Welfare Green Paper: Presiding genius of the 'People's William' still very much in mind

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IT was an instant bestseller, with queues stretching a mile to buy a copy. The austerely named Social Insurance and Allied Services: Report by Sir William Beveridge, declared war on the "five giant evils" of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness and its 1942 publication built the foundations of the welfare state.

Frank Field's Green Paper New Ambitions for our Country - a New Welfare Contract is unlikely to cause such a reaction. But the minister sent by Tony Blair to go to "think the unthinkable" must surely have the "People's William" and his achievement in his mind.

The Beveridge report called for cradle-to-grave social security, a free health service and policies for full employment. Beveridge modestly remarked to his assistant, Harold Wilson: "From now on, Beveridge is not the name of a man, it is the name of a way of life, not only for Britain, but for the whole civilised world."

Attlee's government brought in the "New Jerusalem", the foundations of the welfare state - the NHS (celebrating its 50th birthday this year), free secondary education for all, and social security, with its family allowances and pensions for all. But the system was designed for nuclear families with male breadwinners, underpinned by full employment - a world far away from today.

The welfare state was never set in stone and every government tinkered with it, determined to tame it.

Despite the changes of the 1980s - council house sell-offs, long-term care, reforms of health system - the welfare state did not wither away: the social security budget is now due to take a pounds 83.6bn slice of public spending in 1998-99 - not far short of a third of entire government spending. It rose by pounds 43bn from 1979 to 1996.

Mr Field's Green Paper, billed "one of the most important publications of this Parliament", is the third stage of a process of welfare reform which began with the New Deal - the drive to take the young and long-term unemployed off benefit and into work, plus last week's Budget, with its clutch of initiatives aimed at tilting the balance away from the attractions of life on benefit and towards taking up work. The Government is determined to make sure that work pays.

No doubt Sir William would allow himself a small smile at the rhetoric used today: after all, it was he who wrote more than 50 years ago: "Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them."