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Service Provisions for the Homeless in Britain

Social welfare, democracy and government

Set out below is an evaluation of how social welfare, democracy, and government relates to the issue of service provision to avert or solve homelessness in Britain. There are, as will be examined, various causes for homelessness, and therefore differing levels of service provision to help the homeless in Britain. The post-war welfare state had supposed to have made homelessness an almost negligible problem, so social welfare, democracy and government carried on operating without thinking the issue was serious, even though services were available when needed. However, homelessness had never gone away and various factors outlined below explain how the issue became more important on the social welfare policy, democratic and governmental agendas, and service provision was in increasing demand. Whilst social welfare policies, democracy, and government may not directly cause homelessness, they can arguably have a great deal of influence over how it is tackled, and the level of services provided and who provides those services. Some cases of homelessness are easier to tackle or resolve than other cases, depending on the initial causes of homelessness. Social welfare, democracy, and government are factors that combine or act singularly to affect the levels of and the permanence of the service provisions to prevent homelessness and to those that are already homeless. Social welfare, democracy, and government hold the key to finding homes for the homeless, and providing the service provision to ensure people remain housed.

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The main foundation of social welfare policies in modern Britain was the welfare state as established during the Labour governments of 1945 to 1951, which was intended to make poverty, social exclusion, and homelessness disappear from British society. The welfare state legally defined which organisations are obliged to provide services, namely government departments, local authorities, and voluntary or non-governmental groups (Jones & Lowe, 2002 p. 1). The rationale of the welfare state was inspired by the Beveridge Report and the Labour party’s own ideological outlook, which was to eradicate poverty and social exclusion to make Britain a fairer country. As part of its plans it gave local authorities the powers, and the funds to provide council housing on a greater scale than previously to every body that needed it (Lacy, 2006 p. 8). At the end of the Second World War the main cause of homelessness was actually the number of houses that had been destroyed by bombing during the war (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p.11). The government did its best to solve the housing shortage with a large construction programme of council houses. The provision of council houses was intended to provide people with affordable housing when they could not afford private rents or to buy their own houses, and it was the responsibility of all local authorities to provide council housing using money provided by the government (Moran, 2005 p. 14).

The welfare state was intended to reduce poverty through the payment of unemployment benefit, supplementary benefit, rent rebates, and Family Allowance. These benefits were supposed to keep people above the bread line, to provide them with a minimum standard of living, and were primarily benefits or services provided by the Department of Social Security. However, it was hoped that government economic policy would reduce the need for people to claim benefits in the first place, or the need for services to keep them housed. Almost full employment, adequate levels of social security benefits, and the increased availability of council houses were significant factors in preventing homelessness, although service providers were always needed to ensure that people got help when they needed it (Jones & Lowe, 2002 p. 189). Rent rebates and government attempts to control private sector rents were intended to keep families on low incomes in their homes. The main responsibility for controlling private sector rents was the government’s whilst rent rebate was administered by local authorities on behalf of the government. The main public perceptions about the provision of services to the homeless until the late 1960s, was that social welfare measures such as social security benefits, rent rebates, and rent controls had seen the problem all but cease to exist. Although service provision by government departments, local authorities, and non-governmental organisations had continued to operate, and even expand (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 137). However for those people that knew more about the provision of services for the homeless, it was clear that social welfare policies had not been capable of completely resolving the problem. People that understood social welfare and housing policies also knew that homelessness was linked to inadequate housing and unemployment. Unemployment meant that some people fell behind with their rent or mortgage payments, eventually leading to their eviction or the re-possession of their homes. There were and are voluntary organisations such as Shelter, Crisis, and the Citizens Advice Bureaux which provided advice services to prevent people becoming homeless (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 pp. 28-9).

The public perception that homelessness was no longer a meaningful or measurable social and economic problem was changed by the film ‘Cathy come home’ and the launch of a charity dedicated to solving the problem of homelessness and intent on influencing public opinion and government policies, Shelter. Unlike existing charities that helped homeless people such as the Salvation Army, Shelter only existed to tackle the issue of homelessness and it believed that being an active pressure group was the best way to alter or influence public opinion, as well as attempt to change social welfare policies. In other words Shelter wished to offer greater levels of service provision than government departments and local authorities did at that time. In the late 1960s the government had not changed its social welfare policies to have any extra detrimental affects on the problem of homelessness. Instead Shelter was demonstrating that in some individual cases that social welfare policies had proved incapable of preventing homelessness or keeping up with social, economic, and political changes. At this time government departments and local authorities were the predominant service providers for the homeless, or the potentially homeless (Coxall, Robbins, & Leach, 2003 p. 381). The 1960s after all were a decade when social, economic, and political changes were starting to become apparent, these changes which had consequences for social welfare policies in general, and that had an impact on the service provision for the homeless. Social changes included it being easier to get divorced, a rise in the number of births outside marriage, a rise in the number of lone parents, increasing crime levels, and the growth of illegal drugs taking. All these social changes would change the ways families lived in Britain; the break down of family relationships has arguably had a greater impact on the problem of homelessness than any changes to social welfare and housing policies. That is although the consequences were unplanned and inadvertent, yet they had to be responded to by the providers of services to homeless people (Jones et al, 2004 p. 294).

Shelter and Crisis, amongst others, have argued that social welfare policies are administered in ways that make it harder for government agencies and local authorities to help people that are already homeless, compared to helping people that are already housed. People that are homeless are often only able to claim lower rates of social security benefits, and also find it harder to gain employment or find somewhere permanent to live (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 70). Social welfare policies have been altered, most notably by the Conservative governments between 1979 and 1997 and by the New Labour governments since 1997. In terms of social welfare the Conservatives had wanted to reduce the size of the social security budget, as well as reducing the size of the public sector, the former being a task in which it failed (Eatwell & Wright, 2003 p. 287). In fact, under the Conservatives the budget for social security expenditure actually increased due to the economic policies that was pursued leading to high unemployment, and increased levels of service provision for the homeless. In contrast to the Conservatives, New Labour claimed that it would use social welfare policies to make service provision more responsive to their users actual needs, for example asking the homeless what they wanted from their service providers (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 pp 415-16).

There are also ways in which democracy in Britain can be related to the problem of service provision for the homeless and the potentially homeless, and also related to the political, social, and economic factors that influence and affect levels of homelessness. In a liberal democracy such as Britain, the political, social, and economic policies used in relation to service provision such as towards homeless people can be shaped by the relative importance that the electorate, attach to each individual issue. In many respects the service provision for the homeless has not become one of the major electoral issues that can dominate political debates, and that can ultimately determine which political party wins or loses the next general election. Despite not being one of the main political issues, the provision of services for the homeless is certainly an issue that is on the political agenda in Britain, and it is an issue that will undoubtedly stay there. That the provision of services for the homeless remains upon the political agenda in Britain has to be attributed to the efforts of pressure groups or charities like Shelter, Crisis, and the Big Issue. Indeed the efforts of these groups have managed to maintain publicity about the problem of homelessness as well as providing some very useful services themselves. These groups believe that their publicity campaigns will not only influence public opinion, their publicity campaigns will hopefully influence social welfare and housing policies to make service provision effectively serve the needs of the homeless. However these organisations are also important service providers for homeless people, giving advice, advocacy services, training, and emergency accommodation. Some members of the electorate do not regard homelessness as being a separate issue from social welfare policy, as far as they are concerned the government should have the appropriate policies to provide services to the homeless. After all that is what people pay their taxes for (Malin, Wilmot, & Manthorpe, 2003 p. 51).

Pressure groups or charities that publicly campaign for and in support of the homeless view the tackling of prejudices against the people that are homeless as an important part of their objectives of service provision for the homeless. Shelter and the Big Issue act as advocates for those people that are homeless as they are disenfranchised by virtue of not having a home address, and therefore being unable to register their names on to the electoral register. Without the advocacy and media contacts of such pressure groups and charities, the homeless would have very little influence upon democracy, as they cannot vote for or against any political party because of its policies and objectives in relation to the issue of homelessness. Political parties will not necessarily feel the need to adjust their social welfare and housing policies to help certain groups like the homeless, especially if these people are formally and legally unable to participate in the democratic electoral processes at all (Jones et al, 2004 p. 294). However political parties have not been able to ignore the problem of homelessness, even if they have attempted to resolve the issues surrounding homelessness with varying degrees of enthusiasms (Jones, 1999 p. 176).

However, although the homeless may be disenfranchised that does not mean that the homeless do not contribute towards liberal democracy in Britain. The work of charities and pressure groups helps the homeless to voice their opinions in public, and those groups actively promote the interests of the homeless. Shelter and the Big Issue hope to sway public opinion, as well as influencing the incumbent government’s social welfare and housing policies to assist the homeless as much as possible. In a liberal democracy like Britain, public opinion can influence government policies as well as governments attempting to shape public opinion in order to gain electoral advantages or support. The way in which democracy operates mean that political parties, pressure groups, and the media compete with each other to shape public opinion. In return the public often regard some issues as being more important than other issues. For instance, the state of the National Health Service, education, law and order, besides the state of the economy are often the most important issues during general election campaigns. The responsibility for service provision for the homeless goes across government departments, and the measures needed have to compete for funding with other policy areas such as health, education, and defence. Political parties naturally adopt the policy stances that fit in with their ideological beliefs, yet maximise their chances of electoral success. Once governments are elected they have to decide who provides public services and the extent of the services that are provided (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 pp. 48-50).

In Britain the government has an important part to play in dealing with the problem of homelessness, even if the government has not caused those problems in the first place. For the government to effectively manage and reduce the problem of homelessness it helps for the government to understand the various causes of people losing their homes (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p.70). The majority of causes for people being homeless are social or economic rather than political. The government can prevent some people from becoming homeless by adopting social welfare and housing policies. The majority of causes for people becoming homeless are social or economic, rather than political. The government can prevent some people becoming homeless by adopting social welfare and housing policies, although the government cannot prevent the social circumstances that potentially lead to homelessness. The government is not in a position to prevent the break up of family units that make men and young people particularly vulnerable to becoming homelessness. Men actually are the group most likely to face homelessness in the wake of relationships breaking up. Women have a higher chance of keeping their homes when relationships end. Other s factors that contribute to the problem of homelessness are related to crime, or more specifically those people that serve prison sentences and then have nowhere to live after they have been released. People with drug addictions, alcoholics, and those with mental health problems all have an increased risk of becoming homeless during their lives. These people have been helped by groups like Shelter, Crisis, and the Big Issue that provide services to get their lives back on track (Jones et al, 2004, p. 294).

Although governments in Britain may not be able to prevent the circumstances or factors that make people become homeless, governments are in a position to help people find homes to live in. Governments are the key decision makers when it comes down to deciding upon the s w and housing policies that are the main ways of preventing people from losing their homes. Government policies can make it easier, or alternatively make it harder for people to stay in their homes or find new accommodation when it is required. For instance, the Thatcher government’s decision to sell off council houses was very popular with existent council house tenants, one million of whom went on to buy their homes from their local authorities. The selling off of council houses might not have been so detrimental to efforts to keep people housed if the local authorities had been allowed to build replacement houses in the same quantity. Selling off council houses made it harder to find affordable accommodation to rent, whilst the local authorities had a declining number of homes to provide housing for those that wanted it (Moran, 2005, p.28). Even if such a high volume of council houses had not been sold off, new homes construction has lagged behind the demand for homes to rent or buy. In turn the shortage of houses to rent or buy continues to make rents and mortgages even higher and less affordable for many people. Both Conservative and New Labour have refused to intervene to lower house prices or rents to allow more people to find a home (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon, 2003 p.291). However New Labour has launched a programme to increase both the actual capacity and the quality of hostels and temporary accommodation with a budget of £90 million. That programme allows non-governmental organisations to improve the quality of the services that they provide to the homeless (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2005 p. 8).

However, it would be wrong to assume that British governments do nothing to prevent the problem of homelessness growing. The government has to decide which services are provided to the homeless. Local authorities or Registered Social Landlords are still responsible for housing many people and New Labour has been expanded the amount of new construction that can undertake (Seldon & Kavanagh, 2005 p. 70). The main way in which the government helps to prevent the problem of homelessness increasing is through the social security system. Individuals and families in receipt of social security benefit or low income are generally entitled to housing benefit, which means that they have all or at least a high percentage of their rent paid for by the relevant local authority (Jones, 1999, p.176). Local authorities administer the housing benefit system and are then fully refunded by the government via the Department for Work and Pensions. Housing benefits pays out a great deal of money each year to prevent people being evicted and subsequently homeless, it provides a service for millions of people (Jones, 1999, p. 176). Despite been means tested, housing benefit is still one of the biggest amounts of expenditure on the social security budget (Whitaker’s 2007 p. 450). For instance, in the financial year 2002 –03 the government spent over £11 billion on housing benefit which, demonstrates the importance attached to preventing homelessness through the services provided by the Department of Work and Pensions in conjunction with local authorities (Department for Work and Pensions, 2003 p.32).


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Department for Work and Pensions, (2003) Departmental Report 2003, The Stationary Office, London

Eatwell R & Wright A, (2003) Contemporary Political Ideologies 2nd Edition, Continuum, London

Fisher J, Denver D, & Benyon J, (2003) Central Debates in British Politics, Longman, London

Jones B, (1999) issues in British Politics Today, Manchester University Press, Manchester

Jones B, Kavanagh D, Moran M, & Norton P, (2004) Politics UK, 5th edition, Pearson Longman, London

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Seldon A & Kavanagh D, (2005) The Blair Effect 2001 – 5, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Whitaker’s, (2007) Whitaker’s Almanack 2007 – today’s world in one volume, A & C Black, London


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