When looking at welfare reform, it is important to understand the basic political ideologies that influence any changes proposed. No government works in isolation and all decisions made are based on the mistakes made by previous governments and hopefully lessons are learned. The table below outlines the major changes to welfare since the 1944 Beveridge report. It is an overview of political ideology.

Welfare Ideology Since 1944: (Table 1)

Prime Minister

Political Party


Changes to Welfare

Atlee (1945-19 51)


Comprehensive welfare system and National Health Service; nationalisation of utilities, railways, British Airways and Steel.

‘Birth’ of Welfare State
Based on comprehensive benefits to help the unemployed, families, sick, elderly. Provided healthcare that was free at the point of use.

Thatcher (1979-19 90)


Aim to 'roll-back' the welfare state and to allow a free market approach to providing services. Privatisation of previously nationalised services, including the coal mines.

People should work, not be dependent on the state.

Tenants given the 'right-to-buy' their council house
YTS introduced for 16-18 years olds and income support removed for most of this age group.

Tougher eligibility for benefits. Brought in privatisation of NHS and Social care provision as part of a quasi-free market policy.
NHS and Community Care Act 1990.

Major (1990-19 97)


Introduced the ‘Third Way’ into UK politics: based on centralist views on welfare provision.

Introduced JSA to replace Unemployment Benefit with requirements to seek work and sanctions for non-compliance.

Blair (1997-20 07)

New Labour

Followed the ‘Third Way’ and rejected old Labour social democratic ideology.

Introduced tax credits as part of welfare-to-work initiative in April 2003 Creation of Jobcentreplus and the New Deal to provide training and support for long-term unemployed, lone parents, young people and the disabled.

Devolved Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who were free to make their own social policy and budget decisions within agreed fiscal limits set by Westminster.

Welfare Reform Act 2007:Introduced ESA to move long-term IB claimants into work and to reassess every claimant under new Personal Capability Assessments, changes to Housing Benefit, changes to Disability Living Allowance age conditions and other miscellaneous changes.

Brown (2007-20 10)

New Labour

Traditionally Old Labour. Had ideological differences with Blair, but came into power under New Labour identity.

Welfare Reform Act 2009: Abolishment of Income Support, Work for your benefit schemes, ‘Progression to work’ for lone parents and partners of benefits recipients. Right for disabled people to control provision of services.
Enforcement of Child Maintenance by disqualifying from driving or imprisoning non-resident parents who fail to pay.

Cameron (2010- Present)

ConDem Coalition (Conservative )

Thatcherism with a hint of Liberal concessions on tax, NHS reform and ‘listening to consultation’ on these reforms. Embraces the notion of less eligibility from the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Believes no one should be better off on benefits than in work.

Welfare Reform Bill: Introducing Universal Credit (UC) to streamline benefit system and persuade people into work with incentives for workers and sanctions for non-compliance with benefit requirements.

Targeting disability and sickness benefits, housing benefits and JSA as a priority.
Reform of the NHS.

The late twentieth century saw Britain politically dominated by a neo-conservatism approach to social welfare, known as ‘Thatcherism’. Thatcher wanted to ‘roll-back’ the welfare state and privatise services and utilities previously nationalised under Labour; this included British Gas, BT and the coal mines. 

In addition, social housing was scaled back, and the 'right-to-buy' scheme was introduced. A council house could be purchased by its tenants and heavy discounts were given on the purchase prices of these houses to reflect the length of tenancy a person had accrued. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation,1998) Although it gave people a foot on the housing property ladder, it also depleted the stock of affordable housing available for social housing. 
Neo-conservatives believe that by people taking unattractive and low-paid work to sustain them, promotes the dignity of the population, and that the state should interfere with this dignity as little as possible. There should be welfare provision for those incapable of being self-reliant, such as the sick, elderly and disabled; but the family and charity should be encouraged to provide services before the state intervenes. They believe that uniform provision by the state would lead to a stagnation of life, rather than progress. (Moore,2002 p.21) 
I believe that this ethos can be a very positive one. In other countries the welfare state is a fall-back or safety net to help those in dire need and for a limited time. (WelfareInfo.org,2011) 
In my opinion, Thatcher made a terrible mistake in the closing of the coal-mining pits in the 1980s. These closures led to mass unemployment in previously prosperous areas. The Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, campaigned long and hard for his constituents and became known as the Beast of Bolsover (Derby Evening Telegraph,2010). All the areas in Bolsover District fell into hard times after the pits were closed. Now the areas have extremely high levels of unemployment, with 21.5% of this group being long-term unemployed, (Research & Information Team,2010 p.16) and property prices are well below the national average. (Mouseprice,2011)  
I would argue that by creating mass unemployment, Thatcher created a bigger need for the same welfare provision she wanted to roll-back. Additionally, high levels of unemployment reduced the amount of taxes and National Insurance contributions filling the coffers, whilst the amount of money needed to finance the increase in welfare exponentially increased.

To offset the increased unemployment levels the Conservatives introduced tougher measures to decrease eligibility of benefits and to force claimants to actively seek work, whilst cutting benefits. Young people were required to attend Youth Training Schemes (YTS), if they did not continue education. In 1987, Income Support (IS) was stopped if a claimant refused an YTS placement and by 1988 16-18 year olds were ineligible to claim IS at all, (unless they had a dependent child). The rationale was that this age group would either be in education or in an YTS scheme.

After Thatcher left power in 1990 and was succeeded by John Major, in 1996, Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) was introduced to replace Unemployment Benefit. JSA was a difficult regime that would target the ‘idle’ claimant, as it introduced tough sanctions and eligibility criteria. Contribution-based JSA was capped at 6 months, after which the claimant would move to income-based JSA if they qualified. A claimant had to prove they were actively seeking paid employment over 16 hours a week and would have to be immediately available for work, even if they currently worked less than 16 hours a week. (Daguerre et al.,2002) 
In 1997 Tony Blair moved into Downing Street and set his sights upon changing the face of the Labour Party from a social democratic viewpoint to embrace the ‘Third Way’.

“The Third Way is in favour of growth, entrepeneurship, enterprise and wealth creation but it is also in favour of greater social justice and it sees the state playing a major role in bringing this about.” (Dickson,1999)

Tony Blair was adamant that his party was New Labour, and in many ways the politics of this revitalised party bore little resemblance to Old Labour. Blair's agenda held little common ground with social democracy at all and the party was Labour only in name. The Third Way sought to bring UK politics into a modern, globalized world.

Blair believed that Britain should be devolved and each country should able to manage their own social policies in line with Westminster, but gave them their own spending power and self-government. This was in line with the Third Way principle of accountability and responsibility, as he recognised that each country was distinctive and had different priorities to England. He also believed that equality of opportunity was the twofold responsibility of both the individual and the State.(Ibid.)

Old Labour believed that the community was more important than the individual, whereas Thatcher believed that the individual rather than community was important. Blair recognised that both the individual and the community were equally important in creating a healthy and productive society; and this was the biggest shift from both Thatcherism and Old Labour. (Ibid.)
During the Blair years, welfare reform began in earnest. The aim was to repair the ‘damage’ caused by Thatcherism and a free market approach to society; although Blair did believe in a free-market economy linked to state provision.

On the subject of welfare reform, Blair said in 1999:

"It means modernising the welfare system so it helps people, rather than holds them back - a welfare system that recognises work is the best route out of poverty and that the vast majority of people want to work." (BBC News,1999)
A system of Tax Credits was introduced in April 2003 to support low-income families. The aim of this was to make work pay and to encourage people to go back to work. He introduced the Welfare Reform Act 2007 which created the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). (Disability Alliance,2011) This is discussed in detail later in the project. Other relatively minor changes are summarized in Table 1 (above). 
When Gordon Brown replaced Blair in 2007, he continued to implement his predecessor’s changes and followed them with the Welfare Reform Act 2009. (Disability Alliance,2011) The major changes in this Act were to abolish new claims for Income Support and to move current claimants onto ESA or JSA. 
Disabled people were given the right to make choices about their services and a system of Direct Payments was introduced so that they could pay for their care. Tougher sanctions for non-resident parents who failed to pay child maintenance were introduced as well.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat (ConDem) Coalition Government came into power in 2010. This appeared to be an unusual mix of political ideology, especially after the three televised Leaders' Debates. During the television debates Nick Clegg gave such a good account of his party's political stand that their popularity increased exponentially.(Lewis,2010) The LibDems were seen as a political contender for the first time in many years. As a result, although the LibDems lost 5 seats overall, the General Election saw the formation of a 'hung parliament' with the LibDems having the choice to join either the Conservatives or Labour to form a coalition. (BBC News,2010) Although the Conservatives, who won the most seats, could have formed a minority government, David Cameron feared that it would be unstable. Nick Clegg decided to join them in exchange for some concessions and a share in political power. (Travis,2010) Critics feel that the LibDems 'sold out' and have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the Conservatives. (Hasan,2010) However, Cameron defended Clegg and insisted that the LibDems have a big influence on the Coalition policy. (Unknown Author,2010)  However, subsequent bi-elections have proved that LibDem popularity has dramatically fallen since the General Election. (Wheeler,2011) One of the biggest bones of contention has been the LibDems agreement to fast-tracking welfare reform, under the guise of reducing the 'Budget deficit'. The Coalition Government touts welfare reform as immediately necessary to reduce the budget deficit. (Cawston,2010) Although David Cameron made it totally clear in the Election debates that it was Conservative policy from the outset.

In 2001 their manifesto clearly stated their intentions to increase employment figures in the UK through sanctions and penalties. Welfare dependency was a major concern. This echoes the sentiment of the 1988 Secretary of State, who believed that welfare recipients needed to move from dependence to independence. (Daguerre et al.,2002) 

I believe that the move to push through welfare reform by 2013, and the introduction of some changes by 2011, as a measure to reduce national debt is a smokescreen for political intentions already publicised. I also believe that the LibDems are using the current negative fiscal position to mask their defection to a political ideology that is antithetical to their propagandised manifesto in 2010. I believe they have chosen power over promises. Political promises are known as ‘spin’ and the Coalition has used spin to pursue an agenda by manipulating the fears and prejudices of our society whilst we are in dire fiscal circumstances.

The reforms introduced from Thatcherism to the Third Way marked an end to full state dependency and actively forced claimants to earn their right to benefits. I believe that this is the cornerstone of current welfare reforms proposed by the ConDem Government in 2011, which I shall summarise and discuss below. 


    I have just finished a Certificate in Higher Education in Social Policy and the Care Sector. 

    My final module was a 7000 word thesis on welfare reform and the upcoming changes proposed by the Coalition Government. This blog contains that Project.

    Please note: the material is copyrighted and must not be reproduced in full or in part without permission; except for academic purposes where it must be cited as follows:

    Gourlay, Kirstein, 2011, UK Welfare Reform in the 21st century: The Consequences for the Vulnerable in Society, Birkbeck University:London


    August 2011