Julia Slay is Senior Researcher at The New Economics Foundation.
The Beveridge Report was designed to deal with extreme social conditions. Beveridge called it ‘’a time for revolutions, not for patching’’. Now we’re facing an entirely new set of problems. Not the ravages of war, but dramatically widening social inequalities, and an urgent need to understand the limits of the natural environment and be able to function without continuing economic growth.
We need a new kind of welfare system to tackle all this. At the heart of it should be a re-distribution of time and power, and a drive to improve living conditions for those on low incomes. A new welfare state must give priority to reducing inequalities and promoting well-being for all, within natural limits. And it must help to shift power away from elites towards ordinary citizens.
Let’s keep sight of the good bits of the Beveridge model that must be saved:
• Essential services for all who need them, not just those who can pay. Universal healthcare and education – a secure foundation for everyone.
• The role of Government in distributing resources more fairly, for example through investment in jobs and a system that everyone contributes to which guards against the risk of unemployment.
• The initial drive to tackle the causes of harm – what Beveridge called the ‘five giants’ (want, ignorance, disease, idleness and squalor).
Then there are the bad bits. Gradually, the welfare state has taken power away from people by treating them as passive, needy ‘service users’, depending on others to fix their problems. It has focused more and more on coping with things that go wrong, so that money is spent downstream on hospitals, prisons and benefits, instead of preventing illness and crime, or making sure there are decent jobs for all who need them.
Here are six suggestions for change – by no means the full picture – but a start to help us define what is needed to make our welfare system socially just and sustainable.
1. Make ‘well-being for all’ the main aim of the welfare state. Well-being is feeling good physically and emotionally and being able to function in the world. To make sure it’s ‘for all’, we need a combination of universal services and targeted measures to tackle disadvantage and reduce inequalities.
2. Make better use of human and social resources – including our time. Involve people directly in identifying what they need, and in designing and delivering services. It’s what we call ‘co-production’. It puts power in the hands of citizens, not elites. People can only do this if they have the time to be involved. Shortening the standard working week would begin to create the conditions for this, would create more jobs for the unemployed and more time for everyone to care for each other, learn new skills, get involved in local activities and even enjoy life.
3. Higher wages so that people have a decent income to live on and meet the needs of themselves and their families.
4. Shift public funding so it invests in preventing harm, rather than being stuck responding to acute problems, such as ill health, or inadequate housing. This will improve people’s quality of life and saves a lot of money over time.
5. Make sure the new welfare system works within environmental limits and makes public services more sustainable: for example, through reducing Government’s own carbon emissions, and encouraging active travel.
6. Value and measure things differently. Calculate not just the financial bottom line, but the wider and longer-term social, environmental and economic costs and benefits of welfare activities.
These are radical steps. But, as Beveridge said, it’s time for revolutions, not for patching.