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Series IV: The Development of the Welfare State, c1904-1970

Part 1: AST, CAB, ED, INF, LAB, MH, PIN, RG and T Files from The National Archives, Kew


Publisher's Note

Series One of State Provision for Social Need made available the papers of the Beveridge Committee from official sources and offered a top-down approach to issues of social welfare in post-war Britain.  It also offered very valuable comparative material concerning welfare schemes in Europe and America and records of consultations with leading organisations.

Series Two supplied a personal perspective, comprising William Beveridge’s own papers on Welfare topics from the Health Service and Old Age, to Unemployment and Social Insurance.

Series Three gave a bottom-up perspective, comprising hundreds of detailed responses from ordinary folk concerning welfare topics gathered by the Mass-Observation organisation.

This fourth series of State Provision for Social Need offers a further selection of official papers from the ministerial departments and committees directly involved in the development of the Welfare State in Britain from c1940-1970.  The first part of this fourth series looks at the discussions and decision-making involved in the development and implementation of a national social security system and a National Health Service, and at local government level child care reform and the Curtis Committee.

The selection of papers for this series has been guided by The Development of the Welfare State, 1939-1951 compiled by Andrew Land under the supervision of Dr Noel Whiteside and Dr Rodney Lowe of the University of Bristol, from documents in The National Archives, Kew.  We focus on material identified by them as being of ‘central significance’ for the study of the welfare state in the period after 1939.  In this way we are providing access to a wealth of information that has never previously been made readily available.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 Britain was faced with a national emergency crisis.  Central government was forced to take control of the national resources.  The workings of the government expanded to manage the crisis and the central state became involved in the daily lives of the ordinary people as never before.  There was a pressing need for the provision of emergency welfare measures for the protection and safety of the public from the blitz, for the care of many thousands of evacuated children, and for medical care for all.  In addition, it was important for the government to maintain public morale, and to be seen to be giving ‘fair shares’ for all.  While at the same time, the limited resources needed to be balanced so as not to damage the war effort.  Government reconstruction plans carried these wartime experiments in public welfare forward where they were adapted and built upon providing a system that, in peacetime Britain, was to become known as the welfare state.

The minutes of Cabinet committees, as well as those of permanent ‘standing’ committees and ad hoc committees created in response to specific needs and circumstances provide a good guide to ministerial and departmental thinking.  These committees were influenced and guided by the Nuffield College Social Reconstruction surveys which provided data and information on a range of aspects of social welfare, and which had a politically strong impact on government thinking.  These committees include:

  • Interdepartmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services chaired by Sir William Beveridge
  • Social Services Committee chaired by the Lord Privy Seal
  • Committee on the National Health Service chaired by the Prime Minister
  • National Insurance Advisory Committee chaired by Sir Will Spens
  • Committee on Reconstruction Problems chaired by the Lord President and later the Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Committee on Reconstruction Problems chaired by the Paymaster General
  • Care of Children Committee chaired by Myra Curtis.

The files cover a diverse range of subjects including:

  • Nuffield College Social Reconstruction Surveys
  • Post-war hospital and medical services reorganisation
  • Ministry of Health papers on the NHS
  • Government funded Social Survey of public knowledge and opinion on the social services in May 1950
  • Comparisons with the welfare state in Sweden and other countries
  • Pensions
  • Sickness benefit
  • Unemployment benefit
  • Workmen’s compensation for industrial injuries and diseases
  • Care of homeless and neglected children

In the early years of post-war Britain social security was an obvious area for reform to build on the recommendations of the Beveridge Committee.  Social security was divided between various government groups, for example the Ministry of Health was responsible for national health insurance, contributory old and widows’ pensions and public assistance; the Ministry of Labour was responsible for unemployment insurance and the Home Office was responsible for workmen’s compensation.  During the war years little was done to improve this structure; administration was badly organised and benefits inconsistent and often overlapped.

One important area of post-war reform was the development of a national insurance scheme.  In 1947 a National Insurance Advisory Committee was appointed to give advice and assistance to the minister under the National Insurance Act of 1946.  At the first meeting of the committee, held on 14 November, the Minutes record that James Griffiths, Minister for National Insurance opened the meeting,

“Many of the technical problems involved in launching a scheme of this magnitude had not been settled in the Act, but had been left to be dealt with in regulations.  The Minister had often felt that in some ways it would have been a good thing if, instead of inheriting schemes built up piece-meal over 40 years, he had been able to start from scratch; the technical difficulties would then have been greatly eased.  But his task now was to conduct two operations at the same time.  Millions had been insured for many years under the present insurance schemes, and their insurance rights must be safeguarded under the new universal scheme.  That scheme must also provide adequately for the millions of new people, including that important section of the community the self-employed, which was for the first time being brought into National Insurance.

The work of the Committee was in two parts.  First there was the consideration of and report on preliminary draft regulations which he would refer to them.  He and his officials had been working hard on these regulations for some time and he was glad to say now that a big sheaf was ready and would shortly be reaching the Committee.  Second there was the consideration of special questions involving difficult problems of insurance on which he would seek their advice.  The Minister said that he might warn the Committee now that he already had found one or two such questions on which he intended to seek their assistance in the near future.

In the early months the consideration of the preliminary draft regulations would be the Committee’s heaviest task.  There could be no doubt that when legislation was effected in this way it was desirable that the millions of contributors should have ample safeguards of their interests.  This Committee would be their safe guard.  That, perhaps, makes the Committee’s work more onerous but he hoped it would make it more intimate and vital.”

PIN 60/1

Talks for planning a reformed health service were begun in 1938 with the first of a series of conferences on the Development of Health Services held in the Secretary’s room of the Department of Health and Social Security on 7 February.  The Minutes record,

“1.  The Secretary explained that the purpose of conferences was to arrive at some long-term view of the possible improvements and extensions of the Health Services.  At the same time it would be useful to bear in mind what items of policy could suitably be embodied in an election programme within the next year or two.  One such item outside the scope of these conferences might be the extension of Old Age Pensions to the wives of Old Age Pensioners at he age of 60.  There might be extensions of National Health Insurance or developments of Public Health Services, which could similarly be included.

It appeared to him that there were two alternative lines of development, either by a gradual extension of National Health Insurance to further classes of the community and by new statutory benefits, or the gradual development of local authority services.  There appeared to be some difference of opinion outside the Department on which was the preferable course.

2.  The provision of a Specialist and Consultant Service was considered, and in discussion it was suggested that the British Medical Association would probably favour the extension of insurance, a course which also had the financial advantage of being a simple method of covering the cost of additional services.  On the other hand, it was pointed out by the CMO and generally agreed that the policy of the Ministry has always been development of the Public Health Services, that a good many specialist service were already provided by local authorities, and that any specialist service must be co-ordinated with the present hospital provision and based on institutional treatment.  This latter fact would make the service unsuitable for provision through insurance, because insurance benefits must be provided as of right and it would be difficult to guarantee that a person could be admitted to a hospital or institution at any particular time.”

MH 80/24

The outbreak of war resulted in a temporary cessation of talks, while the Ministry addressed the immediate medical needs of the people through the organisation of the Emergency Medical Services.  However, by 1940 planning was once again an important issue with discussions on the National Health Service Bill continuing for several more years, before the Act was passed in 1946.  The suggested contents of a Second Reading speech for the Bill for the period January to April 1946 concluded:

“93.  Here, then, is the Bill – an beginning of the next stage in the story.

94.  Up to the 19th century, a story mainly of charity, voluntary effort, or neglect.  In the 19th century, a story at first of the Poor Law – treatment in destitution – and of growing attention to environmental conditions, fear of plagues and infections, the beginning of the “sanitary” age.  Towards the end, and in this century, a series of public health measures for their own sake.  Beginning to get into our stride – maternity and child welfare, tuberculosis, the school services, the panel doctor, the conversion of local authority hospitals from the Poor Law to public health.

95.  Now the biggest single measure of them all – an attempt to cover all the main field of personal health in one comprehensive provision.  Bigger landmark than the Public Health Act of 1875.

96.  Don’t imagine [we] can hope [for] a health Utopia on the appointed day.  Short of doctors, short of nurses, short of dentists, short of buildings.  But start the thing off; the immediate advance is itself a leap ahead; make up the remaining ground steadily thereafter.

97.  Nation has spent a lot of money on a lot of things in the last six years.  If ever there was anything calculated to repay investment bountifully in terms of individual happiness and national well-being, it is the personal care of the personal health of the ordinary man and woman and child – the subject and the purpose of this Bill.”

MH 80/30, p.24

Local government services continued to play an important role in the provision of welfare services after World War II.  Although it did lose some of its functions such as the control of hospitals, in other areas its responsibilities expanded, including the provision of child care.  Pre-war children were taken into care if they were without an alternative home due to the death of the parents, or if they had been abandoned.  Children were also taken from their family for their own safety or well-being, or placed in care because of misdemeanours.  However, the war was to act as a catalyst on child care services which witnessed a sharp rise in the numbers of children in care.  Large numbers of children were evacuated, and a high level of civilian deaths because of air raids greatly increased numbers of orphans needing official help.  In addition, a high degree in illegitimacy increased the number of babies in local authority care.

The failings of the child care system, highlighted by the war, led to a number of private campaigns to improve the situation.  An important campaign by Lady Allen of Hurtwood carried out an investigation into the care provided for children in homes.  The campaign highlighting conditions in homes was very much in the public eye, being well reported in the newspapers at the time, and putting public pressure on the government to act.  In March 1956 the [Myra] Curtis Committee on the Care of Children was set up to calm public anger and provide a new system for child care services.  The report of the Curtis Committee was put into legislative form in the Children Act 1948, in an attempt to bring together under one service responsibility for all homeless children.  ‘The Act transformed the approach to child care from one of provision for the abandoned, wanton, or destitute to one of care for the needy’.  It became the responsibility of the authority to ‘further his best interests and afford him opportunities for the proper development of his character and abilities’.

We provide the papers for 1944-1946 including the appointment of the Care of Children Committee (CAB 124/780); information and evidence supplied to the committee by the Ministry of Education (ED 136/780); memorandum and transcripts of evidence, and a copy of the report of the Care of Children Committee (MH 102/1451A-E).

These papers will be invaluable to anyone interested in the development of the welfare state through the war years and into peacetime Britain.  The files will be used by those researching government post-war reconstruction policies and for information on the workings of the government committees at the apex of decision-making.



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