Chris Skidmore is the Member of Parliament for Kingswood and a Member of the Health Select Committee. Follow Chris on Twitter.
This last week we have been inundated with articles, speeches and pamphlets, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge report. Predictably, the majority of these have come from the left, celebrating the report that founded the Welfare State. Yet as the Free Enterprise Group’s recent report A New Beveridge illustrates, Conservatives should take note of the austere old Liberal. Leafing through the faded, yellow pages of The Beveridge Report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, it is startling to see how familiar are the arguments Beveridge makes, and how similar his approach is to that of the modern Conservative Party.
It is important to recognise that Beveridge’s original aims and ambitions were very different from what the welfare state ended up being. If we could return to these founding principles, we may be able to ensure that we can foster greater individual responsibility at the same time as ensuring those in greatest need are supported. His recommendations are tough, but compassionate. The introduction to the Beveridge report explained the way that the new system should operate, in abstract terms:
“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.”
It also made a clear appeal to duty and obligation on the part of the beneficiaries:
‘The higher the benefits provided out of a common fund for unmerited misfortune, the higher must be the citizen’s obligation not to draw upon that fund unnecessarily.’
Underlying the principle of benefit comes a duty on the part of the individual to bear responsibility for their own life and wellbeing- with the state serving as a guarantor of this freedom rather than a supplier of it. Crucially, Beveridge also wanted to ensure that there was a carrot and a stick:
‘The correlative of the State’s undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earnings, however long, is enforcement of the citizen’s obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work, to co-operate in measures designed to save him from habituation to idleness, and to take all proper measures to be well’.
Beveridge even anticipated the modern trend towards greater conditionality- and was decidedly radical on benefits for young people. He recommended that there be no unconditional benefit whatsoever for ‘boys and girls’, that any period spent out of work should be an opportunity for further compulsory training.
It is hard to envisage many Conservatives disagreeing with the principles Beveridge relied on, a peculiar feature of British politics that we see left-wing politicians demanding ‘a return to Beveridge’, without ever having read the full report. For his modish insistence on full employment aside, William Beveridge would have found very little common cause with today’s ‘something for nothing’ Labour party, who seem to have abandoned any understanding of what might be a realistic ‘national minimum’. Much has changed since Beveridge wrote his report, not least our ageing population (in 1942, life expectancy was 69) and a twisting of Beveridge’s original vision to create a Leviathan welfare state, in which 53% of the population are net recipients of state benefits and welfare as a proportion of GDP has risen from 4.7% in 1951 to 7.2% last year
Seventy years on, never has reform of our bloated welfare state been so necessary if we are to create a sustainable means by which to help those in genuine need. Even before we discuss the minutiae of welfare reform and our policy on benefits, we should first establish on what principles we want the welfare state to work on. Beveridge’s principles of placing individual responsibility, contribution and conditionality at its heart still remain the best possible starting point.