70 years on from Beveridge, we risk entering a decade of destitution

4th Mar 2013

It’s time we found the courage of Beveridge’s era to end poverty, Julia Unwin argues.

Seventy years ago when the Beveridge report was published, it flew off the shelves. 600,000 copies were sold – a popular book, written at a time of immense crisis. The world of Beveridge was not the same as ours, but it was in every possible way just as challenging. They had the courage to dream, to shape, to plan – they recognised a problem, dealt with the obstacles and drove real and lasting change.

Why do this generation lack the confidence to do precisely that?

We are about to embark on a major reorganisation of most benefits within our creaky system. Each change springs from different motives, each has a different, carefully calibrated risk register. But complex lives attract a mix of benefits and it is the cumulative impact of the changes that seem likely to wreak such devastation. That is why I warn of a decade of destitution, because at the heart of current changes is the ever-present threat of deprivation.

I believe we will see poverty on these shores of a kind we had not expected to see again. We will see food banks and emergency shelters; we will see even more people sleeping on the streets; and the ugly bureaucratic term ‘recourse to public funds’ will apply to progressively more people.

But none of this means we can and should defend what existed in the past. That set of rules and regulation had grown, like so much of British public policy, through accretion. Time and time again we warned that it trapped people in poverty. And at great cost – spending on benefits totalled £200 billion in 2011/12.

What we need instead is a new approach that genuinely reflects the 21st century environment, that is as bold and ambitious as Beveridge.

But first let’s be clear about why we reason for intervention. Poverty is a scar on our country. It costs us a huge amount: JRF calculates that the costs of child poverty alone are £25 billion per year. Poverty is wasteful too. It leaches capacity and capability just when we need to be globally competitive to have any chance of recovery.

So I suggest we need three things in the market, state and community to achieve things differently.

First is infrastructure (not just transport or broadband, but infrastructure providing care for children and older people) and a stronger labour market which offers jobs with progression.

Second is housing that allows stability and mobility. Shortages mean rents are at ludicrous levels while young people struggle to imagine home ownership.

Third is a new settlement for the modern community. Social capital carries some through bad times, but we need a greater understanding and focus on the warp and weft of real community life, which is central to our task of abolishing poverty.

And of course the state – providing that fall-back, that essential safety net in a way that supports and does not trap, that enables without stifling. Before Beveridge wrote his report, there were soup kitchens. Today, we have food banks. It is said that Sir William Beveridge’s last words were: “I have a thousand things to do.” We have a thousand things to do to keep his legacy alive. But we can do them. They are in our gift. We owe that to him – we owe that to our fellow citizens.

This blog is an excerpt from Julia Unwin’s Toynbee Hall speech asking ‘What would Beveridge say now?’