Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Beveridge Legacy

On the 10th December 1948 in Paris, The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved. Article 25 (1) says, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control". Article 26 (1) says, "Everyone has the right to education ...". The UN was saying what many individuals and countries had been saying for generations.

Cyrus Cylinder 539 BC
As far as we can tell, the first recorded declaration of human rights was written by Cyrus the Great, King of Persia around 539 BC. The declaration was written on a clay cylinder which became known as the Cyrus Cylinder.

The 1940's in the United Kingdom was a period when great decisions were made that should affect every individual living in the country. But for at least a hundred years prior to that, the plight of the poor was gaining public and political profile. Steve Schifferes, BBC News economics reporter said in an article in 2005, "By the early 1900's all political parties had concluded that the state would have to play a bigger role in providing welfare for the poor".

Jarrow Crusade 1936
In 1915 the government were forced to introduce rent control following strikes by munitions workers, and in 1918 the Coalition Prime Minister, Lloyd George pledged to provide "homes built for heroes" for returning was veterans, and eventually two million were built.

We may all have our favourite emotional moment in history when the poor made a point. Mine is the Jarrow Crusade in October 1936. About 200 miners, ship workers and supporters walked nearly 300 miles from the North East of England to Westminster. This march was to protest against unemployment and extreme poverty suffered in the North East of England. Unfortunately, little benefit was immediately gained by the marchers. After walking for a month, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin refused to meet with them, because it would create a "precedent". The marchers were each given £1 to cover their train fare home.

Soon after this the Second World War began, and by now the pressures for social reform were mounting. Early in the war, the coalition government began planning for post-war reconstruction.

William Beveridge
The government asked William Beveridge, a Liberal social reformer, Oxford don and one time head of the London School of Economics to write a report on the best ways of helping people on low incomes. He was described as "overbearing, vain but brilliant", and probably as a result of this, in the words of Nicholas Timmins, "He so bent his terms of reference that his report proved to be the prince's kiss, which brought to life the outline of pre-existing plans to create a national health service and secondary education for all, while providing the stimulus for the coalition government to accept responsibility for ensuring a high and stable level of employment".

So his work began with a committee of about a dozen civil servants, and these were reduced to mere "advisers or assessors" following his refusal to water down his assumptions as requested to do so by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Kinsley Wood. As a result of this, Beveridge's signature was the only one on the final report. Do you know, he may have been overbearing and vain, but I like him.

The Beveridge Report
The report called "Social Insurance and Allied Services" was presented to the government on the 1st December 1942. Queues formed all night outside the Stationary Office to buy it, and it became incredibly popular with the British people. Sales of the full report topped 100,000 within a month, and reached 600,000 after a shortened summary was produced. To put this in context, no official report outsold it until the Denning report into the Profumo scandal 20 years later.

It was translated into 22 languages, sold to the United States, circulated to the troops, and dropped over Nazi-occupied Europe. Also, and this I find fascinating, at the end of the war, a summary of it was found in Hitler's bunker, a commentary noting that it was "no botch-up ... superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points".

At the time when the war was destroying landmarks of every kind, Beveridge said it was a "revolutionary moment in the world's history, a time for revolutions, not for patching". Unfortunately, the wartime coalition, under Winston Churchill agreed to postpone planning for its implementation until after the war. During a Commons debate on the report two months after publication, labour came out strongly in favour of all the recommendations made in the report, and it was probably this that cost Churchill victory in the 1945 election.

The report was extensive, but the main points were as follows.
  1. The appointment of a minister to control all the insurance schemes
  2. A standard weekly payment by people in work as a contribution to the insurance fund
  3. The right to payments for an indefinite period of time for the unemployed
  4. Old age pensions, maternity grants, funeral grants, pensions for widows and for people injured at work
  5. Payments at a standard rate, the same for all citizens whatever private means they had, paid without a means test
  6. The introduction of family allowances
  7. A new national health service to be established
 The coalition government was unveiling plans for a welfare state offering care to all "from the cradle to the grave" as the Daily Mirror described it. To Beveridge, the report was a clarion call for an attack on what he saw as the "five giant evils" of WANT, DISEASE, IGNORANCE, SQUALOR and IDLENESS.

In 1945, Labour won a landslide victory at the General Election. It seems as if the British public believed that a Labour government would be more likely to pursue a vigorous programme of social reform. It began to tackle the five giants identified by Beveridge.

WANT - Poverty was seen as the key social problem which affected all others. We had the National Insurance Act and Industrial Injuries Act in 1946, followed by the National Assistance Act in 1948 for those not covered by the National Insurance Act.

DISEASE - In 1946 the National Health Service Act was passed, which meant that every British citizen could receive free medical, dental and optical services. GP treatment and hospital treatment was also free.

SQUALOR - After the war, Britain still had slum areas, and overcrowding was a serious problem. The government aimed to build 200,000 homes a year, and many were prefabricated houses which were assembled quickly on site. My home village in North Wales still has some of these prefabricated houses in use.

IGNORANCE - William Beveridge said, "Ignorance is an evil weed, which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens". Though the Coalition government of 1944 passed the Education Act, it was the Labour Government after the general election that implemented it.

IDLENESS - Full employment was the key, and after the war, there seemed to be work for everyone as Britain rebuilt itself. The plans of Beveridge seemed dependent on people being in work, so that money came in to pay for the benefits of a welfare state. Following the principles of economist John Maynard Keynes, the government took control (nationalised) of certain industries such as iron and steel. This meant that they could use tax money to keep an industry afloat even if it faced economic difficulties.

A blog can only pick at some of the key points in any report, and for those who wish to delve deaper into the subject, you should read Nicholas Timmins history of the welfare state since Beveridge, called The Five Giants. It is published by Harper Collins, and I believe is available through Amazon.

I do not necessarily endorse everything he says though.

The world has changed so much in the last near 70 years hasn't it? Beveridge's Five Giant problems are still there to be slain though. Successive governments of whatever persuasion, are forever seeking ways to address the issues of providing a fair and equitable welfare state. One of the guiding principles in Beveridge's report is that "proposals for the future should not be limited by sectional interests". Unfortunately the opposite is often true. In the area of welfare benefits, it often seems to me that government policy is one of punishing the poor, whereas to Beveridge, the state "should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family". There is still much to be done.

In the 1997 general election, Tony Blair said, "Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you Education, Education, Education". Beveridge would be impressed, and certainly huge amounts of money have been poured into the education system, so much so that by 2007, the government was spending almost £1.2 billion on education every week. So where has the money gone, and where do we stand in relation to others? Sean Coughlan, BBC News education reporter, writing in 2007 said, "By the end of the decade, education will be receiving 5.6% of GDP - which compares to the 5.5% that is the current average of education in industrialised countries. It means a huge amount of cash has been spent to push us all the way up to average". There is still much to be done.

Just after the war, unemployment was about 2.5%, and on the 16th February 2011 it was 7.9% with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development forecasting a further increase throughout 2011.

It's a different and difficult world now. How can "idleness" be addressed? Previously I'd lived and worked in Hastings on the south coast. The town has poor transport links, and now few big employers (though SAGA call centre are about to employ 800 people). Being a seaside town, any work has usually been seasonal, part time and low paid - often this is only of benefit to second earners in a family, not the main wage earner. My organisation did help many unemployed people to identify training, with particular emphasis at one time on gaining a Construction Industry Certificate. But to what end? Huge building programmes had taken place, but contractors often brought their own work force with them. What chance was there for our unemployed?

A positive example I have is from over 20 years ago when I lived and worked in Belfast. Debenhams were looking to move into Northern Ireland for the first time, and to open a store in the heart of Belfast. Out of a proposed 800 work force, they agreed that 25% would come from those who had been unemployed for more than six months. I was part of a group that helped to identify these 200 people, and it worked well. This can be done again to address the giant problem of unemployment. It would also help if government departments worked together more, rather than engage in "sectional interests". There is still much to be done.

I don't want to quibble about the progress made over the years, which has been quite staggering, but 70 years after Beveridge, we're still fighting the Five Giants. Perhaps one day we will succeed.

1 comment:

  1. As always, John, lucid, thought provoking and, for me a 'correct analysis' . Last year I wrote what I laughingly describe as my 'memoirs' - which are really just the rants and prejudices of a grumpy old man! I devoted considerable time to some of the points that you make here. My main point was that tremendous strides have been made during my lifetime. But the contribution of Beveridge and post war Attlee (and especially the work of Michael Young) govt.was absolutely critical in giving kids like me from a 'poor' background a chance that we would not have had and ultimately making me the person I am. So far as education is concerned the great education reports of the post war period - also helped. My one regret and it is something that I am (rightly or wrongly) very angry about is that the Attlee Labour govt. came to power on a huge mandate and they used it to create things like the welfare state. In the intervening half century most Labour govts. have had an insufficient mandate for huge social or educational improvement. Until, that is, 1997 and the Blair govt. They had the chance to make changes and to cement things begun by Attlee - but instead they chose a different route. That is why as a Labour voter all my life they have lost my support.