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Reinventing the dole: Introduction

Reinventing the dole: Introduction

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Published by Steph Gray

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Published by: Steph Gray on Oct 02, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Unemployment benefits are the most problematic aspect of socialsecurity policy and administration. What level of income should beprovided for those who cannot find paid work? To what extent shouldbenefits reflect changes in the cost of living or in the incomes of those inwork? How can adequacy be reconciled with the preservation of workincentives? What should be done to prevent payment of benefit to thosewho could and should be working or for whom other means of supportare available? Should entitlement depend on contribution conditions?Should there be a means test and, if so, to what extent should individualcircumstances and needs be taken into account, what types of incomeor capital should be wholly or partially disregarded, and to what extent,if at all, should the resources of persons other than the unemployedperson and his or her dependants be included? Should there be a legallyenforceable entitlement to benefit or should eligibility depend, at leastin part, on the exercise of administrative discretion? Whatadministrative and decision-making structure is best suited to providebenefits of the type or types required? How should the system befinanced? These and many other questions had to be decided in the short period,1931-1940, to which this study is devoted, and mainly in the first half of that period. The dual system of unemployment insurance, administeredby the Ministry of Labour, and public assistance (the renamed Poor Law)provided by local authorities had proved inadequate to the needscreated by catastrophic levels of unemployment. The interim solutionadopted in 1931 was to limit entitlement to insurance benefits,substituting for them means-tested payments assessed, but notfinanced, by the public assistance authorities. The Unemployment Act of 1934 introduced a more durable solution: from January 1935, the meanstest was to be administered by a central government departmentcreated for the purpose, the Unemployment Assistance Board. The board was a constitutional innovation: a department of governmentwith its own budget, headed not by a minister but by the six members of the board, appointed by the Minister of Labour but for whose actions hecould not be held responsible. Yet he was obliged to act as the board’sspokesman in the House of Commons - a role in some ways comparableto that of ministers in relation to the executive agencies established inthe 1990s to administer a wide range of government services, but withtwo crucial differences. First, today’s executive agencies (e.g. JobcentrePlus) derive their authority directly from the minister of whosedepartment they are a part and, in the last resort, the minister cannotdisclaim responsibility for their actions. Secondly, the responsibilities of the Unemployment Assistance Board were not merely administrative butextended to questions of policy. The regulations under which paymentsto the unemployed were to be determined were drafted by the boarditself. The minister could propose amendments but parliament could
not: it could only accept or reject the regulations as a whole. Moreover,once the regulations had been approved, the way in which they wereapplied to individual cases depended largely on the instructions issuedby the board to its officers, operating from area offices around thecountry, and those instructions were not subject to any form of parliamentary control.Equally innovatory was the fact that, for the first time, means-testing of the unemployed was to be a function of central rather than localgovernment, the same rules of assessment being applied across thewhole of Great Britain (separate but similar arrangements were madefor Northern Ireland). Devising those rules was a challenging task. Theexisting policies of the public assistance authorities could not beadopted, for at least three reasons. First, there were wide differences of both policy and practice between authorities. Secondly, in thegovernment’s view, many of the authorities had abused the trust placedin them in 1931, in some cases virtually refusing to apply a means testas a condition of eligibility for payments. Thirdly, the politicalacceptability of the board depended on unemployment assistance beingvisibly different from the Poor Law. Every aspect of the means test,therefore, came under scrutiny in the months preceding January 1935,and again in 1935-36 when the furore resulting from the introduction of the regulations had led to their virtual withdrawal and the imposition of a ‘standstill’.My interest in these events goes back to the time, before 1966, whenthe UAB’s post-war successor, the NAB (National Assistance Board), wasstill responsible for means-tested assistance, though its responsibilitieswere no longer confined to the relief of the unemployed. There wereclose similarities between the National Assistance regulations of 1948and the pre-war Unemployment Assistance regulations, and many of theNAB’s officials had worked for the UAB. The relevance of research intothe origins and early development of the UAB to current social policyissues was self-evident. More than forty years later, although the role of means-testing in the British social security system seems more firmlyestablished than ever, much less remains of the original structure. Inthis volume, therefore, no attempt is made to relate the experience of the UAB directly to the problems and solutions of the early years of thetwenty-first century. That there are parallels to be drawn and lessons tobe learnt will be sufficiently apparent to readers with a particularinterest in the financial situation of the unemployed, the establishmentof minimum incomes and the role and techniques of means-testing.Others will, I hope, find the story of the UAB worth reading for its ownsake, not least for the light it throws on the machinery of government inthe inter-war period and on the behaviour and attitudes of some of theparticipants. The story is presented here mainly from the points of view of theadministrators and politicians, as recorded in the official papersdeposited in the National Archives. No doubt a very different accountcould have been written based on the memories of the unemployed men

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