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Birth of the welfare state

Updated Thursday 3rd August 2006

It was not until after the Second World War that the British Welfare state took its mature form. In a climate of relief after the war, a climate diffused with an idealism for a new, more just society, welfare legislation had bipartisan support. There was a clear sense of rebuilding a better Britain.

Nye Bevan, who brought Beveridge's vision of a National Health Service to fruition Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Bryson's words, from 1992's Welfare and the State - Who Benefits?, had the benefit of a half-century of hindsight to sum up some of the key themes of the period. There is certainly some truth in the argument that the welfare measures that were introduced in the years from 1945 to 1950 had a rather longer history.

The period before the war had seen long-running debates about the lack of co-ordination of hospital services. There was concern to learn from and develop the existing experience of a health insurance scheme for medical treatment for some of the population. And there were criticisms of the legacies of the Poor Law - the indignities of means-tested payments for those in poverty and the fear among the old and impoverished of ending life in the workhouse.

But the Labour government's landslide victory in 1945 (not quite as big as that in the 1997 election) was still very much about creating a new deal for 'the boys back from the front', giving them a sense that their country had been worth fighting for and would support and care for them in peacetime by offering them and their families the opportunity for jobs, homes, education, health and a standard of living of which they could be proud.

The 1944 Education Act was already on the statute book when the Labour government came to power. By raising the school-leaving age to 15 and later to 16, it was going to give children chances that their parents had never had - to carry their education on (if they passed the examination) into grammar school and even to university. It would open up opportunities for jobs, homes and lifestyles that the working-class parents of these children had only dreamed of. Another nine major pieces of legislation were passed with strong support across the political parties before the decade was out.

The list of legislation brought forward by Atlee's government shows that along with opportunities for access to education came a house building programme, free health services and, above all, a comprehensive programme of benefits to deal with unemployment, old age and much more besides. It was a 'brave new world' indeed.

Main legislative measures of the post-war Labour government :

  • 1945 Family Allowances Act
  • 1946 National Insurance Act
  • 1946 National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act
  • 1946 National Health Service Act (implemented July 1948)
  • 1947 Town and Country Planning Act
  • 1947 New Towns Act
  • 1948 National Assistance Act
  • 1948 Children Act
  • 1949 Housing Act

The architect of much of this reform in the field of social welfare was William Beveridge. His report, Social Insurance and Allied Services was compiled as the war at its height.

In it Beveridge set out a plan to put an end to what he called the 'five giants' - Want (today we could call it poverty), Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness (unemployment).

The centrepiece was a state-run system of compulsory insurance. Every worker, by contributing to a scheme of national insurance deducted through the weekly or monthly pay packet, would be helping to build up a fund that would pay out weekly benefits to those who were sick or unemployed or who suffered industrial injury. The scheme would pay pensions at the end of a working life to employees and the self-employed.

The idea was support the worker and his family. Benefits were to be set at a level that enabled a man his wife and child to survive. There would be benefits for widows and an allowance for guardians of children without parents to care for them. A system of family allowances for the second child and subsequent children was intended to ensure that those with large families were not penalised.

There was also to be a marriage grant, maternity grant and benefit, some specific training grants and a death grant. The key feature was that people were eligible to receive these benefits and grants because they had contributed. Rich and poor 'paid the stamp' and could claim as of right because of this.

For those who had not paid enough contributions or were not contributing to the national insurance scheme, there was a second tier of welfare provision, national assistance. The financial side of this (later to be renamed supplementary benefit and later still, income support) was meant to be a supplement to the main scheme rather than to be central. The main scheme was universal - everyone had a right to it based on contributions. Only if supplementary help was needed did the 'means test' come into play, enquiring into your savings and your circumstances - who lived with whom, who was dependent on whom, and so on.

Alongside these financial security provisions for all, there would be universal access to education and to health services. These would be funded from taxation and would be free at the point of use. Again everyone in work would pay, but in this case, since taxation increased with increasing income, the rich would pay more.

The package overall gave meaning to the proud boast that the welfare state provided care for everyone - protection 'from cradle to grave'. For it all to happen, however, there had to be full employment. The government would give top priority to the rebuilding of a strong, peacetime economy and the redeployment of troops into civilian work. Only if the workers were in work would they be contributing to the scheme.

Following are some of the comments made at the time by ordinary people who were questioned by teams of social researchers gauging reactions to the report and to the publicity that surrounded it. These are drawn from Mass Observation and give a first hint of the reception that Beveridge received:

What did people think of the Beveridge report?

Positive comments were in a clear majority:

'It's the goods! All the yearnings, hopes, dreams and theories of socialists for the past half century have been crystallised into a practical economic formula. Equity for the "lowest common denominator" I was staggered by its comprehension'.
(Insurance clerk, male, 39, Newport)

'It gave me a feeling there was something to work for and fight for after all and that our efforts might be rewarded by some real social improvement, giving means to the phrase "winning the peace".
(Royal Artillery, male, 29)

'I am aware of a new feeling of confidence in myself as a member of a democratic society when I see those social reforms which I have considered necessary for such long time actually taking shape'.
(Accountant, male, 40, Prestwick)

But there were negative comments too:

'My friends seem to think it's a clever piece of eyewash to retain the capitalist system by getting the people on its side'.
(Student, male, 22, Enfield)

"A lot of blah" is the most frequent remark from the women in the factory. "Don't believe a word of it; we're 'eard these promises before".
(Stores Keeper, female, 57, Winchcombe)

'I think it is direct encouragement to the lower type of humanity to breed like rabbits' (Temporary civil servant, female, 38)

Further reading
Social Insurance and Allied Servies (The Beveridge Report)
William Beveridge, (Cmd 6404), HMSO

Welfare and the State - Who Benefits?
L. Bryson, L. Macmillan

'December 1942: Beveridge Observed: Mass Observation and the Beveridge Report'
by J. Jacobs, from
Beveridge 1942- 1992: Papers to Mark the 50th Anniversary of the Beveridge Report
edited by J Jacobs, J, Whiting and Birch Books

About this extract

This article is adapted from the study material from the Open University course Understanding Health & Social Care.

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