The highs and lows of the Beveridge Report

Words: Chris Thomas


Very few policy reports are best sellers. But in the first month following the release of the 1942 Beveridge Report – Social Security and Allied Services – 100,000 copies had been sold. The eponymous author, William Beveridge, had caught the zeitgeist of wartime Britain.

His report outlined a plan for security that the nation, having experienced two brutal world wars in just 30 years, desperately needed. Among his recommendations were unemployment benefits, family allowance, and state pension – provisions we take for granted today. As such, Beveridge stands as the father of the modern welfare state.

Like the Britain of 1942, we have now experienced two crises in a single decade. Whilst we have not fought in global wars, our social settlement has been tested to its extreme by a combination of the 2008 global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. They have proven more that our threadbare safety net, in 2020, can stand.

But while we reacted to World War II with an expansion of the welfare state, we reacted to the 2008 crash by receding it – through austerity. In turn, we put in place the conditions that would allow Covid to thrive in our poorest, most marginalised places and communities. 

The Prime Minister has been keen to compare Covid to a war. His now irregular statements are punctuated by the rhetoric of bugles, calvary and invisible enemies. This has led many to point out, rightly, that Covid should be followed by significant expansion in the state’s welfare provisions. War is best followed by welfare.

If we are to follow crisis with welfare – with a Beveridge Report for modern Britain – we must consider the mistakes we originally made. Beveridge catalysed a huge step forward in welfare – but his policies were not entirely free of problems. In its history, we can find new options for radical change.

Welfare and Economy

One of the key problems for this government during the Covid pandemic has been an inability to prioritise long-term health over a short-term dent to GDP. There have been numerous examples of marginal economic considerations undercutting our pandemic response.

In March, there was a disastrous delay to lockdown, with crowds of people attending a variety of music and sporting events. In September, there was a farcical moment when the government urged Britain, and particularly civil servants, back to work to save the economy – by buying overpriced sandwiches and coffees – and then pushed us back into our homes as infections ticked up.

These instances have exposed Britain to the worst of both worlds. We have experienced avoidable health damage, and we have hurt our economy more in the long-run by not getting a decisive grip on Covid in the style of Iceland or New Zealand.

But this inability to put health first goes back to the very foundations of the welfare state. Beveridge explicitly conceived his welfare system as one that could support capitalism. The ideas outlined were to keep workers in their jobs, to sustain productivity, and to spring anyone who lost their job back into work as quickly as possible. 

A key quote from his report runs as follows:

“In proceeding from this first comprehensive survey social insurance to the next task – of making recommendations – three guiding principles may be laid down at the outset… The third principle is that social security must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual. The State should offer security for service and contribution. The state in organising security 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.”

This will look decidedly capitalist to many. The conception of welfare as a minimum harks to neoliberal ideas on employing welfare as a lever to incentivise work. But the words that ring in my ears are ‘security for service and contribution’: welfare is available, but conditional, in the Beveridge conception, on the macro-economy flourishing and the micro-economic contribution of the individual.

That is, Beveridge’s welfare state is one based on economic primacy. Economics, growth and productivity are the ends, and welfare the means. Yet Covid is a crisis that demands the opposite – the ordinance of public health over the economy, and the use of economic policy to deliver public health outcomes first and foremost. This is the fact the government have struggled to get to grips with, and which has led to their chronically poor timing.

In 2020, there is a growing movement to change Beveridge’s conception and formalise economics as a means to a new, stated end, like planetary health, wellbeing or global justice. Kate Raworth’s conception of Doughnut economics – a new model for sustainable growth – is one example. The New Zealand wellbeing budget offers another. Whatever the approach, there is a definite case for a more unconditional restatement of Beveridge’s welfare programme.

Beveridge’s Women Problem

Perhaps inevitably for a document published in the 1940s, the Beveridge report also has a woman problem. Indeed, his report groups makes a very explicit differentiation between the male breadwinner, whose job was to find gainful work and provide for a family, and the female care giver, who would take care of social reproduction. “The great majority of married women,” he writes, “must be regarded as occupied on work which is vital though unpaid, without which their husbands could not do their paid work and without which the nation could not continue.”

There are obvious problems with predicating a woman’s security on her marital status. Most obviously, payments were made to the woman’s husband – meaning she had little control over money management. It has been documented that this left many women in poverty, often despite marriage to a high-earning spouse. Needless to say, it was also badly set up to handle issues like divorce, which could still leave women destitute.

Just as problematically, it prescribes women a duality. They are welfare recipient (from their husband) but also a welfare provider (alongside the state, to their family). In other words, men could expect a settlement off the state (healthcare, unemployment benefit, a pension) and a settlement from women (childcare, domestic labour, care for elderly relatives). 

Our reliance on unpaid care continues today, with women providing 16 hours care per week on average (but up to 60 hours). In total, unpaid labour contributes over £100 billion to the economy every single year. In capitalist systems, we are all exploited – but none more so than those who receive nothing for labour that also goes unrecognised.

Covid has shown how unsustainable our approach to unpaid labour is. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic – they are more likely to have been disrupted by schools and childcare providers closing, and they are more likely to be providing care for a shielding friend or relative. Following the pandemic, this will leave millions of women struggling to balance work with new care commitments – and is likely to push hundreds of thousands into carer poverty.

Social Medicine and Social Care

The sexist disregard of care, and the assumption it could be outsourced as a responsibility of women rather than the state, also explains the very different trajectories on the health and the social care system.

The Beveridge report was incredibly influential in the conception of the NHS, which went live in 1948. As a public body, it has gone on to huge success. As a model, it is often copied or even franchised abroad. It is remarkably popular with the British people. And while it is not free from problems, and has not escaped scraps with austerity and privatisation, it provides the British people a relatively consistent offer.

That could not be more different to the trajectory of social care. With the state choosing to absolve responsibility for care, control of the social care sector has fallen to the market. Since the 1980 Thatcher governments, care has almost exclusively been delivered by private, for-profit providers. Indeed, recent research shows that 84 per cent of social care beds are now provided by the private sector.

Even more worrying is the involvement of private equity. Nearly one-fifth of the social care sector is made up of just five providers, three of which are funded by private equity. 

The result is a social care system which struggles to meet the basic needs of those who use it. The issues with the sector are well known: many have to give up all their earthly belongings to receive care; the care they get will be a postcode lottery; their workers are likely to be low-paid and subject to exploitative work practices – unpaid travel, sleep-ins and similar. Care homes continuously stand on the brink of going bust, which will only get worse following Covid and Brexit, and leaves a spectre of homelessness over care residents’ heads. 

Welfare after Covid

This article is not intended as a churlish attack on the origins of welfare, which has benefitted almost everyone in the UK since the 1940s. Rather, it is a search for where a new social settlement after the trauma of Covid might focus. There are places we must do better.

Welfare as conceived by Beveridge had flaws. It was overly wedded to growth, productivity and economy as ends in themselves, rather than as means to deliver social policy and human flourishing. And it did not have a sufficient understanding of gender to provide women – and in turn those who need care – with a safety net. Nor was it able to conceive of a state-led care system of the kind we need today. These should be priorities going forward.

The next thirty years are set to be incredibly disruptive. We will face more, probably more deadly pandemics. The population is ageing and becoming less healthy. Antibiotics are starting to become ineffective against a new generation of disease. And the planet is dying. If we choose to answer these challenges with less security, not more, then we will foolishly expose ourselves to the elements at a time of great global peril. 

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Chris Thomas is a senior fellow at a think tank and health commentator. His first book is due out in Summer 2021. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter.