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United Kingdom

Dr. Max Krafchik

Publication date 2023-10-16


  1. 1 Abstract
  2. 2 Introduction
  3. 3 Developing the Welfare State in the Twentieth Century
  4. 4 The Welfare State under threat
  5. 5 A new focus – welfare to work
    1. 5.1 Social policy under austerity
  6. 6 Older people
    1. 6.1 Overview
    2. 6.2 State pension age
    3. 6.3 Pension credit
    4. 6.4 Social care
    5. 6.5 Pensioner income: totals and sources
    6. 6.6 Labour market participation
  7. 7 Families and children
    1. 7.1 Overview/​policy approach
    2. 7.2 Family types and children
    3. 7.3 Childhood experience and well-being
    4. 7.4 Child poverty
    5. 7.5 Access to Childcare
    6. 7.6 Child protection
    7. 7.7 Children’s rights
  8. 8 Social Work
    1. 8.1 Professional social work
    2. 8.2 History and organisation of social work
    3. 8.3 Education and training
    4. 8.4 Recruitment and retention
    5. 8.5 Digital capabilities
  9. 9 Community Development
    1. 9.1 History
    2. 9.2 Organisational structures
    3. 9.3 Funding sources
    4. 9.4 Future prospects
  10. 10 Future challenges for the UK’s welfare state
  11. 11 References

1 Abstract

This profile provides an overview of the principal features of the welfare state in the United Kingdom. It describes how these features emerged and changed during the twentieth century. It notes that the Beveridge report, published in 1942, continues to the present day to be a reference point for debates in the UK about social policy. The profile also explores four specific aspects of social policy: older people; families and children; social work; and community development. This is a “United Kingdom” profile, but readers should note that there are differences between some policies in England and the position in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Readers should also note that social policy in the UK is subject to continuing political, economic, and structural demands; therefore, the profile represents the position at the time of writing (July 2023) but aspects change under these various pressures.

2 Introduction

Many of the principal features of the UK’s welfare state were introduced in the years directly after the Second World War by a Labour government elected on a popular mandate for social and economic reconstruction and strongly influenced by the proposals in Sir William Beveridge’s famous 1942 report. The Beveridge report – Social Insurance and Allied Services – had set out how the state could take concerted action against the “five giants” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, with these policies underpinned by Keynes’ prescription for full employment; these were aspirations that were in sharp contrast to the dominant pre-war ideologies.

Arguably, the most significant and long-lived measure has been the establishment of a National Health Service as a universal service free at the point of delivery. Alongside the NHS, this period saw the restructuring of contributory social protection benefits for unemployment, sickness and old age; the introduction of a universal system of family allowances to mitigate the cost of child-rearing; and a new safety-net National Assistance scheme.

Although both the idea of a British welfare state and a core structure of services were well established by the 1950s, this did not ultimately lead to a “social democratic” welfare regime in the UK (Esping-Andersen, 1990). A broad consensus in support of comprehensive welfare measures in the 1950s and 1960s was eroded when the political balance shifted towards neo-liberalism. As Esping-Andersen (1990, p.54) said “The system was certainly not undone by the 1980s, but it failed to progress further; Labour’s record of post-war power was too weak and interrupted to match the accomplishments in Scandinavia.” As a recent study put it, the 21st century UK welfare state is now one where “Neo-liberalism dominates, but not entirely” (Taylor-Gooby et al., 2017).

Issues such as how welfare services are delivered, rising awareness of barriers to access and to discrimination, how much should be spent on them, and how access (or rationing) should take place have been the focus of intensive debate and policy shifts in recent years. As a result, the UK now has a complicated welfare mix, with elements of universalism alongside highly targeted provision, state delivery co-existing with marketisation, and centralized control of some services contrasting with devolved responsibilities for others. This makes it difficult to distinguish an overarching set of principles that underlie the modern UK welfare system, as will be seen when we look below at four policy areas in more depth.

The state takes the leading role in welfare policy and financing in the UK. This is predominantly through the central government. Local government bodies (metropolitan councils in urban areas; county and district councils in rural areas) have some service responsibilities, including social care for children, people with disabilities, and the elderly, but operate within policies and budgetary constraints set by the central government. There is an extensive “third sector”, which includes many not-for-profit organisations (faith bodies, citizen-led groups, and charities); these are often grant-funded or commissioned by national or local government to provide services. The for-profit private sector plays an increasing role, most obviously in providing residential care for the elderly and pre-school childcare.

Although this is a “United Kingdom” profile, many aspects of social policy (e.g., health, education) are devolved responsibilities of the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are now significant differences between the approaches adopted in England and in the other nations of the UK, such as in paying for social care for the elderly. England does not have a devolved government, with powers remaining with the UK central government. There will not be sufficient space in the profile to describe these policy differences in any depth, but it should be noted that talking about “UK” policy can obscure this diversity (Deeming, 2020). For readers interested in understanding devolution in the UK more generally, see Torrance (2022).

The UK has a population of around 67 million. The population has grown in recent years and the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has projected that it will surpass 69.2 million by 2030 and reach 70.5 million by 2041. Looking across the four nations that make up the UK, most people live in England (56.6m; 84%), with smaller populations in Scotland (5.5m; 8%), Wales (3.2m; 5%) and Northern Ireland (1.9m; 3%) (ONS, 2022).

Looking at the UK in comparison with other European countries, GDP per capita in the UK in 2019 was 32,640 euros (EU average 28,680 euros). This ranked the UK at the lower end of the richer EU states; below the level in France, but higher than in Italy or Spain (Eurostat, 2022a).

The UK can be reasonably characterized as a “medium” spender on welfare compared to other European countries. Expenditure on welfare as a percentage of GDP has been just under the EU average in recent years; in 2017 it was 26.3% of GDP, compared with the EU average of 27.9%.

Expenditure on old age and survivors’ benefits were the largest component of social protection expenditure in the UK (43.4%), followed by sickness, healthcare and disability (39.3%). This was a similar ratio to EU averages. One striking difference in the pattern of the UK’s expenditure on social protection is the low proportion linked to unemployment; the UK’s figure of 1.3% of benefit expenditure on this function was lower than any EU country (bar Romania) and well below the 4.4% EU average (Eurostat, 2019).

Healthcare expenditure in the UK amounted to 10% of GDP, again almost the EU average figure. Health expenditure per capita in the UK was 3,646 euros; lower than the richer EU countries, but higher than in Italy or Spain (Eurostat, 2022b).

Measured using the Sustainable Development Goals, in 2018, 18.9% of the UK population were living in households at risk of poverty, above the EU rate of 17.1%. The 2018 UK figure was an increase from a low point of 15.9% in 2016, and almost as high as the starting point for this time series at 19% in 2005 (Eurostat, 2022c).

The unemployment rate in the UK in Spring 2023 was 3.8% of the economically active population aged 16 and over. Unemployment has been relatively low in the UK in recent years, below the 6%-8% range experienced during the five years from 2009–2014 (ONS, 2023b).

3 Developing the Welfare State in the Twentieth Century

Social policy began to take its modern shape in the UK in the period immediately before World War One. Much of this was introduced by a Liberal government that took office in 1906.

The first wave of measures focused on child welfare. These included free school meals for poorer children (1906) and medical check-ups at school backed-up by some access to free treatment (1907). The Children Act (1908) made parental neglect of children an offence and reformed the juvenile criminal system, separating it from adult courts and prisons; more generally, the legislation helped establish the concept that children had a right to welfare and that the state should intervene when there they were at risk.

The pace of reform quickened from 1908 when the radical member of parliament David Lloyd George became Chancellor of Exchequer (in charge of government spending and taxation) and began to push the programme forward. Old age pensions were introduced in 1909. These were payable from age 70 to the elderly who were on low incomes and who met standards of respectability (for example, those who had been in prison in the last ten years did not qualify). These pensions were significant historically as the first state benefit provided without the stigma associated with the Poor Law (Thane, 1996).

Social protection benefits and access to primary medical care were extended to (some) working-age adults under national insurance legislation passed in 1911. The National Insurance Act Part 1 introduced a compulsory health insurance scheme for adult workers earning less than £160 per year. Cash benefits were paid for three purposes: as sickness benefit when they could not work, payable for a maximum of 26 weeks; as an on-going disability pension paid at half the rate of sickness benefit if the person was unable to return to work after this point; and a maternity grant. The bulk of the costs were met by weekly contributions by workers (4/9ths of the total) and their employers (3/9ths), with the remainder paid by the state. Men and women were treated differently under the scheme; men paid a greater cash contribution from their wages and received a higher benefit rate. In practice, many working people stayed outside the scheme, often because they were in irregular work, or were so poorly paid that they (and their employers) avoided making contributions.

Importantly, the Act also enabled insured workers (but not their families) to get free treatment from a local doctor, although this did not extend to hospital care.

Part 2 of the National Insurance Act introduced the UK’s first state-supported unemployment benefits. This benefit was introduced in a limited number of industries (building and construction, shipbuilding, mechanical engineering, vehicle manufacture) where workers were typically unemployed for short periods when demand for labour fell. Benefits were payable for up to 15 weeks in a year to reflect this pattern. Unemployment insurance was financed on a similar three-way contributory basis to sickness insurance. However, the number of people covered by unemployment insurance was far less than for sickness insurance (2 million compared to 15 million).

There was also growing recognition that the overcrowded housing conditions in many cities were leading to ill-health. A Housing and Town Planning Act (1909) enabled local government to do more to build new housing, although only limited implementation happened before the outbreak of war.

The developments put in place by 1914 were piecemeal measures dealing with specific problems, not a comprehensive approach. They sat alongside existing, older services including the Poor Law which offered basic help to those who had no other source of support; many charitable and church-based foundations which operated hospitals and schools; and private or mutual insurance schemes widely used by working-class people who had higher wages or more regular work. There were few sources of support for families with the very lowest incomes, those in irregular work or on the fringe of the labour market through disability.

The limitations of these systems were revealed in the inter-war period when dislocation after the First World War was followed by unprecedented high unemployment in the export industries in the 1920s and then widespread economic depression in the following decade. Successive governments tried to manage the demands this placed on services by adapting and revising existing programmes; social protection benefits were extended through a patchwork of initiatives, providing only a bare subsistence income, whilst minimising the costs and keeping pressure on people to look for work. Much of this was unsuccessful, generating great resentment and by the end of the 1930s widespread consideration of reform but with little actual change.

Debates on the UK welfare state, even those taking place now, take as their reference point the 1942 Beveridge report (Beveridge, 1942). Sir William Beveridge’s proposals for post-war social reconstruction had begun as a low-key exercise commissioned by the war-time coalition government to tidy up existing social protection schemes. Beveridge increased the scope of this work extensively, developing comprehensive plans for income security which, he argued, could only be successful if they were backed-up by family allowances, a national health service, and full employment. These sweeping ideas were a dramatic shift from pre-war assumptions, especially when taken alongside the economist John Maynard Keynes’ arguments that governments could (and should) maintain full employment through economic management. The proposals generated huge publicity and public enthusiasm for real changes in people’s lives when the war was over, with intense parliamentary debates in 1943 and more than 600,000 copies of the report purchased by February 1944. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and many of his Conservative colleagues were lukewarm but the momentum for change was irresistible (Addison, 1975). Although when looked at in detail the Beveridge proposals did not require significant redistribution of income or structural change, and despite few of the plans being adopted exactly as envisaged, they did set a crucial benchmark for the future (Timmins, 2017).

A series of government commitments and legislation quickly followed, stimulated by Beveridge and by other campaigns on education, health, and housing that reflected the dissatisfaction with pre-war approaches to welfare.

In a 1944 white paper on Employment Policy, the government for the first time accepted that one of the state’s primary aims and responsibilities after the war should be the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment.

The 1944 Education Act established free secondary education for all children starting at age 11, with the school-leaving age raised from 14 to 15. The act did not prescribe the structure of secondary schooling, which was left to local education authorities to determine. Most opted for a tripartite system -- grammar, secondary modern, and technical – with children allocated through an exam called the 11+. In practice, technical schools were not developed widely, leaving most children split between grammar and secondary moderns. A few areas opted for an alternative model of comprehensive schools without the 11+ exam, but these were relatively rare until the 1960s and 1970s.

Family allowances were introduced in 1945, paying a weekly sum as a universal benefit to all families for each child after the first-born. This was the culmination of a twenty-five-year campaign led by Eleanor Rathbone which had seen allowances as a matter of women’s economic independence. By 1945 Rathbone was a member of parliament and able to successfully argue that these payments should be owned by the mother, not by the father as the government had initially proposed.

A Labour government under Clement Attlee, elected with a large majority in July 1945, took social reform forward speedily. Probably of greatest long-term significance was their establishment of the National Health Service (NHS). As early as 1944 a government white paper had expressed the principles that a health service should be comprehensive, providing all citizens with treatment and care through the best medical facilities available and that this should be free at the point of use. The great achievement of Attlee’s government was to turn this aspiration into a reality – navigating much opposition – and launch the NHS in April 1948.

A National Insurance Act (1946) introduced contribution-based old age pensions at age 60 for women and 65 for men. The act also extended access to unemployment and sickness benefits and introduced maternity benefits and death grants. The National Assistance Act 1948 formally abolished the Poor Law and reformed the means-tested “safety net” for people who did not qualify for or who had exhausted their rights to contributory national insurance benefits.

The war had left an acute housing shortage. A New Towns Act (1946) authorized the building of a series of towns across the country led by specially formed public corporations. Wider targets for building more than 300,000 new homes each year were included in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.

The Children's Act (1948) required local councils to provide good housing and care for children whose home lives justified intervention.

Historians of the welfare state have characterized the next twenty-five years as the UK welfare state’s years of expansion, enabled by economic growth and low unemployment. There was a consensus across much of the political spectrum that accepted the state should take the lead in economic management and in social welfare. This did not, however, mean that there was no criticism during these years. The inadequacies of many social services were clear: poverty had certainly not been eradicated, especially amongst the elderly; much social housing was of poor quality; and academic research detailed both the continued social inequality and the many barriers to getting welfare support when it was most needed (Townsend, 1979). Nevertheless, support for “welfare” remained largely intact in the public and political imagination through to the 1970s.

4 The Welfare State under threat

The post-war welfare state faced its first great political and economic challenge in the mid-1970s; commentators have called this period “the welfare state under fire” (Timmins, 2017) or “the welfare state under threat” (Lowe, 1999). This was the era of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which made the UK’s first decisive break with the post-WW2 political consensus. Much more in tune with Reagan’s USA than European social democratic perspectives, Thatcher’s administration was committed to cutting back the power of trade unions and was willing to allow unemployment to rise dramatically to achieve economic restructuring.

There were successive rounds of cuts, restructuring, and restrictions to social protection benefits in the 1980s, both to manage the pressures on public expenditure when more people were out of work and, it was claimed, to push the unemployed back into jobs wherever possible. For people not in work, means-tested income support benefits became much more important, eroding the social insurance principles Beveridge had promoted. The living standards of people reliant on benefits suffered significantly, with a serious impact on the disadvantaged groups heavily represented among claimants.

However, despite their industrial and labour market policy and radical rhetoric, evidence suggests that this administration was surprisingly cautious about changing other core elements of the welfare state. The Conservatives understood the political significance of the NHS, in particular, and in practice they did not move away from the broad commitment to a service free at the point of delivery. They were, though, increasingly keen to find ways to introduce market principles and competition into services, a trend that would continue further under New Labour in the following decades. Interestingly, even by the time Thatcher left office in 1990, opinion polls showed there remained extensive public support for increasing taxation to pay for the welfare state (Lowe, 1999, p.319).

Perhaps the Thatcher government’s most serious long-term impact on the welfare state was on housing. Early in their first term the government introduced a controversial “right to buy” scheme, allowing people renting their homes from local authorities (council housing) to buy them at a discounted price. This formed part of a broader encouragement of owner-occupation and a “property-owning democracy”. The table below illustrates the scale of the change in tenure from social to private housing that followed this.

Table 1
Dwelling stock: by tenure, England
000s (thousands of dwellings)
Owner Occupied Rented Privately Rented from Registered Providers (such as housing associations) Rented from Local Authorities Other public sector dwellings All Dwellings
1961 6,068 4,377 3,382 13,828
1971 8,334 3,201 4,530 16,065
1981 10,334 2,051 410 5,118 17,912
1991 13,230 1,767 608 3,899 167 19,671
2001 14,735 2,133 1,424 2,812 103 21,207
2011 14,828 4,105 2,255 1,726 62 22,976
2021 15,914 4,875 2,524 1,582 33 24,928

Data extracted from: Housing and Communities, Statistical data set, (historical series)
Live tables on dwelling stock (including vacant), Table 104 Dwelling stock: by tenure, England
Source available at:​statistical-data-sets/​live-tables-on-dwelling-stock-including-vacant

Almost 30% of homes had been council housing in 1981; by the year 2001, this percentage had halved; and by 2022, it had halved again, down to little more than 6%. As the data also shows, housing associations (registered providers) have replaced some, but not all, of the fall in social housing. Owner-occupation rose substantially but this trend has levelled off since the millennium as buying a house or apartment has become increasingly expensive. As a result, the number of private-rented properties, which in the UK are only lightly regulated in terms of rents and standards, has more than doubled in the last 20 years. These underlying changes alongside the failure to build sufficient new homes have put many families, especially disadvantaged groups, under acute housing stress in recent years.

5 A new focus – welfare to work

The three Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 (or New Labour, as it is often called), under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, had the longest uninterrupted period in power that the Labour Party has ever achieved. Looking back, it is interesting to try to identify the aspects of their social policy interventions that remain significant today. Some initiatives that were introduced with great effort and much applause, such as the Sure Start programme for under 5s and neighbourhood management to keep local areas clean and safe, largely disappeared when spending was cut by subsequent governments. Other policies have left a more tangible legacy, such as the much-needed capital investment in new school buildings and hospitals. There were also considerable successes that have had a sustained impact on life chances, such as the increase in young people reaching 18 with good educational qualifications and a big reduction in teenage pregnancies. Their measures on children and families are outlined later in this profile. For a wider account of their activity and the issues they confronted as a government see Timmins (2017; pp. 559–655).

This section focuses on the development of social security payments for people in work, one of the Labour administration’s social policy initiatives that proved of long-term significance, although not necessarily in a way its architects envisaged.

New Labour’s approach to social protection for people of working age was neatly expressed as “work is the best form of welfare”. Led by Gordon Brown, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. and the Treasury, rather than social security ministries, this was as a distinctive break from previous Labour positions. A 1999 Treasury paper said:

Family life and the world of work have changed out of all recognition since the foundation of the welfare state. But the system has not kept pace with these changes – it has focused on the consequences of inequality of opportunity and given too little attention to the underlying causes. The Government is committed to a new approach which tackles both – by extending work opportunities to all those who can work and providing security to those who can’t. (HM Treasury 1999; para 1.06)

Brown had a very direct view of what he was trying to achieve – his message to the (working-age) public was clear “Your responsibility is to seek work. My guarantee is that if you work, work will pay” (quoted in Timmins 2017; p.572).

There were a series of measures to try to achieve this. The UK’s first statutory national minimum wage (NMW) was introduced by legislation in 1998 setting a floor for hourly wage rates. Additionally, recognising that individual families could still be in poverty despite a minimum wage, a new structure of tax credits was established to top-up wages where family incomes remained below agreed levels ofemployment. The principal legislation was the Tax Credits Act 2002. These “in-work benefits” soon became one of the largest elements of the welfare budget, growing from low levels to reach more than 14% of total welfare spending by 2013/14 and assisting more than 3 million families (Office for Budget Responsibility, 2013; para 7.2).

The large-scale spending on government support for people in work was a major change from the social protection models built out of Beveridge’s 1942 plan. Although critics argued that the levels set for both the NMW and tax credits were too low to address poverty, they did help restore some of the income inequalities that had widened in the 1980s and 1990s. More challenging was the accusation that the tax credit system became over-complicated and the concern that it was, in effect, a subsidy enabling employers to keep wages down.

The NMW is now well-established as a feature of the UK labour market, with the Low Pay Commission’s annual recommendations for uprating agreed annually by successive governments. However, the tax credit system as established by New Labour is being replaced. The concept of in-work benefits has survived, but only on a more restrictive basis under the Universal Credit system which began to operate nationally in 2018.

5.1 Social policy under austerity

Universal Credit (UC) had been one of the big social policy changes introduced by the Conservative-dominated coalition government led by David Cameron that took office in 2010. The administration’s programme was overshadowed by the effects of the financial crisis of 2008–10 and the increased government debt levels following the bail-out of the UK’s banks. In social policy terms, this meant “austerity”; widespread measures to either cut or hold-back spending across almost all aspects of the welfare state. Some innovations introduced by New Labour to improve the future prospects of young people from poorer homes were simply stopped (Child Trust Funds; Educational Maintenance Allowances) and public sector staff faced a pay freeze. Education and health spending were given some protection, but even this was seen as insufficient to cope with structural pressures such as from an aging population, let alone likely to address poverty and inequality.

The biggest policy developments under the coalition were those in social protection benefits and education. The Conservatives had come into government with proposals to make major structural reforms both to tax credits and to social security benefits for working-age people, bringing them together into the new Universal Credit system. The idea was that this would be a “dynamic” system, simplifying benefit processes and responding quickly to changes in recipients’ income from work, making it easier for people to see that “work paid”. Although the principle of simplification gained approval, in practice the reforms hit a series of problems. First, they coincided with overall government cost-cutting, restricting benefit levels below those initially envisaged and making it difficult to invest in the administrative and technological costs of the changes. Second, the sheer complexity of development and delivery was much greater than expected (Timmins, 2017, pp 695–707).

The implementation of Universal Credit has taken several years. New social security claimants have been moved on to UC, but existing claimants have stayed on the older programmes until there is a change in their circumstances. By the beginning of 2021, there were over 5 million households on UC, with a further 3.2 million remaining on the legacy programmes. Readers seeking further information on UC or on the overall social protection system can find good summaries in two House of Commons Research Library Briefings (Hobson, 2021; Hobson et al. 2022).

In schooling, the coalition government massively extended the academies programme, which enabled schools to convert from being part of the local government structure to a new status where they were self-managing but still funded from the public purse. Academies had begun under New Labour as a relatively small experiment in challenging existing structures but grew exponentially after 2010. In 2010, only 203 schools in England were state-funded academies, a tiny minority of the total number of schools. By 2015, there were more than 2,200 academies, and by 2022, this had grown further to 2,700 (80% of the total number of secondary schools in England). There was also a similar trend amongst primary schools, with 40% of these (6,800) becoming academies by 2022.

Since at least 2016, successive Conservative governments have aimed at moving all schools to an academy status, leaving local authorities with a very limited role in education. The most recent government White Paper on schooling reinforced this commitment and emphasised the role of “multi-academy trusts” (not-for-profit companies that run more than one academy school) in achieving this. There are now around 2,500 academy trusts in operation, many very small, but the largest is reported to have responsibility for 75 schools. The average size of a multi-academy trust is reported as seven schools [1]. The shift from local authority responsibility for schooling to trusts operating under contract with the central government is another major change in the welfare state, with its impact on educational outcomes still under debate [2].

In higher education, the coalition government introduced a substantial increase in tuition fees for undergraduate courses from £3,000 per year to £9,000 per year. This transferred much of the cost of university teaching from the public purse to the individual student. Most students took out government-backed loans to pay these fees, repaying the loans and the interest payable from their salaries once they were in work. The increase in fees provoked extensive opposition but has been retained since then despite regular calls for reform, such as its replacement with a graduate tax.

6 Older people

6.1 Overview

The UK has an ageing population and is forecast to continue to age; the Office of National Statistics project that by 2050 one in four people in the UK will be aged 65 years or over, up from one in five at present (ONS 2019). Commentators expect this to increase pressure on services and public expenditure, although this could be offset in part if there is an increase in labour market participation by older people.

Total UK public expenditure on old age (pensions and personal social services) in 2021/22 was £129bn, which was 43% of total public expenditure on social protection (£299bn). Of the spending on old age, £116bn was on pensions and £13bn on personal social services (HM Treasury, 2022, Table 5.2).

6.2 State pension age

In the UK, the state pension is payable from age 66 for both men and women. It will increase to age 67 between 2026 and 2028. This is a continuation of a series of increases that began in 2010, intended to reflect greater life expectancy and to control costs. The pension age is likely to go up further in the future, although the government has held back from making a decision on this at the moment. Previously, the pension ages of 60 for women and 65 for men had been unchanged since the 1940s. The sharp increase in the pension age for women has generated considerable opposition, with an extensive campaign led by women who were close to retirement when the change was introduced.

There were around 12.5 million people claiming the state pension in 2022, about 98% of those over pension age (DWP, 2022a).

The current state pension arrangements were introduced in April 2016 and apply to people reaching pension age from this point. As with previous arrangements, eligibility is based on a contributory record, with 35 years of national insurance contributions required to claim a pension at the full rate. People with between 10 and 35 years of contributions can claim a proportion of the full amount.

Most people in paid work will make national insurance contributions throughout their working life. People who are not in paid work, such as carers or registered unemployed, are given credits to maintain a contribution record and therefore qualify for a state pension.

There is no flexibility to draw down a state pension at a younger age (there are different rules for access to the workplace or private pensions), but people can decide to defer receipt until they are older and then get a slightly higher pension.

The annual uprating of the pension amount is often subject to political controversy. The statutory position is that the pension must be increased each year in line with earnings. However, since 2010 successive governments have committed themselves to the so-called “triple lock”, which says that the uprating will be the highest of one of three figures; the annual increase in earnings or prices, or at least 2.5%. The rapid increase in inflation to more than 10% in 2022 put this promise under pressure when it became much more expensive to fulfill; following extensive debate, the government agreed to meet the commitment to match prices for the 2023 uprating, but it is unclear if the same approach will be taken in the future.

6.3 Pension credit

In addition to the state pension (which is not means tested), there is a further benefit which can be claimed by people over state pension age with a low total income. This is a means-tested benefit called pension credit. People eligible for this benefit also get other support, such as with some housing costs and the costs of NHS dental care. Around 1.4 million people were receiving Pension Credit payments in 2022 (DWP, 2022a).

6.4 Social care

Adult social care is one of the aspects of UK social policy which has been most difficult to resolve.

Unlike health services, access to support for personal care for elderly or disabled people (such as washing, dressing or helping with meals) is a means-tested service managed by local government authorities. This includes help in people’s own homes (domiciliary care) and in residential care homes. The latter are generally run by private companies or non-profit organisations under contract with local authorities.

The Care Act 2014 was the most recent measure to substantially reform social care. The legislation requires local councils to assess the needs of anyone who requires care and support. The assessment is free of charge and normally done by a social worker or occupational therapist. The council also does a financial assessment to see if an individual needs to contribute to the costs of their care, whether domiciliary or residential.

Residential care is expensive; Age UK (a national charity) estimated that it now costs at least £30,000 per year and it will be more than that in many parts of the country.

Generally speaking, only people with little capital and low incomes qualify to receive residential care for free. Others must pay for some or all of the costs, depending on the resources they have. When people move permanently into residential care and they own their own homes, the value of the home is taken into account when calculating how much they need to contribute towards their care. This can mean that their home has to be sold to meet care costs, unless their partner, a disabled person, an older relative, or a child is still living there.

There have been calls for many years to find a more equitable way to pay for social care. A major government-sponsored report Fairer Care Funding (the Dilnot review) was published in 2011. The report said that the care funding system was “not fit for purpose” and was “confusing, unfair and unsustainable”. Its recommendations included introducing a cap on the total contribution an individual would need make to their own care costs across their lifetime and increasing the capital people could retain. (Commission on Funding of Care and Support, 2011) These changes would have reduced the burden of residential care costs on the elderly – and increased it for the public purse.

Successive governments have dithered about making these changes. The most recent policy statement Building Back Better: Our Plan for Health and Social Care was published in September 2021, which proposed a new £86,000 cap on the amount anyone in England would need to spend on their personal care over their lifetime to be introduced from 2023. It said, “this will be a seismic change in the way we pay for care and will deliver a core recommendation of the independent Dilnot Commission.”. However, in October 2022, following a change in prime minister, the new administration announced that these changes would be delayed by two years, and therefore not implemented until 2025, continuing what one academic paper had described as a “lost decade” in adult social care (Glasby et al, 2021).

Readers should note that social care is one of the devolved areas that works quite differently in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compared to England. For instance, personal care is free in Scotland for those assessed as needing it, and domiciliary care is free for over-75s in Northern Ireland.

6.5 Pensioner income: totals and sources

Data on average income and sources of income amongst pensioners is available, based on the annual Family Resources Survey (DWP, 2022, b). This shows that pensioner income has increased significantly since this data series was first available in 1995, although the rate of increase levelled-off after 2010. In 2021, state benefits were the largest source of income for pensioners (56% of income for single pensioners and 37% for couples); occupational pensions were the next most important source (29% and 35%); earnings were 6% of income for single pensioners and 15% for couples. Investments and other sources made up the remainder. The data also showed that on average younger pensioners had higher incomes than older pensioners.

This data can also be used to see how pensioners lie in the overall income distribution in the UK. In 2021, 14% of pensioners were in the bottom quintile of the overall income distribution, and 20% were in the top quintile. This is a statistically significant change from 1995 when 19% were in the lowest quintile, and 13% were in the highest.

This improving overall picture for pensioners can, though, mask further inequalities. For instance, data on pensioner income for different ethnic groups shows that White British pensioner families had the highest total weekly income and that Asian pensioner families had the lowest total weekly income. It also showed that Black pensioner families were the most heavily reliant on means-tested benefits and on disability benefits (DWP, 2022c).

6.6 Labour market participation

The Default Pension Age (where employers could require their staff to retire at 65) was abandoned in 2011, and employers can no longer insist on this in the UK.

Over time, labour market participation by people aged 65 and over has increased to a considerable degree as shown in the table below, although there is evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic may have interrupted this trend and dissuaded some older people from continuing to work. These figures include a range of different full-time, part-time, and intermittent work, as well as those not in employment but looking for work.

Table 2
Labour market participation rates by age and sex, United Kingdom, 1995, 2005, 2017
Male Participation Rates (%) Female Participation Rates (%) Total Participation Rates (%)
Age 1995 2005 2017 1995 2005 2017 1995 2005 2017
65 18.0 28.3 34.5 10.9 14.6 22.7 14.3 21.0 28.5
66 16.1 19.2 30.8 7.9 11.3 18.4 11.7 15.1 24.6
67 14.8 17.6 25.7 8.0 10.5 14.6 11.2 14.0 20.1
68 12.5 16.5 21.2 5.8 9.5 14.0 9.0 12.8 17.4
69 11.8 13.9 19.0 6.0 7.4 12.8 8.7 10.5 15.7
70 8.8 9.9 17.2 4.0 6.5 10.2 6.1 8.1 13.6
71 7.0 7.6 15.2 3.2 5.5 10.4 4.9 6.5 12.7
72 6.3 7.5 13.5 2.6 3.7 7.9 4.2 5.5 10.6
73 6.7 6.6 11.4 2.5 2.8 6.1 4.4 4.6 8.6
74 6.1 4.5 11.9 2.5 1.5 4.4 4.0 2.9 7.9
75+ 2.7 2.7 4.0 0.7 0.9 1.5 1.4 1.6 2.6

Source: data extracted from Office of National Statistics, Labour market participation rates by age and sex, United Kingdom, 1995, 2005, 2015, 2017, Table 1. Release date:5 December 2018. Reference number: 009385

The figures show that more people are in paid employment through their sixties, with the proportion falling in their early seventies. The increased flexibility provided by the abolition of the default retirement age does look to have worked in enabling at least some people to choose to continue to earn and participate in working life, although for others such as those in manual trades substantial issues remain unresolved.

7 Families and children

7.1 Overview/​policy approach

Historically, UK social policy has adopted the approach that the family and raising children is a “private domain” beyond the reach of state intervention, except when child protection is required. Consequently, family policy was historically not a major focus of activity.

Policy began to be more active and interventionist in the 1990s, becoming a strong feature of the 1997–2010 Labour government’s measures to address social exclusion, which included a national childcare strategy, the Sure Start programme, and a commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020. However, subsequent governments, under financial pressures and with different policy objectives, have gone back to a more limited role. Recent analyses which compare the UK to other European countries tend to rank it low in terms of its “family friendly” provision.

Child protection remains an important policy area in the UK, often forming a substantial element of the discussion of children and families in social policy textbooks.

7.2 Family types and children

Data from the UK Office of National Statistics showed there were around 8.1 million families with dependent children in 2021 (out of a total of 19.3 million families). Of these families, 63% were married and civil partner couple families; 23% were lone-parent families; and 14% were cohabiting couples. (ONS, 2023a)

7.3 Childhood experience and well-being

The UK has an important series of long-term birth cohort studies that have tracked the experiences and outcomes of children born each decade since the Second World War. The most recent cohort study is tracking 19,000 young people born in 2000–2002 (the Millennium cohort). Earlier cohort studies are still following samples of people born in 1946, 1958, and 1970. These studies provide valuable insights about growing up in the UK as experienced in these different periods. There is extensive information from them freely available on the website of the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies [3].

An interesting series of official reviews of research into children and young people’s wellbeing have been published annually since 2019 by the Department for Education. The most recent version focuses on children’s mental health, including comparing the position before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. It suggests that evidence indicated an “inconsistent recovery of children and young people’s wellbeing and mental health towards pre-pandemic levels by the end of the 2021/22 academic year” (DfE, 2023a).

There is also a very informative publication from the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health which includes a “report card” on trends in children’s health and wellbeing in each of the four UK nations. (RCPCH, 2022)

7.4 Child poverty

Child poverty is a significant and growing issue in the UK. The UK Poverty 2022 report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said:

Child poverty continues to rise. The latest data tells us that almost 1 in 3 children in the UK are living in poverty (31%). Nearly half of children in lone-parent families live in poverty, compared with 1 in 4 of those in couple families.

The report further noted that “Twenty-five years ago, a third of children lived in poverty. This fell to 28% by 2004/05 and reached its lowest level of 27% in 2010/11 to 2013/14. Since then, child poverty has been rising, reaching 31% in 2019/20. Families with children are more likely to be receiving benefits than families without children, so this pattern reflects changes in employment levels, earnings, and benefits.” (JRF 2022, p.10)

Despite this trend, there are few direct measures on child poverty in current policy. The previous Labour administration had taken a much more ambitious approach, culminating in the 2010 Child Poverty Act which set statutory targets to drastically cut the numbers of children living in these circumstances by 2020. However, these targets were dropped after the 2015 General Election, and the Child Poverty Act subsequently repealed.

Many commentators have highlighted the dangers of this situation, not just in immediate material deprivation, but also in the way it undermines the long-term opportunities for children who grow up in poverty and perpetuates inequalities (Children’s Commissioner for England, 2021).

7.5 Access to Childcare

In terms of internationally applied measures of the adoption of family-friendly policies, the UK ranks low amongst other richer nations. An OECD analysis of these policies in higher and middle-income countries ranked the UK 19th out of 31 countries in terms of childcare enrolment for children aged under 3, and 26th out of 31 for enrolment between age 3 and school age (Chzhen et al. 2019, p.6). Access to childcare is a weak aspect of social policy in the UK, not just when contrasted with countries that are well-known for their “family-friendly” models such as the Nordic states but also when compared to other liberal-welfare societies (Ville et al., 2022).

The cost of childcare is an additional difficulty for many families in the UK. OECD data showed that net childcare costs in the UK are 29% of the average wage for a couple, well above the OECD average of 10% (OECD, n.d.). These issues are well-known in the UK and the subject of criticism across much of the political and social spectrum, as well as from the business sector.

There is some government funding to support access to childcare. In England, all three and four-year-olds, and some two-year-olds, are offered 570 hours of free childcare per year (15 hours per week for 38 weeks), with some three and four-year-olds able to receive an additional 570 hours in addition to the universal allocation. Working families receiving social benefits because of low income can obtain some further assistance with childcare costs. Scotland has recently introduced a more generous system, with 1,140 hours (30 hours per week) of free childcare offered to all 3- and 4-year-olds and eligible 2-year-olds. There have been calls from many campaigners for the 30-hour offer to be also adopted in England (Kennedy et al, 2023), and an extension was announced by the government in 2023.

7.6 Child protection

The UK’s four nations each have their own child protection system to help protect children from abuse and neglect, all based on shared principles.

These principles are set out in the Children Act 1989 and include: the concept of parental responsibility; that the courts should treat a child’s welfare as paramount; and that children are best looked after by their family unless intervention is essential.

The Act sets out local authorities’ duties in regard to identifying and supporting children at risk of “significant harm” and to a somewhat wider group of “children in need”.

Where it suspects that a child in its area is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm a local authority must investigate to decide whether it should act to safeguard or promote a child’s welfare. The details of the approach to be followed are set out in government guidance. Where a child is assessed as at risk a Child Protection Plan has to be agreed upon and implemented (HM Government, 2018).

Children in need, as defined by the Act, are those with a disability or those whose health or development is likely to be significantly impaired if they are not provided with services by the local authority. Local authorities have a duty to take reasonable steps to identify children in need in their area and to decide the services to be provided. They are required to promote and safeguard the welfare of these children by providing a range of appropriate services.

The Act also says that local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation to children who require it. This can be because there is no one who has parental responsibility for the child, or they have been abandoned; or because their parent or carer cannot provide accommodation or care, or they are aged 16 or over and their welfare is “likely to be seriously prejudiced” if they are not given accommodation. Children cared for in this way are described as “looked after”, with the local authority often described as a “corporate parent”.

Subsequent legislation (the Children Act 2004 and the Children and Social Work Act 2017) required inter-agency co-operation to protect children more effectively. The 2017 Act requires three “safeguarding partners” – the local authority, NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups and police forces – to work strategically together to determine the safeguarding arrangements in their area (Foster, 2020).

Data on the numbers of children being supported under these procedures are published annually. In England in 2022, there were:

  • 404,000 children in need
  • 51,000 children at sufficient risk of harm to require a child protection plan (DfE, 2022a)
  • 82,000 looked after children, including almost 6,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. (DfE, 2022b)

The number of looked-after children has seen a particularly strong upward trend in recent years, increasing steadily year-on year from less than 60,000 in the year 2000, to 75,000 by 2018 and in excess of 80,000 by 2022. Concerns about this growth prompted an official review which reported in May 2022 (MacAlister, 2022). The government’s plan in response was issued in February 2023 (DfE, 2023b). This makes commitments “to rebalance children’s social care away from costly crisis intervention to more meaningful and effective help for families”. Although this aim was welcomed, many commentators have pointed to concerns that there appears to be insufficient money committed to make this a reality, and also that these longer-term objectives may not impact on the immediate crises being experienced in many localities.

7.7 Children’s rights

The UK ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNRC) in 1991.

The four constituent nations have taken different approaches to the domestic adoption of the convention. Only Scotland has tried to incorporate the convention rights into domestic law, which is the UN’s best-practice recommendation. Legislation to do this was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2021, but a challenge in the UK Supreme Court has prevented incorporation coming into effect to date. As an interim measure, the Scottish government has published guidance to promote a children’s rights-based approach in public services although this this does not have statutory force (Scottish Government, 2021).

In Wales, ministers in the devolved government are required to take due regard of the Convention, but this responsibility does not extend to other public bodies. In England and Northern Ireland, there is as yet no requirement on government ministers even to have due regard to the UNRC.

There are “Children’s Commissioners” for each of the four UK nations. They use the UNRC as the basis for promoting children’s rights and assessing social policies. Each commissioner has their own website which provide extensive information on these issues [4].

8 Social Work

In the UK, social work is used to describe the professional work carried out by qualified social workers. This is now largely focused on identifying adults and children who need support or protection, and either providing this help directly or helping service users get this from other agencies and their work can be seen as part of a wider social care eco-system.

8.1 Professional social work

“Social worker” is a protected title in the UK, which means that only people who have completed the necessary training and maintained their registration with the professional regulator are allowed to use the description. There are separate regulators in each of the four UK nations. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the regulators undertake this work alongside responsibilities for the development of the whole social care workforce. England, by contrast, now has a specialist regulator (Social Work England) with responsibility just for the social work profession.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is the professional membership organisation for social work. Formed in 1970, it brought together a range of specialist groups as part of the professionalisation of the discipline (Payne, 2005; pp 191–195) and now has more than 22,000 members.

As of November 2022, there were around 100,000 registered social workers in England, of whom 52% worked in children’s and families’ social care, 31% in adult social care, and 7% on other aspects including criminal justice and domestic violence (data is not available for the remaining 10%). (Social Work England, 2023, p.46).

Most social workers are employed by local councils, either in work with children and families or with adults, with smaller numbers employed by the NHS and the independent sector. Many councils rely heavily on social workers supplied through employment agencies because they find it hard to recruit and retain their own permanent staff.

8.2 History and organisation of social work

The roots of modern social work in the UK can be traced to the latter part of the nineteenth century when urbanisation, poor housing, and poverty prompted action from reformist groups and individuals, such as the Charity Organisation Society and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Their focus on work with the individual or family is often contrasted with the political emphasis of other groups formed in the same period.

Social work did not form a major aspect of social policy in the UK until after the Second World War. From the latter part of the 1940s local councils had to establish children’s departments and take on the adult welfare responsibilities following the final abolition of the Poor Law. Councils therefore became the principal social work agencies in the UK, with an important change coming in 1970 when the government legislated to introduce an integrated social services function in councils, bringing together their children’s services with their adult care responsibilities.

This structure remained in place until 2004 when councils were told to split the responsibilities for children and adult social care, following the Children Act 2004. This was part of a response to a series of tragic cases of child abuse, particularly Lord Laming’s report into the murder of Victoria Climbié, which had revealed the poor co-operation between the different agencies involved in child protection (police, social services, and health services).

8.3 Education and training

Formal social work training began in the early twentieth century, with programmes being introduced initially by the Charity Organisation Society, and then at Birmingham and Liverpool universities and the London School of Economics. The scope and scale of training grew significantly in the 1960s and 1970s when local councils needed an increasing number of staff in these roles; the demand for professional recognition of this work also took hold in the UK in this period.

The current routes to qualifying as a social worker are determined by the care regulators. Qualification as a social worker now requires either an undergraduate degree in social work or, where people have followed another programme at undergraduate level, a post-graduate master’s in social work. As well as full-time courses there are alternative routes through part-time and distance learning programmes and, most recently, degree apprenticeships for those already working in social care.

Work placement forms a substantial part of the programme, with students needing to spend at least 200 days gaining experience and learning in practice settings. Academic tuition includes social work theory; ethics; social work practice and organisation; and service user requirements. The regulators have also put an increased focus on equality, diversity, and inclusion in the education and training standards.

Many universities are offering these programmes; in 2022, there were 83 course providers running qualifying social work courses in England alone, with further providers in other parts of the UK (Social Work England, 2023, p.20).

8.4 Recruitment and retention

One issue facing social work is the difficulty local councils have in staff recruitment and retention, often linked to the pressures involved in these roles. There are growing numbers of vacancies, with a reported 20% vacancy rate in children and families’ social work and a 10% rate in adult social care in 2022. Employers frequently use temporary staff recruited through agencies to cover these gaps, but this is often more expensive than permanent appointments and the turnover of staff can disrupt care (Social Work England, 2023; p.63).

The recent Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, chaired by Josh MacAlister, aimed to partly address workforce dissatisfaction issues by recommending ways for social workers to spend more time working directly with families and less on administrative tasks (MacAlister, 2022; pp 180–184).

Similar issues of recruitment and retention exist in adult social care, too. Almost 11% of roles across that workforce as a whole were vacant in 2021/22, including a 9.4% vacancy rate in roles for registered social workers (Skills for Care, 2022; pp 61–62).

8.5 Digital capabilities

There have been long-standing concerns about inadequate computerised case management systems and the impact this has on care and staff workloads. The Independent Review argued that there was a need to “reimagine case management systems” so social workers would need to spend less time recording cases on these databases (MacAlister, 2022; pp 219–223). Their proposals included addressing market failures in the commercial supply of the underlying systems; enabling easier data sharing between agencies; and reviewing the range of data collected and how it is used to inform decision-making.

The COVID-19 pandemic also had an impact on the expanded use of online and remote systems in social work. Social Work England has commented on this; they expect that hybrid working will become more widespread as a result of the pandemic experience, but the regulators have cautioned about its possible risks for peer support, staff supervision, and the quality of engagement with service users (Social Care England, 2023; p.42).

9 Community Development

Community perspectives and local action are also an important part of the story of social policy development in the UK; their influence (and the limits to this) provide useful insights into how change has happened (Popple, 2015; Gilchrist and Taylor, 2022).

Looking across the UK at present, there are outstanding examples of successful self-organisation by communities. Some of these have been initiated organically by local people, often in response to a “threat” such as changes to housing policies. Others began from professional community development interventions in areas of deprivation by voluntary sector agencies or local government.

There are several legal structures that these community groups can adopt to formalise their role if they have sufficient capacity, such as a community interest company or a community land trust, although many chose to remain more informal.

Funding support for community activity in the UK is more limited at present than it has been at certain times in the past; there are opportunities through charitable foundations and the national lottery programmes, but no overall approach or model. However, there has been a recent resurgence of political interest in “community power”, particularly as a way of ensuring public services are better shaped to local needs; this approach is gathering support, for different reasons, both from the political left and right and may be a precursor to a new wave of activity in the future.

9.1 History

Community-based activity, and associated community development programmes, began to take shape in the UK in the 1960s. The focus of this activity was initially on housing and urban planning when communities began to resist urban redevelopments that shifted local people to new and unloved out-of-town housing estates. Homelessness, access to childcare and play facilities, and education were also recurrent themes for community-led action (Boyle, 2021). Later, the activity expanded into arts, culture, and other areas.

There was little support from public agencies for this activity in its early days. By the end of the 1960s, this began to shift, and there were examples of recommendations in official reports for a greater role for community participation in town planning and other public services. This period also saw the first of the government-funded “inner city” community development programmes, launched in 1969 in twelve areas in England, Scotland, and Wales to address deprivation and poverty. The realization by the project teams in many of these areas that the deep-seated structural origins of poverty and inequality could not be resolved without wider social and economic changes prompted inevitable conflicts with local and national government departments (Loney, 1983).

Subsequent government programmes in the 1990s and early 2000s focused first on the physical and economic regeneration of deprived urban areas, and then reformulated as “neighbourhood renewal” with a greater focus on community safety, worklessness, and education. These often included a community development aspect, especially in the New Deal for Communities programme, but often not central to their purpose (Batty et al, 2010; AMION Consulting, 2010).

Much of the funding for this work ceased with the 2008–2010 financial crisis and the change of government in 2010. The Conservative-Liberal coalition government that took power in 2010 did promote a community-focused Big Society initiative that set out to give greater powers to communities, encourage volunteering, and support social enterprises. In practice, implementation was limited, and it was arguably overshadowed by the administration’s focus on reducing public spending. Some elements of the initiative have survived, such as the Localism Act 2011, including powers for communities to bid for assets of community value (such as pubs or village shops) which could be lost by a change of use.

9.2 Organisational structures

In the UK, there are several structures available to community groups who wish to become a not-for-profit organisation.

Community groups that want to take action locally can set themselves up as an unincorporated association as long as they write and agree on a constitution. This is the simplest structure and does not require them to register with any official body. However, unincorporated groups cannot sign contracts, and therefore are not able to employ staff or lease buildings and are unlikely to be able to apply for substantial funding.

One option for these informal groups, if they want to take on a wider role, is to partner with another organisation that has a legal structure (such as a charity), which can hold funds or employ staff on behalf of the local group. This is the approach, for instance, widely used by the National Lottery-funded Big Local programme, which calls these partners a Local Trusted Organisation (LTOs). The LTOs receive and administer funding on behalf of informal Big Local partnerships, report on the use of money to the funder, and provide administrative support. This enables the community groups to take on a wider role whilst keeping a simple organisational structure (Local Trust, 2019).

Where groups do want to take on a more formal role themselves and be able to sign contracts there are various options. Where the group’s income is likely to be from grants or donations, and the people running it do not make any money from it themselves, this can be a charitable trust. If the focus is on selling goods or services, there are other non-profit structures available for social enterprises, such as Community Interest Companies (CICs).

A more specialist legal structure is a Community Land Trust (CLT). CLTs are a type of non-profit community-led housing, established and controlled by local people, which can own land and develop homes as well as other assets like community shops, pubs, or workspaces. CLTs look after these assets on behalf of their communities and have been successful in providing affordable housing and making use of derelict sites. This form of self-help has been attractive to successive governments, and several grant sources have been made available to them (Wilson, 2017). The number of CLTs has grown over the last 15 years, and there are now said to be over 500 groups in operation, with more than 1,100 homes completed to date (Community Land Trust Network, 2023).

9.3 Funding sources

At present, probably the most significant funding programmes available for communities are grants awarded by the national lottery programmes. In England, this has included two 10-year duration programmes; Big Local (2012-2025, £214m) which has supported 150 communities that had missed out on previous grant allocations, and Power to Change (2015-2025, £150m) to support community businesses. In Wales, Building Communities Trust (2016-2026, £16.5m) has funded 13 communities to restore existing community spaces and create new ones. These large allocations have been important in maintaining momentum in community development and have allowed further research and evaluation of its benefits and limitations.

A new source of funding that has been recently announced is from the Dormant Assets Scheme, which redirects money from forgotten accounts in banks and other financial institutions to “good causes”. Following extensive lobbying from the community sector, the government announced in March 2023 that the range of causes to be supported by the scheme would be expanded to include “community wealth funds” which will be distributed to communities in deprived areas and released over a long time period, with local residents making the decisions on how to use these resources in order to improve their areas and invest in priorities they have defined.

9.4 Future prospects

Many commentators have pointed out that interest in community development goes up and down at different points in time (Gilchrist and Taylor, 2022). The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the agility and effectiveness of community-based responses to crisis, and the potential for greater engagement (Paine et al, 2022).

There is a growing campaign for what is often now called “community power” as a way of improving public services. One formulation of this published by New Local (a local government-led think tank) described this as a “community paradigm”, an alternative to the state and market paradigms dominant in social policy over the previous decades:

The fundamental principle underpinning this paradigm is to place the design and delivery of public services in the hands of the communities they serve. In this way, a new, egalitarian relationship can be built between public servants and citizens: one that enables the collaboration necessary to shift to prevention; one that requires communities to take more responsibility for their own well-being; and one that means citizens and communities can genuinely ‘take back control’ (Lent and Studdert, 2021, p.11).

This approach highlights community organisations like Ambition Lawrence Weston [5], set up 2012 by residents on a post-war housing estate in Bristol to improve their area after a decline in local services, and now has a comprehensive community plan and brought in extensive additional funding.

It remains to be seen whether “community power” will gather greater mainstream support and if it can be scaled-up to achieve similar benefits to other areas where inequalities and deprivation remain high.

10 Future challenges for the UK’s welfare state

This profile has provided a broad historical overview of the UK welfare state and some more detail on recent developments in a small number of policy areas. Many other aspects could have been looked at in similar detail. Other cross-cutting structures and perspectives, such as gender, ethnicity, disability, and LGBTQ+, are also fundamental to understanding the application and impact of social policies.

Studies often highlight that the welfare state faces both structural and political challenges. The former include the ageing population, the climate crisis, and the growth of precarious employment, with more people in work but often on minimum wages and short-term contracts. Populism and attitudes to migration are widely seen as among the most significant political challenges.

When these challenges are seen alongside the cumulative effect of the various events of the last fifteen years – the financial crisis of 2008; government austerity programmes; Brexit; the COVID-19 pandemic; and then the return of inflation in 2023 – it is not surprising that many commentators are pessimistic.

At its best, the UK’s post-war welfare state had the brute strength to do the heavy lifting that was needed then. It now needs to have agility and acrobatic skills if it is to meet the high public expectations and the greater diversity of challenges it faces.

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[3] CLS | Our studies (

[4] These are available at: England – Children’s Commissioner for England (; Wales – Home – Children’s Commissioner for Wales (; Scotland – Home – The Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland (; Northern Ireland – Home – Niccy


Written by
Max Krafchik Dr. Max Krafchik
Max Krafchik has a B.Sc. in Social Administration and Sociology, and a Ph.D. in social policy. Dr. Krafchik has worked in research management and strategic planning in three UK universities, and has more than thirty years’ experience of social policy across local government, consulting and the voluntary sector.

Cite this publication
Krafchik, Max, 2023. United Kingdom In: socialnet International [online]. 2023-10-16. Retrieved 2023-12-09 from

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