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Author: Jed Meers

In common with most decisions of the Supreme Court, the judgment in R. (on the application of Carmichael) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2016] UKSC 58 tells two stories: a short version and a long version. This article outlines both. The short story is the immediate impact of the decision: the application of the high-bar ‘manifestly without reasonable foundation test’, a distinction drawn on ‘transparent medical need’, and the lack of regard given to international obligations under the UNCRPD and the UNCRC. The long story is how this decision fits into the ‘cut-and-devolve’ approach to welfare reform in the UK, where local authorities are left to mitigate the effects of centrally determined benefit reductions without adequate support. After outlining the basis of the decision and its likely effects, this article argues that the decision does little to square this key structural circle at the heart of the UK government's welfare reform agenda.

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Author: Jed Meers

This paper argues that central governments can avoid blame for cuts to social security by giving local authorities discretionary powers. When making reductions to entitlements, conferring discretion avoids delineating who is affected, allowing for conflicts in policy formation to be deliberately fudged, decisions to be shielded from the gaze of the public and the courts, and responsibility for the impact of budget reductions to be externalised. Using three ‘welfare reforms’ in the UK as examples – the Council Tax Reduction Scheme, Discretionary Housing Payments, and local welfare assistance schemes – four ‘blame avoidance’ functions of conferring discretion are proposed.

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Author: Jed Meers

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) online guidance for recipients of Universal Credit (‘UC’) sets out, ‘the kinds of things that claimants will be required to do in return for receiving [UC]’ (Department for Work and Pensions, 2020). It is, in all but name, a claimant-facing statement of the benefit sanctions regime. In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, work search requirements and (new) sanctions were suspended for three months from April 2020. If claimants were unable to do ‘the kinds of things’ they are ‘required to do’ as a result of the pandemic, they would not be sanctioned. This guidance was updated on 1 July 2020. The change is detailed in full on the document’s gov.uk page: 1 July 2020: Removed the wording ‘You will not get a sanction if you cannot keep to your Claimant Commitment because of coronavirus (COVID-19)’.

Those UC recipients who are shielding due to health concerns, self-isolating as a result of symptoms, or are unable to find work or increase their hours due to a decimated labour market, may be forgiven for thinking that the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much in motion. Indeed, the deleted sentence appears to be an uncontroversial statement to even the most hardened advocate of benefit sanctions: removing it implies that sanctions may now arise as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The re-instatement of sanctions and this change to guidance is illustrative of the issues facing the social security system in this ongoing crisis. Does this pandemic really herald a ‘new normal’ in social security support, or will the state row back quickly? As we enter a deep recession, have the lessons of the last decade of austerity been heeded?

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Authors: Stuart Lowe and Jed Meers

Housing has been relatively neglected in national, comparative and international social policy research. In the UK an agenda based around the financialisation of the everyday in both the home owning sector and in social housing has emerged. New layers of responsibility have been imposed on both sets of families in both these domains as the welfare state re-invents itself around themes of individuality, risk and self-management. The chapter seeks to show the synergies in this discourse between what have usually been thought of as entirely separate housing tenures. The first part considers the use of equity release by home owners to fund their welfare and care needs and the second part describes the so called ‘bedroom tax’ and the associated issue of Discretionary Housing Payments.

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Public understanding of the risks posed by COVID-19 understandably has focused squarely on health and mortality. As government officials throughout the UK during the first few months of the crisis offered daily hospitalization and death counts, minds inevitably concentrated on the medical risks of COVID-19. Yet the subject of this book is the social costs that will also come in the wake of the pandemic: problems of social disadvantage and suffering that will be less visible – perhaps less compelling in the public imagination – than the primary health impacts. How might law matter to such social problems? What role can law play in the alleviation of this social suffering?

When answering such questions, it is tempting to frame the discussion purely in terms of what government, Parliament or the courts might do to alleviate suffering. The image of law here is one where it has a formal status: enacted through Parliament, interpreted and developed in the courts, and enforced by administration. Equally, the understanding of law’s relationship to society is primarily a ‘top-down’ instrumental one: law as a tool of governance to bring about change in society. There is much to commend this way of thinking about law and society. It captures a great deal of what lawyers and social scientists study when exploring law’s potential to improve society and the actual impact of law on society. However, to understand the role of law in the response to social suffering fully, we must make two basic adjustments to this familiar way of thinking about law in society.

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Jensen and Tyler (2015) have powerfully argued that ‘anti-welfare commonsense’, fuelled by negative political and media discourse stressing welfare dependency and deception, has buttressed support for social security reform in recent years. Along with many other academics they point to the hardening of public attitudes towards welfare state provision and how notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ have been reintroduced into popular debates. We identify four distinct threads within this scholarship. First, there is an argument that public attitudes have shifted from an earlier post-war welfare imaginary and settlement to an anti-welfare consensus. Second, this hardening includes a growing prevalence of ‘othering’. The third thread is the broadening of this moral and disciplinary gaze to include groups, such as disabled people, who until recently were not subject to the same amount of stigma as other types of benefit recipients. Fourth, is the impact of pejorative welfare discourses on the self-identity and attitudes of disadvantaged groups.

While a growing body of evidence makes it increasingly difficult to argue against suggestions that there is a hostile body of anti-welfare sentiment in the UK, what is often implicit in the analysis of pejorative contemporary attitudes to welfare is the view that there was once a ‘golden age’ of the welfare state when public support was more fully behind a strong set of social security benefits provided as a social right of citizenship. Whether this was the case is a moot point however.

Few studies have tried to piece together the attitudes to welfare of the general public during the consensus era. We attempt to undertake such a task here, drawing on ad hoc attitudes surveys and polling data in particular. Specifically, we focus on how notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ play out in this data, pointing to some key continuities found in contemporary and historical public attitudes to welfare.

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