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Collective Action for the Common Good
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What is welfare? Why is it a key part of the ‘common good’ for all? And how should we go about providing it?

Pete Alcock, a well-respected expert, explains the challenges that collective welfare faces, and explores the complexities involved in delivering it, including debates about who benefits from welfare and how and where it is delivered. His primary focus is on the UK, including the problems of poverty and inequality, and how recent political and economic changes have undermined public investment; but he also draws on international examples from Europe and other OECD countries, such as the impact of private health care in the USA.

Why we need welfare is a call for new forms of collective action to meet welfare needs in the 21st century. It offers a fresh perspective on the key issues involved, and is a great introduction to this important and topical debate.

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The election of a new coalition government in the United Kingdom (UK) in May 2010 has led to a change of direction in third sector policy within England, referred to by the new government as ‘building the Big Society’. The immediate legacy for this new policy environment in the policies of the previous government and the politics of the election campaign is summarised. The key commitments of the Big Society agenda are outlined and the broader ideological context of this critically explored. Some of the implications for third sector policy and practice are identified and the paper closes by questioning whether the Big Society agenda may threaten third sector unity.

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Academics, policy makers and practitioners often stress the need for definition to inform analysis and policy. This paper explores recent debate on the identification of a third sector of organisational activity in the UK. It reviews some leading academic models that have sought to locate this sector alongside others, and then examines attempts to identify the sector as a focus for policy and practice. The importance of policy discourses in shaping debate and constructing definition is explained and the potentially fractured nature of these discourses is explored. These are then contrasted with discourses from practice. A distinction is made between exogenous and endogenous approaches to definition, and the implications of each discussed. The paper identifies a strategic unity within discourse in the UK over the last decade and argues that this has been effective in constituting a unified third sector within policy and practice, albeit one with underlying diversity and potential longer-term instability.

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Third sector involvement in the delivery of public services has a long history. The chapter traces the history to the 1800s and the establishment of organisations providing key welfare services at a time when public provision was limited. Despite the development of the welfare state in the twentieth century, third sector provision continued. The reforms of the 1980s and 1990s led to further changes in this relationship, with the Conservative government seeking to replace public welfare with private and voluntary providers. Marketisation and contracting were continued by the Labour governments of the early twenty-first century, as part of a more general commitment to revisions in the mix of welfare providers, captured in their notion of the ‘third way’. Labour were proactive in promoting choice and innovation in public service delivery through the involvement of third sector providers, and in supporting them to develop capacity to bid for, and deliver, services.

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This book sets out the case for a renewed commitment to the provision of welfare for citizens in the twenty-first century. It is based upon the assumption that welfare is a common good and that it is the role of societies to seek to meet the common good. As social beings we all have a shared interest, and investment, in the relations that we have with our fellow citizens and the interdependencies that these produce. As Defoe’s famous novel sought to reveal, even the mythical Robinson Crusoe could not survive on his island without social support.

Our welfare is therefore dependent upon our relations with our fellow citizens. Although, as I shall explain, these relations and this dependency can, in practice, become complex and challenging. What is more, this requires us to engage in and to support collective actions to meet our shared welfare needs and to promote the common good. Despite the powerful impact of some recent ideological discourses about the freedom and responsibility we have as individuals, a moment’s reflection reveals that what we can secure for ourselves as individuals is very limited, and in practice is always dependent upon cooperation and collaboration with others. We might want to decide as individuals which newspapers and books we read, what clothes we buy and even what pension investments we make, but someone else has written and published those books, and designed and made those clothes, and decided on the costs and benefits of the different (and sometimes fairly limited) pension schemes on offer.

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