Want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness: are Beveridge’s five evils back?

It’s 75 years since the Beveridge report paved the way for the welfare state, and the UK is again plagued by the problems he aimed to eradicate – from insecure jobs to malnutrition

This November marks the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge report – the founding document of the modern welfare state and the answer to the question: what would Clement Attlee do? The Attlee government’s radical agenda, after all, basically enacted every recommendation made by eccentric patrician liberal reformer Sir William Beveridge, who exceeded his simple brief – to survey the country’s social insurance programmes – with a wide range of suggestions aimed at eradicating what he called the five “giant evils”: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.

Whatever Attlee thought of him, Beveridge was no socialist. He thought taking the burden of healthcare and pension costs away from corporations and individuals and giving them to the government would increase the competitiveness of British industry while producing healthier, wealthier, more motivated and more productive workers keen to buy British goods.

And he was right. The sustained post-second-world-war period of economic growth and near full employment that lasted until the late 70s saw falling poverty, slum clearance, the founding of a free health service and education system alongside rising real incomes and falling inequality – which, in turn, led to higher tax revenues and helped the UK pay off its war debts. In 1950, Seebohm Rowntree – who had surveyed poverty in York in 1899 and 1936 – concluded that the problem had largely been erased.

Seventy-five years on, however, the good work done by the Beveridge Report is in grave danger of being entirely undone. The “five giants” are creeping back into the mainstream of our daily life. As they do, our productivity crashes through the floor. Full-year figures for 2015 show the UK’s productivity gap with other countries standing at its worst since modern records began. What would Beveridge find if he were to report today?


Social change organisation the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has always defined poverty as “when a person’s resources are not sufficient to meet their minimum needs”. In May 2016, however, the foundation added a new measurement to its bleak scorecard: destitution – a term coined to describe someone facing two or more of the following in a month: sleeping rough, having one or no meals a day for two or more days, being unable to heat or to light your home for five or more days, going without weather-appropriate clothes or without basic toiletries. Across 2015, 1,252,000 people – including 312,000 children – faced destitution at some point in the year. That is roughly 2% of the population in the world’s fifth largest economy struggling to eat, keep warm and clean and find a bed for the night.

This summer, Unicef reported that nearly one in five UK children lacked sufficient safe and nutritious food. The official Households Below Average Income figures released in March show child poverty standing at the highest level since 2009/10, with 4 million children in the UK now living in relative poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicts absolute child poverty will rise from 15.1% in 2015-16 to 18.3% in 2020-21 – mainly thanks to benefit changes forcing lower incomes down.

Beveridge saw work as the true solution to poverty. It is a mantra that governments have chanted with glee ever since. But while poverty levels have remained fairly constant over the past decade – at roughly 21% of the population or 13 million people – an unprecedented 67% of British children in poverty now live in a household where someone is in work. The new poor, the IFS argues, are an even larger group than these official figures suggest, with previously secure middle-class families living increasingly precarious lives and with people cycling in and out of the official definition of poverty once or twice a year.

At the end of 2016, the GMB union ran ONS data on average earnings for 170 occupations between 2007 and 2016 and found only 19 of them have seen earnings keep pace with inflation – including tax accountants, tailors, chauffeurs and air-traffic controllers. If you are a special needs teacher, a paramedic, a psychologist, a bricklayer, a journalist, a police officer, a cleaner or a vet, then your salary is going down.


The closest thing to a recent Beveridge report is Prof Sir Michael Marmot’s review on health inequality, first published in 2010. Marmot found that people living in the poorest neighbourhoods in England died, on average, seven years earlier than people in the richest neighbourhoods. In July this year, he updated his findings – the longest life expectancy in the country was in Kensington and Chelsea where, on average, men die at 83 and women die at 86. By contrast, the lowest life expectancy was in the north of England: in Blackpool, it is 74 for men; in Manchester, it is 79 for women. Kensington and Chelsea may be the richest constituency in the country, but it is also among the most unequal. Life expectancy in the borough that included the Grenfell Tower was 14 years shorter for its poorest residents.

Babies born in the poorest areas in the UK weigh on average 200g less than those born in the richest areas, threatening their cognitive development. Babies living in poverty are more likely to die within their first year of life. Those who survive are more likely to have chronic diseases, while a 2016 report by NHS Digital found that reception-year children in the most deprived areas in England were twice as likely to be obese than children in the least deprived areas.

In May, a survey of 266 paediatricians at 90 NHS trusts found two in five doctors held back on discharging a child in the previous six months because of concerns about housing or food insecurity. Only one doctor said poverty and low income did not contribute to the ill health of the children they work with, while more than two-thirds said it contributed “very much”.

Beveridge wanted a free health service accessible to all. In June, a survey from 40 health charities comprising the Prescription Charges Coalition found 30% of people living with long-term health conditions and paying for their prescriptions have not collected medicine due to concerns over cost, while in both England and Scotland GP coverage is lower in areas of deprivation.

And, unbelievably, the number of people dying of starvation in the UK is on the rise. Over the summer, researchers at Oxford University surveyed food bank users for the Trussell Trust and found 80% of them with severe and chronic food insecurity, leaving them vulnerable to malnutrition and nutritional deficiency. In 2015, 984 people died from malnutrition or dehydration – that is 19 people every week, or just more than two a day, starving to death in the UK.


“Ignorance,” Beveridge believed, “is an evil weed which dictators may cultivate among their dupes, but which no democracy can afford among its citizens.” Figures published in April show England and Northern Ireland rank in the bottom four OECD countries for literacy and numeracy among 16-24-year-olds, with employers investing less in skills than in most other EU countries.

This situation is unlikely to improve. In September, 4,000 head-teachers across England wrote to parents to warn that budgets face a real-terms cut of 4.6% by 2020. According to the teaching unions, a typical primary school will be worse off annually by £52,546 and a typical secondary school will have lost £178,000 each year since 2015.

And there is another sort of ignorance that Beveridge couldn’t have imagined – digital deprivation. According to Ofcom figures for 2017, roughly 20% of UK adults – one-fifth of the country – don’t have broadband access at home. On average, 90% of ABC1s have home broadband compared with 74% of C2DEs, 66% of DEs and 47% of low-income households. At a time when the government is moving services online and the country is racing towards an increasingly digitised political sphere, it is getting harder for low-income families to take part in debate, read online newspapers, research essays for school or college or lobby their MPs.

Significantly, universal credit – which is gradually replacing job seeker’s allowance – is a digital-only service. Claimants are expected to make their applications and manage all relevant contact with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) online. Mandatory job searches require claimants to use the government’s online Universal Jobmatch for a minimum number of hours a week. So universal credit is a benefit system available to only the richest 80% of the country.

Jobcentres provide free wi-fi – there are more than 6,000 job-search terminals nationwide, according to the DWP. With unemployment standing at 1.5 million, however, it is clear that 6,000 terminals can’t service all those who need to be online between 10 and 35 hours each week – and in a remarkable piece of institutional doublethink, the government announced in January 2017 that it would close one in 10 Jobcentres. Damian Hinds, the minister for employment, said this reflected today’s welfare state as “people increasingly claim benefits online”..


Beveridge was horrified by housing conditions in prewar Britain, which he identified as a source of poverty and squalor. His report argued for an ambitious council-housing building programme with strong rent controls and proposed a “living tapestry of the mixed community”, offering a mix of social housing and market housing in which “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”.

To say that vision failed is putting it mildly. The ban on councils building houses has contributed to the shortage of homes that is slowly throttling the country – across London, the number of homes built in the six years to the end of 2016 is just 41.8% of the number of new households formed in the same period, according to a GMB analysis of government housing and planning data. Fewer people own their home either outright or with a mortgage than at any time since 1986.

One-third of private rental homes in the UK fail to meet the national Decent Homes Standard – meaning they either contain safety hazards or do not have acceptable kitchen and bathroom facilities or adequate heating. More than 795,000 homes harbour severe health threats from damp and mould, pests, electrical installations, excess cold, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, lead and other chemicals, including asbestos. One in 10 private renters were worried they would be kicked out if they made a fuss.

Support for low-income renters is failing. The Local Housing Allowance sets the level of housing benefit available for tenants in the private rented sector – restricting people to the less expensive properties. Since 2010, the maximum acceptable level of housing benefit was set in such a way that it only covers the rents of the cheapest 30% of homes. That level has been frozen until the end of the decade although rents are still climbing.

In November 2016, the maximum benefit for a room in shared accommodation in Manchester, for instance, was £291 per month. For a two-bedroom flat, it was £519 per month. According to numbers from the Valuation Office Agency published the same month, the lowest rent for shared accommodation in Manchester was £325 per month, and for two bedrooms was £585 per month. Housing benefit, in other words, no longer covers people’s rent.

No wonder that half of working families – roughly 3.7 million families – are cutting back on essential food and clothing to pay the rent, according to Shelter. Some 58,000 households were accepted as homeless in 2015/16, an increase of almost 50% over the past five years.


Beveridge defined full employment as 97% of the workforce in work. By that measure, the country isn’t doing badly. Unemployment hovers just under 5%. And yet, there has not been the increase to wages that full employment typically brings – in the three months to May this year, average pay adjusted for inflation fell by 0.5% year-on-year.

Unstable, precarious, low-paid and temporary jobs have a huge part to play in this – and solid data on the size of the problem is hard to find. Around 900,000 people were on zero-hours contracts in May, according to ONS data – and since many of these people need two jobs to make ends meet, the survey found some 1.4 million zero-hours contracts in place, or 5% of all employment agreements. Someone on a zero-hours contract works, on average, 26 hours a week – with more than a quarter wanting more hours, compared with 7% of other workers.

There are an estimated 1.2 million people working for recruitment agencies with companies from Sports Direct to Amazon contracting out their personnel operations to agencies such as Transline or Manpower. There are no accurate figures on the short-hours or 336-hour contracts that are rapidly replacing zero-hours contracts to avoid negative publicity.

Under a 336-hour annual contract, someone delivering 40 hours a week loses their rights to hours and payments roughly nine weeks into the year. These are a favourite with so-called umbrella companies, set up solely to provide payroll services and legally separate employers and agencies from their responsibilities. If you are paid by an umbrella company, you have minimal employment rights.

Perhaps the best guess at just how fully employed the country is comes from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which estimates that full-time employees make up 60% of the workforce.

Badly paid temporary and insecure jobs are the new poverty – a trap that is becoming harder and harder to escape, with more and more of us sliding into its jaws. As we rethink our economy for the post-Brexit era, the time has come for a new Beveridge report, founded on his first, essential principle: “The object of government in peace and war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but of the happiness of the common man.”

The New Poverty by Stephen Armstrong is published by Verso (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Stephen Armstrong

The GuardianTramp

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