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The Beveridge Legacy

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Never mind the competing claims of the main political parties, today's BBC poll shows that the true believers in the approach set out by Sir William Beveridge in his famous report 70 years ago are actually the British public.

In many ways this is remarkable. Newspapers exposing and politicians promising to crack down on 'cheats and scroungers' have come to dominate the public debate, inevitably shaping public understanding and attitudes.

The result, as the ComRes poll for BBC Radio 4 backs up, is that the general public has a distorted and inaccurate understanding of the social security system. It's simply staggering that a significant minority of people of people believe that nearly half of people on benefits are committing fraud or refusing reasonable work - when the truth is that fraud is down to less than 1% of benefit spending.

The public debate is dangerously dysfunctional but this is not for the lack of effort by those wanting an evidence-based debate. The 'dependency culture' myth is repeatedly debunked and disproved by policy experts but its grip shows no sign of weakening. Families with two or three generations not working? An analysis by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol has shown few actually exist and attempts by academics to track down these families have been unsuccessful.

Too lazy to work? The official statistics tell us that nearly 90% of people on Job Seekers Allowance move off the benefit within 12 months. An important Joseph Rowntree Foundation report shows that many families are stuck in a 'low pay, no pay' cycle because of the nature of our labour market. It's not that people don't try to move into work, they do, repeatedly; it's that the labour market doesn't hold on to them.

No shame in claiming benefits? Actually, a good thing if true but we all know it's not. Last week's fascinating report for Turn to Us by University of Kent academics found slightly higher levels of benefits stigma in neighbourhoods with relatively high numbers of people claiming benefits - if the 'dependency culture' narrative is true then we should expect lower levels of stigma in these communities.

Yet, despite this highly corrosive belief that other people aren't playing fair, the BBC polls finds the most people believe the creation of the welfare state remains one of Britain's proudest achievements and that it is right that, if needed, the social security system should guarantee a minimum standard of living for people.

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith's believes his policies will address his longstanding concerns - which predate his criticism of the last government's record - of a 'dependency culture' and so take us closer to what Beveridge wanted.

But the differences between the government's policies and Beveridge are many and profound.

Moving away from notions of charity and from humiliating means-tests to a system of entitlements and national insurance was one of the key planks in Beveridge's vision. But this government has gone in other direction, cutting universal benefits and bringing in the new Universal Credit which is a big means-test that is far more intrusive than the current system.

One aspect of Universal Credit where the government is being true to Beveridge is in the way its work incentives assume (and reward) the male breadwinner model for families (and disincentivise work for second earners and lone parents) which was outdated to many even in the 1940s.

But, fundamentally, while Beveridge was a reaction against inter-war austerity, the coalition's welfare policy is the instrument of its austerity policy.

Policy after policy and cut after cut have hit family finances - particularly families with children. Billions of cuts have already been announced and more may come in the Autumn Statement early next month. This is why, after years of steady decline, child poverty is now expected to rise sharply in the coming years.

Our social security system was created in a time of national crisis. A nation that had made so many sacrifices in war but remembered the insecurity of poverty wanted its political leaders to make a lasting commitment to its children and future generations.

What will future generations make of our political leaders today if the people making today's sacrifices are our children?

Beveridge pointed the way to mutual support and pooling risk - principles we should return to if we truly intend to be all in it together.