Arthur Greenwood – 1943 Speech on the Beveridge Report

Below is the text of the speech made by Arthur Greenwood, the then Labour MP for Wakefield, in the House of Commons on 16 February 1943.

I beg to move.

“That this House welcomes the Report of Sir William Beveridge on Social Insurance and Allied Services as a comprehensive review of ​ the present provisions in this sphere and as a valuable aid in determining the lines on which developments and legislation should be pursued as part of the Government’s policy of post-war reconstruction.”

The Beveridge Report broke on the world on 2nd December last. Hon. Members have now had ample opportunity of measuring its public reception. Sir William Beveridge, as an ex-Civil Servant and the head of an Oxford College, must have been embarrassed by the fierce limelight of publicity which has been directed on to the Report. The B.B.C. trumpeted the Report across the world in many languages. The Report has proved to be a best seller not only here but abroad. The Government were so impressed by its importance that they went to the length in war-time, a time of great economy, of preparing and publishing a summary of the Report. Certain newspapers and commercial enterprises have pushed epitomes of the Report on to the market. I understand that, having regard to the limited paper supplies available, they have had a very large circulation. The Report has been the subject of innumerable leading articles and letters to the Press. A spontaneous movement has arisen among people or among groups of people anxious to study and assess its proposals. The Secretary of State for War, because of the action taken by him, sharpened the appetite of the men in the Army, and for that he deserves our thanks.

Mr. R. G. Casey, the Minister of State, in a broadcast on 22nd December last, said, according to “The Times,” that the Beveridge Report had aroused the greatest interest among the troops. The troops did not believe in any fairy stories like “homes for heroes.” They knew that the world could not suddenly become a bed of roses after the colossal destruction of this war, but they did hope that it was going to be a fairer world, with no permanent scarcity of work, and one in which those who worked hardest could get most and all those who worked would get a fair deal. The Report has excited deep, sympathetic interest overseas in many countries and aroused hopes that freedom from want can, if we will it, be attained. At home it has met with almost universal approval in principle and purpose. The Labour Party, the Trades Union Congress General Council, and the Co-operative Movement have ​ given it a warm welcome in its broad outlines, after very close consideration. For them I speak and for the millions whom they represent. I propose to read the resolution which was adopted unanimously on 17th December last by the National Council of Labour, the most representative popular working-class organisation in this country:

“The National Council of Labour, representing the Trades Union Congress, the Labour Party and the Co-operative Union, believes that, as provision against want is one part of a policy of social progress, an essential part of the reconstruction of the new Britain must be the adoption of a Charter of Security, so that if members of the community meet with adverse circumstances a minimum standard of the essentials of life will be guaranteed, not as a charity but as a right, to citizens of the country. The National Council, therefore, approves the principles laid down in the Beveridge Report and, while the detailed proposals must necessarily be subject to further scrutiny, it welcomes the effort to safeguard the standards of life and health of the nation. The Council particularly accepts the emphasis of Sir William Beveridge upon the importance of giving effect to the general policy of the Report before the end of the war and, therefore, calls upon the Government to introduce the necessary legislation at an early date.”

With that view I am, of course, in full accord, and indeed the whole purpose of my speech is to press more particularly for acceptance of the last paragraph, asking for early legislation. The Liberal Party has also given the Report cordial, and indeed enthusiastic, welcome and approval. The Conservative Party’s first reaction to it was to be found in a recent issue of the “Onlooker,” a paper hitherto unknown to me, which gives the impression of damning the Report with faint praise, or praising it with faint damns, but the letter bags of Members of Parliament will bear witness to the support given to it by the rank and file of the people. Various Motions and Amendments have appeared on the Order Paper, one in my name and that of other Members, which provides a peg on which to hang a general Debate in the expectation that the Government will make a satisfactory statement—I mean one that is satisfactory to me and all like-minded people. With the purpose of those Amendments asking for early action, I am in hearty agreement, but as regards others, which find excuses for delay by suggesting further inquiries, I am in the most emphatic disagreement.

Sir Irving Albery (Gravesend)

It is not clear to me—I do not know whether ​ it is to other Members—after what he has just said whether the right hon. Gentleman himself is mainly in agreement with his own Motion or with that of the National Council of Labour.

Mr. Greenwood

I have said that I regard my Motion as a peg on which to hang a general Debate. If the hon. Gentleman does not know what a peg is, I am afraid I cannot help him. The fact is that the people want a pledge which will ensure that the broad principles of the social security plan are accepted and will be implemented. As regards the logical and inescapable implications of such, a pledge, I will say something later. We must, of course, admit that here and there in the Press letters have appeared from people shivering at the possible consequences of the acceptance of the scheme. The industrial assurance offices have, in somewhat timid tones so far, ventured to express their fears and appear to be preparing in great depth their ground defences, and their underground attack also. They appear to resent the criticism, expressed in the Appendix to the Report, on their administration. I do not propose on this occasion to enter into a duel with shadow opponents. No doubt we shall hear more of them later, when they come out into the open.

What is the broad conclusion to be drawn over the last 10 weeks, during which time the document has been before the public? No document within living memory has made such a powerful impression, or stirred such hopes, as the Beveridge Report. The people of the country have made up their minds to see the plan in its broad outline carried into effect, and nothing will shift them. The plan for social security has struck their imagination. They feel in their hearts, quite rightly, that it is their due on grounds of social justice and in fulfilment of Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter. Where is a Member of the House who would dare to vote against the general proposals, and thereby for the repudiation of solemn pledges of the United Nations inspired by the British Prime Minister and by the President of the American Republic? Is any Member of the House, aware of the deep convictions of the people, prepared to say that the poor in their hours of adversity should live in undeserved poverty, or to deny ​ that security and dignity of life are the very foundations of a healthy, civilised society and that the goal of this war is full and undisputed freedom for all peoples? Is there any Member of the House who dares make such assertions? If so, let him declare himself in this Debate. I am certain that no responsible Member of the Government can, in the light of the Government’s commitments, in honour impede the progress of this plan towards the Statute Book.

I therefore call—and I hope I can do so with confidence—upon the Government to begin implementing, without a day’s unnecessary delay, the social security scheme boldly planned in broad outline by Sir William Beveridge. This Debate will have failed in its purpose unless, during its course, the Government make a clear and explicit statement of their intentions. It would be unreasonable to expect a statement on details. Indeed, there are many of us, I imagine, on all sides of the House who do not swallow this Report holus bolus. There are points of criticism to which we shall have to turn our attention as time goes on, and, therefore, although the Government must obviously have given considerable attention to the Report, we do not expect them, at this stage, to make commitments in detail. But we, the people for whom I speak, do expect a statement indicating that the principles of the social security scheme are accepted Government policy and that active steps are to be taken to give effect to them.

The Beveridge Report is a challenge to the Government and to the House of Commons. The people of this country, having read about it, having talked about it, having thought about it, having responded to the principles of a plan that would begin to disperse the dark, sombre, sinister clouds of insecurity which are shadowing millions of homes in this country—they also challenge the Government and this House. They ask, indeed they demand, an answer. The country awaits the Government’s reply and the views of Parliament. I hope those views, in general, will be expressed in support of the social security scheme.

I should like to place on record the debt of gratitude which this country and the statesmen of other countries owe to the author of this arresting document, ​ which has struck the imagination of millions of people and given them a hope for the future. At the same time, I express my own sense of indebtedness to one who, though deeply involved in other tasks, responded to my invitation to undertake a heavy and responsible piece of work. I sincerely hope that we all appreciate how well worth his labours have been in the judgment of his fellow citizens and of men and women of good will the world over. The Beveridge Report has been criticised because it did not range over fields which its author was not invited to enter. There was a primary job to be done. In my view, the first thing to be done was to work out a broad scheme to secure, for all those in want, provision when they fall by the wayside. Freedom from want when people suffer adversity, whether through lack of work, sickness, accident, disablement, loss of the breadwinner or old age, seemed to me to be our first human task.

Sir William Davison (Kensington, South)

What about the millions of money for those who are not in want?

Mr. Greenwood

They ought to thank God that they are in those happy circumstances. It was, in my view, an urgent and vital social task and the logical starting-point for a series of studies of our social and economic requirements and organisations. Sir William Beveridge fully appreciated that he could not cover, within a reasonable compass and a reasonable time, any wider area than that which was assigned to him. With his recognised intellectual integrity, he explained the assumptions on which he worked and was fully aware of the ‘implications of any adequate scheme of social security. There can be no satisfactory and successful scheme of social security unless wider and economic implications are accepted and unless adequate steps are taken now to face the problems involved.

In the first place, there must be a redistribution according to the needs of the homes of the people. This involves family allowances. For a long time, indeed from the very inception of the campaign for children’s allowances, I had the gravest doubts about the wisdom of that policy. I regarded such payments as a possible social danger. When they were originally proposed I took the view—it is many years ago now, and I see no reason to change it in the light of the circumstances which ​ obtained then—that the payment of children’s allowances might be used to undermine wages standards, and thereby to perpetuate bad industrial conditions. To-day, however, I believe the trade union movement is strong enough to resist such efforts, with the support of the general public, who now realise that poverty breeds poverty.

What powerfully influenced my own mind in this matter was my friend Seebohm Rowntree’s second social survey of the city of York, published in 1941, under the title of “Poverty and Progress.”

Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)

“Progress and Poverty.”

Mr. Greenwood

In this case, I think it is “Poverty and Progress.” My hon. Friend is thinking of another phrase. He is thinking of Henry George—

Mr. MacLaren

A bigger man than Beveridge.

Mr. Greenwood

That may be. The investigation of Mr. Rowntree and other investigations had shown beyond doubt, that, apart from interruption or loss of earning power, the chief cause of want is the failure to relate income during the time of earning to the needs and the size of the family. During this war the principle of the rate of wage for the job has been universally accepted and widely adopted. That principle, however, ensures only equality in the field of employment. It pays no regard to the worker’s family responsibilities, which are a social problem. Whether under Capitalism or under Socialism wages must be paid according to the services rendered in employment. To maintain a proper standard of life for all necessitates the provision of social services of which family allowances will no doubt in the future be one. While the inspiration which created the social services in the past was born out of the defects of the capitalist system, it is now generally recognised that communal services must be an integral part of our social structure, whether under a Capitalist or a Socialist organisation of the national life. To aid in remedying social injustice and avoiding economic injustice, it is clear that children’s allowances must be an integral part of any scheme aiming at freedom from want. I am not on this occasion proposing to pursue the question further. I only wish to assert that children’s allowances must in future be ​ one of the pillars of the temple of social security.

Secondly, it is foolish to continue to expend £300,000,600 a year on preventable disease, quite apart from the avoidable suffering involved. It is equally foolish to ignore the rehabilitation for useful service of those crippled by industrial disease, by other diseases or by accidents. These problems no doubt call for further consideration, but they also call for further action, because to secure the objects of the Report steps will need to be taken which stretch far beyond the scope and the purview of social insurance. Comprehensive health and rehabilitation services, like children’s allowances are essential to any adequate scheme to abolish want.

Thirdly, the Report assumes the avoidance of mass unemployment. The term “unemployment insurance,” as I have argued in this House for 20 years, was always a misnomer. It has covered two, different problems which were not in the accepted sense insurance. The incidence of disease and death, broadly speaking, is actuarially calculable within reasonable limits, and it provided a basis for health insurance. Unemployment falls into a different category. There is the type which results from unforeseeable causes which must be somehow succoured. There is what is called technological unemployment, arising in the first stages of almost every further economic advance. For this what is called insurance benefit is essential and inevitable. It is, indeed, important, and I would go so far as to say essential, that new economic developments should be welcomed as indications of progress holding out hopes of future prosperity, and those who temporarily suffer in that process and through such causes should not be pauperised. The major problem is that of the mass unemployment due to disorganisation, lack of forethought, and consequent trade cycles. It was Sir William Beveridge who, many years ago, some years before the beginning of the last great war, wrote a book with the title “Unemployment, a Problem of Industry.” Up to that time and, indeed, in many quarters since, unemployment had been regarded as due to the vices and defects of the poor. The sub-title of the book was a true description of world unemployment, unemployment on a large scale, as a problem of economic reorganisation. It was this​ problem which Sir William clearly had in mind in his assumption regarding mass unemployment. It is this problem which challenges the knowledge, the skill, the imagination and the sincerity of mankind. In the final analysis it must be so if the peoples of the world are to enjoy the benefits of economic and social justice.

I should like now to examine the implications of the social security scheme. An adequate scheme would do something, I believe, to safeguard the workers, especially the lowly paid workers, against wage reductions. That would be so, I believe, especially in the less organised trades; It would, therefore, aid in attaining that freedom from want which depends, in the words of the Atlantic Charter, on

“securing for all improved labour standards, economic advancement and social security.”

There is a further step to be taken along the road to prosperity to ensure the fulfilment of freedom from want. There must be hospital, rehabilitation and medical services, the provision of proper housing conditions and educational developments, all of which will entail considerable charges on public funds, most of which we must pay as we go. I do not regard these charges as crippling. I regard the charges for these services as an investment which will yield a rich return in human life, vigour, efficiency and happiness. We must pay a price for such desirable ends. Nor can we escape adequate money payments, whether as wages or as maintenance, if we are to establish a standard of life worthy of a great people. There are already those who are shaking with fear lest the whole national economy should be reduced to stark, irretrievable bankruptcy by following the trail blazed by the Report. There are those who think that the scheme and its inevitable consequences outside the defined limits of social insurance will prove to be an intolerable burden upon the State. I do not share that view. The financial responsibilities to be borne by the Government are not large, relatively, though admittedly they are progressive as the years go on. The charges falling on the workers and on employers are indeed considerable, but I would remind the House that the abolition of mass unemployment, to which the United Nations are pledged, implies a developing prosperity out of which the funds necessary for the services vital to national well-being can be provided.

Then there are those whose eyes are turned towards harsh restrictions on expenditure, what is called cutting the coat according to the cloth—a useless expedient if the coat is made too small to perform its purpose. In any event this well-worn phrase rests on the assumption that the amount of cloth is fixed and that a further length of it is not available. In the Debate on the Address before Christmas, I submitted a contrary view. I do not believe that the way to national recovery and prosperity is through the dark, foetid channel of harsh restrictions and economy. There may be those who disagree with me on this, but pounds, shillings and pence have become quite meaningless symbols. The future of this country does not depend on the Bank of England and the “Big Five.” At their best the banks are but the lubricant oiling the wheels of production. The future of this country and of the world depends not upon money-changing, book-keeping and accountancy, but upon what brains and brawn can produce out of the bowels of the earth, from the surface of the earth, by processes of manufacture, and by skill in trade and commerce. Counting the shekels does not produce wealth. Real wealth is the production of organisation, executive ability and manual labour.

Even the most rigid and cruel economy will fail to solve our problems. The key to prosperity is developing production based on science and efficiency, not the defeatist policy of contracting consumption, with the inevitable result of progressively contracting markets and ever-deepening world misery, as we learnt to our bitter sorrow in the years after the last great war. Industry, it has been said, was made for man and not man for industry. The development foreshadowed in the Beveridge Report will inevitably call for economic reorganisation. I do not believe that man need be the slave of industry or of its handmaiden, I might now say master, finance. Unfortunately, industry in many directions is inefficient and profit-ridden. I believe man can make himself the master of industry, provided he can shake off the shackles of selfish ends and monopolistic interests. Whether this is palatable in some quarters or not, this problem will have to be faced, ​ and the Government, as well as industry, both management and labour, must consider as an urgent problem the great test of switching over from war industries to the industries of peace-time in the light of our own economic needs and our international commitments. It is idle to think that British industry, after the tremendous changes which have taken place under the stress of war requirements, can be pressed back into the pre-war mould.

What we ought to do is to reap the fruits of wartime experience and to organise our industries for the purposes of optimum economic production and not for maximum monetary profit.

But if we are to insure social security and adequate standards of life, while we must develop to the full our own resources, we must look outwards, overseas. As I must continue to insist, because I have made the same point in the House before, future prosperity depends upon the development of the world’s resources. Without that the objectives laid down in the Atlantic Charter, freedom from want and social security for all, cannot possibly be attained. My argument briefly is this: Honour and justice alike require us to accept the principles of the Beveridge Report. Such a scheme, I believe, would assist in the maintenance of wages standards, and would therefore contribute to the attainment of freedom from want in the wide sense. Security and economic advancement, which are among the objectives of the Atlantic Charter, will necessitate economic reorganisation at home and the development of the world’s economic possibilities in an orderly way. It would be foolish to attempt to stem the rising tide of opinion in favour of bold plans by attempts to “crab” them on the ground that we cannot afford them. The only line of approach to the fulfilment of our pledges and the establishment of social justice, security and prosperity is by multiplying the fruits of the earth. This, in my view, can only be done effectively through international economic co-operation and considered plans designed to avoid financial exploitation and to yield the maximum benefit to mankind. What the House and the country, and other countries also, want to know is whether the Government are now in a position, after the consideration they have had time to give to the Beveridge proposals, to declare their acceptance of the principles of the Report.

Earl Winterton

May I put a friendly question? It is entirely friendly. The right hon. Gentleman is constantly using the term: “the principles of the Report.” Sir William Beveridge has made it very plain that this is an all-in plan, that it is a plan and not merely a principle. Do I understand that my right hon. Friend is urging the Government to say whether they are prepared to accept, not the Beveridge principle, but the Beveridge plan?

Mr. Greenwood

Certainly, I want the plan. It is very difficult, in a complicated scheme of this kind, to distinguish between principles and details. Extremely small details loom very large in the minds of some people. I would like to put my own view as to how further procedure should unfold itself. Let me say in the first place emphatically that to wait until the last “t” is crossed and the last “i” dotted before introducing legislation would not meet with the approval of my hon. Friends nor, indeed, of a very large number of our people. It is unfortunate, but it is undeniably true, that in many quarters of the country, and among members of the Forces there exists an atmosphere of cynicism tinged with bitterness which may be dangerous for our future. I beg the Government not to add to that cynicism or to deepen the spirit of bitterness, and not to breed disappointment in the hearts of the younger generation by inaction, procrastination or—almost as bad—lukewarmness.

It will be a bad end to the war if those who in various ways have secured victory return to eat the bread of disillusionment and to live among shattered hopes and discarded or unfulfilled promises. I believe that, to give heart and encouragement to anxious millions, the implementation of the social security plan should proceed quickly and should proceed by instalments. [An HON. MEMBER: Why by instalment?] Ah, there is that last “t” It should proceed by instalments for the simple reason that if we do not get it by instalments, we shall never get it at all, add hon. Members know that to be true.

The first step, obviously, is to set up the organisation for handling the whole proposal. The Beveridge Report suggests that a Ministry of Social Security should be established. That seems an urgent step, which should be carried out almost immediately. I do not suggest at this ​ stage that branches should be torn out of the Departments which are concerned with one or other aspect of social security, especially as many of them are engaged upon important war duties. A Minister of Social Security, with a staff of experts to deal with the different sides of this problem, should be in the saddle at the earliest possible moment, so that those who have knowledge and experience of various aspects of the plan can be instructed to clothe the general proposals of the Report with the necessary form and detail, in consultation with the Departments involved, and to produce the final plan for submission to the Government. As each particular aspect, of the general plan is accepted—and there ought to be no undue delay in connection with many aspects of the Report—it should be put into legislative form and brought before the House. This procedure would involve a series of Measures, but as I want to get going while the going is good, I do not object to a series of Measures. When the ground had been covered—I hope that a substantial amount of it will be covered this present Session—the Government would probably need to introduce a general amending and consolidating Bill in order to fit the plan together into a comprehensive and integrated scheme.

The House will expect to learn from the Government something of their plans for the future of the medical services and of rehabilitation. The Inter-Departmental Committee set up by the Minister of Labour and National Service and myself upon industrial rehabilitation has presented its Report. The recommendations of this Report are a necessary part of the development of the health services and should be considered, of course, in relation to the larger plan. I see no sufficient reason why action on this aspect, on the rehabilitation Report, should not be taken without waiting until we have the complete, final plan for the whole of the public health and medical services. I feel sure that the House at some appropriate time before long will wish to consider that problem in its wider aspects:

This does not exhaust our efforts to ensure the success of the social security scheme. There is the question of full or active employment, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer called it in a recent Debate. It involves plans for the change-over from war purposes to peace purposes in Indus- ​ try and for the necessary economic reorganisation at home and in agreement with the United Nations. As to international co-operation, we cannot embark during this Debate on any detailed discussion of the vast range of problems which must be tackled, partly by ourselves and partly in co-operation with the Dominions and the Colonial Empire, and very largely through the co-operation of the United Nations. It is clear again that the House will desire at the appropriate time in the future to discuss these problems. So far, we have had from Members of the Government speeches stating the problems that we are now facing and expressing general observations upon them, but we have had no coherent statement indicating that progress is being made. It is distressing to me to learn that no discussions are now-taking place between the British, United States and Soviet Union Governments. I venture to predict that unless such discussions are begun and pressed well forward, and decisions are reached before long, the future will be gravely imperilled.

I have not entered upon any discussion of the details of the Beveridge Report. I regard it as of primary importance to secure the general acceptance of the plan and to obtain assurances that its implementation has a very high priority in the mind of the Government. Delay will be disastrous. Early action would hearten the people of this country and of other countries and would give Britain the moral leadership in the universal struggle for social security for all people in all lands. I earnestly hope that the Government will grasp this great and glorious opportunity to place themselves in the forefront of a great human movement and so fulfil some of the fundamental aims for which the war is being fought.