British welfare policies lead the way in Europe

The ways in which European countries respond to the ‘new social risks’ which result from changes in patterns of work and family life vary considerably. Britain’s response has placed the country firmly at the forefront of current directions in EU welfare policy, according to research to be presented by Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby of University of Kent at the University of Oxford on 9 September. This is despite traditionally low expenditure on welfare and a strong commitment to the market.

Welfare states developed across Europe at a time when the main social risks people faced during the course of their lives were to do with loss of income due to sickness, disability, retirement and widowhood or the need for health care. Now people also face needs arising from the changing work-life balance and from much greater insecurity in employment – good quality, affordable child care, family friendly employment, better access to work and support for low wages in a more flexible labour market.

Most European countries have strong social insurance welfare states established and reinforced through pressures from trade unions and the labour movement. Apart from the small Nordic countries, the majority find it difficult to redirect their efforts to meet the new social risks. The UK has always been committed to a strong role for the market and has spent less on welfare.

By 1992 it was sufficiently out of step with the rest of the EU to opt out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, endorsed by all other EU members. More recently, New Labour has expanded child care, family-friendly employment, tax credit, minimum wage and other new social risk policies. However, the EU’s attempts to harmonise old social risk policies for pensions or health care have been largely unsuccessful, since national governments were unwilling to give up the patterns of welfare provision to which they were committed.

The EU has shifted emphasis more to the new social risks area, where most countries do not have entrenched systems. It now seeks to co-ordinate national policies in work-life balance, employment, child care and care for older people and social inclusion policies.

Peter Taylor-Gooby comments: ‘The UK is often seen as an outsider in EU debates. However, current directions in welfare policy are an area in which we are very much in tune with major EU developments. Here is a real opportunity for Britain to establish itself at the forefront of Europe’.

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