The intellectual world inhabited by social administrators has been suspicious of the use of the price mechanism as an instrument for the allocation of social services for a long time. Nevertheless, consumer charges for various services have been an integral part of the development of social policy for more than a century. Despite this, however, there has been very little systematic study of the reasons for maintaining, and the consequences of using, consumer charges in the social services. Although for more than twenty years there has been a steady stream of normative statements in publications of the Institute of Economic Affairs which emphasise the desirability of making greater use of prices within the welfare state, what the Webbs once described as a ‘chaotic agglomeration’1 of charges has been a largely neglected area of empirical analysis. Consequently the graphic picture of the confusing array of charging practices in the field of social welfare which was painted by the Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws at the beginning of this century is almost equally applicable to the late 1970s.
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