This week marks seventy-five years since the publication of the Beveridge Report. The report provided a vision of a National Insurance scheme which would provide people with sickness and unemployment benefits, retirement pensions, widows’ pensions and industrial injuries payments, in return for the payment of national insurance contributions. Today there is much discussion of what has been lost since Beveridge’s vision of a welfare state which would slay the five giants of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’. And rightly so. Seventy-five years since this report was published, we find levels of poverty and inequality which Beveridge thought would be eliminated.
On publication day (1 December 1942) people queued overnight to buy a copy and it sold 60,000 copies straight away. Nicholas Timmins speculated whether it may ‘stand alongside Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as one of the most bought, but least read books ever published in Britain’ (For more information see Timmins, Nicholas, The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State (London: Harper Collins, 1995, new edition 2017).
Beveridge wasn’t right about everything though. Many have criticised him for assuming a model of working life which depended on a male breadwinner, employed in stable work between leaving school and retiring, married to a housewife in a lifetime heterosexual relationship. He was wrong about lifetime secure jobs. He was wrong about women. He was wrong about marriage. He did not give adequate attention to disabled people who find it difficult to find work through discrimination and lack of support. The scheme did not cope well for people in precarious work or to people who struggle to stay in full-time employment. The world has changed. Many of Beveridge’s assumptions were wrong, or have been overturned by demographic change. His scheme has been diluted by the erosion of the surrounding scaffolding of full employment and the wider welfare state.
Beveridge was wrong about a lot of things, and it isn’t entirely fair to criticise him for being unable to foresee the future, but my copy of his report is still one of my most treasured possessions:
My own copy of the report is a reprint from 1974, (price £2.35) which I acquired second-hand some time in the 1990s for £5.25. You can usually access it online these days but not back in the 1990s and sometimes it’s good to have a hard copy. The report has a wealth of information about Beveridge’s thinking behind his scheme. The report and its appendices, running to 200,000 words, is also full of detail about the pre-war National Insurance scheme. It has provided me with valuable information for my research project.
I was looking at it today, not because of the anniversary of its publication but because I needed some information in it about levels of sickness benefit in 1911. Beveridge was wrong about many things but he also has a typo in his report. On page 215 he notes that the original 1911 sickness benefit was paid at a lower rate to ‘unmarried miners’. No William, not miners, minors: people under the age of 21. Young people were assumed to need less income when they were ill than their older neighbours but this rule was later changed. Women were paid at lower rates than men. Anybody claiming benefit for more than twenty-six weeks was paid at half the rate. Later, married women were paid at lower rates than unmarried women but miners (men) were eligible for the full rate of benefit for the first twenty-six weeks of their claim.
But the report is so useful and so important. I can forgive him this typo.
More old books – the Family Guide to National Insurance
I’m not a collector of old books but some seem to come my way – like the Family Guide to National Insurance which was published to tell people about their rights under the 1948 National Insurance Scheme. I’ve just written an article about this in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly – copy also available through Edinburgh Research Explorer. The article discusses the 1948 National Insurance scheme, the Family Guide to National Insurance and its reception by the public in 1948. It is part of a special issue on legal model making. You can find out more about my adventures with the Guide and the legal treasures project here