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How Can a Global Crisis Lead to a Better World? Background Reading: The Beveridge Report

Festival of Ideas
Ian Goldin

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When Ian Goldin joins the festival on Wednesday 23 June to offer an optimistic vision of the future, the discussion will include exploring what a new Beveridge report might look like today.

The following provides background material on this subject.

‘Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.’ – William Beveridge, 1942

The Beveridge Report 1942: An Outline

1942 Beveridge Report, UK Parliament

‘William Beveridge (1879-1963) was a social economist who in November 1942 published a report titled Social Insurance and Allied Services that would provide the blueprint for social policy in post-war Britain. Beveridge had been drawn to the idea of remedying social inequality while working for the Toynbee Hall charitable organisation in East London. He saw that philanthropy was simply not sufficient in such circumstances and a coherent government plan would be the only sufficient action. By the outbreak of war, Beveridge found himself working in Whitehall where he was commissioned to lead an inquiry into social services. His vision was to battle against what he called the five giants; idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want. His ‘cradle to the grave’ social programme that amongst other proposals called for a free national health service alienated some politicians but it struck a chord with the public and this would influence Clement Atlee’s Labour Government to implement these ideas.’

The Beveridge Report, BBC Bitesize

‘The recommendations were for a system that would be:

  • Comprehensive – cover all problems relating to poverty, from birth to death
  • Universal – available to all
  • Contributory – paid into from wages
  • Con-means tested – available to all, even if unable to pay
  • Compulsory – all workers were to contribute

The challenge of addressing the ‘Five Giants’ led to the establishment of the Welfare State under the Labour Government.’

Questions drawn up arising from the Beveridge Report to be discussed within the Ministry of Labour, 2nd December, 1942 (National Archives LAB 12/6)

1) Can the nation afford the Plan?
2) Can the individual afford it?
3) Is it right for the state to invade the voluntary field to the extent proposed?
4) Should the state oust the Approved Societies?
5) Should Industrial Assurance be made a public service?
6) What will be the effect on Trade Unions?
7) Is it desirable to put Women’s Compensation on a contributory basis?
8) What would be the position of the medical profession and health services?
9) Is the policy on Children’s Allowances to be accepted?
10) Is unification under a new Department desirable?

Sir William Beveridge Announces Social Reform Plans (audio recording originally broadcast on BBC 2 December 1942)

‘The economist Sir William Beveridge gives details of his radical plans for economic and social reform in post-war Britain. He proposes major social changes on the basis that we need ‘the abolition of want before the enjoyment of comfort’ and suggests ‘a scheme of medical treatment of every kind for everybody’, social security benefits and state pension provision.

‘The Beveridge Report originated from Sir William’s chairmanship of an obscure interdepartmental inquiry into the co-ordination of social services. The report met with a cool response in Whitehall and from the Churchill government, but it was extremely popular with the British public, and more than 70,000 copies were sold in the space of a few days.’

Results of a public opinion survey on the Beveridge Report: Summary (National Archives PREM 4/89/2)

‘NINETY-FIVE percent of the public had heard about the Beveridge Report.

‘Great interest in the Report was discovered and, strikingly enough, this interest was most marked amongst the poorer people.

‘General approval was found for the main features of the schemes as set out in the Report. The extent of the approval varied from the bare majority saying that weekly benefits of 40s. per week for a married couple was about the right amount, to an overwhelming endorsement of the proposal to include everyone in a comprehensive scheme of medical services.

‘The greatest volume of criticism was directed towards the proposal to start Old Age Pensions at 14s. a week. The majority of the public thought that the amount should be at least 20s. a week immediately, or at least that the rate of increase to the maximum of 24s. should be speeded up.

‘There was overwhelming agreement that the Beveridge Plan should be put into effect. There was, however, a much smaller proportion believing that in fact it would be put into effect.’

The Beveridge Report and the foundations of the Welfare State, Chris Day, National Archives, 7 December 2017

‘Beveridge’s stock with the government declined with the release of his report. On 30 January 1943 Beveridge wrote to Churchill asking whether he might meet with him, to discuss his future role in government and also social security.’ […]

‘However, Beveridge had to wait over a fortnight for a reply from Churchill and when it came it expressed the Prime Minister’s coolness to the man whose report had put him in a difficult political position. ‘I hope an opportunity for a talk with you will occur in the future’, Churchill wrote to Beveridge, ‘but of course I have to give my main attention to war’. […]

‘In the face of [public] reaction the government was pragmatic, reserving its scepticism but making an announcement to Parliament that it would consider the Report and was committed to improving social insurance, but would not make any particular commitments at the present time. Reaction from opposition MPs and the public, again recorded in various public opinion intelligence reports, brought the government back to Parliament again, this time making more explicit declarations of their intent to carry out Beveridge’s plan as far as possible.’

The 75th Anniversary of the Beveridge Report

Want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness: are Beveridge’s five evils back? Guardian, 10 October 2017

‘The Attlee government’s radical agenda, after all, basically enacted every recommendation made by eccentric patrician liberal reformer Sir William Beveridge, who exceeded his simple brief – to survey the country’s social insurance programmes – with a wide range of suggestions aimed at eradicating what he called the five “giant evils”: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.’ […]

‘Seventy-five years on, however, the good work done by the Beveridge Report is in grave danger of being entirely undone. The “five giants” are creeping back into the mainstream of our daily life. As they do, our productivity crashes through the floor. Full-year figures for 2015 show the UK’s productivity gap with other countries standing at its worst since modern records began. What would Beveridge find if he were to report today?’

Beveridge and the Five Giants – 75 Years On, Nicholas Timmins, Fabian Society, 1 December 2017

‘Today, of course, the world has changed enormously, and so have some parts of the welfare state – a phrase, incidentally, that Beveridge hated and refused to use, disliking its “brave new world” and “Santa Claus” connotations.’ […]

‘Right now, Fabians should be celebrating the fact that for all the changes to it – holed and shrunk in places, suffering deeply from austerity, but with new limbs added in others – we do still have a welfare state. And thinking hard about what needs to be done to preserve it.’

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions David Gauke’s speech on the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge report at the London School of Economics, 7 December 2017

‘Beveridge’s proposals were hugely popular. I can tell you with some confidence that a policy with 86% popular support, and only 6% opposition, is one of which politicians’ dreams are made.

‘But political and economic realities intrude even on the most popular of policies. The post-war welfare state differed in some important ways from Beveridge’s vision. The country never got the contributory system that he quite envisaged. […]

‘A modern welfare system should support aspiration, helping people to fulfil their potential.

‘It should be focused on work, enabling success in the labour market.

‘It should be based on evidence, continuously learning and building on the approaches that achieve its aims.

‘It should be both affordable and sustainable, supporting economic growth.

‘And it should be personalised. People are not all the same – they have different needs. So we should offer different support, with tailored expectations that reflect individual circumstances.

‘This mirrors changes in the wider environment. We increasingly expect personalised services in other aspects of our lives. We should expect no less of our welfare system.
‘Because, of course, welfare always operates within a wider economic and social context. Beveridge designed his welfare system for the world of his time, and we must do the same for ours.’

A New Beveridge Report?

What would a 2014 Beveridge report say? Guardian, 20 April 2014

‘It would not take a new Beveridge report long to find the reason for the squeeze on living standards: the imbalance of power in the workplace. Over the past 25 years, the trend has been towards an atomised and casualised workforce that has little or no bargaining power. The Britain of today is a land of secure workers on good incomes but also of gangmasters, zero-hours contracts, domestic servants and the self-employed scratching a living. Under the Labour government of 1997-2010, tax credits were used to top up low pay, but austerity means they have become less generous. There are now more people in poverty who are in work than there are who are workless.’ […]

‘The other giant is housing. Owner-occupation, which rose steadily in the 20th century, is in decline. House price inflation coupled with low earnings growth means that a quarter of young people aged between 20 and 34 live with their parents. In the more prosperous parts of Britain, there is a mismatch between housing supply and demand.

‘This is not a new problem. A decade ago, the report prepared by Kate Barker for Gordon Brown said 210,000 new homes a year were needed in England to avert a housing crisis. Since then 115,000 homes a year have been built.

Call for new Beveridge report as number of destitute UK households doubles during Covid, Guardian, 21 February 2021

‘Senior figures are calling on Johnson to use the fallout from the pandemic as a moment to order a review of support for the poor on the scale of the 1942 Beveridge report, which paved the way for the welfare state. In an interview with the Observer, Louise Casey, Johnson’s adviser on homelessness last year, said she would be willing to be a part of a review, warning Britain had been “torn apart” by the pandemic.

‘“We need to move into Royal Commission territory,” she said. “A new Beveridge report. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Government can, if it wants to, do something on a different scale now. The nation has been torn apart, and there’s no point being defensive about that. We’ve got to gift each other some proper space to think. We’ve got to work out how not to leave the badly wounded behind.”’

What British politicians won’t admit – we need to transform the welfare state, Guardian, 21 February 2021

‘Eighty years ago, in the wake of campaigning and political work that had bubbled away between the wars, we all know what happened: a drive to decisively tackle “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness” led first to the report on “social insurance and allied services” authored by William Beveridge, then to the programme enacted by the Labour government elected to power in 1945. The convulsive crisis of our own times, by contrast, has so far not produced anything even remotely similar. Worse, after a 40-year journey away from the postwar social settlement, a society of benefit sanctions, tent encampments in city centres, in-work poverty and so-called “holiday hunger” remains essentially unchanged, even though Covid has made the consequences for public health and our national resilience so clear.’

Labour needs a new blueprint for the future like Beveridge’s, Guardian Letters, 22 February 2021

‘What is needed is another blueprint for the future, not simply tinkering at the edges or a recovery bond. Keir Starmer may have begun the process – now he needs to show much greater vision to reclaim the lost Labour voters, just as Attlee did in 1945. And it is worth bearing in mind that it was the programme that appealed to the voters rather than Attlee’s personality.’ – Neil Wynn, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Can a new Beveridge fix a broken welfare state?, Guardian Letters, 24 February 2021

‘Those calling for a “new Beveridge” should be careful what they wish for. First, Beveridge’s social security proposals were a right-leaning liberal substitute for social democracy. He favoured levelling up the poor to a basic minimum standard, but not at the expense of any levelling down of the rich. Second, it was not Beveridge, but the Attlee government that created the modern welfare state. Socialist collectivism was the essential driver behind the NHS.

‘What is required now is not another expert report but a comprehensive, inclusive and co-produced examination of the current crises of inequality and how to overcome them – much like the fairness commissions that have sat at local level over the past decade.’ – Alan Walker, Professor of Social Policy, University of Sheffield

‘People calling for a new Beveridge report need to be aware of the constructive accounting in the report’s appendix. In 1943 it estimated that the cost of the NHS to the exchequer in 1945 would be £170m. However, unlike the cost for social support, which was to increase, NHS expenditure in 1965 was forecast to be exactly the same. The seeds of the continual crises of the NHS stem from the Beveridge report itself.’ – Dr Ceri Brown, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire

‘Beveridge’s five “evil giants” still stalk the land, albeit in mutated forms. Any fresh approach will have to tackle them: want, with a revised and fairer benefit and social security system; disease, with an integrated national and local health and social care service; ignorance, with schools valuing occupational as much as academic skills; squalor, with housing for rent, not just for ownership; idleness, with training for work in an environmentally friendly economy.’ – Dr Colin Smith, West Kirby, Wirral

Other Resources

University of Warwick’s digital collection contains various documents from 1942-1944 which were produced in response to the Beveridge Report.

What Would Beveridge Say Now?, 24 May 2013

Julia Unwin discusses the social, economic and political changes experienced in the UK since the Beveridge report was published, and argues that nothing less than a new settlement, fit for the 21st century, is needed to address contemporary challenges.

Image of Ian Goldin by: David Fisher

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