Flourishing or floundering? Using the Capabilities Approach to assess the impact of Welfare Reform and public sector spending cuts on the human rights and equalities of vulnerable people in the UK.

Eades, Wendy Anne (2016). 'Flourishing or floundering? Using the Capabilities Approach to assess the impact of Welfare Reform and public sector spending cuts on the human rights and equalities of vulnerable people in the UK.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract The UK Welfare Reform Act 2012 established a programme to radically change the nature of social assistance and welfare benefits in Britain by introducing policies to substantially reduce the number of people of working age who claim benefits and thereby reducing welfare expenditure. Central government policymakers have suggested that a number of these reforms will reduce welfare dependency and poverty and lead to more individuals seeking and obtaining [better paid work] (DWP, 2012). These reforms, combined with substantial funding cuts to local government authorities and other public sector organisations as a result of the recession of 2008-9, have already impacted on a significant number of individuals and families in Coventry whose underlying situation (because of poverty, disability etc.) means that they are particularly likely to be vulnerable to effects as a result of those reforms/cuts (Beatty & Fothergill, 2014).  However, the cumulative effect on vulnerable individuals of substantial changes to the benefit system, limited employment opportunities and a reduction in support from a shrinking public and voluntary sector is only now becoming apparent. Earlier quantitative research has indicated how welfare reform, cuts to public services and increases in costs of living are likely to affect the poorest and most vulnerable groups hardest because poorer people are likely to receive a higher proportion of their income from welfare benefits and are more likely to rely on public services (Fothergill & Beatty, 2013). This paper outlines some initial findings from a longitudinal qualitative research project examining the actual impact of these cuts and reforms, particularly on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and what is happening to their ‘lived experiences’. This doctoral research project seeks to use the capability approach to interrogate the lived experiences of vulnerable individuals in Coventry, thereby determining the human rights/equality impacts of Welfare Reform and public sector funding cuts. The capability approach is particularly apposite, as it develops the fundamental rights established by key international conventions to seek that all human beings are given the opportunity to flourish and achieve their potential, arguably at the core of the government’s ideological basis for welfare reform. It is also apposite given that the UK is a developed country and a signatory to the major human rights treaties (including the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and has recently passed legislation to promote equality for all citizens in ‘protected categories’ (Equality Act, 2010). Yet its current government has been subject to judicial review on specific aspects of its programme of Welfare Reform and has shown both a lack of regard to those subject to the multiple impacts of Welfare Reform legislation and reluctance to change its plans in the face of public concerns. This research seeks to provide insights into how much public policy initiatives are in reality influenced by legal obligations in relation to discrimination and fundamental rights, which in theory place constraints upon the way in which they operate. It also examines how the cumulative impacts of the Welfare Reform programme affect the capacity of vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals to make choices that improve their lives and have positive human rights and equality benefits and to what extent these policy changes promote ‘flourishing’. Building on Martha Nussbaum’s capability model, the research explores the application of her notion of basic capabilities as fundamental entitlements for all citizens (Nussbaum, 2006) to the ideological premise and implementation of welfare reform in the UK. For example, the capabilities approach asserts that human beings should be entitled to have ‘control over one’s environment’, which incorporates: being able to hold property; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others and, in work, being able to work as a human being (Nussbaum, cited in Alexander, 2008). The ‘welfare to work’ approach suggests that benefit claimants should accept their first offer of employment in order to leave the benefit system (Daguerre & Etherington, 2014). The capability approach is utilised to examine the inequalities of the reconfigured welfare system in regard to specific groups of vulnerable people, e.g., those with disabilities, lone parents (predominately women) and young people aged 18-24. By the time this paper is presented, the first of three sets of interviews will have been completed and analysed, affording an opportunity to examine what the capability approach illuminates regarding the impact of the Welfare Reform policies and public sector cuts. The capability approach has often been applied in the context of human rights and development issues, but this research attempts to use it to evaluate the impact of welfare reform policy on human rights and equalities of vulnerable citizens living in a developed nation state.

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