The ‘Social Rights, Citizenship and the Welfare State’ stream has been part of the fabric of the annual Socio-Legal Studies Association conference for the last three years (successfully graduating from a theme in 2016). It has gone from strength to strength and Jed, Mark and I were readying ourselves for a packed agenda, with three or more papers scheduled for every session of the conference, when lockdown hit and we received the inevitable news that the conference could not go ahead.
The pandemic is having, and will continue to have a huge impact on individual’s interactions with the welfare state, as huge numbers of people turn to the social security system for financial support due to the economic shutdown. In the first week of January 2020, before the virus hit the UK, approximately 100,000 people applied for Universal Credit (UC) – fast forward to the last two weeks of March and the applications had rocketed to 950,000; rising again to 1.5m in the six weeks to April 2020. There have also significant implications for those who are already relying on the social security system or indeed those who are in the application phase of disability benefits, and for those who are appealing decisions – as face to face meetings are cancelled for the foreseeable future; administrative processes are delayed; DWP resources are shifted towards processing new UC claims and both disability assessments and benefit tribunal appeals are carried out remotely (see forthcoming article by Harris, Fitzpatrick, Meers and Simpson in the Journal of Social Security Law).
It is in this extraordinary context that we decided that it was more important than ever that we provide a space where socio-legal academics could get together to discuss not only our current research but to work through some of the immediate implications of the pandemic. We contacted all of those due to present in order to garner interest in continuing with an online version of the stream. Following positive feedback we decided to develop two short 1.5 hour sessions that were carried out over two-weeks (9th and 16th April) using the Blackboard Collaborate platform. We wanted to keep the format as relaxed as possible in order to open up discussion. We had four presenters at each session who had 5 minutes to give us a ‘lightening talk’ on their current work and then online attendees had 10 minutes to ask questions and make comments. The last 30 minutes of each session was spent talking about the potential implications of Covid-19. We used the first session to consider the ‘problems that coronavirus presents for social rights, citizenship and the welfare state’. While in the second session focused on ‘where we should train our attention as researcher’ and we considered some possibilities for future research. The format worked well, as the conversation flowed freely. There was an overall sense that talking through the immediate implications from different methodological and theoretical perspectives was an important exercise. It was also great to catch-up with colleagues working in similar areas.
Following the sessions, we put together a detailed note of the Covid-19 chats and it is hoped that this will act as a springboard for research collaborations and potential future publications. You can read this for yourself here. The editors (Professor Neville Harris and Professor Gráinne McKeever) of the Journal of Social Security Law were present during both sessions and have invited contributions to a potential a special issue on Covid-19 in the near future. We would strongly encourage other convenors to consider ‘streaming the stream!’ We would finish by expressing that meeting online is no substitute for meeting in person. The convenors have benefited from SLSA funding to carry out welfare state research and we know that this would be impossible without the income that is generated by the annual conference and so it’s vital that we support attendance for next year’s conference in Cardiff.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank the presenters for the thought provoking papers they delivered:
Alexandra Murray: Am I Acting Disabled Enough? Invisible Disabilities and the Performance of Disabled Identities during Personal Independence Payment Appeal Hearings
Hannah Mirjam Adzakpa: Fulfilling the right to a social minimum for persons with disabilities in Europe?
James Organ and Jennifer Sigafoos: ‘What about the poor people’s rights?’ Legal Advice and the deconstruction of social citizenship
Jo Wilding: Legal advice droughts in social welfare law
Jackie Gulland: Benefits rules as barriers to inclusion
Jennie Bunt: The influence of imprisonment on the collection of council tax in Wales
Meghan Campbell: Single motherhood and UK welfare state