Universality vs Selectivity

At one and the same time, arguments about universality and selectivity are about principles – what kind of society we want to live in – and methods – how things can practically be done. When the ‘welfare state’ was founded in the 1940s, part of the idea was to break away from the old patterns of welfare provision. The Poor Law was supposed to be a safety net, ensuring that in the last resort there would be some provision for people who were destitute, who had no other means of living. It was supplemented between the wars by ‘means tests’, that were supposed to break away from ‘pauperisation’ but were just as problematic. The Poor Law was punitive, divisive and stigmatising. It has been called a ‘residual’ model; it was designed to hold provision to the minimum, and to deal only with people who could not manage in any other way. The Welfare State was supposed to do things differently: providing welfare for everyone at the best level possible. The core of this model was the idea of ‘institutional’ welfare, accepting welfare as a normal part of everyday life, in the same way that roads, or street lights, or drains are ‘normal’. Welfare was ‘universal’ because it was comprehensive and extensive, meeting needs ‘from the cradle to the grave’. The model was the National Health Service. It does not do the same things for everyone, but it provides everyone (including people who don’t use it) with something in common – a service equivalent to health insurance. There are other things that people may want to see beyond institutional welfare – rights and empowerment for citizens, solidarity and mutual support, or the commitment to equality implicit in the idea of the ‘people’s home’. In the most basic sense, however, the institutional principle is fundamental to common decency. Few people who believe in the Common Weal are not also universalists.

When universality and selectivity are considered as methods, however, things get more complicated. One key question is whether people are better receiving goods and services, like water or medical care, or whether they are better receiving the money to buy things, which is what we do for food. Another is whether a service should be ‘targeted’, focusing on people in need, or whether it should go to everyone. Sometimes the best services are personal; sometimes they are general, like providing schools and hospitals.

Universal services and benefits are services which go to everyone, or at least to everyone in a category (such as older people, or children, or residents in a community) without a test of need. Examples are schools, libraries, bus passes for older people and the controversial ‘Winter Fuel Payment’. The basic arguments for universal benefits are, in principle, that they represent rights which everyone has, and they meet common basic needs. The basic practical arguments is that they are simple to administer, and minimally intrusive. The main arguments against are that they divert resources away from people in greater need, that the British press is adamantly opposed to them, and they can be expensive. However, universal benefits are also often austere, in a sense of that word we seem to have forgotten: the NHS was introduced when there was no money to waste on complex administration or the luxuries of choice, and in the developing world universal Basic Health Care Packages have been introduced as the simplest, cheapest and most effective way of spending what one plans to spend and no more.

Selective services and benefits are services which are preserved for people in need. Examples include free personal care for older people, benefits for people with disabilities, and benefits for people who are unemployed. Selection implies a test – that some people will receive the benefit, and others will not. This should, in principle, lead to greater efficiency, and greater fairness; selectivity is supposed to be responsive to need. However, selection is difficult in practice: selective systems tend to be complex and intrusive, the boundaries are difficult to maintain fairly, and the process of exclusion means that the systems run the risk of becoming divisive and stigmatising. Means-tests – benefits which are selected on the basis of low income – have all the problems of selectivity, and more besides. Income is complex, unstable and difficult to track. There are fiendish problems of equity, treating people fairly and dealing with people in different circumstances such as self-employment, savings and low earnings. Mistakes are frequent. The public response is often hostile, and the take-up of means-tested benefits is notoriously poor. At the same time, some element of selectivity is unavoidable – we cannot not have some extra provision for the needs of people with disabilities.

The arguments about universality and selectivity are not well served by supposing that we ought to have entirely one kind of system or another. The main argument for universalism is that we should be trying to shift the balance towards greater simplicity, less intrusion, and a sense that the public provision of benefits and services should be accepted as a normal part of social life.