Reflecting on the Beveridge Report, 75 years on

The Beveridge Report was published on the 1st December 1942, in the midst of the Second World War. Its author, Sir William Beveridge, wrote in its introduction that ‘a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions. On the 75th anniversary of its publication, it seems timely to reflect on this pathbreaking white paper.

The report was read widely by members of the public. An astonishing 100,000 copies were sold in the first month after its publication; and well over half a million copies were eventually sold. 50,000 copies were sold in the United States; the report was circulated in the resistance movements of occupied Europe; and assessments of it were found in Hitler’s bunker in 1945.

Officially called The Social Insurance and Allied Services report, it laid the foundations for the comprehensive British welfare state, forming part of Beveridge’s vision for making Britain free of the five giant evils of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. The report included both a diagnosis of Want, as ‘… the circumstances, in which, in the years just preceding the present war, families and individuals in Britain might lack the means for a healthy subsistence’ and a series of policy proposals to eradicate it. These proposals included children’s allowances, a health and rehabilitation service, and the maintenance of employment (ibid, p.6), and a recognition of the special need of those in old age, which ‘represent the largest and most rapidly growing element in any social insurance scheme’.

Beveridge wrote two further publications in a private capacity, Employment (1944) and Voluntary Action (1948). His ‘trilogy’ of books proposed a fundamental shift in the nature of welfare provision, and a remixing of the economy of welfare. This had profound implications on cooperation between the state and the individual, and between the state and voluntary organisations. The legislation that subsequently followed, largely introduced by the Labour Government of Clement Attlee, resulted in a significant expansion of welfare provision in Britain.

Beveridge did not envisage the state replacing voluntary action, but envisaged it being retained, ‘on a new basis’, including through a continuation of the advocacy role played by voluntary organisations. Voluntary action was conceptually positioned to provide an ‘extension ladder’ for the state. Writing in 1948 Beveridge was aware that the emergent ‘Social Service State’ would threaten the traditional role played by voluntary organisations, but retained confidence in the ability of voluntary action ‘perpetually to take new forms’. As the ‘moving frontier’ between state and voluntary provision shifted during the 1940s, a period of intense debate about the nature and extent of the voluntary social services, their future development, and the changing role of volunteers ensued – a discussion that involved voluntary organisation leaders, policy makers and the wider public.

Recently the term ‘revolutionary moment’ has been used to describe our current predicament. Our current revolutionary moment is the result of the impact of the global economic crash, which has triggered spending cuts to public services – including public services delivered under contract by the voluntary sector on a scale unprecedented in modern times. The budget of the Office for Civil Society has been radically cut, impacting severely on its ability to play a coordinating role across government. State financial support to the voluntary sector, particularly via the sector’s national infrastructure organisations has also been cut. Different visions of the welfare state are emerging across the UK jurisdictions. For England another fundamental renegotiation of the role of the state is underway; this time with the responsibility (and costs) of welfare being increasingly shifted to individuals, the voluntary sector, and indeed to the private sector.

To stimulate debate today we ask, 75 years after the Beveridge Report: What role should the state, citizens and the voluntary sector play in delivering social welfare?

We have also written a different piece for The Conversation An end to ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness’: why the Beveridge report flew off the shelves in 1942.


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