Moira+I went to hear Julia Unwin speak on “What Would Beveridge Say Now?” at the Watershed, as part of Bristol’s excellent “Festival of Ideas”. She’s Chief Executive of the remarkable Joseph Rowntree Trust. She warned of a “decade of destitution”. She spoke impressively for 30 minutes and then spent another half-an-hour answering questions from the audience (a full house) with huge knowledge and intelligence about depressing subjects like poverty, unemployment, housing, “marketisation” of the NHS and ageing with a clarity and optimism that we both found humbling and encouraging.She was truly inspirational.
If you can (it lasts for just 28 minutes), I would urge you to watch this recording of the same speech she’d previously given at Toynbee Hall.
She concluded her talk by saying that we needed an anti-poverty strategy for the 21st century and suggested the following five guidelines (I make no apology for repeating her thoughts in full below):
“1. It needs to recognise that poverty is dynamic – it changes and people change with it. Yesterday’s benefit recipient may pay tax tomorrow and require support again later. Movements into and out of poverty are part of the life cycle and in a good society the damage of poverty is minimised by reducing the amount of time that is spent being poor.
2. Poverty is experienced in a place, and geography is vital. The experience of being poor in Hartlepool, or Hampshire is entirely different. And so too will be the interventions. Geography matters, place matters, community matters. We know anecdotally about resilience in communities. We know a little about the ways in which families support and can offer help. And we are beginning to learn a lot about how rapidly those resources can be depleted. But unless we focus locally - on places, on communities we are doomed to failure.
3. And you cannot even begin this journey without thinking about women, those shadowy figures in the original Beveridge work – the widows and unmarried women. The biggest single change in our society has been the role of women. Our current labour market confines far too many women to the low status, poorly paid end of the market with obvious detrimental impacts on their lives and those of their children. Our current labour market does not allow the single breadwinner household to succeed, even where households choose it. Women and men need to be able to make a contribution to both the social and the real economy. Without that we are condemned to fail again.
4. A new contract will cost. The figures that the original Beveridge settlement demanded are enough to make any contemporary Chancellor look a little pale. In preparation for this lecture, I thought I would look back at the actual amount of real money Beveridge was talking about - For unemployment benefit, Beveridge suggested a move from 38shillings per week, which was means tested after 26 weeks, to 56s per week, without means testing. For old age a doubling of the payment to 40s per week. For people with a disability, a rise from 18s to 56s per week, unlimited in time, without means tests at any time.
It cost but it had huge popular support, it brought comfort at a time of need, and it injected money into a stuttering economy.
5. And finally no new settlement will ever work if it does not treat human beings with dignity and respect. If we are to end poverty we need to get real about understanding who is poor. Treating people who are poor as a homogenous group is not just ineffective, it is also wrong. But as I have pointed out tonight, it also makes it impossible for any of us to make progress. Let us be clear. People are poor because they are unlucky. A discourse that describes poor people as alternately bad, lazy, stupid, fraudulent, hopeless is inaccurate, and flies in the face of all evidence. But it also paralyses progress, prevents intelligent analysis, and ruins lives. Even more importantly, we need to treat people who are poor as effective agents in their own lives, able to shape their futures, with knowledge, wisdom and skill to inspire real change”.
We need lots more remarkable people like Julia Unwin!
PS: The John Rowntree Foundation website has some brilliant downloadable resources – definitely worth checking out.