Left report on welfare backs more self-help

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The Independent Online
Small, local groups devoted to self-help and mutual aid must be a core part of the future welfare state, according to a radical report by a left-of-centre think-tank published today.

Advocating a policy normally associated with the right, the Institute of Public Policy Research, calls on the Government to make support for self-help a priority. Building Social Capital - Self-Help in a 21st Century Welfare State, shows how self-help activities such as Alcoholics Anonymous, credit unions and tenants' associations have expanded dramatically over the past 20 years in Britain, Europe and North America.

People who share the same problem or condition get together to exchange information, understanding and practical help. Examples include people with disabilities, mental health problems or chronic illnesses, carers, the homeless and the jobless.

Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the report argues that self-help groups help prevent ill-health and strengthen communities.

The report has been written by Mai Wann, who set up the Self-Help Centre for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in 1986 and co-ordinated its work until 1990.

It says government's first responsibility should be to facilitate self-help and make sure that opportunities for it are spread across the country as widely as possible. But public services must continue to provide what people cannot provide for themselves.

"Self-help challenges the centralism and paternalism of post-war welfare states, as well as the older traditions of charity and voluntarism. Self-help is about personal responsibility and interdependence as well as direct local action. Its ethos is empowering and enabling rather than protective, prescriptive or philanthropic."

Self-help groups would not be the answer to all society's problems and should be used as an alternative to state services. Groups are patchily distributed and "essentially anarchic", the report says, and could not provide mainstream health and social services. It says a modest public investment could be made through an organisation in each area.

Building Social Capital; IPPR, 30-32 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7RA; £7.50.