Does universalism have a future?

Blog post

Published: 17/07/2012

In these times of austerity, the future of universalism is uncertain. The question is: would it be a more prudent use of Government funds and taxpayers’ money to routinely restrict benefits solely to those in need?

This was the topic of debate at our annual reception and debate, expertly explored by Chair Mark Easton of the BBC and panellists Rt Hon Frank Field MPPolly ToynbeeJulia Unwin CBE and Rt Hon David Willets MP, with an introduction by Professor John Hills.

When asked at the start and end of the debate "Should universalism be protected?" the audience voted strongly in favour both times.

But what exactly is it that people are protecting, and why, particularly when economic arguments to reduce universalism seem so persuasive at the moment?

Universal benefits include allowances such as Winter Fuel Payments, available to all those over the age of 60 regardless of income or wealth.

Defenders of universalism argue that these benefits – paid for by (almost) everyone and intended to be similarly accessible to all – represent a commitment to important societal values such as social solidarity and equity.

However, this inevitably results in giving benefits to those who, arguably, are not financially in need of them.

Difficult questions were posed by the panel: would it be preferable to restrict some benefits if it meant protecting others? Is means-testing a more effective method of redistribution and therefore a better use of Government money?

How do we decide which benefits to restrict and who makes those decisions?

In response, we were reminded of the complexities inherent to means-testing. It can be administratively expensive, and defining who’s in and who’s out is always controversial.

If not carefully designed, it can lead to income “cliff-edges” for individuals moving between the eligibility criteria and to concerns about equity, particularly for those who fall just outside the defined range.

And if universalism supports social solidarity, is it inevitable that means-testing encourages a more individualistic culture? How easy is it to reverse this trend once it has started?

Any increases in restricted benefits also need to take into account the interaction between universal and means-tested systems. For example, concerns about the movement of people between the NHS and social care have been well documented.

Suggestions for improving the current system were varied. Some proposed a rebalancing of benefits more in favour of income restricted benefits, starting with the suite of universal benefits available to older people. Others argued that efforts to increase means-testing were short-sighted economic arguments that would not save enough money to solve the key issue here: the Government’s debt problem.

Many pointed towards the need for more public engagement. There were strong suggestions about a mismatch between what the public expect the state to provide and what they are willing to pay for it.

And equally, as Frank Field suggested, that people may be unwilling to fund this gap without increased confidence in how efficiently and equitably public money is being spent. However, as David Willets made clear, any increase in spending in the public sector is unlikely to be possible without additional tax rises.

No one at the debate doubted the importance of risk sharing and protection of those in need. However, as Julia Unwin reflected, the central debate is not just about who should receive which benefits but gets to the heart of what sort of society we want.

The implications for how we organise our social protection should not be underestimated.

Suggested citation

Holder H (2012) ‘Does universalism have a future?’. Nuffield Trust comment, 17 July 2012.