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|
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|
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.
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|
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.
- The appointment of a minister to control all the insurance schemes
- A standard weekly payment by people in work as a contribution to the insurance fund
- The right to payments for an indefinite period of time for the unemployed
- Old age pensions, maternity grants, funeral grants, pensions for widows and for people injured at work
- Payments at a standard rate, the same for all citizens whatever private means they had, paid without a means test
- The introduction of family allowances
- A new national health service to be established
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.
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.