Bookmark and ShareAnna Coote is Head of Social Policy at nef.

William Beveridge - a revolutionary for our time?

Britain’s welfare state can’t cope with three great dangers that face us today – deepening social divisions, accelerating climate change and imploding financial systems. William Beveridge said of 1942, when he launched his founding report, that it was a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history, a time for revolutions, not for patching”.  The same is true today, but the challenges are new.  We need a new social settlement to transform the way we live together and look after each other – a modern welfare system that is fit for the 21st century.

Through 60 years of peace and plenty, Britain has built a welfare state that many see as enviable.  But there are still widening inequalities.  Unemployment is rocketing. Income inequality is at its highest level since records began. The gap in life expectancy between those living in the poorest areas of England and the average is wider than 10 years ago. The UK ranks a pitiful 13th out of 22 European nations on combined measures of social and personal well-being.

An unequal and divided society can’t take the kind of concerted action that is needed to deal with climate change and the global credit crunch.  And these divisions will deepen unless action is taken to prevent the poorest from suffering most from global warming and economic recession.

We argue for radical change our new paper published last week, Green Well Fair: Three economies for social justice. A future welfare system shouldn’t rely on the market economy to keep on growing to fund more and better services.  Because growth is not inevitable, and unchecked growth damages the environment. Instead it must value and nurture two other economies that have so far been overlooked. These are the abundant human resources that underpin and shape society, and the fragile resources of the planet, on which all life depends.

It must harness all three economies – people, planet and markets – so that they work together to deliver sustainable social justice. By that we mean the fair and equitable distribution of social, environmental and material resources between people, countries and generations.

Green Well Fair sets out six steps towards sustainable social justice:

  • promote well-being for all, putting equality at the heart of social policy
  • give priority to preventing harm, to concentrate scarce resources on meeting unavoidable needs
  • grow the ‘core’ economy by valuing and nurturing human resources that are currently undervalued
  • make carbon work for social justice, so that measures to reduce carbon emissions help to narrow inequalities
  • make public services sustainable
  • measure success by valuing what matters in social, environmental and economic terms, for the medium and long term.

What could this mean in practice?  Here are some examples.

  1. Two for the price of one: invest in ways of preventing illness and reduce carbon at the same time – such as encouraging active travel and producing fresh, local food. Both will help to combat obesity and climate change.
  2. Welfare to green work: channel investment in welfare-to-work to boost green industries, to build up skills in home insulation and other ways of cutting carbon emissions, and to support low-carbon living.
  3. From patient records to people’s plans for well-being: redesign health services around cradle-to-grave health plans for every individual, focused on keeping people well, not just treating them when they are sick.
  4. Carebanks to pool and grow resources for older people: enable older people to join forces to help themselves and each other, using time as a measure of exchange.

Now, as in 1942, it is no time for patching’. Instead of emerging from the trauma of the war, we face the potential catastrophes of climate change and imploding global capitalism. Such crises provide an unparalleled opportunity to think afresh about social justice and to be ambitious in pursuing it. We can’t afford to miss that chance because all of our lives depend on it.