Peter Beresford: We Are All Service Users

Peter BeresfordPeter Beresford is Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University. He is also Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives, a disabled people’s and service user’s national organisation and network. 

Peter is worried that the modern welfare state is being simultaneously taken for granted and demonised by elements of the political and media establishment; the word ‘welfare’ has become synonymous with phrases like ‘housing benefits’ and ‘dole’. From its inception, welfare aimed to be a universal system, that allowed its users to shape their own lives and benefit from their own taxes. Yet, since the 40’s, this vision has been transformed. Peter is interested in how we can use to the original ideals of welfare to build a new system for modern Britain, and how people who use welfare, the service users, can reclaim the system for themselves. 

The Big Lottery’s interest in the future of ‘Doing Good’ really interests me. Two important words here – ‘doing good’. First ‘doing’ – I am much more interested in doing than talking. Talking without doing can end up pretty pointless. And ‘good’ – seeking to be positive, making a difference for the better; I like the sound of that and it’s certainly been one of my goals in life. But put them together and you get ‘doing good’ and that raises some big questions. People rightly like ‘doing good’, but are often then dismissed as ‘do-gooders’, which has become an insult. And not many people want to have ‘good’ done to them. So it can suggest inequality, them and us, one group being the recipients of another privileged one’s ‘good works’.

A lot of charity has had that problem, it’s too much about ‘poor things’ and celebrity helpers. But in recent years something much more exciting has emerged, where people who have come to be called ‘the beneficiaries’ in third sector talk (who are meant to get the ‘good’) are also the people who do the ‘good’. This has grown out of the movements of welfare service users. And it has been an exciting part of my life, because I have had the good fortune to be involved in such ULOs (User Led Organisations) where people who face barriers, difficulties and prejudice have got together to make a difference.

We are all service users, including older people, disabled people, mental health service users, people with learning difficulties and so on, and we try very hard to be inclusive and address diversity with equality.

I’m particularly proud to be involved with Shaping Our Lives. We describe ourselves as an independent user controlled organization and network of more than 400 ULOs. We are all service users, including older people, disabled people, mental health service users, people with learning difficulties and so on, and we try very hard to be inclusive and address diversity with equality. We work to increase the say and control that service users have over their lives and services impacting on them.

Linked with this is my special interest in getting involved and making it possible for other people to be involved, to speak and act for themselves. This seems so much of a better idea than casting people into two groups. Those who can help and those who need help. I believe all of us can fit into both groups at the same time. It’s certainly been true for me. I’ve spent years as a mental health service user and living on benefits. But for me, as for many more, that doesn’t mean I can’t also be useful to other people.The lessons I have learnt from my experiences have given me knowledge that I can pass onto other people. I got the same sort of help from others who had been through the mill.

Recently I’ve tried to put my thoughts together about all this. I have written a book, All Our Welfare , which looks at the welfare state, past and present, and tries to work out where it may helpfully go in the future. To write All Our Welfare, I drew on academic research, and also on the experience of many other service users, as well as of many members of my family, from age two to ninety one.

Writing this book has confirmed for me that the way to go is to work for a participatory and sustainable welfare state that helps us look after each other.

In these difficult times, when policymakers have seemed to want to get rid of welfare support, this points to a different way of thinking about how we can look after each other in the twenty first century; all contributing, pooling our money and resources, paying our taxes, having a sense of mutual care and responsibility for each other – beyond ourselves and our families.

And I believe it can work for the future. And I hope that the Big Lottery’s focus on the Future of Doing Good can be part of making that possible.


Participation, ULO’s and FutureGood

On Friday 17 June, Peter led a discussion around user-led organisations, participation and the welfare state. Here, he reflects on the debate.

The largest social sector organisations have a huge amount of access to power, compared to the rest of the sector. They have far more access to the media, to celebrity endorsements and to government. They need to give the rest of the sector more room to manoeuvre:

Whenever large, cross sector, high level debates and discussions about society, charity, government and the future are held, there are many people, often the subject of the discussion, who never have the opportunity to make their voices heard. The people and organisations facilitating these conversations need to actively reach out to people in order to encourage participation, they cannot wait for the marginalised to come to them.


Peter Beresford, All Our Welfare: Towards participatory social policy, Policy Press, 2016. 

Want to read more on ULO’s and breaking free of labels and stereotypes? Read Darren Murinas, Stoke Expert Citizen chair, here. Do we need to think differently about the welfare state, and the people that use it? Are users the best placed people to take control of their services? Let us know your thoughts: write us a blog, comment below and tweet at #FutureGood and @BeresfordPeter

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