Blog: Full employment was the foundation for Beveridge’s welfare state. It should be the foundation for renewing it – 2013

by Liam Byrne | 25.01.12 | in: Labour's policy review, Philosophy, Uncategorized


Every civil servant can tell you stories of ministers who are a bit demanding. I’ve had a few of those stories myself. But sometimes the same is true of civil servants. None more so than Sir William Beveridge. Back in 1941, Ernie Bevin faced mandarins in revolt at the idea of working with the illustrious knight. Looking for a diplomatic answer, Bevin shipped out Sir William to lead an enquiry into social insurance. A year later, ‘the people’s William’ had drawn up the blueprint for Britain welfare state.

Timing, as they say, is everything in politics – and Beveridge’s timing was perfect. In November 1942, the Allies had beaten Rommel, counter-attacked in Stalingrad and secured the Pacific base of Guadalcanal. It was not as Churchill said on 10th November 1942, the beginning of the end. But it was the end of the beginning. Interest in what it was the country was fighting for hit a new high, and that interest swept the Beveridge Report off the shelves.

But what turned an idea into reality, was the not the events of 1942, but 1943. After ferocious debate in the Commons – in which David Lloyd George cast his last vote against the Government – Churchill conceded that planning for Beveridge had to begin in earnest. And it was then, in government committees, that four great Labour leaders – Atlee, Bevin, Morrison and Jowitt – fused the ideas of Beveridge with a plan for full employment; the full employment that would pay to make the new welfare state a reality.

The campaign for work, for jobs, for full employment has always been Labour’s first demand. Labour. The clue is in the name. But throughout our history, Labour has insisted the right to work must come with the responsibility to work as well. Back in 1947, Herbert Morrison put it like this; ‘We have no hands and brains to waste and no resources to fritter away on those who don’t contribute to our common effort’.

Today, I would insist on the same principle. Those who don’t want to work but can are a tiny minority. But we must insist they do their bit. So, alongside our five point plan for jobs and growth, we want new ideas that enforce the responsibility to look for and take a job. Because we simply can’t afford to renew the welfare state for the 21st century without more people back in work.

New analysis of DWP’s accounts by my team reveals that the shocking costs of economic failure. The bills for the dole, housing benefit and incapacity benefit are now set to rise by an incredible £5.5 billion a year – that’s a lot of income tax.

Yesterday in the House of Lords, the government pressed its policy of a cap on benefits. It’s an idea we support in principle but we would like to see improved because we don’t want a massive new council tax bill to sort out a new homelessness. But there’s a bigger point: without work, the cap won’t stop benefits spiralling upwards. DWP’s own figures show, despite the cap, the housing benefit bill is set to rocket up £4 billion above the figure post-election, to an incredible £28 billion. That’s too high. And the way to bring it down is to get people into work.

Back in the 1940s, the British people achieved incredible things. In a famous broadcast, Labour leader Clement Attlee called on Britain to create a country where ‘all may have the duty and the opportunity of rendering service to the nation, everyone in his or her sphere, and that all may help to create and share in an increasing material prosperity free from the fear of want’. We not only won a war, we won a peace. A welfare state that gave families like mine the chance to achieve things my grand-parents could never have dreamed of. If we want a welfare state for the 21st century, that once again support working people in the lives they lead today – and want for tomorrow – then I say our starting point is simple. Let’s get Britain back to work.

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