Tuesday 27 November 2012

Happy 'Beveridge Day'!

So Sunday marks the publication of the most important social policy document of the twentieth century, bar none - Social Insurance and Allied Services, mostly written by that great Liberal reformer, Sir William Beveridge (above). Radio Four have dedicated a morning's programming to the anniversary today.

In the aftermath of the British (and Indian) Army's first real victory of the war over the Germans (at El Alamein), a more hopeful idea started to steal over the British people after years of defeat and retreat: that they might come through the war after all, and that they might build a more hopeful world after the conflict's close. It was a seismic moment of national change - and created the welfare state that we still, just about, know today.

But that welfare state's come to seem threadbare - discredited in the public mind, whether that's right or wrong, by an association with 'scrounging', with the workshy as well as fraud, and with a sense of entitlement and anger about a bloated and unheeding state bureaucracy.

A lot of that's exaggerated - the baleful fruit of press exaggeration and, frankly, lying.

But it's real, nonetheless. And it's rooted in some reality. A combination of means testing, very high private rents and prolonged structural unemployment in some of the UK's regions has meant that the system has been bent completely out of the shape Beveridge originally intended.

He thought that benefits should be paid at a flat rate, as of right, to all - not on a sliding scale moving up and up the income ladder. That would avoid the trap of dependency - and the anger of people with neighbours who were earning very similar (low) 'wages' to them while not working. Beveridge knew that rents were a problem, and added a 'housing allowance' to his intended payments. But he knew that wasn't a real solution, and large-scale housebuilding to make housing cheaper became the post-war answer to the dilemma of paying more and more money to private landlords rather than freeing people from the poverty that the landlords profited from. And unemployment? Well, Beveridge intended that Keynesian solutions would conquer that evil, meaning that the new system wouldn't have to pour money down the drain of ongoing joblesseness and that 'labour exchanges' would be able to instill a culture of responsibilities accepted for rights granted. As I say: it was an age of hope.

So what would be the answer to widespread villification of claimants really be? Well, these conclusions mean that they're counterintuitive. We should actually spend more: on higher welfare benefits for all, to get rid of a lot of means testing, on much more council housing and housing association building, and on tackling the deep-seated problems of long-term unemployment.

You won't read that from the cheerleaders for the Government's new benefits cap, now will you?