Public policy is complicated—particularly welfare policy. I should know: back in the 1990s I was mad enough to write an entire PhD about it.
My case study, which I doggedly pursued over decades of largely forgotten post-war debate on the issue, happened to be free NHS prescriptions. Harold Wilson’s government scrapped them in 1965, only to reintroduce them three years later. It did so not because of the money saved but because it believed that the only way it could prove to international markets, to voters, and to the media that it was serious about restoring the nation’s finances in the wake of a sterling crisis was to sacrifice a socialist sacred cow. When it comes to welfare policy, you see, symbols often matter.
But that decision was embedded in a debate that had raged ever since the establishment of the welfare state earlier in the 20th century—and, indeed, some would argue, one that goes back not just to a century before that but to the Poor Law of the Elizabethan era.
Essentially, it’s an argument about whether or not it makes sense, both financially and morally, to risk spending public money—an inevitably finite resource on which there are numerous claims—on welfare measures which, rather than benefiting only those who deserve our assistance most, may well end up helping people who don’t really need it.
In other words, and to employ the terms in which the debate was conducted for much of the post-war period, it’s about universalism vs selectivity.
And it’s a debate that continues to this day—one that we heard echoes of when David Simmonds (by no means, it would appear from his professional and voluntary background, a particularly right-wing Conservative MP), appeared recently on the Today programme to talk about Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to persuade the government to extend free school meals vouchers into the summer holidays.
Now, at first glance, a debate about free school meals can’t really be about universalism vs selectivity. After all, since free school meals are limited in the vast majority of year groups only to the poorest families, they are by definition a means-tested, selective benefit.
But listening to Simmonds, it’s apparent that, to him, anyway—and presumably to the government—even that level of targeting doesn’t provide us…