William Beveridge's 1942 report is a landmark in the setting up of a welfare state. But the building blocks existed long beforehand. His skill was to unite them in a comprehensive "cradle-to-grave" scheme that helped promote a spirit of post-war optimism
What were the roots of the welfare state?
For many centuries there was little or no safety net against poverty and illness. There was certainly no right to it. The industrial age saw extensive poverty amongst a rapidly expanding urban population. As moral and political pressure for reform built across society, the government's role in providing a safety net gradually increased.
In 1941, William Beveridge, one of Britain's leading economists, was asked by Winston Churchill's government to look at the problem of building a post-war Britain. Beveridge had also been asked to consider how the various social security schemes could be harmonised. Beveridge had been the Director of Labour Exchanges in 1909 and had advised Lloyd George on pensions and national insurance.
He brought all these threads together in this Report. “Social Insurance and Allied Services”, published in December 1942, was based on two simple, overriding principles: universality and comprehensiveness. In other words the scheme applied to everybody, with no 'means test', and just one payment covered all the benefits.
What did the report cover?
The report tackled the five threats to society: want, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness. Churchill's coalition government took the opportunity to tackle “ignorance” first with the 1944 Education Act. This raised the school-leaving age to 16, and established the system of primary, secondary and further education. It also helped make university entrance easier to new students with government subsidies.
Churchill's brief 1945 caretaker government sneaked in the Family Allowance Act, which provided a weekly payment for all children after the first. Labour then swept to power on their promise of a 'cradle to grave' welfare state. The main implementations were carried out by the Labour government under Clement Attlee with the National Insurance and National Health Service Acts of 1946. The first provided workers with unemployment, sickness, maternity and widows' benefits and old-age pensions. It was funded by compulsory contributions of 4/11d a week (almost half a day's wages for a skilled craftsman, or about five pints of beer). It applied to all people in work, except married women, and there were extra contributions from employers and the state.
The second Act, seen through by the Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, introduced a national health service free to all, including dental and ophthalmic services. This was seen through Parliament despite opposition from the British Medical Association, who did not want doctors to become “salaried servants of the state”. A compromise was reached and the scheme came into operation in July 1948.
What was public reaction to the National Health Service?
In some ways it was too popular. The public took full advantage of the free services, and the cost of delivery rose. The government proposed prescription charges in 1951, along with dental and ophthalmic charges. Incensed, Bevan resigned.
The Labour Party lost the next election before charges were introduced and it was the Conservatives who brought in the charge at 1 shilling (5p) per prescription. Charges were abolished by Labour in 1965 but were reintroduced in 1968. By 2008 the charge was £7.10 per item in England.
In Scotland it was reduced to £5 to be phased out by 2011. In Wales the charge was abolished in 2007.
The 1948 National Assistance Act looked to provide support for those unable to help themselves, chiefly the elderly, the critically ill or disabled and the homeless. It did away once and for all with Poor Law relief.
Finally, the 1948 Children's Act looked not only to child protection but the nurturing and development of each child's character and abilities. There had been several driving forces for the Act, such as the fear that not all wartime evacuated children would have a home or family to return to.
Was Beveridge's report an incentive not to work?
No. Often overlooked in Beveridge's report was that he favoured a level of benefit set at subsistence level only, as he did not want to take away individual initiative. “Management of one's income is an essential element of a citizen's freedom," he wrote. But he also regarded social welfare as an individual's right. He summarised his scheme by saying: It is, first and foremost, a plan of insurance - of giving in return for contributions benefits up to subsistence level, as of right and without means test, so that individuals may build freely upon it.
Beveridge wanted to ensure people had the basics of life as of right. It was a reminder of John Locke's three inalienable rights, first stated 300 years before.
Copyright: © British Library