All Our Welfare by Peter Beresford

By Bernadette Meaden
February 21, 2016

All Our Welfare : Towards participatory social policy by Peter Beresford

It may seem a strange thing to say about a book that deals with the history and future of the welfare state, but the secret ingredient of this book is love. Love of family, friends, neighbours, community - and a heartfelt desire that all should receive the care and support they will need at some time in their lives. As the author says, "While 'welfare' has in some mouths become a dirty word, it is essentially concerned with how we take care of each other as human beings."

Peter Beresford is Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex, and Emeritus Professor at Brunel University London, but this book is far from being a dry academic text. The author reveals much about his personal experience of being on the receiving end of the welfare state, including twelve years as a mental health service user, and eight years on unemployment benefits. He has lived in bad housing, battling bureaucracy to get repairs done, and "learning to dread the thump of the post each morning in case it brought new problems."

This honesty and personal experience imbues his writing with authority, authenticity, and compassion, in marked contrast to the plethora of policy documents and theories about welfare reform we are currently being bombarded with. Whilst all his research is done with academic rigour, he does not write about benefits claimants and service users as 'other'. To him they are not figures on a spreadsheet or a set of statistics, but friends, family, fellow patients, and himself.

This approach is reflected in the format of the book. Interspersed with a fascinating history of how the welfare state has developed and where it may go from here, are personal anecdotes, views and even photographs from the author's own family, which itself has a remarkable history. Beresford's father (who died when Beresford was four) came from an aristocratic family, whilst his working class Jewish mother worked in an East End sweatshop. Mystery surrounds how they met, but this background has given the author an abiding antipathy to snobbery, class consciousness and discrimination of any kind.

Whilst personal experience has taught Beresford that the welfare state is an essential and treasured component of British society, it has also given him an unsentimental, realistic view of it. He knows only too well how it can fail, but he also has an insight into how these failures could to a large extent be prevented – and this is through user involvement. If the people devising policies and designing systems listen to, and clearly hear, the people who will be on the receiving end of those systems and policies, many mistakes could be avoided. Ideally, service users should be involved at every step, working alongside the professionals – a participatory model. The author draws on his own experience of working with user-led organisations and participatory projects to give practical suggestions as to how people can be empowered and enabled to shape social policy. This is humane welfare reform.

It may be too much to hope that any of the powerful ideologues currently involved in shaping the welfare state will read this book, although if they did, it would be good news for everybody. But for all who value the welfare state, who wish to understand how it developed and how we can help to preserve and improve it, this is an illuminating, enjoyable and encouraging read which is highly recommended.

As the author says, 'We shouldn't assume that neoliberalism is here for keeps and that there is no alternative. We mustn't allow our fears to become self-fulfilling prophesies that immobilise us. We owe our children and grandchildren much more than that.'

All Our Welfare - Towards participatory social policy by Peter Beresford, is published by Policy Press and can be purchased online here To get a 35 per cent discount on the purchase price, subscribe to the Policy Press enewsletter at


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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