• Robert Spicer

Welfare law in practice

Previously the poor were oppressed by the state, by landlords, by employers. Now they have to carry a powerful new burden on their already-straining backs, that of law, lawyers and all the attendant paraphernalia. (Bankowski & Mungham)

My own experience of working in an Inner City Advice Centre was that my main function was to provide advice for poor people. An overwhelming need for advice and representation was met by mostly middle-class whites advising working-class members of ethnic minorities.

The main problem was poverty. Most of the advice was in the area of welfare benefits, housing, debt and employment.

In summary, the work involved helping illiterate or semi-literate victims of colonialism through the maze of bureaucracy. This meant explanation, writing letters and making telephone calls.

The volume of individual casework was so great that there could be little or no theoretical discussion and no real attempt to help the local community to organise. The work was done under extreme pressure. The Centre operated an open door policy which meant that planning was an unattainable luxury.

The light-switch syndrome

Some welfare rights workers see all their clients’ problems as “legal”, that is, as capable of being solved only through formal structures and rules. At its most extreme, this can result in the “light-switch” syndrome.

A typical “light-switch” case would be that of a single female parent, malnourished, poorly educated and badly clothed, living in grinding poverty in very poor local authority housing. She perceives her local advice centre as having some sort of semi-official status and has faith in its ability to get something done. She visits the centre to complain that the light switch in her kitchen is broken.

Without considering the long-term implications of the action, and because this may be the tenth housing problem of the morning, with a mass of urgent correspondence to be dealt with, a waiting room full of desperate clients and a funding meeting to be attended in half an hour, the welfare rights worker telephones the housing department. The line is engaged. After five or six unsuccessful attempts to contact housing officials by telephone, the worker writes to the housing department pointing out the defect.

A week later the housing department responds with a request for more information. The worker replies by letter. Two weeks afterwards, the switch is repaired by council workmen. In the meantime, the woman has had no light in her kitchen. Because the room is in a dark basement, she has been unable to cook meals for her children.

The victim of the light switch syndrome has become totally dependent on a state which gives her enough money to prevent her children from dying of starvation but which offers little else apart from long-term unemployment, poverty and an appallingly low quality of life.

Self-help community groups based on mutual aid and the free exchange of labour and materials could have fixed the light switch in half an hour. But an obsession with “legal” remedies for such an obviously non-legal problem creates its own delays, helps to perpetuate inequalities and confirms long-term dependence upon a welfare state which is on the verge of collapse.

In 1971 Stephen Wexler, an American lawyer, put forward the view that, in such cases, if the state cannot be exploited at every opportunity for the benefit of the claimant, then it should be bypassed altogether. Wexler argued that the role of the poverty lawyer should be either to seek to strengthen existing organisations of poor people or to help them to start organisations where none exist. Further:

“… if organising is the object of the practice, what are the methods for achieving that object? When an organisation exists, a lawyer must strengthen it: he should refuse to handle any matter for anyone who is not in the organisation”.

This point of view is seldom aired in the welfare law industry. It offends against the largely white, middle class charitable ethic which dominates the voluntary sector.

Tribunal representation

Successful applications to tribunals by welfare rights workers are often welcomed in the same way that traditional lawyers get drunk over their first brief with a four-figure fee, or an unexpected not guilty verdict in the Crown Court. Some welfare rights workers ape their mainstream colleagues to the extent of pressing for duty representation at tribunals, effectively restricting the choice and discretion of their clients. Individual successes in tribunals are important for the winners, but they should be weighed against their long-term implications. These include cushioning people from the realities of a run-down welfare state, raising naïve expectations that English justice will somehow see them through, and emphasising the distinction between amateur claimants and professional representatives.

Positive proposals for welfare rights workers

Such workers should devote much more of their time and energy to organising self-help, community-based groups in the following areas:

  • Tenants’ associations, with the aim of developing tenants’ ability to enforce their own rights and to improve their housing conditions through aggressive collective action.

  • Claimants’ unions, so that claimants themselves may fight to improve their position by informing themselves as to social security regulations and the development of tribunal expertise.

  • Squatters’ associations, formed to take over empty houses where the state and its agencies are unable or unwilling to provide decent accommodation. An important function of the trained welfare rights worker in this area should be to advise squatters of the risks of criminal prosecution.

  • In relation to the huge problem of illiteracy, which is becoming ever more serious in a high-technology society, instead of advice workers reading out letters to their clients, or explaining over and over again the meaning of gas bills and incomprehensible application forms, moves should be made towards developing community-based programmes of adult education and English teaching. The state has patently failed to teach large numbers of people how to read and write. New community schemes should aim to help people to educate themselves and to resist the oppression of an obscurantist bureaucracy.

  • A national boycott of all tribunals for a specified period with the express, publicised aim of exposing the inadequacies of the tribunal system.

Fifty years ago, the discussion of such proposals was commonplace. Claimants’ unions, tenants’ associations and squatting groups were widespread and influential. Welfare rights work, then in its infancy, seemed to be moving in the direction of organising the poor to fight back for themselves, with the help of literate professionals. This progress has stalled.



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