William Beveridge’s 1942 report led to the creation of the Welfare State. Photo: Popperfoto via Getty Images
The Britain of 1942 was a radically different country to the one we live in now. Without an NHS, social care system or free secondary education, there was no safety net to catch the most vulnerable in society. But the creation of these things didn’t happen by accident. They can be traced back to a report by William Beveridge, a social economist. The Beveridge Report identified five “giant evils” in society – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.
The result was the welfare state, created postwar by the Attlee government acting on the report’s findings. Disease was tackled with the creation of the NHS, want with National Insurance and pensions. Expanded council housing addressed squalor and a policy of full employment dealt with idleness. A wave of education reforms sought to squash ignorance.
This November, Beveridge’s report is 80 years old. So how realistic is the ambition of cradle-to-grave support in Britain today? As multiple crises buffet the country, it’s apparent there is little to catch them. More than seven million people are waiting for routine hospital treatment. The cost-of-living crisis is likely to mean disadvantaged children fall further behind at school. Universal credit is not enough to stop half of its recipients experiencing food poverty.
And with the spending cuts announced in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement and little hope of leaving a recession until 2024, things may only get worse.
In its place, individuals across the country are stepping up to make sure struggling people survive. This is what the new safety net looks like.
Perhaps the starkest example of a tattered safety net being replaced by something new is warm banks. A consequence of soaring energy bills and widespread fear that heating your home might turn into a luxury, they’ve sprung up across the country. There are over 3,000 warm banks in the country right now, according to Warm Welcome, an organisation which maps them out.
Carl Beech, a pastor with Edge Ministries, runs two warm banks in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. Such is the demand, two more – dubbed “open living rooms” – are in the works. “We’re reaching forgotten people in forgotten places,” Beech tells The Big Issue. They’re spaces where people can come without judgement and get warm, have some food, connect to wifi and receive advice.
Coming out of the pandemic, Beech realised the warm bank aspect was necessary. “People are going to freeze. People think we’re scaremongering but we’re really not,” he says. Chesterfield has seen the basic elements of the safety net – banks, advice centres, children’s centres – disappear over time, Beech explains. He’s now noticing an increase in people coming who have jobs but are struggling to make ends meet. Support simply isn’t available elsewhere. “When you’re living among it, it’s just brick by brick – doing what you can, when you can,” Beech says. “The problem is the local councils are broke, there’s no money here. Nobody’s got any money.”
Think of The Beveridge Report and you’ll probably think of the NHS. Healthcare free at the point of access was a revolutionary idea, and those three letters have become a cornerstone of the UK’s sense of self. But it’s a buckling system. Ambulances are being forced into lengthy waits outside hospitals. A lack of space in hospitals meant that a patient died in the back of an ambulance outside Bury’s Fairfield General Hospital.
And take dentistry. A third of council areas in the UK have no dentists accepting adult NHS patients, the BBC found, giving rise to the idea of ‘dental deserts’. There’s just one NHS dentist per 16,000 in some areas of the UK. The consequence is that proper dental care – a crucial aspect of healthcare – simply isn’t an option for many. Instead, some turn to Dentaid, a Hampshire-based charity. Its volunteer dentists run dental clinics through its fleet of four “surgeries on wheels”.
“You can change someone’s life quite quickly with dentistry – 10, 15 minutes in a dental chair, a tooth can be extracted that’s causing all this misery and pain,” says Jill Harding, Dentaid’s director of communications.
Dentaid’s patients are split into two groups: people who can’t access NHS dentists because there simply aren’t enough, or who wouldn’t use NHS services anyway because of barriers to care. Homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers, domestic abuse survivors, survivors of human trafficking and children in care all use Dentaid’s services. There are barriers to accessing dental care – but a lack of dental care can be a barrier in itself. Getting a long-standing dental issue fixed might be the key to someone having the confidence to go to job interviews or see their families after a long time.
Harding explains: “Only by starting that conversation and building up trust can you really make that difference. The phone never stops ringing.”
Dentaid is running new clinics in Lewes and Loughborough, and projects in Bristol for survivors of modern slavery and in Harrogate for rough sleepers. Harding says there’d be a role for the charity regardless of any NHS issues.
“We’re not working in competition with traditional dentistry providers, but it’s enhancing and working alongside and offering a different solution,” he says. “Throwing money at it isn’t the solution because it’s not going to break down the barriers.”
Council housing transformed the way people lived in this country. The idea that the state would be a provider of decent long-term housing seems outdated now, but Beveridge’s report laid the foundation for mass housing programmes. But the country has changed. Right to Buy decimated the council housing stock, and new ones simply aren’t being built. For Jack Yates, a member of the Acorn community and tenants union, this is a power imbalance – with not enough houses and protections for renters, landlords hold the whip hand. Thanks to section 21 evictions, tenants face homelessness on the whim of their landlord. But sometimes, when the bailiffs come to serve one of these evictions, a group of people in red T-shirts will be there.
Yates recalls one he was involved with, when Acorn members gathered outside a house in Liverpool. At just 20 minutes’ notice, 30 people turned out. The resistance was enough to keep the person in their home. In general, action from Acorn can buy a tenant enough time to sort things out – and makes sure the eviction process is followed properly.
“You can feel on your own a lot, and I think that’s what landlords rely on,” Yates says. Once landlords see that people will stick up for themselves, they’ll back down.
Made up of tenants, Acorn runs eviction training and aims to give tenants more power. People often don’t know how to fight an eviction, or how to make sure their rights are being respected, and Acorn’s 25 branches help them. Yates, now a communications officer with Acorn, says tenants are disempowered. Even if not facing eviction, things as basic as painting a wall or having a pet are out of reach. A big part of the problem, according to Yates, is the lack of social housing – a problem made worse by Right To Buy.
“It’s been a slow process of things getting worse. One of the root causes is that complete destruction of council and social houses. Right to Buy was a disaster for tenants. It’s ripped up and changed the fabric of housing,” he says. So what would make things better? An end to no-fault evictions, coupled with rent controls and public investment in housebuilding.
“The reinvigoration of council and social housing will go a long way to alleviating the crisis,” Yates says, in a diagnosis not unlike those made decades ago.
The 1944 Education Act, two years after The Beveridge Report, made secondary education free for all. But one of today’s biggest questions in education is: who gets to go to university? The country’s top institutions are still dogged by accusations of elitism, and the loan system makes education a struggle for many students, even if they do manage to get in.
Yorkshire-born Joe Seddon graduated from Oxford, the first in his family to do so. He realised the lack of mentorship and opportunities available were holding kids like him back. With the last £200 of his student loan, he started a platform connecting applicants with mentors. Now 25, Seddon has seen over 3,000 students from low-income backgrounds get into the country’s top universities.
Universities have responsibilities on this front – in fact, charging £9,250 a year is dependent on efforts towards “widening participation”. But Seddon thinks schools, universities and the government are failing talented youngsters.
“The difference in the amount of support you get from good state schools and private schools versus struggling state schools is huge when it comes to university applications,” he says. Once Zero Gravity, Seddon’s platform, got students into university, he noticed them returning and saying how much they were struggling financially. Outside of London, the maximum loan for the 2021/22 academic year is £9,488. Despite all the effort of getting in, students find them-selves unsupported and at risk of dropping out.
“The crisis of student poverty is really extreme,” Seddon says. His next idea was scholarships – since last year, Zero Gravity has given out over £1 million to students, and Seddon claims it is the UK’s largest independent scholarship fund. Just as The Beveridge Report opened the way for those without means to get an education in the 20th century, Seddon hopes to help spread opportunity. But he also thinks reform as bold as the 1940s is needed today.
“The government should be thinking about a new-style Beveridge Report which is not just about funding requirements, but about what the model should look like in the 21st century,” he says.
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