Liam Byrne’s call for a new welfare state: panel verdict

William Beveridge was instrumental in the creation of the welfare state. Photograph: Guardian
William Beveridge was instrumental in the creation of the welfare state. Photograph: Guardian

In January, 2012, BSN editor, Alison Banville joined a panel discussion in The Guardian about benefit reform:

The panel discusses the shadow work and pensions secretary’s return to William Beveridge in his comments on reform

Diane Abbott: ‘Benefits are just part of the picture’

My colleague Liam Byrne is absolutely right to say that we need a debate on social insurance. I deliberately use the term “social insurance”. William Beveridge, the architect of the modern “welfare state” disliked the term “welfare”. Presumably he foresaw how pejorative it would become. Instead he preferred the more accurate “social insurance”.

The truth is that, despite all the public concern, benefit fraud represents less than 1% of welfare spending. It is also the case that while £1.2bn is lost through benefit fraud, a whopping £16bn goes unclaimed altogether. But somehow not as many people are bothered by the millions suffering silently because they are too ill-informed or too proud to claim what they are entitled to, as they are by people who they believe are “scrounging”.

It is right to point to the ballooning housing benefit bill. But we must also admit that this reflects a conscious political decision by successive governments to subsidise (mostly) private landlords rather than invest in affordable council housing. Byrne correctly points out that Beveridge predicated everything on full employment. So it would be nice to see more of a discussion of the desirability of restoring full employment as a policy goal instead of merely talking about lowering unemployment. But, above all, Byrne is correct to say we need to return to Beveridge first principles. So let’s remind ourselves of one: “Social insurance should be treated as one part only of a comprehensive policy of social progress. It may provide income security; it is an attack upon want. But want is one only of the five giants on the road to reconstruction. The others are: disease; ignorance; squalor and idleness.”

“A comprehensive policy of social progress” – now that is something for Labour to think about as we enter the new year.

• Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Sandra Bond: ‘Leave Beveridge in peace – we need new vision’

William Beveridge’s name has become a rallying cry on both sides of the political divide. Would Beveridge have approved of these cuts? What would Beveridge have thought of the NHS’s financial crisis? Surely Beveridge would have solved the country’s woes, fixed inflation, ended social irresponsibility? But to constantly hark back to Beveridge when discussing modern social issues is unfair to both to Britain and the man.

Liam Byrne makes the crucial point that what is needed at this instant is not a second Beveridge. No such entity exists, or could exist. Byrne is right; what we need is another radical reformer who has the vision, ability and courage to look at the country as it is today – not as it was in the 1940s – and plan social reform based upon that.

Byrne suggests that Beveridge’s first principles remain valid. But are they? It would be a brave visionary whose scheme took for granted full employment as an achievable goal, as Beveridge’s did. His centrepiece was the NHS; with 70 years of medical advances, a modern Beveridge would have to take into account that citizens are living longer, and using medical resources in different ways, than they were in 1941. Everything has changed.

Beveridge died in 1963. Let us finally bury him and leave him in peace – with the honour he deserves – and look forward, not back, in our search for a solution.

• Sandra Bond is a qualified solicitor who has been unable to find permanent work after a period caring for a relative

Kaliya Franklin: ‘Politicians are ignoring the sick and disabled’

Given that welfare changes have been such a contentious issue since the first coalition budget, Liam Byrne’s recent proposals are long on rhetoric and short on detail. There is currently a massive trust deficit between sick/disabled people and the Labour party, which the timing of his article adds to, regardless of its intent. Had this article been penned 18 months ago, it might have received a different response. But after so much has been said to support the welfare reform bill by Labour, which also used language reinforcing the “scrounger rhetoric”, it does nothing to reassure those who are terrified of the impact the proposed welfare cuts will have on their lives.

Although the welfare reform bill is not yet law, there have been a number of distressing cases in which benefits, or the lack of access to them, may have played a role. Mark and Helen Mullins, whose bodies were found last month, were forced to rely on a food bank miles from their home, to which they could not even afford the bus fare. Falling through the system’s gaps and loopholes is a common experience for claimants, but it is not widely understood by those who have not experienced its bewildering and leviathan complexity.

While battles rage among politicians as to who can appear the toughest on welfare issues, there will be many more like the Mullins — people who will be mentioned and all too briefly mourned by media which wilfully ignore their own responsibility for the demonisation of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. If the public are asked how they feel about dependency culture, then of course they will condemn it. But perhaps the most important question, which no one seems to care to ask the people of Britain, is: do you wish sick and disabled people to be given the support they need? Politicians of all parties would do well to start pondering this as they also tackle benefit fraud.

• Kaliya Franklin is a disability rights activist, blogger and founder of The Broken of Britain

Alison Banville: ‘This shields the real architects of our woes’

Liam Byrne’s words are utterly meaningless because, like a bad actor in a very bad play, the narrative he is clinging to is entirely false.

To believe that Labour offers an alternative here is dangerously naive and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our corporate state, which relies on the 99% being in perpetual conflict with each other. As Phil Rockstroh points out: “In general, the middle class can be counted on to detest the poor … as long as the animus of the middle class remains fixated on [them], the criminal cartels known as the economic elite can continue to ply their trade.”

Hence Byrne’s rhetoric about the “idleness” of the unemployed, the insidious subtext to his analysis; for what exactly did he suggest as an answer in his piece? Nothing. He simply took another opportunity to stir up resentment towards the most vulnerable while feigning concern and taking no responsibility whatever for the economic situation.

If he can focus attention on those who “through indolence, guile and a welfare state-bestowed sense of limitless entitlement” are draining the economy and robbing good people of their hard-earned money, then no one will notice that he, and the rest of his elite cronies, are the real architects of our woes; the very people who never want us to question our “money as debt” system which falsely claims we must make cuts to put things right.

No one explains that reducing the deficit reduces our money supply and with it our ability to fund welfare and other public spending. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – the government’s debt reduction policy will ensure that the country remains in recession with the public sector cuts and the tearing down of our welfare safety net as “necessary”. With a sovereign, debt-free money supply, none of this banker-imposed austerity would be needed, as Michael Rowbotham says: “Both those in work and out must watch … If a monetary system is invalid or flawed, then the entire economy is based on the mathematics of error, and must be riddled with the effects.”

• Alison Banville has a postgraduate teaching degree but has been unable to find work

Campbell Robb: ‘We must be more radical on housing’

If we are reflecting on the lessons that William Beveridge could provide for 21st century welfare, it’s vital we consider his key insight that you cannot ignore the economy and wider policy. Take housing – dealing with high and variable housing costs was a headache even then, so he backed building more homes as one of the key elements of his report. It’s also important to remember that Beveridge was of course writing for very different times – there were many fewer older people for example, and less willingness to support the disabled, so it’s important we reflect this in our future thinking.

As Liam Byrne writes, Beveridge may well have found the current levels of housing benefit paid unbelievable, but I think his greater shock would have been reserved for the 30-year-long collapse in affordable house building. What we must not lose sight of is that it is this collapse that has in significant part driven the growth in the benefit bill. Socially and economically there is a desperate need to recapture the postwar political consensus on the need to be more radical when it comes to house building, while learning the major lessons from that period. Any talk of “idleness” should be treated with caution – only one in eight housing benefit claimants is unemployed, with many being pensioners, carers and low-income working families.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that what drove much of Beveridge’s generation to act was the striking squalor in the country at large. While we have moved on in a great many respects, the return of rogue landlords shows that progress isn’t guaranteed and that the problem is rearing up on us once again.

• Campbell Robb is chief executive of Shelter

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