reform of social care doomed?

📥  Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security

For people who have worked in UK public policy in recent decades, whether as civil servants, politicians or advisers, there is something wearily familiar, and depressing, about the current debate on the reform of social care. A fair chunk of the period I worked in No10 Downing Street, between 2007 and 2010, was spent on social care policy: on reports commissioned from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, papers drafted by committees of civil servants working up options for cabinet sub-committees, notes for political discussions between ministers, party conference announcements, and even legislation. None of it went anywhere. Cross-party talks were scuppered by the Conservatives, the Treasury dug in against reforms considered fiscally unsustainable, and Labour malcontents in the House of Lords blocked legislation that they thought was partial and incoherent. Nor did it get much better after 2010 – Andrew Dilnot was commissioned to review social care funding, but his recommendations were kicked into the long grass, while local government spending on care services fell under the heaviest of axes.



Why has social care remained unreformed, when other public services have been subject to extensive, often unrelenting change? It is not simply lack of political will, though that has played a part. Nor can it be that the funding and organisation of social care is more complex and difficult to reform than other areas of public policy; pensions’ policy, for example, has been successfully reformed, on a largely consensual basis, in the last decade. The concepts of mainstream public policy analysis – punctuated equilibria, multiple streams analysis, or narrative policy frameworks through which policymakers make sense of the world – do not seem to provide much explanatory help. Instead, we should look to the political economy of welfare states.

The social care system (here taken to refer primarily to social care in England) is staffed by low-wage, largely non-unionised, predominately female employees working for private companies. There are no high-status, powerful professionals, like NHS hospital consultants, in social care – nor strong trade unions organising a high proportion of care staff. The workforce is heavily dependent on EU migrant labour. Services are mostly commissioned from private companies by local government, rather than provided by the public sector itself. Social care was kept separate from healthcare in the 1948 settlement, meaning that it has never benefited from the popular support and protective institutional aura of the NHS. Social care consequently does not generate institutional interests that are capable of powerful political expression: the labour voice is weak; professional vested interests are marginal; there is no national public sector body responsible for the service; and the business interest is uncoordinated.

Older people using social care are not politically mobilised, like parents of school children or NHS patients. Most of us are myopic about our future care needs; we tend not to plan ahead for the care we will need. For those suffering long-term conditions, like dementia, care will be needed for a long time – but for many of us, care services will be limited to end-of-life support of relatively limited duration. We know that we will need a pension for retirement, and health services throughout our lives, but not whether we will require social care. This means that the state is under limited pressure properly to fund and improve care services. In recent months, much of the political concern about social care has been generated by the knock-on impact that cuts to local government services have had on the NHS.

The social care systems of so-called liberal welfare states like the UK, Ireland, Australia and the USA, share many features. They are residual, relying heavily on limited means-tested safety nets, rather than providing universal coverage. Low levels of expenditure on means-tested assistance are funded from general taxation. At the same time, private care insurance is limited (non-existent in the UK case), but nor is there comprehensive social insurance or a compulsory care saving, as is typical of countries like Germany, France, Japan and Korea. Social care systems therefore tend to typify the welfare states of which they are a part: individualised, means-tested and general-taxation-funded liberal systems; universal, tax-funded Nordic systems in which care needs are decommodified; continental care systems that have developed from tripartite-funded (employer, employee and the state) social insurance systems; and East Asian systems in developed economies that have expanded compulsory care insurance coverage as their populations have aged, based on co-funded mechanisms.

Social care has also tended not to feature in Social Investment State (SIS) strategies that have dominated welfare state reform discourses in the UK and elsewhere since the 1990s. SIS conceptual frameworks prioritise employment and human capital investment, and privilege childcare and support for parental employment, over care of the elderly and adults with disabilities.

What then are the prospects for successful reform of social care in this latest round of policy debate? Substantively, the UK is unlikely to pursue the compulsory/social insurance or universal tax-funded reform options that have been developed in other welfare states – we lack the political economic foundations and politically mobilised social group interests for those kinds of reforms. More likely, ministers will tilt towards co-payment models or tax-incentivised private savings vehicles, with a floor of means-tested support. These will be partial and inegalitarian, however, since they do not pool risk across the population, and they tend to squeeze those who have income and assets just above the threshold for means-tests, while enabling those higher up the income and wealth distribution to buy better services, and forcing low-income families to rely on low-quality services – poor services for poor people. Meanwhile, ministers will put just enough funding into social care services to stave off collateral damage to the NHS, as the Chancellor did with an extra £2 billion over three years in his budget.

Pressure for change may depend on the politics of ageing. Turnout in UK elections is heavily skewed towards older voters, who currently form a solid bloc of support for the Conservative government. This demographic political inequality is commonly thought to explain why pensions and benefits for older people have received relative protection in the era of austerity, while inheritance tax is cut and wealth levies (the so-called "death tax") are abjured. Academic research into the politics of age is unfortunately more limited than that into social class or occupational groups (although it is a growing field and interest from think-tanks has been developing). The politics of social care may come to turn on whether the collective interests of older people and their families in the provision of properly-funded, comprehensive services, integrated with the NHS, can trump both the social class differences between them and the lack of broad coalitions of support that currently inhibit progressive social care reforms. For now, Whitehall watchers will not be holding their breath.


Timing it wrong: Benefits, Income Tests, Overpayments and Debts

📥  Data, politics and policy, Welfare and social security

Professor Peter Whiteford is a Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University and Professor Jane Millar is a member of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Leadership Team, in addition to her role as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath.

Unexpected bills can be a challenge for any household. But for people who rely on social security payments, unexpected news of a significant debt – sometimes dating back years – can be bewildering to say the least. This is exactly what tens of thousands of Australians have experienced in recent months.

Since just before Christmas, Centrelink’s use of a new automated data-matching system has resulted in a significant increase in the number of current and former welfare recipients identified as having been overpaid and, thus, being in debt to the government. The data-matching system seems to have identified people with earned income higher than the amount reported when their benefits were calculated.



Many of these people were alarmed when Centrelink contacted them about the assumed debt. Their stories have been recounted over the past two months in the mainstream media and social media. The controversy prompted the Shadow Human Services Minister Linda Burney to request an auditor-general’s investigation. After receiving more than one hundred complaints about problems with the debt-recovery process, independent MP Andrew Wilkie asked the Commonwealth Ombudsman to step in, and he has since launched an investigation. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee will also examine the new process.

This is by no means Australia’s first social security overpayment controversy. The last storm was sparked by the expansion and fine-tuning of family tax benefits in 2000. Under that new system, families were given the option of taking their payments as reductions in the income tax paid on their behalf by their employer. To ensure that this group was treated in the same way as those who received cash benefits from Centrelink, the government introduced an annual reconciliation process. Before the beginning of each financial year, families were asked to estimate what their income would be in the subsequent tax year; later, after they had filed their tax returns, an end-of-year reconciliation process would bring income and family benefits into line.

This seemed like a rational system. People who had been underpaid could receive a lump sum to ensure their correct entitlement. People who had been overpaid would pay back the money that they weren’t entitled to keep. The reconciliation would correct any mistakes people made when they estimated their income for the year ahead (not necessarily an easy task to get right!) and make the system responsive to changes in income during the year.

But many families’ estimates at the start of the year proved to be poor guides to income received during the year. This happened in both directions – some estimates were too high, some too low – but most often real annual incomes were higher than predicted. The result was a very large increase in overpayments and, thus, in debts. Before the new system was introduced, just over 50,000 families had debts at the end of each year; in the first year of the new system, an estimated 670,000 families received overpayments. Overall, around one third of eligible families incurred an overpayment in the first two years of the new system.

This is how the system was designed to work. But for the families who found themselves owing sometimes large and usually unexpected debts, the experience created confusion, stress and anger. It also generated considerable controversy in parliament and the media. So, in July 2001, just before an important by-election, the Howard government announced a waiver of the first $1,000 of all overpayments, which reduced the number of families with debts to around 200,000. Further fine-tuning came in 2002, also aimed at reducing overpayments and debts. Then, in 2004, an annual lump sum was added to family tax benefit A with the aim of offsetting any overpayments.


At around this time, Britain was designing and introducing a new system of tax credits for people in work (the working tax credit) and for families with children (the child tax credit). The system had some features in common with the Australian approach, had some features in common with the Australian approach, including an end-of–year reconciliation. The British government was keen to avoid the sort of controversy that had blown up in Australia, so it included a mechanism for changing the level of tax credit not just at the end of the year but during the year as well.

The assessment for credits was initially made on the basis of gross family income in the previous tax year. If recipients reported changes in income and circumstances during the year, then the award was adjusted, and at the end of the year total credits and income were reconciled. But many changes in income and circumstances went unreported during the year and so, in practice, considerable adjustment was required. Over the first few years of the system, about 1.9 million cases of excessive credits occurred each year.

As in Australia, the system caused significant hardship and generated adverse media coverage and much concern. In 2005 and 2006, the British government introduced a number of changes designed to reduce overpayments, including a very substantial increase in the level of the annual income “disregard” from £2,500 to £25,000. This meant that family income could rise by up to £25,000 in the current award year before tax credits were reduced. The amount has since been brought back to the original £2,500, which will probably mean overpayments will start to rise again. Processes exist for recovering overpayments of tax credits and housing benefits, and these sometimes attract some media attention, most recently in relation to the use of private debt collectors.


Together with the current Centrelink controversy, the experience of these earlier cases offers four main lessons for social security policy.

First, getting payments “right” in any means-tested system is a complex process necessarily involving trade-offs between responsiveness and simplicity. If the aim is to precisely match income and benefit in real time, then there must be constant updating and checking of income and adjustments of benefits. But such a system would be very intrusive and administratively complex. So systems are designed to pay first and reconcile later, which makes overpayments almost inevitable.

Governments can minimise the impact by disregarding some overpayments, as both Australia and Britain have done in the past. But that is not part of the design of Australia’s latest program of debt recovery. People are being chased partly because the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Act 2016 toughened repayment compliance conditions for social welfare debts. New conditions include an interest charge on the debts of former social welfare recipients who are unwilling to enter repayment arrangements, extended Departure Prohibition Orders for people who are not in repayment arrangements for their social welfare debts, and the removal of the six-year limitation on debt recovery for all social welfare debt.

People ardently dislike systems that they don’t understand and feel are unfair, or that seem to create debts beyond their control. A very stringent approach to collecting overpayments can cause real hardship and generate controversy. It has even been suggested that there may be a punitive element to this, with Centrelink staff not encouraged or required to help people to correct errors.

Second, IT systems are not by themselves the cause of these problems. It is easy to blame the technology when things go wrong, and some problematic factors do indeed appear to be technological. The names of employers provided to the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink don’t always match, for example, and it appears that in some cases the same income is counted twice because the assessment process matches names rather than Australian Business Numbers.

More significantly, Centrelink’s formula can produce false estimates of debts when individuals are asked to confirm their annual income reported to the Australian Tax Office, because it simply divides the reported annual wage by twenty-six. That overly simplified calculation will only produce a useful figure if individuals receive exactly the same income each fortnight, which is often not the case, especially for casual workers, students and other people with intermittent work patterns.

But these problems are not necessarily the fault of the IT, which is only doing what it has been designed to do. More checking by humans would probably reduce errors, but outcomes that result from the design of the policy can’t be resolved by technical fixes.

Third, IT systems are not by themselves the solution either. It is possible that the earlier problems with overpayments of family tax benefits may recur very soon. In early February, the federal government introduced a new omnibus savings bill to parliament, combining and revising several previously blocked welfare measures into a single piece of legislation in order to save nearly $4 billion over the next four years, after allowing for increased spending on childcare and family tax benefits. By far the most significant of the projected savings in the bill – $4.7 billion over four years – results from phasing out the end-of-year supplements for family tax benefit recipients, which were introduced to solve the overpayment and debt problems referred to earlier.

So why would the government think that the overpayment of family payments and the subsequent debt problem will be resolved, as this saving seems to assume? The answer is not entirely clear, but seems to relate to the update of Centrelink’s computer system announced in 2015. “The new technology to underpin the welfare system will offer better data analytics, real-time data sharing between agencies, and faster, cheaper implementation of policy changes,” Marise Payne, then human services minister, said at the time. “This means customers who fail to update their details with us will be less likely to have to repay large debts, and those who wilfully act to defraud taxpayers will be caught much more quickly.”

Complementing the Centrelink update are proposed changes in reporting systems at the Australian Tax Office, particularly the introduction of a single-touch payroll system. Under the new system, when employers pay their staff, the employees’ salary or wages and PAYG withholding amounts will automatically be reported to the Tax Office, which can then share this data with Centrelink.

The government seems to be assuming that computer and system updates will provide a technological fix to the problem of family tax benefit overpayments – and thus deliver a saving of $4.7 billion over the next four years. But what if the new IT systems don’t work in the ways envisaged? The Australian Tax Office’s computer system has crashed a number of times over the past year. Indeed, in the very same week that the government introduced the new omnibus savings bill, newspaper reports of this “tech wreck” suggested that the Tax Office might not be able to guarantee this year’s lodgement of returns in time for the start of the new financial year. The reports also noted that the development of the single-touch payroll system would remain one of the Tax Office’s priorities for this year.

Finally, to reiterate our first point, these problems have arisen from policy choices and design. Britain is introducing a new system, Universal Credit, which will use real-time adjustments to track changes in earnings and seek to match awards to income on a monthly basis. How well this will work in practice remains to be seen. In both countries, trends towards more insecure and variable employment patterns – and hence irregular pay packets – will make balancing accuracy and timeliness in means-tested welfare benefits more difficult. The assumption of regular and unchanging income no longer holds, and this new reality requires a policy, not a technical, solution.

This piece originally appeared on INSIDE STORY.


Being Female, NEET and Economically Inactive – what does that mean?

📥  Business and the labour market, Welfare and social security

Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR


‘Any evidence that we have on the NEET group is dated. We have pockets to support different types of policy development, but no way do we have good evidence…’

- (Policymaker)[1]


This admission by a policymaker about the dearth of evidence on which to base policy targeting those young people, currently numbering 857,000[2] according to official UK figures, who are not in education, employment or training (NEET), highlights an area crying out for substantial research and investigation.



A contested term

We have become very familiar with the term ‘NEET’ and its widespread application to quantify levels of social and economic exclusion among young people. Leaving aside the suspicion that NEET became the preferred term partly because of our love of acronyms and partly because it was less emotionally charged than Status Zero, which was the original classification in the UK, it is important to remember that it was originally applied to 16- and 17-year-olds who could no longer be classified as ‘unemployed’ due to legislative changes. Since then, NEET has become the term used not just in the UK, but internationally, to refer to a much wider age cohort of young people (16-24 in the UK).

But how useful is the NEET label in identifying the true volume of people in this category? Significant numbers of those aged 16-18 are not identified as NEET because their destinations are not recorded, and large numbers of those over 18 who are defined as NEET fail to register for welfare or other types of support in the UK. Thus, the numbers in the claimant count are much smaller than those in the overall NEET population, leading to the conclusion that a large number of young people are unsupported by statutory services – why is this? Given the disconnect between the official NEET statistics and policy intervention to track, manage and support the estimated NEET population, perhaps it is time to re-think our application of the term NEET and, crucially, our policy responses to support young people who fall into this overall definition.

Gender differences

Irrespective of the expanded scope of the NEET group, it is apparent that gender differences within the cohort have been neglected in the literature, wider debates and, crucially, policy formation about the NEET group. Data from the January-March quarter of the 2016 Labour Force Survey and the National Online Manpower Information System highlighted differences between NEET females and NEET males. Despite its original purpose, the NEET category now includes young people who are actively seeking work, i.e. the economically active (EA) NEET group, as well as those who are economically inactive (EI), primarily because they have caring and/or domestic responsibilities or are unable to participate in education, employment or training due to long-term ill health. NEET young women outnumbered NEET young men (432,000 to 376,000); 66% of the young women were EI, compared to 43% of the young men; and young people who were NEET and EA were mostly young men (59%).

Differences are also apparent in the types of benefits received by males and females in the NEET and EI group, with young women claiming Income Support (IS) in larger numbers, as a result of caring responsibilities. Most young men in the NEET EI group claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) due to illness or disability, with the primary cause being psychological problems. Significant numbers of young women claim ESA for the same reason.

To date, relatively little attention has been paid to young women who are NEET and EI, with a passive acceptance that their ‘caring’ responsibilities sideline them from meaningful support or policy intervention. Reasons for the differences described above need to be explored in greater depth in order to provide evidence on which effective policy initiatives can be introduced. A study currently being undertaken by myself and Young Women’s Trust, with funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, is seeking to address some of the gaps and shortcomings in our understanding of what it means to be NEET and EI, and what impact this categorisation has on the lives of young women.

The stakeholders

During the first year of this two-year project, interviews were carried out with ten key experts, including policymakers and academics. In addition, case studies were undertaken in five localities, with local stakeholders who were involved in devising and delivering employment interventions in each area being interviewed. These stakeholders typically included local authorities, Jobcentres, Local Enterprise Partnerships, education and training providers, and voluntary and community sector organisations.

Among these respondents, there was concern about the general acceptance that all young women who are NEET and EI would remain so for long periods of time because of their early motherhood, caring responsibilities or ill-health. Rather, it was felt that this issue required ‘unpacking’ in order to gain more understanding about their needs and requirements. An important finding was the relationship between the type of welfare benefit and intervention that young people receive and their classification as either NEET EI or NEET EA. Young women, who are much more likely than young men to be NEET and EI, typically remain on welfare support for much longer periods than those who are EA, and are also far less likely to receive any form of positive support or intervention. Conversely, the support offered to young people who are actively seeking work and claiming JSA was fiercely criticised for its high levels of sanctioning, unrealistic target-setting and emphasis on removing claimants from the register at the earliest opportunity. It is only the unemployment rate that attracts national media attention and which is scrutinised by national government and by authorities such as the International Labour Office. This difference between the two groups is also reflected in the proportions of their respective claimant counts, with much lower numbers of young people (especially young women) being present in the NEET and EA category.

A preferable approach would involve claimants being provided with targeted and tailored support, instead of being subjected to demanding targets and having the threat of sanctions hanging over them. Concerns were also expressed about the impact of being NEET and EI on young women who were relatively isolated within their households and communities, notably their propensity to suffer from low self-confidence, low self-esteem and, for some, mental health issues. Their detachment from external and independent support and advice could have long-lasting effects on their health and likelihood of future employment. It was reported to be very difficult for local agencies to identify and engage with young women in the NEET and EI group.

For young mothers who are NEET and EI, major barriers to engaging in education, employment or training were deemed to be: affordable childcare; a reluctance to leave their children; access to transport; and appropriate employment and training opportunities.

The issue of the large numbers of young people who do not appear in the system and are effectively ‘unknown’, as mentioned above, was prominent in respondents’ concerns. This was attributed, in part, to cuts to local services which have placed constraints on local authorities’ ability to fulfil the requirement for mapping and tracking young people in Years 12-14. Official statistics show that, in many localities, the ‘unknown’ rates are higher than the NEET rates. This has been exacerbated by the decision to limit any tracking responsibility until the individual’s 18th birthday – when the post-18 group is, perhaps, more in need of monitoring and when the NEET rate significantly rises. Certainly, the absence of any agency or organisation with statutory responsibility for measuring the number of, or addressing the needs of, young people over the age of 18/19 who fail to apply for welfare support was perceived to be of immediate concern.

It was suggested that the reasons for young people’s detachment, leading to their destinations and circumstances being ‘unknown’, included: an unwillingness to cooperate with benefit regulations; fear of statutory bodies; family support which allows them to avoid registration for benefits; the stigma of benefit receipt; and informal or casual working arrangements. Whatever the reasons, this ‘hidden’ NEET population remains largely unquantifiable in many localities and out of the remit of statutory services. Hence, little is known about young people who fall into this category in terms of their characteristics, what has caused their detachment, and any barriers they may face.

The young women, in their own words

The in-depth interviews with ten young women who were NEET and EI provided illuminating insights into their lives and experiences, particularly in relation to their school and post-school experiences, domestic circumstances, money management, and their hopes and aspirations. In this admittedly small sample, those in receipt of IS had caring responsibilities (for their children), while those on ESA suffered from anxiety and depression – one respondent refused to claim welfare support because of her previous negative experiences of dealing with the Job Centre.

Half of the young women were living in their parental home. However, most of them continued to rely on a parent and/or family members for emotional, practical and financial advice and support, irrespective of their circumstances. This included practical help with childcare, food, clothing and personal care costs and assisting with application forms for housing or benefit receipt. Those who lived at their parents’ home contributed minimal amounts to the household budget and, in some cases, their dependence on their family resulted in a reluctance to move out of the family home, because of the perceived risks this posed to their established support networks. A lack of friendship networks, few hobbies and interests, and limited social activities were the norm. Thus, family networks appeared to both insulate and isolate young women from the outside world.

Strikingly, in the face of scarce resources, these young women were adept at managing their finances. This management took different forms, from prioritising expenditure on food, rent, fuel, children’s clothing and toiletries while eking out fortnightly benefit payments, to using loans to buy furniture and other goods from charity shops.


Questions must be raised about our ability to implement effective and appropriate (meaningful) policy interventions when there is clearly a dearth of knowledge and understanding about the NEET group – both in terms of its expanded age cohort, and its inclusion of both the EI and EA groups, which have been shown to have very different needs. Moreover, we have what appears to be a growing army of young people who, under the age of 18, have ‘unknown’ destinations – or who, over the age of 18, may have the classification of being NEET within the statistics, but fail to engage with the welfare system. This leads us to the conclusion that the extension of the umbrella term ‘NEET’ to cover a much wider age cohort has failed to be accompanied by an expansion in understanding about the characteristics and needs of young people who fall into this category; perhaps just as importantly, the wider implications for inclusion and policy responses has not been acknowledged.

Assumptions about young women who are NEET, have caring responsibilities and are likely to remain EI need to be challenged. Is the welfare system and its categorisation of individuals, based on criteria for benefit entitlement, labelling them for the convenience of the system, rather than seeking to design initiatives which engage with them and facilitate their easier access to education, employment and training? Also, while many young women may wish to spend time caring for their children or relatives and may not wish to feel under pressure to (re)join the labour market, this needs to be accompanied with access to appropriate support and intervention when it is required. As it stands, young parents are ‘left alone’ within the benefit system until their youngest child reaches the age of five and are then immediately expected to find work or training if they wish to claim benefits. They need sustained transitional support.

It was evident from the case studies that, at a local level, agencies providing support for the NEET group had established strong and effective partnership working to identify the young people’s needs and to develop local initiatives. More problematic was the short-term nature of funding for these initiatives, and, thus, an absence of long-term strategy or planning. Factors which were perceived to pose a threat to future support for excluded and marginalised young people were: a lack of programmes funded by central government; initiatives being reliant on short-term funding and with a variety of outcome measures; the impending removal of EU structural funds; and a growing reliance on charitable and philanthropic funding to support NEET intervention projects.

The term NEET and the inclusion of the terms EI and EA within it are in urgent need of reappraisal. Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and to question whether ‘NEET’ continues to qualify and quantify the scale of social and economic exclusion among young people in Britain and, if it does, then what policy interventions can be delivered to address the whole population rather than selected sub-groups within it. Finally, questions must be asked about the appropriateness of using access to welfare support facilitated through registration with DWP as an adequate and effective mechanism to engage with young people who are NEET. The existing evidence would suggest that it is failing to meet the needs of many young people, particularly young women.


You can read the Summary Report and Full First Year Report on the Young Women's Trust website here

[1]Maguire, S and McKay, E. (2016) Young, Female and Forgotten? London: Young Women’s Trust (p.25)

[2] ONS (2016) Young People Not In Education, Employment or Training (NEET), UK: November 2016. Statistical Bulletin.


Making it Work: the Future of Universal Credit

📥  Welfare and social security

Dr Rita Griffiths is Research Programme Lead for the IPR.

What will the future hold for universal credit (UC) in 2017? Its rollout to date has largely been restricted to single applicants, many of whom have no housing costs because they are still living at home. Next year, UC will be increasingly extended to couples and families with children whose needs and circumstances will be considerably more complex, thus presenting the policy – and the households receiving it – with many more challenges to negotiate.



This expansion will begin to test more rigorously the extent to which UC’s much-lauded real-time information system is genuinely fit for purpose. Some predict this will be the policy’s ultimate downfall – the system will collapse under the weight of administrative complexity, unable to cope with fluctuations in earnings and the messiness of people’s lives and changing circumstances. This may well be UC’s destiny. A not dissimilar fate awaited the first incarnation of tax credits, working families tax credit. Introduced in 1999, it underwent radical reform barely three years after implementation due in large part to the inability of the system to respond flexibly and fast enough to people’s changing circumstances.

However, another no less significant design flaw lies waiting in the wings: the removal of the administrative distinction between being in and out of work. Unlike the current tax credit system, entitlement to UC for working people begins with just a single hour of work. By linking means-tested financial help to earnings rather than hours worked, this design feature is intended to smooth the fluctuations in income arising from movements into and out of employment, with the aim of reducing financial uncertainty and risk when people make the transition from benefits to work – an admirable goal. The system has also been deliberately designed to ensure that unemployed people and those working only a small number of hours will always be incentivised to work more – a similarly laudable objective (though justifiably not without its critics, given the risk of simply oiling the wheels of an increasingly casualised labour force).

Merging in-work and out-of-work benefits into a seamless, unified system may seem like an elegant policy but the problem is that the trade-off needed to achieve it involves extending the reach of Universal Credit further and deeper into the working population than any other social security system or earnings top-up scheme has ever ventured – anywhere in the world. An estimated three million low-income working households – the very hard working and ‘just about managing’ families that Theresa May’s government is meant to be helping, and who would formerly have remained outside the system of behavioural conditionality – will be drawn into its unyielding embrace.

With entitlement to UC comes a new raft of mandatory obligations. Work conditionality will be extended to low-paid working adults and their partners for the first time. Those whose earnings fail to reach the minimum earnings threshold – equivalent to 35 hours’ work at the national minimum wage for single adults and both members of a couple with children over the age of 11 – will be required to attend mandatory Jobcentre Plus meetings where they must demonstrate they are actively seeking to find more hours, better-paid work, or a second job. Only designated carers of children under the age of one will be exempt from this. Fines and sanctions for non-compliance accompany these rules. For couples, the hours of work, earnings and compliance of one partner will crucially affect the conditionality requirements imposed on the other.

While, therefore, it is legitimate to challenge claims of ‘simplification’, promoting ‘independence’ and ‘making work pay’ as hubris, we should not be lulled into thinking UC is simply old wine in new bottles. Make no mistake: in-work conditionality really is new and different. Crucially, it turns on its head the policy intent of working tax credit, designed as remuneration and a reward for work rather than a state benefit. Paid directly into the wage packet via the employer, the aim was precisely to avoid state interference in family life and to distance the payment from the stigma attached to claiming out-of-work benefits. No one yet knows how the requirement to attend mandatory jobcentre meetings, work longer hours or get a second job will be greeted by people who are already working, or the female partners of low-earning men who would prefer to stay home to look after their children. Randomised control trials currently underway are shrouded in secrecy, and with good reason if media reports of a working mother sanctioned for going on holiday are to be believed.

Only time will tell, but my prediction for 2017 is that without a radical rethink, current proposals for in-work conditionality may well prove to be Universal Credit’s undoing.

This article originally appeared in edition 23.3 of Juncture, IPPR’s quarterly journal of politics and ideas.

Have you been in a Jobcentre lately?

📥  Business and the labour market, Welfare and social security

Dr Rita Griffiths is Research Programme Lead for the IPR.

“Anyone who thinks Jobcentres are like [those in The Full Monty] … would be pleasantly surprised by visiting [one today],” quipped Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in his address to the Conservative Party Conference last week; “no screens, no queues … no sense of sullen despair.” He is right in his observation that Jobcentre Plus offices today look very different from how they did in the 1980s and 1990s, when The Full Monty – along with films like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off – depicted the humiliation and shame wrought on working class men forced to sign-on after being made redundant from jobs in mining, steel and other heavy industries.



It is true that the metal security screens have gone, and dole queues no longer snake out of the doors of benefit offices – which have long since disappeared, along with the traditional industries and breadwinning jobs these men were once employed in. However, it is debatable whether, as claimed by Green, this is down to the transformative power of a modernised and rebranded Jobcentre Plus better equipped to meet the employment needs of ‘ordinary working-class people’ in the post-industrial era. Some would argue it says more about the depersonalised, contracted-out and digitised nature of today’s benefit and employment services – director Ken Loach, for example. His latest offering I, Daniel Blake, for which he won the 2016 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, sits uncomfortably alongside Green’s resolutely upbeat account of the changing landscape of government employment support. The protagonist of Loach’s drama, a skilled man in his 50s whose working career is curtailed after he suffers a heart attack, finds himself cut adrift amidst the faceless, ‘digital by design’ bureaucracy of Jobcentre Plus call centres, online benefit processing and the impersonal, one-size-fits-all responses of government-funded advisers. So who is right?

In their own way, both are. Today’s Jobcentre Plus may have upholstered seats, carpets and jaunty, modern graphics – but just try getting past one of those burly security guards if you want help to get a job, or secure better-paid work. Austerity-driven civil service staffing cuts mean that, unless you are an existing benefit claimant required to attend a mandatory appointment with an adviser as a part of your ‘Claimant Commitment’[1], you will likely be turned away – told instead to search for jobs online, or to contact a call centre (using your own mobile and, until recent lobbying persuaded the DWP to change its stance, at a premium call rate). If the security guard allows you entry, you will be directed to a Jobpoint, a touchscreen monitor for online job-hunting – that’s if they haven’t already been removed, along with the free-to-use telephones, as Jobcentre Plus moves inexorably towards full digitisation. In fact, you may be hard-pressed to find a Jobcentre in your local area; in the last five years, scores of them have been closed – including many in rural areas where the nearest alternative may be over an hour’s travel away.

Reduced Jobcentre footfall is of course an undeniable product of the changed nature of work, and online recruitment methods now used by most employers and applicants. However, research is beginning to show that another important factor in the decline of Jobcentre use is the increasingly punitive way in which ‘jobseekers’ and other benefit claimants are dealt with, and a corresponding rise in the incidence of benefit disentitlement and sanctioning.[2] Arrive late for a mandatory appointment, or apply for fewer jobs than is stipulated in your ‘Claimant Commitment’, and you risk being sanctioned. Too many sanctions and you risk losing your benefits altogether, potentially for up to three years.[3] The government claims that sanctions are used infrequently and only as a last resort, but the evidence tells a different story. Research by David Webster from the University of Glasgow found that between 2007 and 2012, one fifth (19%) of all JSA claimants – equivalent to almost a million and a half people – had been subject to sanctions or disallowances.[4] In the context of an increasingly stringent, parsimonious and punitive welfare system, some eligible groups are simply not bothering to claim, further reducing the claimant count.

This brings us to another reason that Jobcentres may seem less desperate places these days: increasing localisation and discretion in the delivery and payment of welfare. In what Frank Field describes as “the most radical departure in welfare since the Atlee government"[5], emergency financial help and other discretionary support intended to prevent the poorest and most vulnerable people in society from falling through the safety net has been devolved from central government to local authorities. This has occurred, it should be noted, with limited public debate about the issues and implications localisation raises. So the queues, over-crowded waiting rooms and sense of despair have not gone away, they have simply relocated – into the burgeoning network of council ‘one-stop shops’ and food banks, where cash-strapped local authorities and volunteer workers struggle to help the growing numbers of claimants and families whose benefits or tax credits have been reduced, stopped or failed to reach their bank accounts for whatever reason.

Even if Green’s rosy vision of the contemporary Jobcentre is right, changes are afoot which may yet see a return to Jobcentre queues and sense of frustration.  Under the most radical and contentious welfare reform measure proposed to date, working people and families claiming Universal Credit means-tested financial help with housing, childcare and living costs will be drawn into a system of conditionality and sanctioning similar to that which currently applies to unemployed and economically inactive claimants. Untried anywhere in the world, a large-scale randomised control trial involving 15,000 low-paid Universal Credit claimants is piloting a new Jobcentre Plus-delivered ‘in-work progression’ service[6] targeted at an entirely new category of customer: low-paid workers and their partners. If rolled out nationally, an additional one million UC claimants will become subject to work conditionality. But here’s the most controversial part: these people will already have jobs. What is more, unless the family contains children under the age of 13, work conditionality requiring regular face-to-face meetings with a Jobcentre adviser will continue until household earnings reach a minimum threshold equivalent to both adults in a couple working 35 hours per week at the national minimum wage. Only parents with authorised caring responsibilities for younger children and other officially exempted groups, such as those with a serious health condition, will have the option to work part-time.

Encouraging low-paid workers to increase their earnings is a laudable policy goal, but when earning more means working longer hours, even in families with young children – and when working for longer is the only way of meeting mandatory conditions for UC receipt – the role of Jobcentre Plus advisers in supporting individuals to progress in work becomes somewhat compromised. Tailored, one-to-one, personalised support from a work coach which underpins the in-work progression service is similarly to be applauded, but progression implies improvement – not just in earnings, which could be achieved simply by getting another low-paid job - but in rates of pay and job prospects. Will customers be helped to access training to improve their earnings potential and jobs offering better terms and conditions, or will they simply be obliged to find more low-paid work? This raises another important question: in whose interests will this employment advice be offered? These already ‘hard working’ customers, employers proffering zero hour contracts, or a government intent on reducing social security expenditure?

Empathetic, individualised support to encourage employment progression runs counter to the work-first culture and general direction of travel that Jobcentre Plus has been moving in for more than a decade. What seems to be missing too is any acknowledgement that, although low earners eligible for means-tested help may represent a new category of customer for Jobcentre Plus, they are not necessarily a different group of people; it is well known that people in poverty and at the bottom end of the earnings distribution often cycle between work and benefits. How realistic is it to think that low-paid workers will be willing to trust the very same advisers who may have imposed a sanction on them during a previous spell of unemployment?

Not simply a cultural and logistical challenge for resource-strapped Jobcentres, through eroding the distinction between being in work and out of work and potentially extending negative representations of benefit claimants to those who already have a job, in-work conditionality also risks obscuring the hitherto strictly demarcated political dividing line between Theresa May’s ‘just managing’ families and welfare-dependent ‘scroungers.’ Hampered by the incremental and chronically delayed rollout of Universal Credit, and a paucity of up-to-date government-commissioned and academic research, only time will tell whether this new vision for Jobcentre Plus will ever be realised.


[1] Originally designed as part of Universal Credit, with a rollout that has been much slower than anticipated, the ‘Claimant Commitment’ – with its requirement for 35 hours of evidenced job search as a mandatory condition of benefit receipt – also now applies to claimants of jobseekers allowance (JSA) and employment support allowance.
[2] See ESRC-funded research entitled ‘Welfare conditionality: sanctioning, support and behaviour change’ led by the University of York.
[3] A third failure to comply with the most important jobseeking requirements will result in a sanction of 156 weeks.
[4] See D Webster, University of Glasgow
[5] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmworpen/373/37302.htm
[6] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmworpen/549/549.pdf

Drug and alcohol-related deaths: What of those left behind?

📥  Drug and alcohol policy, Welfare and social security

Dr Christine Valentine is Research Associate in the University of Bath's Centre for Death and Society (CDAS), part of the Department of Social and Policy Sciences.

According to popular wisdom death is the great leveller, affirming our common humanity whatever our status in life. But our recent study of people bereaved by a drug or alcohol-related death found it can also marginalise and stigmatise both those who have died and those left behind.



Our 2012-15 ESRC funded study [1] aimed to better understand and improve policy and practice for the families and individuals affected by a substance-related death. Interviews with 106 people bereaved by substance use found a failure of services to respond to the diversity of people’s experiences with particularly negative consequences for the bereaved [2]. To address this, the study engaged 40 practitioners via six focus groups to explore how better to support these bereaved people. A working group of 12 practitioners then developed best practice guidelines.

Stigma entails stereotyping and ‘othering’, recognising neither the shared humanity nor unique individuality of those belonging to certain groups. For example, press reporting of substance-related deaths is more likely to distance the reader than invite sympathy for grieving family members [3]. In defining the deceased only by their substance use, such reporting can be particularly distressing for bereaved family members in failing to do justice to the person they knew and loved. One bereaved father interviewed for our study recalled: "I just read 'Unemployed man dies of drug overdose' and read down through and it was [my son] and I don’t think the main point about him was that he was unemployed. There was more to [him] than an unemployed man."

Though increased cultural pluralism has brought greater awareness and appreciation of different ways of dealing with death, when it comes to deaths from substance use negative connotations of deviance predominate. In addition to the stigma of substance use and its association with reckless life-styles, the resulting deaths are considered self-inflicted and preventable. Reinforced by press reporting, those left behind remain particularly vulnerable to negative responses from the wider society, including pathologising or blaming the families for failing to prevent the death or even being complicit in some way. As one bereaved mother reported, “It would seem that they [mental health services] immediately went down the route of what’s going on in the family? …this is a family that aren’t functioning well together.” Such responses, while upsetting for bereaved families, are also limiting for the way we understand and manage death and loss in our society more generally.

That initiatives focus on preventing such deaths is understandable; in the UK nearly 12,000 such deaths were recorded in 2013, those relating to drugs rather than alcohol being the highest on record [4]; [5]; [6][i]. While there are no firm estimates of how many people have been affected by substance-related deaths, these mortality rates suggest a sizeable number. Yet they remain a hidden, neglected and ‘at-risk’ population in terms of the devastating effects of this kind of bereavement on health and well-being [7]. Important though treatment and prevention policies are, they are not always successful. As a bereaved father whose son died as a result of alcohol addiction said: "There are limits to what you can do… It may be that with all your best efforts the problem will still be there and … get worse and in the end it may result in death" ([8]). Do we then abandon those left behind after the death, regarding them as part of the problem rather than listening to and learning from their experiences?

To date little academic attention has been given to substance use bereavement. In contrast, a considerable body of work has highlighted the pressures experienced by families living with a member’s substance use [9], some of which has made a significant contribution to the work of drug and alcohol treatment services [10]; [11]. These pressures include the threat to family relationships, not knowing how to respond to the person’s substance use and grief for having lost that person to their substance use. From what is already known of families living with substance use it is clear they will already be depleted of resources when faced with the person’s death. As one bereaved mother reflected, "Addicted families have been bereaved for a very long time, they lost that person a long time ago...and so they have been grieving for a very long time."

Despite some practitioners’ growing awareness of what bereaved families may be coping with, austerity policies have left the organisations concerned under-resourced. While there have been some practice initiatives in both substance use and bereavement fields, such as annual memorial events, bereavement support groups and training programmes[ii], there is little in the way of evidence-based guidance for services dealing with substance-related deaths, substance use or bereavement support.

Evidence from the UK suggests that bereaved people as a whole are poorly served, often facing gaps and inconsistencies in service delivery [12]. For those bereaved through substance use, our research identified additional problems with both the system for processing such deaths and how the bereaved are treated. With regard to the system, responsibilities for dealing with these deaths and with those people left behind are split across disparate services, which can be divided into two broad categories:

1. Services focusing on the deceased, carrying out statutory procedures, such as establishing the cause of death and ensuring proper disposal of the body. This may involve paramedics, GPs, the police and the coroner (in England) or procurator fiscal (in Scotland), and pathologists. Newspaper reporters are responsible for reporting unexplained deaths, while undertakers look after the body and arrange its disposal.

2. Services for those left behind, including clergy or other religious officials providing funeral care, bereavement counsellors and support groups and drug and alcohol services where the bereaved person is in treatment for their own substance use. However, some interviewees reported that the contact they had with drug and alcohol treatment agencies when the person was alive was withdrawn and, with few bereavement services having knowledge of substance use issues, there was nowhere to turn.

Many of our interviewees encountered insensitive, judgmental and abrupt responses from a range of professionals and practitioners. Poor responses from those dealing with the death at or in the immediate aftermath (category 1) could be particularly undermining, the bereaved person being at their most vulnerable, in some cases having already experienced stigma before the death. To experience further stigma from services when bereaved is likely to be particularly distressing [13]; [14]. As one married couple conveyed, "It’s just a horrible stigma … you are labelled, especially by the police … it’s as if when he died, 'Oh another one bites the dust' … it was just horrible."

What was more, poor responses from professionals made it all the more difficult for interviewees to negotiate an unfamiliar, unwieldy, confusing and time-consuming process involving a range of separate organisations. This was particularly, though not solely, the case where the death was sudden and unexpected and drugs (rather than alcohol alone) were implicated. These unexplained deaths are more likely to involve official investigation by the police and coroner in England and the Procurator Fiscal Depute in Scotland. In such cases, the family home may be treated as a crime scene, the deceased’s body and possessions taken into custody and the funeral delayed until after the inquest. Such delays can create considerable uncertainty for the bereaved, who may feel under suspicion as well as deprived of their family member’s remains.

In being questioned about the kinds of support they needed, interviewees reported appreciating practitioners who showed compassion for their situation; adopted respectful and inclusive language; treated them as individuals and avoided making assumptions; and helped them navigate the ‘system’, in some cases working closely with other services to achieve a joined-up response. Yet, more often they reported treatment that was unkind, unhelpful, dismissive and demoralising. In response, practitioner focus groups highlighted the challenges of multi-agency working and how poor responses were, in part, linked to discrete services, each having their own particular working culture and identity. Communication between practitioners from different services was therefore often poor or lacking. Also many services remain uninformed about substance use bereavement, even those specialising in bereavement support.

There was general agreement that services should and could do more to better support those bereaved by substance use, some practitioners voicing their awareness of the difficulties these bereaved people faced. As a coroner’s officer said: "I come from a very narrow focus in terms of supporting people when they attend the inquest process, but…when I talk to people the one thing that they say is that they have absolutely no idea about what to expect, what’s going to happen, what the process will be and that’s on top of trying to grieve and...the stigma that surrounds people who have died through these circumstances". To tackle stigma and foster closer liaison between frontline services and addiction agencies it was felt that greater understanding of both the bereaved person’s predicament as well as each other’s roles was needed .

In response to our study’s findings, an inter-professional working group of twelve members developed practice guidelines [15]. Group members included a paramedic, two members of Police Scotland, a Senior Coroner’s Officer, a GP, a Funeral Director, a University Chaplain, a Senior Alcohol Policy and Research Officer, a Counsellor and Trainer in counselling and social care (who chaired the group), and three people working in the substance use field who were also bereaved by substance use. Reflecting a range of expertise and experience, the guidelines are being widely disseminated via practitioner networks across relevant services – and being enthusiastically received.

Written by practitioners for practitioners, the guidelines centralise the experiences of the bereaved people in question. They invite the reader to identify with the bereaved service user, while highlighting both the specific challenges these bereaved people face as well as the particularity of each service user’s experience. The guidelines capture both universal and diverse aspects of dying, death and bereavement, crucial for enhancing service provision. How far this will be achieved remains to be seen, but the guidelines testify to the willingness of those concerned to engage with this challenging and complex area despite its under-representation within the broader policy agenda.


[i] Actual numbers of both drug and alcohol-related deaths are likely to be far higher than official statistics suggest because some deaths are not recorded or categorised as being drug or alcohol-related and definitions of such deaths tend to vary (Corkery, J. (2008) UK drug-related mortality – issues of definition and classification. Drugs and Alcohol Today, 8(2), 17-25)
[ii] See e.g. Adfam; BTA (Bereaved Through Addiction); Cruse Bereavement Care; DrugFAM; FASS (Family Addiction Support Service); SFAD (Scottish Families Affected by Addiction).


[1] http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/research/understanding-those-bereaved-through-substance-misuse/

[2] Valentine C, Bauld L, Walter T. 2016a. Bereavement following substance misuse: a disenfranchised grief. Omega: Journal of Death Studies. 72:283–301. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/A_disenfranchised_Grief.pdf

[3] Guy, P. (2004) Bereavement Through Drug Use: Messages From Research. Practice 16(1): 43-54.

[4] ONS (2016) Alcohol-related Deaths in the United Kingdom: Registered in 2014. London: ONS; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.ons.gov.uk

[5] ONS (2015) Deaths Related to Drug Poisoning in England and Wales: 2014 Registrations. London: ONS; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.ons.gov.uk

[6] National Records of Scotland. 2014. Drug-Related Deaths in Scotland in 2013; [cited 2016 Jan 29]. Available from: www.nrscotland.gov.uk

[7] Templeton, L., Ford, A., McKell, j., Valentine, c., Walter, T., Velleman, R., Bauld, l., Hay, G. and Hollywood, J. (2016) Addiction Research and Theory, 24 (5): 341-354. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/16066359.2016.1153632

[8] Valentine C, Templeton L, Velleman R. 2016b. “There are limits on what you can do”: biographical reconstruction by those bereaved by alcohol-related deaths. In: Thurnell-Read T, editor. Drinking dilemmas: space, culture and identity. London: Routledge. p. 187–204. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereavement_project_15/12_There_Are_Limits_on_What_You_Can_Do_Biographical_reconstruction_by_those_bereaved_by_alcohol-related_deaths.pdf

[9]Arcidiacono, C., Velleman, R., Procentese, F. Albanesi, C. and Sommantico, M. (2009). Impact and Coping in Italian families of drug and alcohol users. Qualitative Research in Psychology 6(4): 260-280.

[10] Copello A, Templeton L, Orford J, Velleman R. (2010). The 5-step method: principles and practice. Drugs Education Prevention and Policy. 17:86–99.

[11] Orford, J., Velleman, R., Guillermina, N., Templeton, L. and Copello, A. (2012) Addiction in the family is a major but neglected contributor to the global burden of adult ill-health. Social Science and Medicine 78:70-77

[12] NCPC, (2014) Life After Death: Six steps to improve support in bereavement. London: The National Council for Palliative Care.

[13] Walter T, Ford A, Templeton L, Valentine C, Velleman R. 2015. Compassion or Stigma? How adults bereaved by alcohol or drugs experience services. Health and Social Care in the Community. Doi: 10.1111/hsc.12273

[14] Valentine, C. and Bauld, L., (2016) Marginalised Deaths and Policy, in Foster, L. and Woodthorpe, K. (Eds) (2016) Death and Social Policy in Challenging Times. New York, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereavement_project_15/Marginalised_Death_and_Policy.pdf

[15] Cartwright, P. (2015) Bereaved through substance use. Guidelines for those whose work brings them into contact with adults bereaved after a drug or alcohol-related death. University of Bath. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/documents/bereaved-through-substance-use.pdf


Young, Female and Forgotten?

📥  Business and the labour market, Welfare and social security

Professor Sue Maguire is Honorary Professor at the IPR, and is distinguished by her important work on the topics of education, employment and social policy.

Way back in 1988, the Thatcher government, through the Social Security Act, took most young people under the age of 18 out of the unemployment statistics by effectively removing their welfare entitlement. Then, in the 1990s, concerns over the numbers of 16-18 year olds who were not engaging in formal learning, training or employment led to the creation of the term ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) – which sought to capture the size and scale of youth disengagement and social exclusion. In the UK, as in most countries across Europe and other advanced economies, the economic turmoil of the 2000s saw an alarming rise in the levels of young people who are detached from both the labour market and the education and training system. However, rather than the initial focus on a younger cage group, the term ‘NEET’ is now applied internationally to a much wider cohort, typically 16-24-year olds (and, in some countries, up to the age of 29 years), and includes young people in receipt of unemployment benefit as well as to those who claim other types of welfare support or none at all. Despite the official NEET figures in the UK falling over the last couple of years, the numbers remain persistently high. For example, in the period January to March 2016, 865,000 young people (aged 16 to 24 years) were NEET[1]. Of these, 485,000 (56%) were classified to be ‘economically inactive’, with the remainder being ‘unemployed and actively seeking work’.



A striking feature of these statistics is that young women accounted for nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of the economically inactive group, but only 40 per cent of the unemployed group. In the UK, trend data show that young women consistently outnumber young men within the economically inactive group, although the number of economically inactive young men is currently rising. While there have been a number of studies[2] which have segmented the NEET group in terms of young people’s propensity to re-engage with education, employment or training, the prevalence of high economic inactivity rates among young women is under-researched. This perhaps reflects a widespread belief that it is largely attributable to early motherhood or other caring responsibilities and that this group of young people requires little policy attention or intervention because of their domestic commitments. Such assumptions run counter to a body of research evidence which has demonstrated that periods of economic inactivity in early life leave a scar on the individual’s education and employment prospects that persists over time[3].

I am currently collaborating with the Young Women’s Trust (YWT) in undertaking a two-year study (2015-2017), with supported funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, to examine economic inactivity rates and why they disproportionately impact on the lives of young women. Early evidence from the research points to the picture being far more complex than the conventional explanations would suggest. It is apparent that there has been a distinct lack of investigation into why so many young women are economically inactive, and at a time when teenage pregnancy rates have reached their lowest levels across England and Wales[4]. While engaging in ‘caring responsibilities’ is undoubtedly a significant factor, evidence about the characteristics of young women who carry this label, where they live, who they are caring for and for how long, as well as data on what types of intervention they attract or require, is thin on the ground. What is clear is that economically inactive women (and men) are assigned to different welfare trajectories than the young unemployed, with those on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Income Support (IS) and Carer’s Allowance (CA) receiving significantly less intensive support and intervention than those on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). Crucially, young people on ESA/IS/CA are not included in the ‘official’ unemployment statistics.

High rates of economic inactivity within the NEET population are not peculiar to the UK. Young women are disproportionately more likely to be NEET and economically inactive in almost all OECD countries, with the exceptions of Luxembourg and Spain. Female NEET inactivity is overwhelmingly linked to child or elder care and/or other domestic/family responsibilities and in some countries, to cultural expectations. As an extreme case, 40 per cent of young girls in Turkey are NEET (compared to 18 per cent of boys), of which 93 per cent are economically inactive, possibly with family care responsibilities[5]. It is contended by Assaad and Levison that inadequate global labour market demand for young people invariably leads to young women being more likely to be found doing non-labour-force work and less likely to report themselves as actively seeking work. This results in many young women not being included in the unemployment rate, especially when the ‘seeking work’ criteria are applied[6].

While large groups of economically inactive females are a common feature among most NEET populations world-wide, there is a dearth of national and international evidence about effective interventions to reverse this trend, or, in fact, to accurately quantify or qualify their composition or existence. Some commentators highlight that the NEET economically inactive group is essentially an under-researched ‘black box’, which is categorised in terms of what young people are not doing, as opposed to understanding the likelihood of young people within the overall group or subgroups (re)engaging with education, employment or training (EET)[7]. The research by the YWT is exploring the reality of the lives of young women in the economically inactive group in England, including an analysis of their circumstances and aspirations. It is being carried out in a climate where impending welfare cuts are likely to remove even greater numbers of young people from independent welfare support, including housing benefit. However, early evidence suggests that the majority of economically inactive young women live with their families or relatives, with the impact of their ‘exclusion’ being borne by themselves and their household group.

With regard to future policymaking, the research into the economically inactive NEET group also calls into question the continued rationale for assigning both the young unemployed (i.e. those ‘actively seeking work’) and the economically inactive group within the umbrella term ‘NEET’. Is such an approach an equitable or acceptable way of ensuring that significant numbers of young women (and men) are not simply ‘written off’? Given that the epithet ‘NEET’ was coined originally in the UK to define 16- and 17-year olds who were outside the unemployment count, but is now commonly applied to those over 18 who are eligible to claim unemployed status, it may be both opportune and productive to question whether ‘NEET’, as currently defined and applied, is appropriate. Certainly, if it is applied too casually, it may mask rising and unacceptable levels of inactivity among young people. Another issue is whether an age range of 16-24 is too wide, as it encompasses significantly different ‘sections’ of the life course. Pronounced differences are apparent between the under-18s NEET group and the 18-24s NEET group in the UK. Here, the percentage of under-18s who are NEET is higher for males, whereas among the 18-24s, the percentage of females who are NEET is higher than that of males. Overall, there is an urgent need to reappraise how we define the NEET group, and, as a consequence, to re-think our policy responses to the issues confronting the various sub-groups within the NEET category.

At present, policy intervention is primarily targeted at young people who are ‘available for work’ (i.e. the unemployed group within the NEET population), as opposed to those who are defined as economically inactive. In order to formulate appropriate policy measures, we first of all need to identify and locate those who are presently ‘unknown’, ‘missing’ or ‘forgotten’, as far as the statistics are concerned. Along with this process, we need to generate substantive evidence – especially relating to the legion of young women who are affected – about what support, if any, they require. Crucially, this will include understanding what works best in assisting them to engage with support services and what additional support mechanisms may be required to attain an education, employment or training (EET) outcome. As far as current policy direction in the UK is concerned, there is a need to assess the potential impact of any national roll-out of Universal Credit on the future trajectories of the economically inactive NEET group.

[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2016), Statistical Bulletin ‘Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET), May 2016’, 26th May.
[2] Eurofound (2016) ‘Exploring the diversity of NEETs’, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
[3] Britton J, Gregg P, MacMillan L, Mitchell S. (2011) The Early Bird... Preventing Young People from becoming a NEET statistic. Department of Economics and CMPO, University of Bristol.
[4] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/09/halving-of-teenage-pregnancy-rate-hailed-as-extraordinary
[5] Bardak, U., Maseda, M. R. and Rosso, F. (2015) Young People Not in Employment Nor in Education or Training (NEET): An overview in ETF partner countries. Turin, European Training Foundation. July.
[6] Assaad, R. and Levison, D. (2013) Employment for Youth – A Growing Challenge for the Global Economy’. Background Research Paper. Submitted to the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. University of Minnesota.
[7] Tamesberger, D. & Bacher, J. (2014) NEET youth in Austria: a typology including socio-demography, labour market behaviour and permanence. Journal of Youth Studies. 17:9, 1239-1259.