18 May 2012

Mind the gap – austerity, responsibility and the future of social welfare

Who deserves to be helped by the state and who does not? Cutbacks during a time of austerity are making the Coalition Government focus ever more closely on who it deems to be “deserving” of help.

Those whose housing or other welfare needs have arisen as a result of bad or irresponsible choices are now at greater risk than ever before of being disqualified from assistance.

But, there are concerns this approach actually undermines an individual’s ability to take responsibility in the future and that some of the most vulnerable people in our society are potentially being labelled as “undeserving” because they struggle to make choices which promote their wellbeing.

A two day workshop organised by the Essex Autonomy Project at the University of Essex will bring philosophers, social welfare practitioners, social scientists and lawyers together to discuss these issue.

Titled Between Moral Failure and Psychopathology: Autonomy and Responsibility in Social Welfare the workshop will investigate the policy challenges in this area and how to deal with those at risk of falling through the welfare safety net.

Viv Ashley, from the Essex Autonomy Project, organised the workshop to consider the effects of backwards-looking policies that deny assistance those who are deemed culpable for their own need. She said: “This approach is beset by problems. Firstly, it can affect innocent third-parties such as children who suffer the consequences of unmet need through no fault of their own.

“Secondly, by holding people to account for allegedly irresponsible behaviour in the past, it risks leaving them less able to assume responsibility in the future.

“Finally, it neglects the grey area between capacitous moral failure and psychopathological incapacity. This means an individual might satisfy legal tests of mental capacity, but still face problems making choices that promote their wellbeing.”

Alongside presentations from academics from across the country, there will be a panel discussion on Family Intervention Projects (FIPs), to consider whether their responsibility-enhancing potential offers a better approach to this problem, FIPs evolved as a policy response to anti-social behaviour, and use an assertive and persistent style of working to challenge and support ‘troubled families’, thereby addressing the root causes of their behaviours of concern.

Key questions set to be looked at by the workshop are:

How can we hold people responsible for their past choices without also undermining their personal autonomy, and their ability to be responsible for themselves in the future?

Should the law recognise the space between moral failure and psychopathology, or would this encourage an unacceptable degree of welfare dependency and so further corrode personal responsibility?

The workshop will also include sessions in which participants can think through case study materials together and opportunities for informal discussion.

The Essex Autonomy Project is a major research and knowledge exchange project supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

For more information visit: http://autonomy.essex.ac.uk/

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