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With less than 100 days to go until the General Election, the Coalition Government won’t be making many changes to social security policy during what’s left of this parliament. That’s not to say they haven’t done enough already: whatever you think of the Coalition’s welfare reforms, they have been undeniably far-ranging. From the bedroom tax, benefits cap and other changes included in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, to the establishment of the Work Programme and the ongoing roll-out of Universal Credit, these changes will profoundly change people’s experience of the social security system, and could fundamentally change the relationships between citizen and state.

While reviewing the changes of the last four years is important, the upcoming election also makes it important to look forward. The new government, of whatever colour or colours, will be looking for further changes to the welfare system, and both think tanks and frontline organisations need to start thinking big about what kind of social security we want.

Two reports published at the end of 2014 undertake this forward-looking task of envisioning the principles of a future social security system. Bright Blue’s report, Give and take, looks at conservative attitudes to ‘welfare’, exploring the range of views and principles that should underpin future welfare reform. Meanwhile, Community Link’s latest report, Secure and Ready, sets out principles for a social security system underpinned by early action: preventing problems from arising rather than dealing with the consequences.

Reading the two reports side by side, I was struck by some of the similarities as much as the inevitable differences. Both recognise the integral role of the social security system: Give and Take states that it is “vital for helping the vulnerable and impoverished in our society … both those in and out of work”, while Secure and Ready notes that “when successful [the social security system] not only supports those who are insecure, but prevents economic and social insecurity and promotes growth”.  Both agree that promoting opportunity should be a fundamental purpose of the social security system. Rather than reacting to (or even causing) crisis, the system should focus on “enabling people to improve their own situation, and providing opportunities to help them do so”.

Our recent research into the impact of the Coalition’s welfare reforms highlights just how far the current system is from one that really promotes opportunity. Rather, the current approach – of seeking short-term savings, increasing conditionality and restricting eligibility – erodes resilience and undermines readiness, thus maintaining demand within the system. It also causes knock-on costs elsewhere in public services.

In order to move to an early-acting social security system that promotes opportunity, the next government needs a new approach. We need to act earlier: dealing with problems before they escalate into full-blown crises, and minimising costs in doing so. We need a more universal approach that recognises that anyone can fall on hard times and require support, and in doing so reduces stigma and separation that characterise the current system. We need to ensure all forms of contribution are valued – not only paid employment but also unpaid care work and domestic labour. And we need to institute a presumption of willingness, building on people’s keenness to work and to improve their lives, and focusing on their strengths in order to do so.

These changes will require a change to existing government spending rules, which entrench the bias towards short-term working and institutional silos. For example, setting firm five year budgets that are reviewed on a rolling basis would enable us to invest now in order to reduce the benefits bill later. The recently passed welfare cap presents particular barriers to long-term investment – instead creating a crude incentive for governments to cut spending in the immediate term. It should be reformed so that it discourages counterproductive reductions in entitlements and incentivises action that reduces demand in the longer term. Similarly, treating early action spend like capital spending would incentivise preventative investments. These should be priorities for the next government.

Improving our social security system is a long term project. As Bright Blue have pointed out, if we are to create a system that really promotes opportunity, a broader range of approaches than simply reducing expenditure will be needed. With an election looming, now is the time for us to set out what kind of social security we want and how we can get there. We hope Secure and Ready is a useful contribution to this important debate.

Liam Crosby works at Community Links and tweets from @liamjcrosby