Skip to main content

The Beveridge vision

Completion requirements
View all sections of the document
Printable page generated Friday, 3 Feb 2023, 10:17
Use 'Print preview' to check the number of pages and printer settings.
Print functionality varies between browsers.
Unless otherwise stated, copyright © 2023 The Open University, all rights reserved.
Printable page generated Friday, 3 Feb 2023, 10:17

The Beveridge vision


This course looks at the work of William Beveridge in reforming the field of social welfare after World War II. Particular attention is paid to the attitude towards women and immigrants to the United Kingdom.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 1 study in Health and Social Care.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • demonstrate an understanding of how social welfare policy started to evolve at a national level after World War II

  • locate information relevant to social welfare through reference to a range of sources

  • evaluate the reliability of information from different sources.

1 The Beveridge vision

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.

(Bryson, 1992, p. 82)

These words, drawn from an Australian commentator, 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 in the box 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

2 William Beveridge

2.1 The Beveridge report

The architect of much of this reform in the field of social welfare was William Beveridge. His report entitled ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’ was compiled as the war was at its height (Beveridge, 1942). In it Beveridge set out a plan to put an end to what he called the ‘five giants’ – Want (today we would 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 paypacket, 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 to 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.

Figure 1.2
Beveridge addressing the public at Caxton Hall, London, 1948

In the box below 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. They will give you 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 meaning 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 a 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've ‘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)

(Compiled from Jacobs, 1992b)

An Introduction to the Beveridge Report

Activity 1: Beveridge in his time

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

By clicking on the link above, you will find an extract from An Introduction to the Beveridge Report by John Jacobs, which gives you some background on Sir William (later Lord) Beveridge and includes a vivid account of the impact of his report. Read the article now and then jot down answers to the following questions.

  1. Why was this report so popular?

  2. Why was insurance so much more important than assistance?

  3. What else was in what Jacobs called the ‘grand scheme of reconstruction'?

  1. The popularity of the report stemmed from the hope it held out for a new future in which poverty would be abolished and no one would remain in need. It seemed to include virtually all sectors of the population and to be simpler and more far-reaching and effective than what had gone before.

  2. The insurance principle was designed to give workers a sense of dignity and self-respect; there need be no shame about claiming something for which they were eligible through contribution. Assistance was designed for those who fell through the net and were unable for one reason or another to accrue contributions. Assistance benefits were means-tested and bore the taint of charity. Assistance, in Beveridge's view, needed to be at a lower level than insurance, otherwise people who had paid contributions would feel resentful.

  3. Insurance was only part of a larger scheme to promote social progress. In order to make a full contribution to society, it was felt that individuals needed also to be protected from disease, and given access to education and housing. Full employment was crucial to the success of the scheme, and family allowances were necessary to ensure that those with children did not fall into poverty.

2.2 Problems with implementation

Writing a report is one thing – getting it implemented as policy is another. In the full version of An Introduction to the Beveridge Report, Jacobs (1992a) makes clear that there were a number of departures from the blueprint when the Labour government came to steering the legislation through parliament. One was a move to greater generosity. The report had recommended that the new pensions should be phased in over a period of 20 years to allow people to build up their contributions. This was the one provision that was strongly criticised, and the decision was taken instead that pensions should start being paid straight away. All the other changes rendered the provisions less generous. Marriage grants and training grants for self-employed people and those who had never been employed were discarded. Unemployment benefit was not to be indefinite but to last only for 30 weeks. Most importantly of all, given the hope to put an end to poverty, the level of all the payments from the contributory scheme, including pension payments, fell below the minimum needed for subsistence. The result was that national assistance – and its associated intrusive and inquiring bureaucracy of means testing – over the years became more important, rather than less important as Beveridge had intended. Jacobs points out that in 1990, for example, over 60 per cent of those claiming unemployment benefits either had exhausted their entitlement to benefit or had not ever been employed for long enough to build it up in the first place. The giant of Want still stalked the land.

One obvious reason why the Beveridge scheme did not ultimately abolish poverty was that the full employment assumption – which worked well through the 1950s with a buoyant economy and indeed shortages of labour – was not sustained indefinitely. Unemployment doubled between 1979 and 1981, hit a peak of over three million in the middle of the decade, and rose again in the 1990s recession. But there were also other changes – again for the most part ones that Beveridge could not easily have foreseen – that put pressure on the underlying principles of the scheme. Some of the social changes that put pressure on the post-war settlement were:

  • a growing rate of divorce

  • rising numbers of lone parents

  • growing proportions of people over retirement age.

Key points

The Beveridge report set out key principles for the welfare state:

  • It stressed the need for state action in the form of income protection.

  • It emphasised the insurance principle.

  • It provided for health and education through taxation.

  • It commanded high levels of public support.


  • It was based on assumptions of continuing high employment and a stable family unit – hence economic and social changes ultimately put the welfare state under pressure.

By now, you may well be wondering why this course is spending so much time on something that does not at first sight seem to be about care at all. But if we look a little more closely at how Beveridge justified his scheme, what he said and what he took for granted – particularly about care and caring – some important features emerge. The next section teases out some limitations to set alongside the strengths of Beveridge's vision. These limitations have left important legacies for how we understand and respond to the needs for health and social care today.

2.3 Did Beveridge wear blinkers?

Activity 2: Who isn't mentioned?

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

Jacobs singled out several groups who were not covered by the insurance scheme. They include:

  • unmarried women not in work (often caring for elderly parents or other relatives)

  • single parents

  • divorced and separated wives

  • some disabled people (those who had never been able to work or who had not worked for long enough to build up a contribution record).

Can you suggest why these particular groups were outside the scheme? (Think about what they have in common.)


What these four groups have in common is that they are not wage earners and the need to carry out care or to be cared for themselves is central to their lives. For much of the twentieth century, the unmarried daughter stayed at home to care for elderly parents and may never have actually held a paid job. A single-parent mother with childcare responsibilities will find it difficult to arrange and pay for adequate childcare so that she can go out to work, so she too is often outside the labour market for care reasons. (Changes to the tax/benefit system, together with increased possibilities for childcare, however, have recently helped single mothers who are in paid work.) People with disabilities, as Jacobs points out, may never have been able to work or may not have worked for long. They too are outside the labour market, not because they provide care but because they need to receive it to some degree. Divorced or separated women are a potential exception to this – they may or may not have childcare responsibilities but, if they do, as lone parents they too will find that caring has to take precedence over entry to the labour market.

It was inevitable that groups such as these were exceptions in the Beveridge model. He had based his plan on an able-bodied man, participating in the labour market, supported by a wife who was able to provide care for children, care for him in periods of sickness and in old age, and perhaps care for elderly parents too. If the man was not able-bodied, or if the woman with children did not have a husband, the mainstream provisions of the scheme did not apply.

Do these limitations matter? If our interest is in how care gets provided, the answer is ‘yes’. The individual in Beveridge's mind, the one for whom he was designing his scheme, was the working man – the male breadwinner, providing for wife and family. The key people in his scheme were able-bodied men – occasionally ill and finally old! Those who were vulnerable to repeated periods of mental illness, or had learning difficulties, or were physically disabled, suffered from chronic illness or were otherwise unable to participate in the labour market did not come on to the public agenda very clearly at all. Publicly provided ‘care’ entered the Beveridge vision in the shape of illness that needed medical treatment – which the new NHS would provide. He left others to fill in exactly what the reach of the new health service would be.

3 The five giants

At this point let us examine the idea of the ‘five giants’ (Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness). Beveridge, remember, was not just writing about income protection; he had a vision of social reconstruction and social progress. The five giants represented the key areas of need for all of us – the areas where we should pool resources to tackle our needs collectively (see the box below).

Figure 1.3

Beveridge's five giants

Want or The need for an adequate income for all
Disease or The need for access to health care
Ignorance or The need for access to educational opportunity
Squalor or The need for adequate housing
Idleness or The need for gainful employment

Fiona Williams (1989) has argued that there were two more giants on the road to social progress that Beveridge did not notice. She labelled them, in words which are familiar to us but which would have been quite foreign to Beveridge and his contemporaries, the giants of Sexism and Racism. She said:

‘When Beveridge announced his attack on the five giants – Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease – he hid the giants of Racism and Sexism, and the fights against them, behind statues to the Nation and the White Family.’

(Williams, 1989, p. 162)

A look at these will give us more of a perspective on what was being assumed about the range of caring work that you have been studying in this course, how it was to be handled, and why care was not clearly coming to the fore at this most important moment of establishment of the welfare state.

4 More giants?

4.1 Sexism

Let us leave the emotive word ‘sexism’ to one side for a moment and look at what Beveridge actually said about the place of women in his scheme and the kind of reasoning he used. He gave considerable attention to the position of married women:

The great majority of married women must be regarded as occupied on work which is vital though unpaid, without which their husbands could not do their paid work and without which the nation could not continue.

(Beveridge, 1942, para. 108)

This ‘vital work’ comprised a number of things. It included caring for their husbands and maintaining the home. Also, as you will know from studying this course, it often involved being what is now called an informal carer, looking after elderly parents and sometimes chronically ill family members. For Beveridge, however, the main component of married women's vital work was producing and caring for children. He stated:

The attitude of the housewife to gainful employment outside the home is not and should not be the same as that of the single woman. She has other duties …In the next thirty years housewives as Mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British Race and of British ideals in the world.

(paras 114,117)

Part of the ‘vital work’ of women

It was because of his acknowledgement of the importance of childbearing and childcare, that Beveridge felt that the married woman should be entitled to economic support from her husband, both for herself and for her children. He went further and advocated maternity benefit at a level higher than unemployment benefit. This was altered after a few years, but was an indication of the importance he attributed to women's ‘vital work’.

The insurance system he devised was consistent with this thinking about women. Single women would take part, like single men, in the insurance scheme. Married women would probably not work and need not do so since husband and wife together were an economic unit. If married women did work, they had the option of being exempt from contributions altogether and, if they chose to pay, they would be entitled to unemployment and sickness benefit at a lower rate, since they did not have the responsibility of family support.

Activity 3: Fair to women?

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Read once more the quotations from the Beveridge report given above. Does Beveridge's approach strike you as fair or unfair to women? Jot down the reasons for your answer and see if you can also write down what arguments would be presented by someone who took the opposite view. (We will leave until a little later the question of ‘the British Race’ and ‘British ideals’ that appear in those quotations.)


If you want to argue that the insurance scheme was fair to women, you can point out that Beveridge recognised that women had a different place from men in society and made provision for it. He acknowledged that what women did in the home was important work – that men's economic activity could not take place without it – and he devised a form of recognition for this. His scheme thus took the reality of women's lives into account and made an allowance for the fact that they could not enter the job market in the same way as men. You could say it was fair because women were an integral part of the scheme and their different needs were recognised.

If you want to argue that Beveridge was unfair to women, however, you could point out that he did not treat the two sexes equally. Married women did not have the opportunity to contribute and benefit in the same way. They were seen not as people in their own right, but as wives. The scheme made them into dependants of their husbands and locked them into marriage. Family allowances apart, they were not given any financial recompense for their vital work, and their choices about doing or not doing caring work of all kinds were restricted.

At the time, many women felt that the scheme was an important advance for them, recognising them in public policy in a way that had not happened previously. Beveridge's own wife certainly took this view. In a book on the scheme published in 1954, Janet Beveridge commented that ‘the whole joy of William's Scheme is its unconscious fairness to women’ (Beveridge, 1954). But even at the time women's organisations and individual women came out in criticism. A pamphlet from an organisation known as the Women's Freedom League was strongly against the dependent status of women in the scheme (Abbott and Bompas, 1943), and at least one deputation to the government was organised, although with no positive result as far as the women involved were concerned (Wilson, 1977, p. 154). The next box shows that some women not only thought Beveridge unfair to women but devised a detailed alternative.

An alternative to Beveridge?

Lady Juliet Rhys-Williams, who had been an active campaigner for maternity services in the 1930s and for making family allowances available directly to mothers, proposed that each man, woman and child should have an allowance funded through taxation, payable to them if they signed a ‘social contract’. Men should be available for work, unmarried women and married women without children should give some service to the community, perhaps through part-time jobs (some of which would provide much-needed help to other women with housework and childcare). The scheme was based on the principles that the state owed the same benefits to all its citizens and that no one, man or woman, ‘should ever depend on any other individual for the means of existence, but only for luxuries and pleasures’ (Rhys-Williams, 1943, p. 182).

If each person had an allowance and the costs of caring were shared equally:

No woman would in future be an unpaid drudge, beholden to some relative for her living and entirely without pocket money of her own as millions of women have been in the past.

(p. 184)

She objected that the Beveridge proposals:

do little to put right this vital matter of providing an income for wives, although the fact that wives are partners with their husbands and not mere slave-like dependants is recognised in theory by the Report.

(p. 185)

In the 1950s and the 1960s, university students of social policy learnt a great deal about the Beveridge plan and its arrangements for eligibility. I myself was one of those students in the 1960s. The emphasis in our courses was on the advances that insurance/assistance represented compared with the pre-war fragmented schemes and on the positive features of the contributory principle. Where there was controversy it was about how far the scheme redistributed from rich to poor (largely it did not – given its flat rate contributions it took more proportionately from poorer workers, redistributing their income over their lifetimes). No one at the time – staff or students – thought to ask about the impact on women and certainly no one drew our attention to the writings of women in the 1940s. It took the momentum of the feminist movement in the mid-1970s and the arrival of more women academics, before questions about women's dependency and the pros and cons of caring again emerged (see, for example, Land, 1978; Wilson, 1977; Lewis, 1983).

So was Beveridge ‘sexist’? If that is a question about his motives and intentions, it is probably not a very helpful question to ask. Even the sternest feminist critics stress that he was reflecting the accepted views of his time about the role of women. He was aware of the drudgery of housework and had ideas on how to combat it; he also rejected the idea that women could be described as ‘dependants’ preferring to see them as ‘partners’ (Measor and Williamson, 1992). It may be better to think of institutional sexism – of assumptions built into the design of the welfare state that placed women in a distinctive and disadvantaged position compared with men and did not allow the range of work they did to be the subject of public discussion. Both the burdens and the blessings of the caring work done by women, were later to become a focus, first of study, then of policy debate in the 1980s.

Key points

  • The Beveridge vision relied on married women to provide care.

  • It also locked women into a form of dependency that some later sought to question.

  • Later, when more women began to question their traditional role, caring began to come on to the policy agenda.

4.2 Racism

You may want to question whether the term ‘sexism’ is a useful one to help understand the Beveridge vision, but you can probably agree that there is an idea about the family and about the ‘natural’ responsibility of women to do caring work that kept caring off the public agenda. But this still leaves the theme of ‘racism’ and the idea of the ‘nation’. You caught a glimpse of the importance of this a little earlier in Beveridge's confident remark about women having duties to ensure the continuance of ‘the British Race’ and of ‘British Ideals’ in the world. No public document today would contain terms such as these. The key factor that made it an important part of Beveridge's thinking, Williams argues, was the sense of national identity and pride prompted by being on the winning side in the war, and the confirmation this seemed to give that the British really were a superior nation which should be showing the way in the world and demonstrating its special sense of justice and fair play by rewarding its working classes and promoting greater solidarity.

There had been a Royal Commission on population decline, and encouraging women into motherhood was part of this national pride. So too was creating a strong sense of national boundaries and hence excluding the outsider.

This model of the men of Britain at work rather than at war, and the women of Britain at home producing children and caring for them had at least one practical flaw. There were serious shortages of labour. Part-time work for women increased dramatically in the 1950s. So did a demand for immigrant labour. A brief extract from Fiona Williams's writing will give an idea of what happened and will start to show why she says that racism and the ‘statues to the nation’ were built into the Beveridge proposals.

‘Race’ and ‘nation’ in the welfare state

Activity 4: Racism, ‘the nation’ and the welfare state

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Read the attached pdf of ‘Race’ and ‘nation’ in the welfare state by Fiona Williams and jot down your answers to the following questions.

  1. What kinds of immigrant worker came to Britain in the 1950s and why were they encouraged?

  2. Why were immigrant workers especially relevant in supplying jobs in the welfare state?

  3. What examples does Williams give of the ‘social costs’ of immigrant labour that were often borne by the immigrants’ country of origin? What do you think the term ‘social costs’ means?

  1. Williams argues that new workers were needed because of economic growth. She says that Commonwealth citizens were encouraged in part because they were British citizens already, and the assumption was that no special welfare arrangements would be needed. (‘Laissez-faire’ is a French expression meaning to let things happen – in other words, do not intervene.) Williams points out that very little attention was paid to whether or not existing welfare services were suitable for newcomers – the assumption was that they would have to ‘fit in’ and assimilate or go back home.

  2. Immigrant workers were crucial in staffing the NHS at all levels but particularly in low-paid manual jobs. This helped to keep the costs of services down.

  3. Williams's two examples of the way the social costs of immigrant workers could be borne by their countries of origin were: doctors and nurses who trained before coming to Britain, and low-paid workers whose children were being cared for and educated outside Britain. The social cost of employing someone can be thought of as the full cost of enabling them to work. It is more than the wage an employer has to pay to the individual. There is the cost of educating and training the person, and there is paying them – through wages or benefits – enough to care for their dependants. There is also the matter of keeping them well, of providing for them in their old age, and other benefits that the state offers. The Beveridge scheme increased the responsibility of the state to meet these social costs for its citizens. The argument running through the offprint, however, is that the politicians wanted extra labour without taking responsibility for all the social costs (including the costs of care for dependants) and without giving full citizen rights. The politicians were also worried that popular reaction might be to see newcomers as ‘scroungers’ on the welfare state.

4.3 Beveridge’s insurance model and immigration

What has this to do with Beveridge? His insurance model assumed that a man would start to contribute at the beginning of his working life and emphasised that he had paid for and was entitled to the benefits he and his family later received. This required a stable population and failed to anticipate the need to recruit men and women of all ages from outside Great Britain. Although they came initially on their own, it was hardly surprising that newcomers would want to bring families and other dependants.

The insurance model also ignored established patterns whereby men and women had long been coming to Britain as a result of poverty and lack of opportunity at home. They were people who sent wages home, returned for holidays and dreamt of being able to return permanently.

Victoria Station: labour shortages meant encouragement of immigration in the 1950s

This was true, for example, of many Irish people. Furthermore, national insurance did not offer anything to the traveller community. Nor did it pay attention to the needs of refugees. Beveridge's wide appeal was in practice an appeal to a nation that was settled, integrated and in work. And by presenting this majority as the norm, it inevitably constructed anyone else as different and a problem. Mason comments:

Difference, particularly ethnic difference, has typically been seen as a problem in Britain. This is in part because of the tendency to assume that there was some primordial norm of Britishness from which newcomers, such as migrants, initially diverged but towards which they could ultimately be expected to change.

(Mason, 1995, p. 2)

Notions of inferiority of the black population have long historical roots – for example, in slavery, in colonialism and in nineteenth-century science. Beveridge did not draw on all this in a direct way – but his references to the ‘nation’ and ‘race’, together with the details of how the insurance scheme worked, served to reinforce ideas of the inferiority of the newcomers and to heighten resentments between the black and white population more generally. Starting in the 1950s, Immigration Acts and Nationality Acts setting rules for who could come to Britain, and on what grounds, exacerbated racial tensions.

Concern about unequal employment opportunities for ethnic minority groups in the NHS continued through the 1990s
Concern about unequal employment opportunities for ethnic minority groups in the NHS continued through the 1990s

Elsewhere in the work from which the extract you have just read was drawn, Fiona Williams cites evidence of the racism experienced by black people in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s in access to housing and care services, for example (Williams, 1989, p. 164). The injustices faced by some of those who came to work in the NHS in the 1950s are also beginning to emerge. One source of testimony to this comes from today's nurses who tell of gaining the necessary educational qualifications for a three-year training as registered nurses but being recruited into the two-year training as enrolled nurses from which there was no opportunity of promotion. Legislation to outlaw discrimination was introduced in the mid-1970s and amended to give more powers in the public sector recently. The Commission for Race Equality has taken a number of cases against health and social services employers. In the past, people from minority ethnic groups felt that they were discriminated against for promotion and faced racist taunts and harassment when carrying out their work. Yet they were an essential part of the labour force that allowed the health service to develop. Such attitudes persist even today (Beishon et al., 1995).

Should Beveridge be called racist? Once again, we can say that he was reflecting the views of his time and that institutional racism, like institutional sexism, is deep-seated. I have been discussing not a particular agency but the policies of the welfare state as a whole. The overall idea is the same, however. It draws attention to the way discrimination can unwittingly be written into arrangements and procedures. It also shows that an idea that from one perspective has enormous benefits, from another can have deep flaws.

Key points

  • The Beveridge vision of the welfare state appealed to a sense of national unity and pride in ‘the British Race'; in doing so, it ignored the diversity of the existing population.

  • Its insurance ideal did not easily apply to immigrants from Commonwealth countries who were encouraged to come to Britain to fill labour shortages. Nor did it relate to the needs of other migrant workers or refugees or travellers.

  • The care system required them as workers but it did not pay attention to their needs for care.

  • To this extent, institutional racism, like institutional sexism, was built into the welfare state.

It has become increasingly clear that Beveridge's notion of the citizen – the white, able-bodied working man, with a wife and family he can support through his labour and with care needs that can be met through the family unit – is narrow and much less workable than he supposed. Policy has supplemented Beveridge's model in a number of ways – but his thinking is still present in the overall concept of the welfare state today. Summarising this course as a whole, we can state that Beveridge's vision, highly influential as a basis for welfare in its time, emphasised financial support rather than public provision for caring and caring work. It left those who for one reason or another could not earn a wage themselves in a vulnerable and dependent position. Its assumptions about who was caring and how, and about women, family and nation, had the effect of consolidating inequalities of gender and race rather than challenging them. These assumptions have increasingly been brought into the open and questioned.

Study skills: The importance of context

You have seen questions of sexism and racism raised in connection with Beveridge's work. Yet at the time he was seen by most as a very progressive thinker. So was he or wasn't he?

In fact, it is not an appropriate question. We are all to some extent prisoners of our times and of our own personal experiences. Nobody's ideas hold up against the judgements of all people in all times. Our capacity to think arises out of our participation in the discourses of our own times. And certainly we cannot be ‘heard’ by others and understood unless we speak the way they think. So influential new concepts and arguments are always framed within the perspectives of the time. But then later writers (in this case, Williams) revisit them and, in the process, uncover and question assumptions which had previously been unnoticed.

People have always relied on the ideas of those who have gone before, but at the same time they change and develop them. That is how knowledge advances. However, we cannot draw effectively on the ideas of past thinkers unless we are able to understand them in the context of their times. As a student you are not simply learning ‘the truth’. You are gaining access to ideas, along with a sufficient understanding of their context to be able to make sense of them.


This free course provided an introduction to studying Health and Social Care. It took you through a series of exercises designed to develop your approach to study and learning at a distance and helped to improve your confidence as an independent learner.


Abbott, E. and Bompas, K. (1943) The Woman Citizen and Social Security: A Criticism of the Proposals of the Beveridge Report as the Affect Women, Women's Freedom League, London.
Beishon, S., Virdee, S. and Hagell, A. (1995) Nursing in a Multi-Ethnic NHS, Policy Studies Institute, London.
Beveridge, J. (1954) Beveridge and his Plan, Hodder and Stoughton, London.
Beveridge, W. (1942) Social Insurance and Allied Services (Beveridge Report) (CMD 6404), HMSO, London.
Bryson, L. (1992) Welfare And the State - Who Benefits?, Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Jacobs, J. (1992a) 'An introduction to the Beveridge Report' in Jacobs, J. (ed.) (1992) Beveridge 1942-1992: Papers to Mark the 50th Anniversary of the Beveridge Report, Whiting and Birch Books, London.
Land, H. (1978) 'Who cares for the family?', Journal of Social Policy, Vol.7, No.3, pp. 257-84.
Lewis, J. (1983) 'Dealing with dependency: state practices and social realities, 1870-1945' in Lewis, J. (ed.) Women's Welfare, Women's Rights, Croom Helm, London.
Mason, D. (1995) Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain, Allen and Unwin, London.
Measor, L. and Williamson, V. (1992) '"Vital work to do". The implications of the report for women' in Jacobs J. (ed.) (1992) Beveridge 1942-1992: Papers to Mark the 50th Anniversary of the Beveridge Report, Whiting and Birch Books, London.
Rhys-Williams, J.E. (1943) Something to Look Forward To: A Suggestion for a New Social Contract, Macdonald and Co., London
Williams, F. (1989) Social Policy: A Critical Introduction, Polity, Oxford.
Wilson, E. (1977) Women and the Welfare State, Tavistock, London.


The content acknowledged below is Proprietary (see terms and conditions) and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this course:

Course image: Anne Worner in Flickr made available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.

Brindle, D. 1997, 'NHS's ethnic nurse numbers decline', Guardian, 21 April 1997, Copyright Guardian Newspapers 1997; Brindle D. 1997, 'NHS Trusts hiring no minorities', Guardian, 24 April 1997, Copyright Guardian Newspapers 1997.

ZEC/Daily Mirror/Syndication International/Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature, University of Kent, Canterbury; Hulton Getty;George Whitelaw/The Daily Herald/Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature, University of Kent, Canterbury; Maggir Murray/Format.

Mike Carroll, photos

Don't miss out:

If reading this text has inspired you to learn more, you may be interested in joining the millions of people who discover our free learning resources and qualifications by visiting The Open University - openlearn/ free-courses