Welfare claimants too often get lost in a complex system © Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images

How to fix the welfare state

Hilary Cottam has some bold solutions that are worth listening to
August 20, 2018

You do not have to endorse every one of Hilary Cottam’s arguments about how truly dire our current welfare state arrangements are to recognise that she is genuinely on to something in this book.

Cottam, a social entrepreneur who works on collaborative solutions to national problems, argues that it’s imperative that we help people who in one form or another have come to rely on the welfare state’s myriad services—or who get lost within them—to take back control of their own lives. It’s vital that we help them build on their own capabilities, create their own connections and fulfil their own desires.

In humane and beautifully written terms, Radical Help details a series of experiments around the country that have done just that—dealing with “chaotic families,” the unemployed, benefit claimants and the lonely elderly living with chronic medical conditions. The solution is renewal through relationships, which will require harnessing some very old as well as newer technologies.

It is a tale of successes and failures, and sometimes of success followed by failure. Existing services struggle to adapt to new approaches, but given the right support can do well. When the money gets tight, though, these ideas can be abandoned: they feel too “soft,” in more than one sense of the word.

The biggest challenge, which Cottam acknowledges, is not so much how to “scale up” (because the whole point here is that the system should be very local and individual) but how to make such ideas more mainstream. One is left with a nagging query about how much success depends on the exceptional individuals that Cottam seems able to recruit to her cause. But even so there are powerful ideas here. This book should be required reading for every politician, professional and manager who seeks to make the UK a better place. They should ask themselves: how much of this could we do?

Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State by Hilary Cottam (Virago, £16.99)