Archive for the ‘welfare’ category

Learning behind bars

January 29, 2009

While cleaning out some old papers and documents the other day, I came across a notebook I had used for a short while in 1974. Written in big letters on the cover were the words ‘Gedanken im Gefängnis‘ (‘Thoughts in Prison’). Yes, it was a prison diary. Not what you might think, though. In fact, exactly 35 years ago today, on January 29 1974, I visited a prison for the first time in my life. The institution in question was a small prison, not far from where I was living at the time in Germany. It contained a mix of inmates, some of whom were there on remand, and some were there for the long haul; a significant proportion had been convicted of murder.

How did I get there? A friend of mind was the prison chaplain, and in conversation with him I had indicated that I was interested in finding out more about it, and about prison life, and about what we as a society could do to help rehabilitate prisoners (this was a phase of my life in which I was very committed to political and social activism). On that day, and on a few occasions over the following months, I visited this prison, usually to join the prisoners for their evening meal. At the end of each visit I wrote down my impressions in the notebook. And what came up most in the conversations was the prisoners’ desire for more education. As you would expect, most of them were poorly educated, and back then there were no real opportunities to make up for that while serving their sentences. So I would come back with various educational books, and would also outline to them some of the more basic bits of education I had enjoyed myself.

In my life as an educator in various universities I have, at least on and off, maintained my interest in prisons and in the potential of education to make a difference. When I was Dean of the Law School in the University of Hull, I set up an agreement with the Governor of Hull Prison (which was largely a remand prison) under which staff from my Law School provided evening courses for prisoners. The two most popular options were family law, as many prisoners had family issues of one kind or another, and (this being a remand prison) the law of evidence. My colleagues joined ion this, initially with some enthusiasm, but over time found it difficult because the population changed so frequently, making it difficult to establish a rapport with a class. But I did get a visit one day from a former prisoner in my office, who told me that what we had offered by way of legal education in the prison had changed his life, and that if I ever needed anything – anything, he stressed – I needed only to ring him.

We are not, so we think, a Victorian society, and yet we have made remarkably few changes to the basic principles of prison life. We sometimes talk about, but in reality seem not to care about, the rehabilitation of prisoners, and we seem content that once they first enter through a prison gate they are likely to be regulars. Ireland has, by international standards, a small prison population, but as a society we care very little about them, and it takes vocal and courageous people like the Governor of Mountjoy Prison to remind us from time to time that we are failing these fellow members of our community. Maybe it is time for me to take an interest again.

Social benefits: universal or targeted?

August 15, 2008

As anyone reading this blog – or indeed anyone living in Ireland – knows, there is now a major national debate here on whether tuition fees for higher education should be reintroduced. Leaving aside the specific issue of university fees for a moment, there is a wider issue that this debate touches upon, and which perhaps can do with a little analysis: should social benefits be ‘universal’ (i.e. made available to everyone) or should they be ‘targeted’ (with the resources directed specifically at those most in need of them)?

The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.

Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.

The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.

As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.

It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.

For all that, I might add that I do believe that universal benefits in some contexts are still right. I would strongly favour free secondary education, for example. But there are other areas where they have become of doubtful value and merit.