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Local Government Board in United Kingdom

Local Government Board History

Set up in 1871 it took over responsibility for all aspects of local government from various ministries and the Poor Law Board. Succeeded by the Ministry of Health in 1919.

Local Government Board

In this issue about local government board, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: As we have already mentioned, the merging of the Poor Law Board in the newly established Local Government Board came about for reasons unconnected with the Poor Law, and it coincided with no definite change in Poor Law Policy. But, as already indicated, the placing of the Central Authority on a permanent basis coincided with a gradual improvement in the quality of the inspectorial staff, who, in the ensuing decades, remind us more of the masterful assistant commissioners of the 1834-47 period.

On the other hand, the development of the office from a mere specialised authority, concerned only with a single function, into what became practically a Ministry of the Interior, charged with the supervision of all the local government of the country (with the partial exception of police and schools), necessitated both an increase and a development of the permanent secretariat. To this secretariat, with its graded hierarchy and multiplicity of departments, boards of guardians and the administration of the Poor Law tended inevitably to take their place among municipal corporations, local boards of health, highway authorities, and the administration of other statutory powers. There is even a third element to take into account. The revival of public interest in Poor Law problems, beginning about 1867 in the Metropolis and some of the large towns, and spreading later to the whole country, had its effect in the House of Commons, especially after the extension of the franchise in London and the boroughs (1867), and in the counties (1884). We see this manifesting itself in Poor Law policy in various minor statutes, and, above all, in sporadic circulars and other declarations of policy by the Parliamentary President of the Local Government Board.

Thus the student who seeks to discover what was the policy of the Central Authority between 1871 and 1907 finds two distinct influences at work on Boards of Guardians, each of which carries with it the weight of the Central Authority, but one of them is seen to be predominant between 1871 and 1885, whilst the other predominates after 1885.

The able, zealous, and somewhat doctrinaire inspectorate, especially between 1871 and 1885, stands always on the “principles of 1834” in their strictest interpretation-constantly using language, indeed, which went beyond any proposals of the 1834 Report, or any policy embodied in the documents of the Central Authority of 1834-47. On the other hand, the president (and Parliament with his concurrence) sporadically brought in (especially after 1885) a note that some might term a sentimental, others an enlightened humanitarianism, with regard to particular sections-the unemployed, the decayed members of friendly societies, the “deserving aged poor” generally. This humanitarianism was certainly in direct contradiction of the “principles of 1834.” How far it may be said to have embodied, perhaps unconsciously, other principles will subsequently appear.

The cleavage in policy between the inspectorate and the president did not at first manifest itself. For the first decade or so, the successive presidents and the inspectorate seem to be at one in a policy of “strict administration”-a policy as to which we cannot discover whether it was due to the influence of such presidents as Mr. Goschen and Mr. Stansfeld upon such inspectors as Mr. Corbett, Mr. Doyle, Mr. Wodehouse, and Mr. Longley, or vice versa. We may perhaps ascribe to the caution of the secretariat the confining of this policy to the general terms of circulars and minutes, thus avoiding alike the necessary precision of orders and statutes and any explicit extension of the “principles of 1834” to classes other than the able-bodied.

From 1871 to about 1885 the outstanding feature of the policy of the Central Authority was the steady pressure exercised through the inspectors with the object of reducing outdoor relief. This arose out of the inquiries set on foot by Mr. Goschen, which had revealed, not only the granting of a large amount of outdoor relief to able-bodied men and women and their families, but also great differences in practice between one union and another. As we have shown, neither Mr. Goschen nor the Central Authority under any other president had, down to 1871, so far as the aged and infirm and cases of sickness were concerned, ever indicated or advocated, in any official document that we have been able to find, any alternative policy to that of outdoor relief.

The Circular on Outdoor Relief now issued to the inspectors and widely published, which set the tone for the ensuing decade, did not explicitly declare any new policy with regard to these classes, which then made up at least three-fourths of the total outdoor relief cases. Moreover its illustrative examples and its specific recommendations related entirely to the able-bodied. Indeed, except for an important new departure in the treatment of able-bodied widows with children, the recommendations to be pressed on Boards of Guardians amounted to no more than the substitution of the practice of the Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order for either that of the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order or that of the Labour Test Order, where one or other of these latter was in force. The differences between these orders, as we have shown, relate only to the able-bodied. Thus, an acute clerk of a board of guardians would have been warranted in saying that, so far as concerned the aged and infirm and the sick, the Circular of 1871 announced no new policy.

But the Circular appeared to the casual reader to be against outdoor relief as such to any class of paupers. The expression “Outdoor Relief” was nowhere defined or limited. Particular unions were compared one with another as to the amount and proportion of their total outdoor relief to all cases, those having a large amount being held to blame, without a consideration of whether their outdoor relief was to the able-bodied or to the aged and infirm and the sick; and even without any consideration of the relative proportion of persons over sixty, or the relative prevalence of ill-health in their several populations.

Moreover, some of the other recommendations of the Circular implied, though they did not express, a suggestion that the “offer of the House” might be used as a means of preventing the aged and the sick from coming on the rates at all. Quite a new stress was laid on getting contributions from relatives, and on the most vigilant inquiry into circumstances, recommendations which certainly applied to the aged and infirm and to the sick, and which seemed to carry with them the hint that, if confronted with the workhouse, even the aged and the sick would be maintained by their relations.Whether or not the Central Authority can be held in these years to have deliberately adopted the new policy of the offer of the workhouse for the aged and infirm and for the sick, as well as for the able-bodied, it was this policy which, from 1871 onwards, was increasingly pressed on boards of guardians by the abler and more energetic of the inspectors. We cannot find any official document in which any inspector explicitly committed himself to the statement that the time had come when outdoor relief should, as a matter of principle, be refused to the aged and infirm, or to the sick, as had long been the official advice with regard to the able-bodied. But it was in these years that these inspectors took to circulating among their boards of guardians the comparative tables showing their relative position in order of merit according to the smallness of their out-relief-always without making any distinction between the out-relief to the aged and the sick on the one hand, and that to the able-bodied on the other. In their published reports on their districts we see the inspectors taking the same tone and using the same unguarded phrases implying the inherent badness of outdoor relief (without any limitation to the able-bodied), that marked the Circular of 1871. The minutes of the boards of guardians of this period occasionally preserve a record of, or contain a reference to the inspector’s letters or personal advice to the same effect.

It was a feature of this period that the inspectors were in close personal contact with the president. Mr. Stansfeld inaugurated a system of occasional dinners at which he met all the inspectors and discussed with them their difficulties. They had also periodical conferences in London for a week at a time, at which they formulated a common policy. In these years began, too, the Poor Law conferences, where the inspectors (and occasionally also the president) came in contact with the new school of unofficial Poor Law experts, who were in favour of the “logical development” of the “principles of 1834.” It was, in fact, “now argued” that, just as under the Act of 1834, the “offer of the workhouse” had “obliged the able-bodied to assume responsibility for the able-bodied period of life … an application of the same principle to the other responsibilities of life would produce equally advantageous results.” The presidents of the first decade of the Local Government Board seem, indeed, sometimes to have accepted the view that all relief ought, strictly speaking, to be given in the workhouse.

Mr. Longley’s Report on outdoor relief in the Metropolis was sent officially to the boards of guardians and commended as laying down “sound lines of policy.” Mr. Dodson, in 1881, declared as president that “the whole object and system of the Poor Law as established in this country is that it should be strictly administered, with the aim simply to testing and relieving absolute destitution; and no effectual means have yet been devised of so testing the destitution except by offering the house. And just in proportion as the Poor Law is strictly administered, and in proportion as entrance into the house is insisted upon as a condition of relief, so, on the whole, is the Poor Law better administered-better administered, I do not hesitate to say, not only in the interest of the poor themselves, but in the interest of the ratepayers at large. Now, you must remember, in the case of outdoor relief it is impossible absolutely to test the cases. They cannot be closely watched, and you cannot tell when a man is receiving outdoor relief that he is not having aid from other sources, or that he is not to some extent earning something for himself, and might possibly, if left to his own resources, earn more. Well, then, it is a system which in that way acts as a check upon personal exertions and upon providence, and I need not say that anything which acts as a check upon exertion and providence cannot but result in an increase of pauperism and the demoralisation of the labouring classes, and must end in an increased charge to the ratepayers.”

A notable step towards stricter administration in these years was the adoption in 1875 by the Manchester Board of Guardians of by-laws for its own guidance, putting additional restrictions on the grant of outdoor relief. These by-laws were made much of by the inspectors, and carried from board to board. Their object was to discourage as much as possible the grant of outdoor relief as such. Yet it is noteworthy that they apply primarily to the able-bodied (male and female), and that they do not mention at all the case of the aged, and that they allude to the sick only by way of restricting the duration of each order of outdoor relief to two weeks. But here again we detect the hint that the “offer of the house” might be used, in the case of the aged, as a means of extracting contributions from relatives whether or not such contributions were legally due.

In 1877 we see a great effort made to get the new departure embodied in a general order. The Central Poor Law Conference, professing to sum up all the experience and knowledge both of the inspectors and of the new school of unofficial Poor Law experts, asked the Central Authority to issue new orders restricting outdoor relief generally. Even here it is noteworthy that no explicit suggestion was made that the aged and the sick ought not to be granted outdoor relief. What was asked for was practically the “Manchester Rules,” with the addition of the suggestion that all relief should be given on loan. Here, however, the Central Authority made a stand. It refused to make any new order, specifically declining to extend the Prohibitory Order to the whole country, to make all relief recoverable as if granted on loan, to enable all medical relief to be made on loan, to impose a fixed limit for the grant of outdoor relief in cases of sickness, or to prohibit outdoor relief to widows in the first six months of their widowhood.

Thus, the policy of 1871-85 resulted, not in any alteration of the classic orders of 1844, 1847, and 1852, or in any explicit reversal of the policy hitherto pursued with regard to the aged and the sick, but only in a general “tightening up” of the administration of relief by boards of guardians all over the country. We shall see this general “tightening up” more in detail in the examination of the treatment of various classes. That examination will also reveal the effect of the reaction against this tightening up, which set in about 1885-a reaction which showed itself in the relaxation, usually at the instance or with the encouragement of Parliament and successive presidents, of the conditions of relief to specific classes.


Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

Further Reading

  • Professor S H Bailey, Encyclopedia of Local Government Law

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  • Article Name: Local Government Board
  • Author: Asa Briggs
  • Description: Local Government Board History Set up in 1871 it took over responsibility for all aspects of local government from various [...]

This entry was last updated: November 4, 2020


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