The beginnings of reform
From the turn of the twentieth century, laissez faire (the policy of non-intervention in relation to social problems) became discredited. The same old problems of poverty and ill-health still remained.
The Liberal reforms of 1906 to 1914 are very important because they show a marked change in government policy from a largely laissez faire approach to a more 'collectivist' approach. The government now accepted that it should have a much larger role and responsibility in helping those sections of society who could not help themselves.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century governments began to take tentative steps towards the provision of basic welfare services, for example, the Education Acts and the public health laws that were passed.
However, many problems still needed to be tackled and it was in the relief from poverty that the government made the least movement from the Poor Law principle. Voluntary action, private charity and self-help were still the watchwords of the day, but local and national government now began to play a more positive part in enabling people to get back on their feet. The real turning point was when the Liberals passed their series of reforms between 1906 and 1914.
Between 1906 and 1914 the Liberal reforms attempted to deal with the problem of poverty. The Liberals focused on four groups in society - the old, the young, the sick and the unemployed. The liberals also introduced reforms to help those employed in low paying jobs and jobs with poor working conditions.
Old age pensions
In 1908, the Liberals introduced old age pensions which became law in 1909. This Act gave pensions of five shillings per week (25 pence in today's money) at the single rate to persons over 70 whose incomes were less than £21 per year. A married couple received seven shillings and sixpence a week. This sum could be collected at the Post Office. A smaller amount was paid to slightly higher earners. People who had an income greater than £31.50 per year received no pension at all. Those who had habitually failed to work or who had been in prison also received nothing.
The major criticism of this Act was that it did not go far enough. The money was not enough to enable people to pay for the barest necessities and, although it helped, it was not the answer to old age poverty. Also, many elderly people needed financial help long before they reached 70 years of age. In fact most died before receiving a pension.
In 1906, the government allowed local authorities to provide free school meals for poor children. In 1907 school medical inspections began, although it was not until 1912 that free medical treatment was available.
Social reformers blamed poverty for causing crime among the young people. There was also the view that by sending young law breakers to adult prisons they would simply learn how to be better criminals. As such, in 1908 juvenile courts and borstals were set up.
These reforms, including forbidding the sale of cigarettes and alcohol to children under 16 years of age, were given the name 'Children's Charter' because it was believed these measures would guarantee a better life for young people. However, the provision of school meals was not made compulsory until 1914 and researchers found that during school holidays the growth of children slowed and body weight often declined.
Medical inspections did little to solve any problems they uncovered and so it was not until free medical treatment became available in 1912 that the situation could get better. However, education authorities largely ignored the provision of free medical treatment for school children.
Finally, as we know by the standards of today, attempts to protect children from the effects of tobacco and alcohol have met with limited success.
In the early twentieth century a free National Health Service did not yet exist and the poor could not usually afford medical services. To help address this, the Liberal Government introduced the National Insurance Act in 1911.
For the first time, compulsory health insurance was provided for workers earning less than £160 per year. The scheme was contributory. The worker paid fourpence a week, employers paid threepence and the state paid twopence. The scheme provided sickness benefit entitlement of nine shillings (45 pence), free medical treatment and maternity benefit of 30 shillings (£1.50).
The second part of the National Insurance Act dealt with unemployment. Most insured workers were given seven shillings (35 pence) unemployment benefit a week for a maximum of 15 weeks in any year if they became unemployed. This scheme was also contributory - financed through a combination of worker and state contributions to the scheme.
However, this Act only provided for the insured employee and not his family. Also, the Act was meant only to cover temporary unemployment and only applied to seven trades, most of which suffered from seasonal unemployment. When long term unemployment increased after World War I, the system began to break down as the government was taking in less money from workers than it was paying out to the unemployed.
Overall, the Liberal reforms marked a transition point between old laissez-faire attitudes and those of a more collectivist nature. The reforms made only limited inroads into the problem of poverty. The pensions paid were inadequate and the unemployment benefits were limited to only certain trades, and then provided only for the employee and not his family. The government was prepared to intervene to help the poor, but the poor had also to help themselves by making contributions towards their benefits.
Winston Churchill summed up the aim of the Liberals when he said 'If we see a drowning man we do not drag him to the shore. Instead, we provide help to allow him to swim ashore.' In other words, the Liberals tried to provide some help for the poorer sections of society in order that they could help themselves.
Seebohm Rowntree: poverty and reform - part three
At the end of the 19th century, a number of investigations were carried out by philanthropists and wealthy businessmen, responding to concern that poverty was a national problem.
Two important figures, Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, sponsored major investigations into the extent and causes of poverty.
Booth conducted research in London, between 1886 and 1903. After interviews with the poor, doctors, teachers and priests, he came to the conclusion that 30% of people in London lived in poverty.
Booth claimed that people were in poverty if they earned less than 21 shillings per week. He produced a collection of reports entitled ‘Life and Labour of the People in London '.
His findings proved that poverty led to illness and death and that the poor were not to blame for the condition they found themselves in.
Seebohm Rowntree conducted research in York between 1899-1901. He reached the conclusion that 30% of people in York lived in poverty and that they needed to earn 21s per week to stay out of poverty.
If they earned less than 21 shillings per week, he said that they were living below the ‘poverty line’.
Rowntree produced a report entitled ‘Poverty, A Study of Town Life’. He claimed that people could not help being poor and that large families helped to cause poverty.
The findings of both Booth and Rowntree identified key points:
- up to 30 per cent of the population of cities were living on or below the poverty line.
- people could not pull themselves out of poverty by themselves
- Booth and Rowntree both identified the main causes of poverty as being illness and unemployment
- age was also a major factor: both the very young and the old were most at risk of poverty
When these social surveys were published, they not only shocked the British public but changed popular opinion on the cause of poverty.