The Five Giants - A New Beveridge Report

New Series: Volume 2, Issue 3

2 November 2022

Editorial: Beveridge’s Giants 80 Years On

John Holmwood

November 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge Report, or Social Insurance and Allied Services, as it was unpromisingly titled. It set out the five ‘Giants’ that confronted public policy – idleness, want, ignorance, squalor and disease – and made proposals for how they might be tackled, most famously arguing the need for a National Health Service. Yet 80 years on and the Giants remain. To be sure, there has been a general rise in living standards, but this has occurred alongside deep-seated inequalities that seem no less entrenched than when Beveridge drafted his report.

Our present moment is not auspicious. The last decade has been witness to the politics of austerity that has put a severe strain on the very social services whose foundations Beveridge sought to build. The disastrous and short-lived budget by Prime Minister Truss and Chancellor Kwarteng has placed further strain on public finances, such that the same month that we celebrate Beveridge’s landmark report, we will witness another budget that will likely make further deep cuts to public spending and exacerbate inequalities and poverty yet further.

Discover Society is pleased to publish five articles marking the anniversary of the Beveridge Report and addressing the five Giants that we have failed to slay. They each represent an introduction to five books published separately by Agenda Publishing, which together constitute A New Beveridge Report. Importantly, the authors of this new Beveridge Report, do not look backward, but seek to find solutions for what might otherwise seem by their longevity to be intractable problems. Indeed, to some degree they argue that while the reforms to social services inaugurated by Beveridge were carried through by a wave of enthusiasm in the immediate post-war period, a flaw was concealed in the heart of the report.

This flaw was the liberal understanding that economic growth and prosperity was the national goal to which the reform of social services was the answer. This facilitated a transition to a neo-liberalism where the ‘burden’ of social services could be represented as an obstacle to growth and prosperity, even where that prosperity was disproportionately enjoyed by those already advantaged. A new basis for public services, our contributors argue, must be found in a central goal of social justice and welfare for all.

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: Agenda Publishing


Holmwood, John 2022. ‘Editorial: Beveridge’s Giants 80 Years On’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (3):


The first book in the series, Want, takes a broad look at modern day poverty, identifying who is trapped in hardship today, and why this giant is alive and well in the UK.


Fran Darlington-Pollock

If a person died from tuberculosis in the eighteenth century, this might not only be expected but might also be considered unavoidable. But if a person dies from tuberculosis today, is that either expected or unavoidable? We have the means both to prevent and also, almost always, to cure tuberculosis.

Galtung saw violence, where the unequal distribution of power in society led to unequal life chances, as ‘structural violence’

Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist, famously posed that very question, concluding that if a person does die today from tuberculosis ‘despite all the medical resources in the world’ that death is a violent death (Galtung, 1969: 168). Galtung widened the concept of violence to capture the intangible harms and injustices in society’s structure. He saw violence where the unequal distribution of power in society led to unequal life chances: he termed this ‘structural violence’.

We live in a society characterized by structural violence and sadly, there can be no greater signal of that fact than the experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus tore through society, but it was not indiscriminate. The burden of exposure and death was disproportionately shouldered by people at the bottom of the social ladder: people still reeling from a decade of government austerity. In illuminating the violent structures of society, Covid-19 also shone a light on deep chasms in the provision of welfare. It revealed a broken system of health and social care, a social security safety net no longer fit for purpose. But perhaps it can also catalyse change.

Beveridge’s characterization of the Five Giants mobilized public and political support for radical change

In November 1942 – a similarly turbulent time of war, fear and death – Sir William Beveridge delivered a report to a parliamentary committee placing the UK firmly on a path towards a universal healthcare service, free at the point of use.  Beveridge’s provision for the health of the nation was the flagship of his welfare system that for a time became the envy of the world. His characterization of the Five Giants mobilized public and political support for radical change, the impacts of which still resonate today. But his assault both on disease and its brothers-in-arms has run its course.

Our current health and longevity undeniably owe much to the healthcare system he envisaged, but also to the improved living conditions through better housing, the expanded education system, and the full-scale attack on poverty which his proposals led to. Consider for example that babies born when Beveridge was writing his report might have expected to celebrate around 60 birthdays. By the time they reached 60 they were in fact looking to enjoy another 20 or so years of life.

Despite such successes, the health and social care systems established through, and in response to, Beveridge’s landmark report have not kept pace with the changes they heralded. We are a very different population from that of 1942. We are more diverse, and we are older. Even aside from our increasing longevity, what ails and kills us is today very different from what ailed and killed people in the 1940s. Though we live longer, we do so often with more complex and multiple health conditions, and our mental health is at least as complex as our physical health. This challenges the sustainability of a system that in the 1940s Beveridge and Bevan premised on treating illness and returning people to their ‘normal’ state ready either to resume work, if they were men, or motherhood, if they were women.

Not only has the nature of our ill-health changed, so too has our understanding of it. Health is socially determined. Where we sit in the social and economic hierarchy matters for our chances of good health, both physical and mental. Whether or not we live in a leafy suburb or a crowded inner-city tower block, for example, matters for our health. The 1980s saw growing concern about health inequalities between social groups, which had occurred despite a comprehensive, universal health service. This concern led to a report – the Black Report – that was suppressed during the Thatcher administration’s programme of rolling back, rather than shoring up, a struggling social security system.

Almost as soon as Aneurin Bevan realized Beveridge’s ‘Assumption B’ and created our National Health Service, the costs began to worry those responsible for delivering it. But instead of concerted and sustained effort to establish a new approach, better suited to the changing size, age, diversity and health of the population, successive governments seemed more ready to dismantle, weaken and erode the extent and value of welfare provision, whether in earnest or by accident. Beveridge, though perhaps unintentionally, had already offered the means to do this.

The health and wellbeing of the population were seen as a means to an end rather than as a goal

Framed in the liberal ideology that governed Beveridge’s politics, the health and wellbeing of the population were seen as a means to an end rather than as a goal. Providing for the health of the nation provided for the wealth, growth and prosperity of that nation. A healthy population was a happy by-product of a prosperous society. The maturing of liberal ideology in the UK and the growth of neoliberalism saw policy and political rhetoric increasingly centred on the individual. At the same time, economic debate elevated the market and competition principles as the key mechanism through which to organize society, allocate resources and measure success. The primacy of both the market and the individual carved out space in which responsibility for health and wellbeing has gradually been relinquished by the state and progressively transferred to the individual.

Those who depend on the welfare state are increasingly demonized and marginalized by political rhetoric

Prioritizing the global competitiveness of the economy and the labour market has come at the expense of a strong safety net of social protection – such as Beveridge had sought to weave – or regulated wages and progressive taxation. When people are framed as being solely responsible for their own health and wellbeing – while ignoring the harmful social structures that differently enable or prohibit good health – shared interests at either the political or even public level in maintaining a welfare state declines. Those who depend on that welfare state are increasingly demonized and marginalized by political rhetoric. The fleeting premiership of Liz Truss saw a resurfacing of her infamous quote that “the British are among the worst idlers in the world” – a rather apposite example of such demonization. And yet, it is ironic that the ideology, which enables this demonization and emphasis on individual responsibility, is the root cause of the growing numbers of people in urgent need of welfare support.

Recall Galtung’s concept of structural violence and his condemnation of the unequal life chances afforded by the unequal distribution of power in society. Where we agree with the primacy of the pound, of economic growth, and of competition, are we complicit in that violence? If we prioritize economic growth and those who can contribute to it, we simultaneously erode the health and wellbeing of society at large. We create far more problems than we solve, and we drive up the costs of a system we already fear is unsustainable. We are complicit. Without public and political recognition of this complicity in maintaining a system that harms and demonises those who need it most we are enabling if not actively wielding that violence.

Beveridge’s giant is now a behemoth

Beveridge’s giant is now a behemoth. Despite remarkable gains to life expectancy, those gains began to stall and reverse even before Covid-19 emerged alongside the nudging upwards of infant mortality. Through vaccines and antibiotics, tuberculosis and other respiratory complaints are no longer among the leading causes of death for our children and young adults, but suicide has taken over. Although we celebrate extending lifespans, we simultaneously dismiss, marginalize or stigmatize older people in our society. Our health and social care systems are both chronically underfunded, and the act of ‘caring’ is relegated to the margins of political interest and public merit. What is the alternative?

In revisiting Beveridge, I explore what gaps in provision have emerged as the needs, shape and size of the population has changed: the importance of ‘care’ cannot be overstated. A care or caring economy is not a new idea, but it is one that the experiences of Covid-19 should now give new urgency to. Primacy should no longer be given to economic growth but to “everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible”, to repeat Berenice Fisher and Joan Tronto’s (1990: 40) famed definition of care.  Economic growth need not be the be all and end all, but it is both possible and equitable in an economic system which prioritizes all forms of care sustaining life and the planet.

Care economies focus investment in public services, allowing for sustained, targeted and substantial investment at all levels of the health and social care system. The benefits to overall levels of well-being and life satisfaction, as well as the health of the population more generally, would be sizeable. But so too would the economic benefits, with health and well-being framed as both the means and the goal, recognised to be worth more than their instrumental value. Afterall, think how much we are capable of when we have our health, the ability to manage and cope with ill-health, our wellbeing, and are content.

Care work, informal and formal, cannot be secondary to wider macroeconomic planning and policy

Beveridge underpinned his recovery and flourishing with an Assumption B, the creation of a National Health Service. For us, let us underpin a new recovery and a new flourishing with Assumption B.2, driving forward from a national health and social care service adequately resourced to tackle more than the immediate costs of morbidity. Care work, informal and formal, cannot be secondary to wider macroeconomic planning and policy. Build a system that is community-led, where care is valued and reciprocal. Build a system for a society committed to dismantling the violent structures through which unequal life chances are maintained and perpetuated. Beveridge proposed revolutionary, radical change, not simply ‘patchy reform’. It was needed in the aftermath of war, and it is needed now.

Drawn from Frances Darlington-Pollock’s book, Disease, with Agenda Publishing.


Fisher, B. & J. Tronto (1990). “Towards a feminist theory of care”. In E. Abel & M. Neslon (eds), Circles of Care. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Galtung J. (1969) Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6 (3): 167-191.

Frances Darlington-Pollock is an outgoing research advisor at an INGO, soon to take up the role of head of a charity based in the North West. Frances is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences, University of York and currently Chair of The Equality Trust. Prior to moving full time into the third sector, Frances was a University Lecturer in Geography at the University of Liverpool, and Queen Mary University of London. Twitter: @F_Darlington

Header Image Credit: Agenda Publishing


Darlington-Pollock, Frances 2022. ‘Disease’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (3):


Sally Tomlinson

How far has Ignorance – one of William Beveridge’s five Giants that stalked the land in 1942 – been overcome some eighty years later?  My father left school at 14 in 1914, becoming a messenger on a bike for the army in the Great War. At the start of World War 2, in 1939, some 88% of young people still left school at 14 – not much progress there. But over the next 80 years, through which I have lived, starting school as a child evacuee, the Giant was hobbled if not completely eradicated. Ignorance seems, however, to have regrouped and recovered as the free market ideology, dating especially from the Thatcher years, has produced in England, (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have separate systems)  a pointlessly competitive and  potentially corrupt  schooling system.  

Other countries in post-war Europe managed to banish much ignorance in their populations through more just and equitable education, without the often hostile denigration of England’s state-maintained system and its teachers.  Schools in England have been turned into business-oriented institutions with all the claims for confidentiality, efficiency and performance that characterize business.  Parents have been demonized as vigilantes at worst and nuisances at best. Criticism of policy and practice is discouraged and claims that governments are interested in ‘what works’ avoids the question ‘works for whom?’

There have been many advances in education over the years, especially up to the 1970s. But Beveridge himself envisaged only a simple system of more literacy, numeracy and skills for the working classes, and noted the hostility of many of his own class to educating the masses.  The determination of many politicians and policy-makers to retain a social-class based school system, extolling ‘academic’ schooling, downgrading the ’vocational’ and allowing the obscene levels of child poverty that now characterizes our post-pandemic society, has helped to reproduce a divided and divisive system.

The people in charge of a state-maintained system have, even today, almost all been educated in a separate private system, with an astonishing number attending the University of Oxford

The people in charge of a state-maintained system have, even today, almost all been educated in a separate private system, with an astonishing number attending the University of Oxford, with some clinging to eugenic beliefs that the ‘lower’ classes and some minorities have lower innate intellectual capacities. As one writer has suggested, it is ‘public schools boys’ who still mainly run and perhaps ‘ruin’ Britain (Verkaik 2018). They are supporters of a theory of ignorance – agnotology. This describes the deliberate production of ignorance by those with power, who use lies and misinformation to confuse and control the rest of us. Attendance at the ‘public’ school Eton makes it far more likely that a person will end up as Prime Minister! Our recent Prime Minister, Liz Truss, is unusual in that she actually attended a comprehensive school before she went on to take a degree at Oxford University, but she has tried to suggest her old school was not good enough, which infuriated the school!

So how did the English school system go about deciding who should get certain kinds of knowledge and who should be kept ignorant of much important knowledge. Cyril Norwood’s 1943 White Paper on educational reconstruction and the 1944 Butler Education Act famously recommended schooling from 5-15 years with ‘elementary’, now primary, school to 11 years. This was to be followed by attendance at one of three types of secondary school: grammar, technical or secondary modern, plus special schooling for those with a ‘disability of body or mind’ and an exam at 11 to ‘select’ the academic child, who, like me, often left school not knowing how to change a light bulb.

By the 1970s only a small number of local authorities retained their grammar schools, with a vociferous lobby that continues to the present day to urge grammar school expansion with rampant hostility towards comprehensive schooling. Many urban secondary modern schools, underfunded and with a high turnover of teachers, became the  comprehensives so easily derided into the 21st century as ‘bog standard’ and ripe for conversion into ‘Academies’.

The establishment of Academy schools and their Trusts as corporate entities responsible for their own budgets, outside the purview of local education authorities, and with their expansion into Multi-Academy Trusts (MATS),  removed many powers from local authorities. It also diverted funds from actual teaching and learning into the high salaries of CEOs and payments to unelected Trustees who manage multiple schools and the education of hundreds, if not thousands of children. The academization rigmarole has left the public largely ignorant of  how schools are run and operate, and some parents, particularly of those with  children  with special educational needs,  furious  as to how the government  makes claims about provision which are simply not fulfilled.  It has also created, as many commentators have pointed out, a system that is ripe for corruption and lacks any democratic underpinning.

The success of comprehensive schooling has exposed the lies about every child’s ability to learn and represents a genuine removal of ignorance

But the slow success in attacking the Giant of Ignorance was based on an expansion of schooling first to age 15, then in 1972 to 16, then in 2013 joining other European countries in requiring young people to stay in education  or skills training to 18. The success of comprehensive schooling has exposed the lies about every child’s ability to learn and represents a genuine removal of ignorance. Despite this, governments over the years have consistently refused to acknowledge the benefits of teaching children of all backgrounds together, as happens in Finland and Canada, which top international exam league tables such as PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment).

Further success in overcoming ignorance has been the gradual acceptance that girls’ brains are equal to those of boys, although even up to the 1960s a report suggested that a majority of girls should primarily  be educated to be wives and mothers. Once girls were offered more equal schooling, by the 2000s they began to outperform boys at almost all levels in tests and examinations, including in 2021 in maths examinations at 16. But women teachers did not receive equal pay with men until 1960, and women still struggle to translate their educational success into business and professional lives.  

Another success has been a focus on the early years, those who were termed ‘infants’ and were taught in separate infant schools into the 1960s. Early years education in nursery and reception classes has become an important policy focus. Nationwide, Children’s Centres, despite funding reductions and being part privatized, have become a way of guarding against ignorances in later years.

By the1980s with more comprehensive schools established and Kenneth Baker’s GCSE (with all its faults) in place, test scores rose steadily

Lies and misinformation abound on the standards front.  By improving primary education and allowing   more secondary students to actually prepare for and take examinations, standards as measured by test results rose steadily. Attempts by eugenically inclined Black Paper writers and some politicians to claim that standards were, or are, falling or slipping are simply not true. In the 1960s some 20% of pupils took the (then) GCE, secondary modern pupils were downgraded to a lower type of exam (CSE). By the1980s with more comprehensive schools established and Kenneth Baker’s GCSE (with all its faults) in place, test scores rose steadily.

By 1991 some 50% of 16-year-olds taking GCSE exams passed with the benchmark of A–C, by 2018 nearly 70% of those who sat the exams gained the A–C equivalent. The 5% entering universities in Beveridge’s time had become 35% by the 1990s and well over 40% in the 2000s. A continued failure has been the lack of information, funding, resources and respect for Further Education and apprenticeships, which has left a trail of ignorance in its wake over provision for vocational courses and training in crucial skills.

Partial success at removing ignorance does include the greater attention paid to children and young people who, after Mary Warnock’s report in 1978, became children with special educational needs (disability added in 1995 to make SEND). Despite the failures in adequate funding, expanded labelling and confusing legislation both in schools and the wider society, there is now a much greater acceptance of educational needs and disabilities. Inclusion has become a popular concept, if not a reality. Schools continue to exclude pupils who are troublesome or problematic, especially if they fail to contribute to higher exam scores in the competitive market of testing and funding, and there is a potential resurgence of ignorance with the development of ‘Alternative Provision’.

There has been mixed success in the reduction of violence in schools since the legal violence allowing teachers to hit children was abolished in 1987 (1999 in private schools). Unlike other European countries it is still legal in 2022 for parents to hit their children. In some mainly urban schools, violence between pupils and gang rivalries spill over but by and large schools are reasonably orderly places. The harassment of girls, gay and trans pupils, and even teachers, aided by the use of social media is a new component of the Giant not envisaged or acknowledged in the Beveridge times. Schools can lay the basis but cannot be expected to teach civil and moral behaviour in a society that is not supportive of such behaviour.

The biggest barrier to reducing ignorance has been the narrowing of the school curriculum

But the biggest barrier to reducing Ignorance has been the narrowing of the school curriculum by successive governments into a vehicle for government-approved learning, the ultimate aim being to pass tests and examinations rather than to educate. Policed by Ofsteds, Ofquals and dictats on what can and cannot be taught and influenced by politicians who look back on their own ‘traditional’ schooling, extolling Latin and misunderstanding the digital world are all supports for Ignorance. Most teachers think that the curriculum does not contribute to the broad and balanced knowledge promised in legislation. The failure to teach the truthful history of imperialism and how Britain became multiracial and multicultural counts as a ‘Monstrous Ignorance’ which is slowly being recognized. The Black Lives Matter movement and the acknowledgement of racism in sport are currently doing more to educate the population and help decrease racism and xenophobia than schools.

Those in government during World War 2, Beveridge, Attlee and Butler, who had all been educated in ‘public’ schools, knew something of the lives of the ‘common people’, and they were joined in government by a few working-class men and women. The private system may have given them confidence and entitlement, but they had the humility to realize that the country not only needed a better educated work force, it also needed to become a fairer and more socially just democratic society.  It did not need the strategies that keep much of the population in ignorance and deny them important knowledge.

The Giant of Ignorance will not be demolished until a comprehensive school system and a fair, re-imagined common curriculum for all children and young people is the accepted mode of schooling

Those in charge now seem to have lost humility and empathy and to have minimal knowledge and understanding of the lives of most of their fellow citizens. The current private school and selective state policies seems guaranteed to perpetuate such ignorance.  The marketization and semi-privatization of schooling and the ending of much democratic control through local authorities are ugly and ignorant policies. The Giant of Ignorance will not be demolished until a comprehensive school system and a fair, re-imagined common curriculum for all children and young people is the accepted mode of schooling.

But this is not a fairy story, so never underestimate Giants.

Drawn from Sally Tomlinson’s book, Ignorance, with Agenda Publishing.


Verkaik, R. 2018. Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain. London: Oneworld.

Sally Tomlinson started her career as a social worker and infant school teacher and has worked in higher education for over thirty-five years. She has taught, researched and written in the areas of race, ethnicity and education, educational policy and special and inclusive education and was a member of the Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, which reported in 2000. She has held Professorial Chairs at the University of Lancaster, England;  University of Wales, Swansea; and as Goldsmiths Professor of Education Policy and Management at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she also served as a Pro-Warden (Vice Principal). She is now Emeritus Professor at Goldsmiths, and an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Education, University of Oxford.

Header Image Credit: Agenda Publishing


Tomlinson, Sally 2022. ‘Ignorance’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (3):


Daniel Renwick and Robbie Shilliam

Our book, Squalor, part of A New Beveridge Report published by Agenda, was written in the shadow of the worst residential fire in Britain since the Blitz. As part of its renovation, Grenfell Tower had been wrapped in insulation and cladding that was highly combustible. When the fire started, it was accelerated by tens of thousands of litres of solidified petrol present in this wrapping. Ambiguities in government guidance – especially Approved Document B – gave the building industry far too much room for reckless manouevre.

The manufacturer of the cladding system, Arconic, the insulation companies Celotex and Kingspan, as well as the developers and architects stretched their interpretations of the regulatory documents to breaking point. A local government, highly invested in property markets and speculation, signed off and sanctioned the renovation. Mass death followed. The seventy-two souls that perished in the fire were killed by a confluence of factors – from regulatory failure to an inflexible command to stay put. Several private and public organizations face potential criminal liabilities for their failures. Yet more than five years later, justice remains to be done. 

We present a political history of squalor from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day in which the causes and consequences of the Grenfell Tower are our point of arrival

Our book presents a political history of squalor from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day – a history in which the causes and consequences of the Grenfell Tower are our point of arrival.  Our objective is to demonstrate that squalor in Britain has been consistently re-made by political elites, even when they have pursued policies to ameliorate squalid conditions.

We track a process of what could be called “population sorting” across a historical vista constituted by imperial, welfare, neoliberal and populist eras. We argue that diverse strategies such as slum clearance, new town building, social housing provision, and buying incentives have all rested on a fatal flaw: those who live in squalor have been judged to be part of the dysgenic environment themselves – they are a part of squalor, rather than sufferers of squalid conditions.

Of course, all elite projects are not the same, even if they depend on similar logics. For instance, one project attempted to resist the impulse to segregate populations; another replaced a public duty to house almost entirely with a private interest to buy. In many ways, the consistent reproduction of squalor over time eventuates as much through the clash between various projects as from the similarities of their premises and assumptions.

We include in our story the defence of shared space

Central to these clashes is, we argue, a resistive project by those who have suffered squalor. So, we include in our story the defence of shared space, in predominately urban settings, staged by the residents and denizens rather than by architects, planners or state officials. Such grassroots defence demonstrates a distrust of the state and its services, and a desire for self-determination through methods sometimes considered illicit. Yet we suggest that the act of defence itself has been treated by elites as illegitimate – whether illegal or not – as revealed in the testimony of Ed Daffarn to the Grenfell inquiry concerning the dismissive treatment of resident action groups by local government. 

Our political history indicts present-day politics for a failure to confront squalor. Where the state might once have considered housing a public health issue, contemporary politics is predicated upon maintaining the economic conditions for house price inflation. Simple supply-side economics chokes demand. For all the valorization of the private sector, rental markets are presently a shameful site of squalor stitched together by threadbare regulations. Subdivided households conceal overcrowding across our major cities. Deregulations announced since the Grenfell Tower fire allow potentially dangerous conversions of office buildings into homes.  Undocumented denizens find themselves especially dependent on the criminal housing market, where sheds and outhouses come to house the most vulnerable. 

Daniel Hewitt and Kwojo Tweneboa have shone valuable light on the housing associations and councils who have left their residents to suffer squalor. Incredibly, though, the public sector has better housing stock than that of the private sector. Huge amounts of the sector fail to meet housing standards, with mould, infestations and broken heating systems inducing misery for millions. And if current trends continue, by 2050 the majority of the country will be privately renting.

Grenfell was a victim of the new not the old

Policy Exchange, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy sought to frame the tragedy of Grenfell Tower as a legacy of past social housing inequities. We argue, unabashedly, that Grenfell was a victim of the new not the old. It is no longer the Dickensian stereotype of the slum-dweller who stands to be burnt. Private leaseholders and first-time buyers have found their blocks covered in ACM cladding.

Since 2010 there have been twelve housing secretaries

The government took four and a half years before promising to make the developers and building owners responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire pay. One might wonder how yet another regime in Downing Street will honour that promise. That said, when it comes to housing, turnover of government leaders is now the norm. Since 2010 there have been twelve housing secretaries – an average of one per year. For those residents campaigning for change, the frustration this builds cannot be overstated. How can meaningful relationships be built with such turnover?

Above all, while each government ascribes, variously, to the deregulation mantra, the same governments ascribe to the mantra of surveillance and social control. In our book, we argue that this combination produces “organized negligence”. Riffing off David Harvey and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s idea of “organized abandonment”, we argue that the aftermath of Grenfell has shown just how much communities are not so much abandoned but neglected – that is, purposively trapped in rules that do not serve their interests or even provide for their basic safety. In sum, housing policy is absent of humaneness, let alone justice, and least of all a commitment to reform.

Mortgage rates and interest rates are to rise to such a level that millions more now find themselves facing precarious housing futures

The Grenfell Tower fire should have been an event that signally changed the politics of housing. But what should have been a full stop to a sentence enumerating vicious and inequitable injustices has become a comma. There have since followed constitutional and political battles over Brexit, a pandemic, and an energy crisis. Since we finished the manuscript, every month has brought new developments in the politics associated with squalor. Most recently, the “growth” policies of the current (since writing even this has changed!) Chancellor of the Exchequer has led mortgage rates and interest rates to rise to such a level that millions more now find themselves facing precarious housing futures, with monthly costs threatening to strip them of their securities and push them into homelessness.

Since Thatcher’s revolution in housing, land prices have risen sixteen-fold

A political solution to the problem of housing does exist but requires, above all, controls to be placed on the valuation of land. This requires a robust state response to the inordinate power that landowners wield in our contemporary system. Whereas the minister for housing and health in Attlee’s post-war government, Aneurin Bevan, intimately involved the state in the accrual of “betterment” in land and thus in the sharing of profits from land sales, speculation and trading, that role ended abruptly in the 1960s. The Land Compensation Act of 1961 enshrined the right of private landowners to profit through land banking and speculation. And since Thatcher’s revolution in housing, land prices have risen sixteen-fold. 

The state should be compelled to actively regulate such that a safe and affordable living standard is enjoyed by all

Whatever the numbers and scale, and even while acknowledging contending interests, it is reasonable to propose that the prospect of a shared fate could unite those suffering in the private sector with those suffering in the public sector. Instead of the de facto rule of large landowning bodies, the state should be compelled to actively regulate such that a safe and affordable living standard is enjoyed by all. The 20th century provides lessons in what might be possible when government is frightened into reform by the prospect of radical change.

Squalor will not be slain by the market nor by political elites but only by a movement of engaged denizens who demand accountability and expect that every home should be fit for human habitation – and for its flourishing. 

Drawn from Daniel Renwick’s and Robbie Shilliam’s book, Squalor, with Agenda Publishing.

Daniel Renwick is a writer, youth-worker and videographer. He lives in London.

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He was previously Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.

Header Image Credit: Agenda Publishing


Renwick, Daniel and Robbie Shilliam 2022. ‘Squalor’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (3):


Ashwin Kumar

Beveridge was writing his report just as the UK emerged from two decades of very high unemployment.  Today, the labour market is very different.  Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK had the highest proportion of people in work ever recorded. 

High rates of employment have coincided with historically high rates of in-work poverty: far too many people find their wages insufficient to provide a decent standard of living

However, high rates of employment have coincided with historically high rates of in-work poverty: far too many people find their wages insufficient to provide a decent standard of living.  Many are stuck in jobs that offer virtually no training or development.  This is particularly bad for people – mostly women – working part-time, where existing skills are under-utilized and little or no support is provided for progression to better-paid work.  Legal innovation in the form of zero-hours and short-hours contracts has resulted in a return to forms of insecurity that seemed to have been made illegal in the 1960s.

These changes have not been reflected in public debate.  Too often, politicians on the left of centre talk about the need for more jobs whilst many on the right of centre vary between trumpeting high employment rates and saying that ‘shirkers’ should get off benefits and go to work.  It feels as if the debate is stuck in the 1980s or 1990s and fails to recognize where we are in the 2020s.  Today’s problem is not insufficient work but insufficient secure, good quality work.

Balance of power in the labour market

Underlying this crisis is the question of power.  The balance of power between low-paid workers and employers has shifted decisively towards the latter.  Too many people feel trapped by a lack of progression options, and by the lack of alternative jobs that offer a better future. 

If employers know that getting another job isn’t a realistic possibility, what is their incentive to try harder to keep you?

The evidence shows that leaving a job for another one is the best way to get a pay rise.  If employers know that getting another job isn’t a realistic possibility, what is their incentive to try harder to keep you?

The state should have an interest in promoting good work, decent pay and better progression.  A better-paid population is happier, healthier and pays more taxes.  Improving social mobility is a shared objective across the political spectrum, which should mean empowering low-paid workers to have more options. And it should mean providing support for progression that is independent of the current employer.

Yet parties fight to prove their ‘pro business’ rather than ‘pro economy’ credentials, and the last thing businesses want is their workers being encouraged to look for another job.  In a world in which jobs are scarce, and the priority is to widen the pool of people offered work, this might make more sense.  But where the challenge is enabling people in work to progress, then supporting low-paid workers to rebalance the power relationship with their employers is vital.

The role of the state

However, the state is not simply neutral when it comes to empowering low-paid workers.  The truth is that it is often part of the problem.  In fields as diverse as unemployment policy, childcare transport, skills and regulation, the effect of the state’s policies is to constrain the labour supply of low-paid workers and reduce their employment options.

For example, employment services are intended to support those out of work into a job.  How best to do this should be an empirical question: what works most effectively.  Instead, we have an ideological filter that drives decision-making.

Our employment services treat everyone as if they are the problem to be managed, rather than the recipients of a service designed to help them

The starting point is the question of whether being out of work is the fault of the person in question – is it due to a failing on their part or is it a result of circumstances – for example, economic, health, or geographical.  Our employment services seem to assume that the first option applies to most people.  So our employment services treat everyone as if they are the problem to be managed, rather than the recipients of a service designed to help them.

Given that employment rates are at historically high levels, there is clearly less ‘fault’ going around and yet sanctioning – depriving people of benefits because of apparent breaches in benefit conditions – is rising. Attitudes seem to be driven by the high unemployment levels we have seen in previous decades rather than by today’s economic problems. 

The way people are treated by employment services affects not only how people feel at the time they receive the service but also the wider labour market.  If the state’s message is ‘take any job at any cost’, employers know that low-paid workers aren’t free to turn down jobs that offer no potential for progression.

Low-paid workers are also trapped by poor infrastructure.  Childcare costs have been rising faster than wages and support through the benefit system has been frozen.  Crucially, most formal childcare options don’t operate at the times when shifts are available in many low-paid sectors such as retail, hospitality and care. 

The result is that families stitch their childcare together from a patchwork of family support and formal provision. The practical reality is that if one element is changed, the whole arrangement will need to be reorganised.

Poor quality, and declining, local transport services outside of London add to the problem.  Local transport services often only run at peak times and during the middle of the day.  Bus services to suit shift patterns and to reach the location of care services are likely to be thin on the ground.

Put the two together – complex childcare arrangements and poor-quality public transport – and it is clear that the binding constraint of the school gate or after-school club pick-up limits the pool of potential employers.  Being able to leave an employer, or the possibility of it, increases the bargaining power of low-paid workers. The degradation of social infrastructure limits the options for low-paid workers.

A further reason why the state doesn’t help low-paid workers as much as it should is a series of lazy assumptions that are part of economic orthodoxy, despite emerging evidence that these are out of date. 

Public discussion about productivity is obsessed with the ‘shiny and new’ yet the Bank of England says that the UK has more ‘frontier’ – highly productive – companies than comparable economies.  The UK’s poor productivity performance is due to the ‘long tail’ of companies that have seen barely any productivity growth for years.  Ministers should focus on improving output in the everyday economy rather than assuming that visiting an already-highly-productive, high-tech business will solve the UK’s problems.

Similarly, the default assumption in economics is that regulation of the labour market that might improve working conditions for the low-paid will always have a negative effect on the economy.  However, evidence suggests that this trade-off might not exist.  As increases in the minimum wage have shown, firms can actually respond to tighter regulation with more efforts to improve productivity.

What needs to change?

So how could things be different?  First and foremost, we must commit ourselves to creating an economy in which the state empowers workers.  This means challenging established orthodoxies on productivity, skills, employment services and social infrastructure such as childcare and transport.

Many businesses pay the voluntary Real Living Wage and others have signed up to Good Work initiatives such as the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter

Away from national government, there are encouraging signs.  For example, many businesses pay the voluntary Real Living Wage and others have signed up to Good Work initiatives such as the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter.  Devolved and city-region government have begun actively to consider how to promote better quality work.  But there is still a gap in this area in national policymaking.  Since the Taylor Review, commissioned by Theresa May, there has been little attention within national government to the quality of work.

When it comes to employment services, what would a more productive and empowering approach look like?  Firstly, the government should be honest about its ‘Any job, Better job, Career’ slogan.  The evidence is clear: most out-of-work claimants only get to A and never reach B or C.  The ‘Work First’ approach, pushing people into any job, however low quality, does not help enable future progression.  The ‘human capital’ approach is used in many other countries, and interaction with the state’s employment service is used to help people build a satisfying and productive career.

The danger is that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is moving in the opposite direction.  Universal Credit allows government to set conditions for receipt of in-work benefits.  Announcements from the DWP suggest they are likely to demand that low-paid workers try to seek more hours in their current job.  Pressure to do more of the same does nothing to address low pay rates.

Jobcentre staff should be capable of inspiring people to develop their careers and have the skills to support access to quality opportunities that offer meaningful careers rather than be a ‘nagging’ service that metes out punishment.  Why not equip people with more knowledge about employment rights?  This would leave them less open to exploitation and reduce the potential for rogue employers to create a race-to-the-bottom on pay and conditions.

Switching to an objective of supporting longer-term career development requires a shift in priorities.  Rather than short-term reductions in the benefit bill, the measure of success should be higher hourly rates of pay in the years after entering work.  This may cost more in the short term but has obvious benefits for people, businesses, the economy and government finances in the long term.

As we have seen, an unrealistic attitude to childcare and poor local transport contribute to the narrowing of labour market horizons when caring responsibilities intervene.  To liberate the UK’s economy from its low-pay low-productivity rut, such services must be treated as economic infrastructure and not just social services.

Juggling childcare and shift work in sectors such as care, hospitality and retail is a long way from the corridors of Whitehall.  Low-paid work does not fit the simple 9-to-5 pattern of office workers, and neither should childcare and transport services.

Improving work quality and employer practices

More importantly, government action has been weakest on the need for improvement in the quality of work.  Equating better labour market standards with higher business costs has  led to backtracking decades of employment protection.

Having high labour standards should be something to be proud of. This will improve the health and wellbeing of the population but also its wealth as productivity starts to improve

The minimum wage has resoundingly disproved the ‘equity-efficiency’ trade-off.  Having high labour standards should be something to be proud of.  This will improve the health and wellbeing of the population but also its wealth as productivity starts to improve.

Politicians should ensure that their policies are actually ‘pro-economy’, which may be different in some situations from being ‘pro-business’. Being pro-economy means making business compete harder to attract workers, shifting the balance of power so that workers – particularly low-paid women – can pick and choose from employers and not the other way round.

If we are to support workers to develop the skills and confidence to get new jobs, in principle, such support cannot be delivered through the current employer: as the point is to widen their choices.  So we need to consider job brokerages and skill support delivered through other means.

Employers need to be better managers and restoring employment protections, such as the right to a meaningful contract of employment, is an important step.  However, much more needs to be done through government’s soft power to support and encourage Good Work at a national level.

Changing economics and economic policymaking for the better

Although there are a range of policies that can help, some of the challenge lies in changing the economic thinking that underlies policymaking.  Economics should reject the notion that, in the short-term, workers have a fixed level of productivity, which ignores a mountain of evidence that management matters.

Specifically, it is management outside of the small number of frontier firms where efforts need to be focussed.  The challenge is to improve management education and support for small businesses.  There have been pilot projects which have had some success, and recent Chancellors of the Exchequer have asked the question, but this is a conversation that has only just started.

We need to develop a work culture where being good at management is something to be proud of, to aspire to, and worth spending money on learning

We need to develop a work culture where being good at management is something to be proud of, to aspire to, and worth spending money on learning.  This cannot all be about government, but it has a crucial role to play in accelerating this process.  If we get this right, we have the prospect of making a real difference to the UK’s productivity as a whole, providing higher quality work to many more people, and tackling the UK’s low pay problem. 

Drawn from Ashwin Kumar’s book, Idleness, with Agenda Publishing.

Ashwin Kumar is Professor of Social Policy at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has previously worked as Chief Economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Senior Economic Advisor at the Department for Work and Pensions and as an economic advisor to Gordon Brown.

Header Image Credit: Agenda Publishing


Kumar, Ashwin 2022. ‘Idleness’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (3):