Peter Hennock (University of Liverpool)



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The Origin of the Welfare State in England and Germany, 1850-1914:

Social Policies Compared.

Peter Hennock (University of Liverpool)

This is a comparative study of social policies associated with the origin of the welfare state. Its four parts deal with the poor law, industrial injury, sickness, invalidity and old age, and with unemployment. In view of the fundamental changes wrought by the War it ends in 1914 but takes account of the introduction of British insurance pensions in 1925.

The treatment of comparative history is historiographical: two different national historiographies confronting and complementing each other, each suggesting questions that have so far been overlooked in the historiography of the other. That comparative approach governs the treatment of each policy area, but it has also governed the approach of the book to the subject as a whole. It has led to the first systematic attempt to present German social policy in relation to the poor law, as is regularly done by historians of British social policy.

In consequence the book locates the beginning of compulsory contributory insurance under state control not in the imperial legislation of the 1880s under Bismarck, as is often done, but in the Prussian legislation of the late 1840s and 1850s. This left the introduction of compulsory sickness insurance for all industrial workers at the discretion of individual local authorities. It was closely connected with the reform of the Prussian poor law in 1842, which was intended to facilitate labour mobility. It made the community of residence responsible for the vast majority of poor relief, particularly in the case of sickness. But those locations whose finances suffered from this change were to be permitted to off-load the burden of maintaining the sick poor on to compulsory insurance funds financed by the workers themselves and their employers. In the 1870s the extension of the principles of the Prussian poor law to most of the Empire was followed by a similar extension of social insurance legislation.

What then was new in the 1880s? Compulsory insurance was now made compulsory across the Empire as a whole. Nor was it any longer confined to replacing the cost of sickness and funerals. It ceased to be a response to a problem of the poor law created by the priority of labour mobility. The new priority was rapid industrialisation, without which the German Empire could not maintain the status of a great power. The problem was the human costs involved in industrial accidents, a matter in which the policy favoured by the relevent department was brought to an abrupt halt by Bismarck’s personal intervention. He decided to make a strictly limited amount of no-fault compensation for industrial accidents part of the regular cost of production by imposing compulsory insurance on all employers. Industrial accident insurance now took centre stage, but sickness insurance was integrated with it and transformed in its wake. Local option was now longer appropriate and sickness insurance was similarly extended across the Empire as a whole.

For Bismarck this innovation had the additional merit of enhancing the power of the recently created Reich and commending it, as he hoped, to its subjects especially among the industrial workers. This, rather than the defence of the Empire against revolution from socialists was at the origin of the new policy, the rest was an afterthought, but much emphasised for the purpose of political persuasion.

These changed priorities behind the extension of compulsory insurance had their effect on the nature of the replacement income that was considered appropriate. If it was to appeal widely across the population, especially the industrial population, it could no longer be merely a substitute for a minimal poor relief. What was required was differentiation of benefits and contributions according to income, and sickness insurance was amended accordingly in 1883. The principle was taken further with accident insurance in 1884 and with invalidity amd old age insurance in 1889. Differentiation along these lines was thereafter increased with every amendment to the original legislation and in 1911 even extended to include differentiated status-orientated benefits for white-collar workers. Differentiation of contributions and benefits by income and the progressive inclusion of a greater proportion of the working population was to find its fullest expression in the pension law of 1957. With some amendments in favour of non-waged carers since the 1970s this has determined the pension system of the Federal Republic.

The dynamic nature of German social insurance policy after the 1880s can also be found in the provision of medical treatment. This had originally been intended to cover short-term sickness only. It was soon supplemented by the introduction of long term medical care, by provision for rehabilitation, and more gradually but most important of all by the introduction of medical treatment for the contributors’ dependants.

This dynamic nature of German social insurance owed much to the importance attached to making it acceptable. And it succeeded. Fifteen years after its nation-wide introduction in the face of a sullen population, it had come to be regarded as a good thing, a bonus sought after by those who were still excluded. The state subsidy for pensions, originally introduced in 1889 was willingly dispensed with by these more affluent workers. State compulsion on their employers to contribute to their needs in invalidity and old age, not state finance was the attraction. All this produced a new dynamism from below that pushed social policy well beyond the point that the government would have chosen.

A full understanding of the consequences of the break with poor law priorities in Germany throws into relief the degree to which no such break occurred in Britain. The National Insurance Act of 1911 marks the adoption of the German model of compulsory contributory insurance. Not, however, the adoption of the post-1880 priorities. British national insurance remained an aspect of poor relief, although for deserving groups for whom the deterrent approach of the poor law was considered inappropriate. In consequence it provided below subsistence benefits, financed from uniform contributions that even the low-paid could afford, in practice even after 1948.

That national insurance plays a significantly smaller role in Britain than in Germany is well known to students of contemporary welfare states. This book demonstrates that this difference goes right back to the founding years. Decisions taken in that period are crucial to the long-term difference between the two countries.
I shall make three points about this difference.

1. The first develops the contrast that has just been sketched between flat-rate contributions linked to minimal benefits on the one hand and differentiated contributions linked to benefits according to income levels. Why did British national insurance retain an emphasis that had been abandoned in Germany? I suggest that this reflects a difference of attitude to compulsory savings. Minimum savings might have to be imposed on all for the sake of the feckless, as they were in 1911, but compulsion remained decidedly a second best in Britain. Beyond an essential minimum, people were expected to be able to make their own provision according to their particular circumstances. By contrast German policy-makers since the 1870s had accepted that workers in general could not be relied upon to make the savings necessary for their future unless they were compelled. There was no parallel to this in Britain in this decisive era, and only for the briefest period since.

This abstention on the part of the State has left the field open for compulsory insurance to be imposed by employers as a condition of employment. Such occupational pension schemes grew enormously after 1925. The conversion of the Labour party to state earnings-related pensions (SERPS) in 1957 under the influence of Richard Titmuss made no difference to this. The party’s failure to oust the Conservative government at the general election of 1959 merely accelerated the process. By 1975 when a Labour government was finally able to introduce its state earnings related pension scheme it was too late to reverse the growth of occupational pensions. These schemes had to be permitted to opt out of SERPS, provided that they were at least as generous as the State scheme. Their members would have regarded the higher pension entitlements as an attraction except for the fact that occupational schemes locked workers into dependence on their employers. In the 1980s this brake on labour mobility was frowned upon by a government committed to the re-structuring of the labour force. In 1986 compulsory insurance above the minimum was therefore abandoned in the interest of labour mobility, leaving workers free to make their own provision with the help of a state subsidy, and employers free to decide whether to offer occupational pensions and largely on what terms.

In Germany occupational pensions are also to be found, but not as a substitute for the income-related state pension scheme introduced in 1957. They are supplements that are mainly of interest to higher income groups. In consequence by the end of the 20th C. 80% of all German pensions were derived from mandatory state schemes. In the western part of the Federal Republic they accounted for over 80% of the income of single pensioner-households and close on 80% of that of two-person households. For the area of the former DDR the figure is even higher.

In the proposals of the recent British Pensions Commission we have at long last a state pension scheme above the level of the minimum pension, to which employers would be obliged to contribute and from which they could not opt out. Yet even the Turner Commission has not gone so far as to propose compelling the whole population to save for an adequate income on retirement. Individuals would still be able to opt out with incalculable consequences for old-age poverty in the future. What any British government will actually be prepared to do along such lines remains yet to be seen. Nothing until 2012, according to the recent White Paper and in contemporary British politics even a year is a very long time. By the end of the century the contrast between the pensions policy of the two countries was therefore enormous. It had probably reached its greatest point. Since then both countries have been interested in correcting their problems by introducing elements borrowed from abroad. This can be seen both in the proposals of the Turner Commission and in the provisions of the German pensions law of 2001.

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2. Even for purposes for which State compulsion was accepted, the reliance on national insurance has been significantly less in Britain than in Germany. There has been a greater commitment to general taxation instead. The reforms of the 1940s that extended national insurance to the whole employed population, also withdrew medical treatment from its scope and placed its burden on the tax-payers. In Britain we do not find the close identification of the welfare state with social insurance that has existed in Germany and that has conventionally led German historians to regard the social insurance legislation of the 1880s as marking the beginning of their welfare state. Originally the heavy reliance on compulsory insurance for a wide and expanding range of needs that has characterised German social policy was due to the limited powers of traditional taxation possessed by the German Empire. But it continued long after the Empire’s demise.



In Britain the poor law was financed from the rates. Public health was also financed from the rates but increasingly topped up from general taxation. Then in 1911 those matters of social security that were no longer considered suitable for the poor law began to be financed through national insurance, but public health continued to depend on general taxation. This distinction is unknown in Germany, where social insurance has always been used to finance the personal health services. As recently as 1995 German social insurance was extended to include the provision of long-term care, a service that in Britain is supposed to be met from rates and taxes, limited by a means test in England but not in Scotland.

British policy recognises that insurance premiums imposed only on the employed population are inappropriate for services that are nation-wide. The British reliance on general taxation for the health services is logical, and it is fine when increases in general taxation are politically acceptable. When they are not, automatic increases in health insurance contributions as earnings rise, as happens in Germany, has proved the more reliable form of support.


3. My final point relates to British State control over medical provision.

As I have just pointed out, from the British point of view compulsory insurance is about social security. From the German point of view it is also about the provision of medical treatment. Not merely because pension boards provided treatment for TB, VD and certain other lingering diseases. Nor because accident insurance bodies supported rehabilitation clinics. But first and foremost because German sickness funds financed medical treatment for their members, as British Friendly Societies had done and as approved societies under National Health Insurance never did. That was a matter in which Lloyd George in 1911 did not follow the example set by existing forms of sickness insurance, whether voluntary in Britain or compulsory in Germany. Not because he had never intended to, but because he was blown off course by the industrial insurance lobby, whose political power had to be accommodated. In consequence, instead of entering into contracts with approved societies, as had originally been assumed, doctors were able to ensure that the level of their remuneration and their conditions of service depended on the State. Approved societies were merely agencies for the distribution of cash to their members. It was the government, and especially the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with whom the British Medical Association had to come to terms over the conditions under which they were to provide medical treatment.

That contrasts sharply with the way in which the State in Germany kept out of issues of remuneration of doctors and of their access to insurance patients. There the medical association negotiated with the national associations of the various kinds of sickness funds, who controlled the money and obtained it on an expanding basis from the contributions of their members.

That expanding income from graduated contributions is highly relevant. Even had British Friendly Societies been able to retain some of their previous control over doctors, the State would still have had to subsidise the cost of medical treatment. The minimal flat- rate contribution could not have paid the cost. If only for that reason, the chancellor of the exchequer could not have kept out of bargaining over salary levels between doctors and approved societies. He would have had to pick up the bill. So yet again, adherence to flat-rate contributions is central. The struggle over who controls whom, a struggle that drove doctors in both countries to threaten strike action, and in Germany actually to carry out their threat, was in the British case played out within the financial parameters that this created. For when the government has to subsidise, it is the government that will ultimately be the body that controls.



Thus the State in Britain has directly financed medical treatment not merely since the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 but from the inception of National Health Insurance in 1911. By contrast in Germany contributions graduated according to income have been in some form or other a feature of the country’s health insurance since it turned its back on poor law priorities in 1883.
Between them these elements have produced a fundamental difference of attitude to social insurance. Sometimes this has been due to British distrust of compulsion and its restrictive consequences; sometimes to British preference for taxation and its greater inclusiveness. The outcome is clear. In matters of social insurance British policy has been restrictive and German policy expansive. That pattern was established by 1914 and is still with us today. Its consequences have affected the lives of British and German citizens in significant ways.



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