The foundations of Britain’s welfare state, designed to offer care for all from cradle to grave, were unveiled 75 years ago today, on December 1st, 1942.
The Beveridge Report – drawn up by leading economist Sir William Beveridge (pictured) – came at the height of the Second World War. It proposed a far-reaching series of changes to ensure “freedom from want” regardless of financial status, but of course it all depended on first defeating Nazi Germany.
Central to Beveridge’s plan was that everyone of working age would be expected to pay a weekly ‘National Insurance’ contribution. This would fund a UK-wide system of benefits for those in need – the sick, widowed, retired and unemployed. There would also be an allowance for families.
Beveridge drew on advice from a range of government departments and other experts in drawing up his report. It was based on research carried out between the wars and looking at social issues such as birth rates, how long people were living, the cost of living and healthcare at various times of life, and the main causes of poverty. Beveridge found that the lack of state provision for people in their old age was one of the most pressing problems.
Another was the patchy provision of medical care, and the fact that the poorest in society simply could not afford any proper treatment if they fell ill. The few charities trying to provide care for the very poor were unable to do so on any meaningful scale.
Although there was already a form of ‘social security’, it too was patchy and inconsistent, with different rates of benefit for those who were unemployed or unable to work through sickness and injury. What benefits there were had grown up piecemeal and needed replacing with a comprehensive and consistent system which would apply nationwide.
The amount of benefit paid should be “sufficient to live on, but no more”, stressed the report. Beveridge was keen to make sure that benefits should be seen as a last resort, rather than an alternative to work which might appeal to the idle.
The idea behind his proposed ‘family allowance’ of eight shilling per child was to help people to start families even though it might be a burden on their finances. He also proposed paying working mothers to take up to 13 weeks off work following the birth of a new baby.
But perhaps the biggest innovation of the Beveridge Report was the establishment of a National Health Service, providing medical treatment for anyone which was free at the point of delivery. It would also cover the cost of post-medical rehabilitation, something which would be vital in caring for wounded servicemen returning from the war.
While these ideas are now well established, some were revolutionary for the time. Beveridge himself said it was “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history, a time for revolutions, not for patching”.
His report was greeted with great enthusiasm and sold more than half-a-million copies. The wartime coalition government backed it, but agreed to postpone planning for its implementation until after the war, which took priority over everything.
The Labour Party in particular was extremely vocal in its support for the Beveridge Report. It no doubt contributed to Labour’s victory in the 1945 General Election, which saw Clement Attlee replace wartime leader Winston Churchill as Prime Minister.
Under Attlee’s leadership the key proposals of the Beveridge Report were implemented one by one. In 1946 the National Insurance Act was passed, ensuring a contributory state pension for all. Two years later, in 1948, the National Health Service was founded, providing free medical care for all and becoming a blueprint which other nations followed. Next year the NHS will celebrate its 70th anniversary.