Leader: Beveridge 70 years on - the welfare challenge

The welfare state was much more than an artefact of one man’s genius.

William Beveridge
William Beveridge in 1942. Photograph: Getty Images

Few reputations in British political history are as apparently unsullied as that of William Beveridge, whose report Social Insurance and Allied Services was published 70 years ago this week. In a newspaper article in February, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith,  defended his Welfare Reform Bill (the bill passed into law on 8 March) thus: “Beveridge’s vision of the welfare state was one of a safety net, a system that prevented people from falling into poverty at times of difficulty, but that expected people to do all they could to work. Want and squalor were giant evils, but so too was idleness.”

Mr Duncan Smith claims that the new Universal Credit, which will replace the current and complex system of benefits and tax credits with a single benefit phased out gradually as earnings increase, will “make work pay for the first time”.

The architect of the postwar welfare state, Beveridge was also a skilled promoter of his own plan. He understood that the energies and unity of popular purpose harnessed in wartime could be put in the service of a just peace. “We shall be united in combined attack on tyranny and savagery abroad,” he declared in one public address, “and on Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness at home.” The Labour MP Richard Crossman, editor of the New Statesman from 1970-72, was right when he said, in 1952, that the welfare state (and the National Health Service in particular) was a “by-product of the Blitz”. What it wasn’t, however, was an artefact of one man’s genius.

Beveridge’s vision for a national system of social security that would offer protection to all citizens “from the cradle to the grave” built on the achievements of the great reforming Liberal government of 1906-11 (Beveridge was a Liberal), which introduced health and unemployment insurance and old-age pensions. It owed much to the work of the founders of this publication, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, particularly the former’s contribution to the Minority report on the Poor Law in 1909, which argued that it was the duty of the state to “secure a national minimum of civilised life open to all alike”. For the Webbs, the Poor Law undermined the very qualities of independence and self-respect that its proponents claimed to want to foster because it demanded that the recipients of public assistance be poorer than the poorest person in work. Such was reality for those condemned to the workhouse. Beveridge excluded means tests from his social security plan for the same reason.

Beveridge and Clement Attlee, whose Labour government passed the National Insurance Act of 1946, regarded welfare entitlements as being earned through contributions made. Speaking for the legislation in parliament, Attlee said that it was “designed not for one class” – not just for the poor, in other words – but “for all”. However, decades of “reform” have undermined the contributory principle and with it the idea that the welfare state is an expression of common citizenship rather than a pot from which people take as much as they dare.

The new Welfare Reform Act entrenches means testing, which Beveridge abhorred. In cutting tax credits and child benefits, it affects those very “strivers” whose readiness to “play by the rules” the government’s reforms are supposed to reward. Mr Duncan Smith was right that Beveridge regarded idleness, as well as want, as an evil to be overcome. That is why he insisted that “employment security” is as important as “income security”. But the failure of the government’s Work Programme, shown in figures released on 27 November by the Department for Work and Pensions, suggests that we are a long way from slaying that particular “giant”.