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Welfare and Social Issues

The green line in welfare politics

During the 1900’s in Europe, healthcare, education and care became services that were primarily operated by the public sector – that is, the state, regions and municipalities. There were also charities that ran complementary welfare activities, but from the 1990s onwards, most countries conducted changes that opened up the way for private operators and market models in welfare. The public sector was deregulated and, in many countries, welfare activities were outsourced to private operators, both for-profit and non-profit.

The underlying reasons behind these changes vary depending according to which country you look at it. Large budget deficits, especially after the economic crisis, have been a contributing factor. Other reasons for this development has been low productivity in welfare services compared with other sectors, a higher proportion of elderly people, and increasing demands on the welfare services from citizens. There have also been purely ideological reasons for deregulation and privatisation of welfare – beliefs that privatisation leads to increased quality and efficiency.

Green responses

How different Green parties in Europe have responded to this trend is not obvious. The Swedish Green think tank Cogito, together with Ecopolis in Hungary, EQUO in Spain and the Green European Foundation have mapped Green parties’ policies regarding privatisation and private operators in welfare to see if a general Green political line can be discerned. Now we publish the results in the report ‘A third sector in welfare – Green responses to privatisation of welfare services across Europe. Below we present the main conclusions:

  1. Self-determination, diversity and freedom of choice seem important principles in green welfare policy. For example the Green party in Germany safeguards the German constitution which allows a privately-run school to be established in a municipality if it serves a specific educational purpose or/and if the initiative comes from parents or guardians. Similarly, it is important for the Greens that the elderly have the right to influence their care, by getting compensation to be cared for at home by relatives or the opportunity to choose a special nursing home. The Green parties across Europe talks as much about the freedom to choose between different actors as influence and involvement in the care or school you have chosen.
  2. Decentralisation and democratic transparency are raised by many Green parties as key elements of a green welfare policy. Decisions need to be close to people, and there must be good opportunities for real influence on welfare services from students, parents, patients and staff. For example, the Green parties in Hungary and Romania have a very negative view of the heavily centralised public operators available today. They advocate private alternatives in welfare to ensure diversity and influence of citizens and staff. In contrast, the Green Party of England & Wales criticises recent reforms promoting academies and free schools. They believe that transparency and democratic accountability have been adversely affected, and want to integrate privately-run schools into the local authority school system.
  3. In almost all Green parties there is a critical attitude towards privatisation, especially when it comes to large for-profit companies in welfare. How this criticism is expressed depends on the circumstances and welfare systems in each country. In countries such as Spain, Portugal and Poland, the Green parties have taken a clear stand against any privatisation of welfare and have actively participated in demonstrations and petitions against a wave of privatisation of public hospitals and schools. In other countries such as England, Sweden and Germany, the Green parties actively support the development of more publicly-run or non-profit hospitals and schools.
  4. The Green parties in Europe express strong support for a well-developed, jointly-funded public welfare system. Equality and justice – as equivalent education and care accessible for all – are advocated in all Green parties. Resolving the future financing of welfare will be of greatest importance in order to maintain this vision of equitable welfare for all. In a Europe with increasing inequality, for example, the German greens propose a broadened funding structure where not only income from work but also income from capital, interest and profits must contribute to the common funding of welfare in the near future.

Almost all Green parties in Europe exhibit critical approaches to large-scale privatisation of welfare services. This does not mean that Green parties in Europe have a passion for a great state with a monopoly on welfare activities. The Greens want a well-developed, jointly-funded welfare system which is available to everyone, but also a diversity of providers and specialisations with good possibilities for influence, participation and freedom to choose.

Among smaller entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations, there is creativity and ideas that rarely fit within profit-maximising corporations or centralised public services. Alongside an equitable public welfare programme, the third sector (often with bases in civil society and local communities) has an important role to play in green welfare policy. A European outlook shows that the third sector in welfare is often much more than just a supplement – in many countries, the sector is currently a large provider of welfare services. In the UK, the Cabinet Office has set a target of one million civil servants working in staff-owned enterprises in 2015. In Germany, there are more hospitals run by non-profit organisations than by public or for-profit operators and over half of the beds in the nursing homes are in non-profit management.

The way forward

Green parties face major challenges ahead. How can we finance welfare in the future? How do we strengthen the third sector and the public sector in many countries? How do we find ways to regulate the private welfare market? How much of the wealth can be managed by non-profit organisations or volunteer work (the church or the family?). These are among the questions that need to be discussed. We hope that Green parties can learn from each other’s experiences and jointly develop a European Green stance on these issues, let’s use this report as a starting point.

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