Monday, 23 September 2013

Beveridge and Labour

Liam Byrne made three references to William Beveridge in his speech to the Labour annual conference in Brighton earlier today. Judging by other references in this speech and others, Mr Byrne knows his history of social legislation in the UK, but perhaps few of his fellow-members are aware of Beveridge's contributions other than his famous report. I certainly wasn't until I read Beveridge's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

As far back as 1907 he was arguing for a system of social insurance and labour exchanges, based on a research visit he had made to Prussia a year earlier. Shortly afterwards, he became what would now be termed a Special Adviser to Winston Churchill, then a Liberal minister at the Board of Trade. Beveridge worked "closely with the Board of Trade's permanent secretary, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, in drawing up the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909 and part 2 of the National Insurance Act of 1911. Under these acts labour exchanges under Board of Trade control were established in all parts of the country, and unemployment insurance was provided for two and a quarter million workers in heavy industries". (Churchill also pushed through the Trade Boards Act 1909, establishing the wages councils, which put a floor under the earnings of workers in industries where they most liable to exploitation. Most of the wages councils were abolished by the Thatcher/Major administrations.)

Unfortunately, Beveridge soured any relationship he had with trade unions during the Great War, when under Lloyd George he felt compelled to suppress collective bargaining in the munitions industry. It seems to have taken another world war and the report which provided the ammunition for the 1945 Attlee government to dispel the antagonism.

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