The Beveridge Report is perhaps the most important of all social policy documents in 20th century British history. It sets out the view that the state should provide a social minimum ‘up to a subsistence level’ for everyone, no matter what their circumstance, upon which they ‘may build freely upon’. William Beveridge, it’s author, saw it as an ‘attack upon Want’. The proposals outlined would be a major influence on the creation of the Welfare State during the Clement Attlee government. The report established the principle of ‘protection from cradle to the grave’.
It was obvious to politicians including Prime Minister Winston Churchill even in the early stages of the war in late 1940 that a change in society would be required upon the wars completion. That is, if the war went in Britain’s favour which at the time Churchill started the discussion was far from certain.
In June 1941 these discussions led to the foundation of an Interdepartmental Committee (one which has a remit wider than one department of government) whose main task was to look to see if existing social insurance was adequate and if not how they could be improved. The document was largely created in a seaside town of Blackpool, far away from the Blitz (ironically later the report would be dropped by British bombers in Europe as propaganda). The chairman of this committee was William Beveridge, from whom the name of the report derives. Beveridge was very keen on the report and was by far the main player in its creation, thus was alone in signing the document when it came to the House of Commons over a year later in November 1942.
Social Policies of the Report
Beveridge believed it was possible to provide a situation where basic human needs were met without fundamentally changing society as had been seen in the Soviet Union. His proposal was an expansion of the social insurance schemes to no longer rely on means tests and instead be universal (available to everyone). The insurance would cover loss of income due to illness, injury and unemployment as well as personal circumstances such as pregnancy, looking after young children and family bereavement.
William Beveridge’s own inspiration is likely to have come from the time he spent as a young man implementing the liberal social insurance schemes of 1908-1914 including pensions and national insurance. Here he developed first hand experience of the good these policies could do to lives but also the problems with their implementation.
Liberalism, not Socialism
The system Beveridge set out was, unlike many previous schemes which were controlled locally, to be both centrally funded and centrally controlled. The justification from removing the means test – which was widely hated as small luxuries would be used as an excuse not to provide help – was that the scheme would actually be a form of insurance, you had to pay in to receive from it. The insurance policy fitted well with Beveridge’s own political leanings as a Liberal. He was not a social democrat or Labour politicians who might believe the state had a responsibility to provide for all, but on personal responsibility. The idea of the insurance was the state would assit individuals in being responsible by removing barriers. Indeed the plan didn’t see an increase in government expenditure as necessary as the scheme would be funded entirely though insurance contributions.
The idea was certainly not socialism! It fits well with the Modern Liberal tradition of the state having a somewhat interventionist role while maintaining capitalism and having a strong view of the role of individuals in their own social change. William Beveridge himself would stand as a candidate for the Liberal Party in 1945 after winning a seat the previous year, but was unsuccessful and had to see elements of his plan implemented from outside the Houses of Parliament.
The policies suggested by Beveridge were not new. Indeed even the phrase The Welfare State had been around for a decade and was widely discussed. The Report simply put these together in a comprehensive way and in an official report. The proposals now seemed to be going somewhere and gave the demand for them momentum and legitimation.
Beveridge believes there were five social ills that needed to be defeated, nicknamed the five giants: Want (which was to be abolished by the social insurance scheme proposed), Disease (which health service for all would remove), Squalor (to be removed by slum clearance and house building), Idleness (ended by providing full employment) and Ignorance (through the creation of a better school system).
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