This evening by Frank Field MP, in a speech commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge Report at Toynbee Hall, put forward the view that austerity, paradoxically, offers the best prospect ever for serious welfare reform. Received wisdom would suggest that it is only in the years of prosperity, when extra money is available to overcome any unexpected adverse effects that it is possible to bring about fundamental welfare reform.
Frank Field said:
“Britain’s experience in the record period of growth after 1992, which was supposed to abolish the cycle of boom and bust cycle, goes someway to disprove the theory that simply throwing money around will somehow solve fundamental welfare reform issues. In the last decade £175 billion was spent on simply meeting needs. This has resulted in the unstable welfare state that we have today. By unstable I mean that it spends borrowed money (in the sense that tax receipts do not cover government expenditure) in a manner unsupported by taxpayers.
“Our current system discourages work, taxes savings and does not encourage the declaration of earned income. Voters, by contrast, are on the other side of the argument. They support the values of the good society and see welfare as one means through which such values should be reinforced.
“As Britain continues to age there will be greater demands made on health, community care, and pensions, to mention only the three largest budgets that will bear the strain. On current trends, if no changes are made, the welfare and health budget will account for, by 2050, half of all government expenditure. No government will be able to deliver this share. It means, for example, that, without tax rises, which voters oppose, governments, to meet the welfare and health bills, would be required to abolish defence, education and one other major government department’s expenditure to meet this outcome. This is not serious politics.
“Here however lies the opportunity for fundamental welfare reform. There is no way that any government will be able to persuade taxpayers to part with more of their reduced income to finance expenditure on topics decided by governments themselves. On the other hand the electorate knows that it will become more vulnerable, both with respect to the need for greater health services and welfare support in the form of pensions, as life expectancy continues to grow.
“Here is not only the opportunity for serious welfare reform, but for a radical Labour party to seize and begin to forge the coming political agenda. I believe it is more than possible to persuade voters to pay more towards health and welfare if it was promised that the sticky fingers of politicians would be kept off their funds.
“Here then is the opportunity to re-forge Beveridge in a form that would be as important for the 21st century as Beveridge was to the middle decades of the last century.
“But it will only be possible if welfare reform is offered in a format whereby contributors control their own funds. The one part of welfare they most care about is the NHS. So why don’t we transform our health service onto an insurance based model. Increased insurance contributions would be matched by tax cuts ( as most of the NHS expenditure is financed through tax revenue) and governments would be required to pay the contributions of the poorest who are shown to exemplify good citizenship.
“The move would have many advantages. It would for the first time make a direct link between contributions and service provision.
“An insurance based welfare would also open the possibilities for settling the issue of long term care
“For any reform to be taken seriously, it will require the spelling out of the ownership of any new insurance scheme. I have suggested before that the John Lewis Partnership offers a starting point for developing a model. Contributors would thereby gain real authority over the safeguarding of their schemes but would be limited when it came to the sale of assets.
“Here is the most radical programme for reform which I believe is achievable during the decades of austerity that are to come. The alternative is grim and involves continuing a poor law approach to both welfare and health. That, as Dr Johnson might have said, ought to encourage the minds of politicians wondrously.”