Written by Judith Attar
The report impressed its readers with its vivid archaic language but was most remarkable for its assumptions.
Britons learned from their newspapers of 2 December how national insurance, originally a 19th century idea, would be mustered to abolish Want, one of Beveridge’s three evils along with Ignorance and Squalor. Want could be abolished by compulsory insurance, with voluntary insurance adding to incomes where possible. Beveridge explicitly assumed allowances for dependent children, a comprehensive health service and maintenance of employment for the plan to work.
The report, commissioned and published by ministers but not ‘owned’ by the government, was welcomed in the media at home and abroad – hence the overseas tour of its author.
Beveridge was interviewed by the BBC and British Pathé Films, and for a little while he became a celebrity: marrying the same month, his wedding was papped by photographers and featured in newsreels soon after.
Yet it would be hard to imagine a less likely public hero.
William Beveridge, 24, joined Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel in 1903. Beveridge, graduate of Balliol, Oxford, arrived at the social reformist community centre-cumthinktank to study the ‘causes and cures of poverty’ against the background of overcrowding and poverty unequalled in London.
The greatest driver of poverty was, and still is, the disruption to regular earnings. Workers could manage short interruptions – relying on friends and family, shopkeepers’ slates and pawnbrokers, benefits from Friendly Societies (nonprofit-making insurance clubs) and trade unions. Sooner or later, the only relief was the workhouse, paid for out of the Poor Law rates. When Canon Samuel Barnett, co-founder of Toynbee Hall, described Whitechapel as a ‘massing of a vast population too poor to bear one another’s burdens’, he meant the inability of local rates, as well as family and social networks, to support the poor for long.
Beveridge was soon in the midst of the problem. Canon Barnett put him in charge of a London charity for the unemployed, the Mansion House Fund. He became a member of the Stepney Distress Committee and the Central (Unemployed) Body for London (CUB), both set up under the Unemployed Workman’s Act of 1905 to match men to make-work programmes. He had the unwonted task of deciding who would benefit and who to turn away; 35 years later his scheme for comprehensive insurance would turn nobody away. But at the time, Poor Law relief, charities and state-sanctioned job creation schemes, all with different qualifying conditions for help, bumped up against each other and more workers were rebuffed than assisted. The system was found wanting.
In response to these concerns, Arthur Balfour’s outgoing Tory government set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Poor Laws in 1905. Beveridge gave evidence in 1907, at the suggestion of Beatrice Webb, the Fabian sociologist and Commission member. He made it clear that the Poor Law principle of deterrence – using the punitive treatment of paupers to discourage claims – was no solution to unemployment. He also testified that trade union and Friendly Society benefits only covered a small proportion of the workforce. He told the commission: ‘that in the extension of unemployment insurance, you have one of the great general methods of dealing with this problem.’ But first the country needed a chain of labour exchanges to register the workless and administer the insurance fund.