Baroness Ruth Lister: Whose security? The case for social security reform 

‘The title social “security” is laughable.  We have never felt so insecure’.i  This comment from a participant in the Covid Realities research project sums up how today’s social security system is failing.  It is failing to provide security in terms both of reliability and predictability and of adequacy, with implications for mental and emotional security, after a decade of cuts and punitive rule-tightening.  The importance of social security – both to individuals and to the wider society as a social and economic stabiliser – and the extent of its failings have been illuminated during the pandemic and cost of living crisis.  Increased reliance on discretionary local authority welfare (and charity) is no substitute for an effective social security system. 

Even prior to the pandemic public attitudes were shifting in support of social security and those reliant on it.ii  Now is the time to build on this shift through the reframing of how we talk about social security drawing on recent research.iii 

It is inconceivable that social security reform should not form a key part of Labour’s next manifesto.  Security rightly represents a key plank in the party’s overall message.iv  It is recognised by the Party that this will mean in particular decent wages, secure affordable housing and accessible, affordable child care.  But it also has to mean putting the security back into social security in the interests both of addressing increasingly acute and widespread poverty (especially among children) and of preventing poverty among a wider group who experience economic insecurity.  Without a strong social security foundation, wider efforts by the Party to achieve security for individuals and in the economy will be undermined.  Moreover, such a foundation is important to tackling the health inequalities that are fundamental to the Party’s health mission. 

Why social security? 

While tackling poverty is an urgent priority, social security is about more than that and has multiple objectives.  One of the most fundamental, underlying the others, is to safeguard the economic security of us all.  In the words of the ILO, social security ‘is the response to an aspiration for security in its widest sense’.v  It provides shared protection against a range of risks and contingencies that we might each face during the course of our lives (akin to the role played by the NHS in our lives), redistributing resources over the individual life course.  The importance of this function could be the greater in the context of tackling the climate  Social security also helps to share additional costs associated with disability, caring or raising children thereby reducing inequalities arising from differential needs.  In performing these functions it helps to reduce inequalities such as those associated with social class, gender, ethnicity and age and plays an important role in reducing socio-economic inequality overall.   


A starting point should be to establish a clear set of principles for the social security system together with a road map for reform – both immediate and longer term.  As well as the provision of genuine financial security aimed at preventing poverty, a good guide is provided by the ILO.  Among the principles it has enunciated are ‘universality of protection based on social solidarity’ and ‘respect for the rights and dignity of people covered by the social security guarantee’ reflecting social security’s status as a human right.vii  This means social security support must be adequate to allow life in dignity, sufficient to ensure a decent existence (with appropriate recognition of the costs associated with disability) and not subject to the kind of inflexible and punitive rules that currently undermine financial security.  It also means an organisational and political culture that treats claimants with respect as equal citizens, in place of what too often comes across as a culture of institutionalised suspicion.viii This not only applies at the level of the administration of social security and the training of those involved, but also has implications for how politicians and the media talk about social security and those reliant on it and requires institutional mechanisms for listening to the voices of those in receipt of social security.   

Another of the principles listed by the ILO is non-discrimination and gender equality.  With regard to the latter a gender-sensitive social security system would place greater value on unpaid care work and contribute to addressing its gendered maldistribution.  And it needs, insofar as is possible, to promote individual autonomy through the payment of benefit to individuals so that security is not affected by the activities or resources of a partner.ix  The long term shift under successive governments in the balance between universal/contingency, contributory social insurance and means-tested benefits so that means-testing now represents the fulcrum of the system (reinforcing the idea that social security is only for ‘them’ and not ‘us’) makes this harder.  This shift has also reduced the social security system’s effectiveness in combating in-work poverty when one partner in a couple is out of work because of unemployment, sickness or caring.x 

Repairing the damage  

On top of this long term shift, the sheer scale of the damage done to the social security system since 2010 means that it will take time to rebuild it so as to provide genuine security and meet the other principles outlined above.  This is why it is important that the party sets out a clear road map to signal its longer term aspirations for social security as context for the more urgent reforms needed to start the process of repair.   

There is a considerable degree of consensus as to what those immediate urgent repairs should be.  From the perspective of tackling child poverty, the priority has to be the immediate abolition of the benefit cap and two child limit, both of which have severed the connection between need and benefit entitlement.  Not only are these policies separately contributing to worsening child poverty, especially deep poverty, but combined they create a pernicious trap for some larger families, a trap which will ensnare a growing number as more families are subject to the two child limit year by year.xi  The case needs to be made now on the grounds of fairness, a warped concept of which has been used by the government to frame the policies.  To devise a child poverty strategy without removing these drivers of child poverty would be like trying to drive a car with the hand brake on.  And surely the party will emulate the last Labour government in committing to a child poverty strategy as an investment  in children – not least in order to reduce reliance on food banks? 

Another increasingly important driver of poverty and insecurity is the cost of rented housing.  While this needs to be tackled directly through housing policies, it also requires the abolition of the ‘bedroom tax’ and the re-linking to a realistic proportion of local market rents of the local housing allowance (which has again been frozen at 2019-20 levels).   

The highly disproportionate risk of poverty among households containing a disabled person (even without allowing for the extra costs associated with disabilityxii) means that the losses for disabled people arising from the introduction of universal credit must also be addressed.  A self-care element to replace the lost severe disability premium and the reinstatement of the lower rate of the disabled child element have been proposed as priorities.xiii In addition there are a number of improvements that could be made to disability related benefits in the short to medium term, including the redesign of employment support and of the transition of disabled children from disability living allowance to personal independence payment, which is particularly challenging. The recent Health and Disability White Paper contains positives and negatives for claimants and needs close scrutiny. In all cases, discussions should start now with disabled people and disability organisations to draw up a package of reforms.  

When it comes to universal credit more generally, fundamental reform will be needed.  Helpful detailed recommendations can be found in reports from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committeexiv and the TUCxv.  If the benefit is to provide as much security as is possible with a means-tested benefit, a priority has to be to end the five week wait for the first payment.  One short-term option, recommended by a number of bodies, is to introduce a non-repayable initial grant in place of the repayable advance payments, which, especially when combined with other repayments, cause an unsustainable debt burden for claimants.  More fundamentally, the current monthly assessment of both income and requirements, which is at the heart of universal credit, needs rethinking as this causes greater complexity, uncertainty and inflexibility and ‘can create an arbitrary relationship between income and needs’.xvi  Greater security would also be achieved by giving claimants the right to choose more frequent payments than the current default monthly practice, which can create considerable strain on budgeting.  This would be of particular help to women who still tend to be the main managers of poverty.  More fundamentally, a solution needs to be found to the problem of how to ensure both members of a couple receive part of the benefit.    

For those required to prepare for or seek work the punitive sanctions policy is a source of great insecurity.  Instead of sanctions, work-related eligibility requirements need to be underpinned by high quality, credible employment support services especially, but not solely, for disabled people and in-work conditionality should be abandoned.  Structural disincentives to move into paid work, such as childcare difficulties (which the welcome government proposals go only some way to address) and the absence of support for a second earner should be tackled.  

Thinking longer term 

A longer term review of social security, which the Party should commit to prior to the General Election, needs to address two key issues: the (in)adequacy of benefit levels and the current imbalance between means-tested benefits and other benefits paid on the basis of contributions, contingency or universality.xvii  Prior to a longer term review, a first step towards benefits sufficient to allow life in dignity would be to implement the ‘essentials guarantee’ for the standard universal credit rate proposed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust.xviii  This would be consistent with the Brown Commission’s recommendation for a constitutionally protected basic anti-poverty and destitution social right.xix  Another interim measure to improve adequacy would be to raise two important contingency benefits: child benefit (minus the unwieldy higher income charge) so as to provide greater security and support for families with children generally and carer’s allowance, which has always been paid at a lower level than equivalent contributory benefits to the detriment of carers.xx    

There is a wealth of material already available to inform a longer term review.  Some place greater emphasis on how to achieve higher benefit levels; others on how to reduce reliance on means-testing.  A common theme is to convert tax allowances (labelled ‘shadow welfare’ by the Fabian Societyxxi) into cash support.  On the question of adequacy the work on minimum income standards by the Centre for Research in Social Policy for JRF (complemented by research into disability costs) provides a useful longer term touchstone.xxii   

With regard to structural reform, it is encouraging that so many bodies have developed possible models.  These include proposals for: improvements to contributory social insurance benefits (the current weakness of which was all too apparent during the pandemic), reflecting and updating the original Beveridge model (for instance the Fabian Societyxxiii); some kind of basic income scheme which provides every individual with an unconditional payment in their own right in the name of security and autonomy (for instance Compass and the Basic Income Conversationxxiv); and a national living income/guaranteed decent income, which aim to guarantee a decent income floor but involving heavy use of means testing albeit supplemented by universal elements (the New Economics Foundation and the Commission on Social Securityxxv).   

The Commission on Social Security, made up of experts by experience, pursued a participatory commission of inquiry approach and emphasised the need to involve experts by experience in any review of social security.  The importance of this principle, which embodies the value of respect for service-users, is increasingly recognised and needs to be taken on board by the Party.  

While my own preference would be a strong emphasis on payments made to individuals as of right at a decent level, minimising reliance on means-testing, it would be premature for the Party to opt for a particular model of longer term reform at this juncture.  But it must make clear in broad terms what its long term vision for social security is so as to offer hope to the many struggling to get by on benefits that fail in their fundamental purpose to provide genuine security and to the many whose security will be enhanced more generally by the knowledge that such a system exists.    

Ruth Lister is a Labour peer and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University.  Thanks to Debbie Abrahams, Fran Bennett and Sam Tims for their comments on an earlier draft and to Geoff Fimister for his advice on disability benefits.

[1] Ruth Patrick and colleagues (2022) Covid Realities: documenting life on a low income during the pandemic, Covid Realities Project.

[2] National Centre for Social Research (2022) British Social Attitudes 39, Taxation, welfare and inequality,.

[3] See for instance On Road Media (2022)

[4] See for instance Keir Starmer’s speech to the TUC, 20 October 2022 .

[5] ILO (1984) Into the twenty-first century: the development of social security, p19

[6] See for instance Marilyn Howard (2022) Managing risk through security.  Social security’s contribution to tackling climate change and gender inequality, Women’s Budget Group.

[7] ILO (2012) Social Protection Floors Recommendation (No 202)

[8] This echoes Keir Starmer’s emphasis on the value of respect in his speech to the Progressive Britain conference, June 2023,

[9] See Marilyn Howard (2022) endnote 6.

[10] See for instance Fran Bennett (2019), The Big Picture, Fabian Society.

[11] Kitty Stewart and colleagues (2022) How do the benefit cap and two child limit interact?, The Benefit Changes and Larger Families project.

[12] See for instance Disability Price Tag 2023: the extra cost of disability, Scope UK

[13] See Sue Royston (2019) Mending the Holes, Disability Benefits Consortium.

[14] Economic Affairs Committee (2020), Universal Credit isn’t Working: Proposals for Reform, House of Lords

[15] Anjum Klair (2022) A replacement for universal credit, TUC.

[16] See endnote 14, para 30.  See also Fran Bennett and Jane Millar (2022) Inflexibility in an integrated system? Policy challenges posed by the design of universal credit, University of Oxford.

[17] See for instance, Child Poverty Action Group (2021), Transforming social security: how do we provide secure futures for children and families? .

[18] JRF/Trussell Trust (2023), An Essentials Guarantee.   

[19] Gordon Brown (2022) A New Britain. Report of the Commission on the UK’s future. Labour Party.

[20]The earnings limit for carer’s allowance also needs to be raised urgently.

[21] Andrew Harrop (2022) In the shadows, Fabian Society.

[22] Centre for Research in Social Policy (2022) A Minimum Income Standard for the UK in 2022.

[23] Fabian Society, (2021) Security for Everyone.  See also their more recent report, In time of need, Building employment insurance for all (2023)  

[24] Howard Reed and colleagues (2022) Tackling Poverty: the power of a universal basic income, Compass/Basic Income Conversation,

[25] Sam Tims, Alfie Stirling (2022) The National Living Income; Commission on Social Security (2022) The Plan: for a decent social security system.


  • Baroness Ruth Lister

    Margot Ruth Aline Lister, Baroness Lister of Burtersett, CBE, FBA, FAcSS, is currently Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University. She has written or contributed to a number of books, pamphlets and articles on poverty, social security and women's citizenship. Lister Ruth

Baroness Ruth Lister

Margot Ruth Aline Lister, Baroness Lister of Burtersett, CBE, FBA, FAcSS, is currently Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University. She has written or contributed to a number of books, pamphlets and articles on poverty, social security and women's citizenship.