A Minority View: What Beatrice Webb would say now, edited by Barry Knight

Beatrice Webb Memorial Series on Poverty, vol.1, Alliance Publishing Trust, 2011, 128pp, pbk, 1 907376 11 5, available from the Webb Memorial Trust, webb@cranehouse.eu

Beatrice Webb’s contribution to a Royal Commission on the Poor Law just over a hundred years ago was a Minority Report which set out five main principles:

  • Poverty has structural causes
  • Prevention is better than cure
  • Dependency should be avoided
  • Services should be integrated
  • The state, not philanthropy, is responsible. (p.11)

The Government of the time took no notice, but Beveridge had worked as a research assistant on the Minority Report and its findings clearly informed his own 1942 report on National Insurance.

The world is now different, but poverty persists, and the contributors to this collection of essays ask themselves: What would Beatrice Webb have said today? Their suggestions include minimum income standards, supporting poor children in working families (which doesnot mean enforced low-paying employment), restoring the Child Trust Fund, small-scale lending, raising the tax threshold, retaining universal Child Benefit, reducing labour-market disincentives (rather than regenerating poor neighbourhoods), affirmative action to address discrimination and exclusion, and the active pursuit of gender equality.

In his final chapter, the editor lists four definitions of poverty: ‘absolute low income … relative low income … material deprivation … index of multiple deprivation …’ (p.119): but these are all static concepts. A dynamic definition of poverty would be this: ‘A structural inability to create one’s own path out of poverty’. This definition reveals high marginal deduction rates and complex administrative and income uncertainty and continuity problems on changing one’s employment status to be the serious problems which they are.

Of particular interest is the number of suggestions which would reduce marginal deduction rates. Peter Kenway suggests ‘raising the level of the personal allowance to remove low earners from income tax altogether; raising the level of the income thresholds above which benefits and tax credits start to be tapered and/or council tax begins to become payable; reducing the rate at which tax credits and benefits are tapered away as earnings rise; … reintroducing a (lower) starting rate of income tax’ (p.56); and Jonathan Bradshaw calls for Child Benefit to remain universal and shows how effective it is at reducing poverty. Of equal interest is Steve Osborn’s finding that ‘the uncertainties created by the current benefits system and its implications for moving poor people into employment’ (p.80) is a serious problem.

If increasing inequality is a major problem, if income uncertainty across changes in someone’s labour market status are a problem, and if high marginal deduction rates are a major cause of poverty (and in the context of a dynamic understanding of poverty they are), then surely what Beatrice Webb would be saying today is what she said in 1909: that universal services are what’s required; and she would also be saying today that a universal unconditional income for every age-group would prevent poverty, would tackle some of poverty’s structural causes, would reduce dependency, and would integrate tax and benefits, and that it is the state’s responsibility to see that it happens.