Opinion

How we lost sight of the Beveridge Principles

As The Beveridge Report turns 80, professor of social policy Dr Lee Gregory explains how we have drifted away from the protections it offered – and how we might find our way back

William Beveridge

William Beveridge in 1947. Image: Flickr CC0

Dr Lee Gregory
Dr Lee Gregory

Eighty years ago the publication of The Beveridge Report created a blueprint for the Welfare State. It was a document that fundamentally shaped the role of government in the provision of support to citizens, which remains an integral part of life in the UK today. 

In his book, The Making of a Prime Minister, Harold Wilson reflects on a conversation in which Beveridge suggested that the report was “the greatest advance in our history. There can be no turning back. From now on Beveridge is not the name of a man, it is the name of a way of life.” This suggested that the guiding principles set out to Beveridge, to tackle the five evil giants of want, idleness, squalor, disease and ignorance through systematic provision of welfare, would endure. The aim, to support citizens from cradle to grave, has also been one of those enduring elements, but 80 years on there have been several changes to how the UK government seeks to provide welfare support.  

Two essential aspects of the Beveridge plan which facilitated the ‘cradle to grave’ symbolism were universalism and comprehensiveness. For Beveridge, universalism sought to reposition welfare support away from an explicit targeting of the poor, to ensure welfare provision encompassed all citizens. This sought to not only generate political support for welfare provision but also ensure high-quality services. Services for the poor often become poor-quality services. Lack of investment and provision would result unless entitlement extended to all citizens. Similarly, the idea of comprehensiveness sought to develop provisions that could support citizens in a whole range of circumstances. This recognised that many of the disruptions to life result from social and economic factors beyond any individual control (ill-health, unemployment, injury, etc). Many of the policies sought to bring together collective pooling of resources, managed by the state, to stave off poverty.  

Eighty years later there is some question to ask about whether the system retains this cradle-to-grave ambition. Within social security, in the efforts to tackle the giant of want we have seen significant change. The language around deservingness of support has become more punitive and has sought to restrict entitlement and levels of support. Terms such as “scrounger” and “shirker” have been the language of welfare reform. Such language has grown since the 1980s to reposition social security support and reduce the attention given by Beveridge to the wider socio-economic context. 

Consequently there have been changes to child benefit entitlement, the introduction of a benefit cap and policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ – all designed to limit entitlement to support. For young people the 2010 Spending Review restricted access to housing benefit so that single people under the age of 35
would only receive the shared accommodation rate. Over recent years, in-work poverty has continued to increase, as has use of food banks. Black and ethnic minority people are 2.3 times more likely to be in poverty, precarious working conditions have increased and those who rent are more likely to be in poverty. Furthermore, the value of benefits has fallen over recent years.  

Trying to reinvigorate the cradle-to-grave idea of The Beveridge Report will not be easy, but there are three aspects worthy of pursuing. The first is to tackle the language of welfare that is prevalent in political discourse. Returning to the language of universalism and collective protection is perhaps an integral aspect of The Beveridge Report to reinvigorate. This was a missed opportunity that Covid-19 and the subsequent economic challenges could have brought about. Rather, we are seeing a return to austerity narratives which will do little to address deeper structural challenges. Second, some of the restrictions on entitlement that have been imposed as part of the austerity agenda since 2010 need to be rethought and reversed.

Beveridge was keen to ensure everyone had a basic subsistence level met which protected individual responsibility: the UK is currently failing on that front. Finally, while debates about Universal Basic Income have resurfaced, they are not new. Lady Juliet Rhys Williams argued for such a scheme at the same time the  report was published – an alternative that was not taken.

Whether now is the time for a radical change and a break from the Beveridge system, in order to return to the Beveridgian principles, may now be the debate to be had. 

Dr Lee Gregory is associate professor in social policy, University of Nottingham, and Trustee of Academics Stand Against Poverty (UK) 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support your local Big Issue vendor

If you can’t get to your local vendor every week, subscribing directly to them online is the best way to support your vendor. Your chosen vendor will receive 50% of the profit from each copy and the rest is invested back into our work to create opportunities for people affected by poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'It was a long, dark night of the soul': What the first 24 hours in prison is really like
prison leavers
Gary Crooks

'It was a long, dark night of the soul': What the first 24 hours in prison is really like

Keir Starmer promised to tackle child poverty – but we need action, not empty words
Sanah Ahsan

Keir Starmer promised to tackle child poverty – but we need action, not empty words

Labour has a chance to stop domestic abuse at its roots – here's how
A woman's hands holding a cup of tea
Caitlin McCullough

Labour has a chance to stop domestic abuse at its roots – here's how

Keir Starmer's government is bringing power to local communities. We need that in social security
keir starmer and mayors
Ruth Patrick, Hayley Bennett and John Hudson

Keir Starmer's government is bringing power to local communities. We need that in social security

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know