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Plea for A Single Destitution Authority in United Kingdom

The Plea for a Single Destitution Authority and the Majority Report of the Royal Commission of 1905-1909

In this issue about the plea for a single destitution authority, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: When, however, we study the detailed recommendations of the Majority Report, and consider the probable working of the machinery that they would set up, we discover, notwithstanding all the elaborately sympathetic phrases, a very definite trend backward to the “Principles of 1834,” in a manner which seems to us calculated ingeniously to nullify the apparent repudiation, and in reality to leave the situation more confused than before.

We have to note, in the first place, that the Majority Report lays the utmost stress on the importance of retaining in each locality what is definitely a “Destitution Authority.” “It should,” they declare, “be a fundamental condition of the assistance system of the future that the responsibility for the due and effective relief of all necessitous persons at the public expense should be in the hands of one, and only one, authority in each County and County Borough.” To this principle they recur again and again as of paramount importance. In retaining this General Destitution Authority, and in emphasising the necessity for the treatment of all sections-the infants, the children, the sick, the aged, the prematurely incapacitated, the able-bodied unemployed-being committed to its charge, the Majority Report may fairly claim to be standing on the same ground as the authors of the 1834 Report, though with a significant difference. To the Royal Commission of 1834 the single all-embracing Destitution Authority was not a matter of principle at all, but a necessity, which no one questioned. Throughout the whole country there had been only one kind of Local Authority which gave any sort of public assistance to the poor, and that was the Poor Law Authority. The 1834 Report could, accordingly, take it for granted that all sections of the persons to be relieved at the public expense on the ground of their necessities must be dealt with, as destitute persons, by one and the same authority. In 1909 the position has become quite different. There have grown up, since 1834, other public authorities in each district, which provide, independently of the Poor Law, this or that form of public assistance to persons who require it, sometimes to all who apply, sometimes to those only who prove their need. The Local Education Authorities, the Local Health Authorities, the Local Lunacy Authorities, the Local Pension Authorities, and the Local Unemployed Authorities are, in fact, spending in the aggregate on the children, the sick, the mentally defective, the aged and the able-bodied unemployed, in their several forms of public assistance, out of the same fund of rates and taxes, more than twice as much every year as all the Poor Law Authorities put together. To the Royal Commission of 1909 the retention of a general Destitution Authority, dealing with all sections of destitute persons as destitute persons, was, therefore, not a necessity. It was a deliberate choice, and we find them erecting it into a principle. This principle does not, as might perhaps be supposed, apply only to the provision of maintenance. It is expressly asserted that the schooling and industrial training of the persons relieved and the medical attendance of the sick, so far as it is provided at the public expense, must equally form part of the work of the new Poor Law Authorities. Even the provision of Day Industrial Schools for destitute uncared-for children, of public Sanatoria for phthisis patients, and of Rescue Homes for girl mothers, in so far as undertaken at the public expense, must be the work of the new Poor Law Authorities. It is part of the same idea to insist on the importance of there being established a single “Public Assistance Service … which should include all officers concerned with the supervision control and disciplinary treatment of the poor … not only the … relieving officers both male and female” but also “masters, matrons, and superintendents of institutions of every grade,” whether for the children, the sick, or the able-bodied unemployed. All these officers, whatever their technical duties, are to have a certain common training, to receive certificates of different grades, to enjoy opportunities of promotion from one post to another, and to be made to realise, throughout their whole service, that they are “concerned with the moral training of those committed to their care.” Thus, all the various specialised institutions, which are to replace the General Mixed Workhouse-the nursery, the residential school, the hospital, the dispensary, the “industrial institution” for the able-bodied, the Rescue Home for girl mothers, the phthisis sanatorium and the home for the helpless aged-are to be administered by officers of a single homogeneous interchangeable service, deliberately focusing their attention on the moral accompaniments assumed to be characteristic of destitute persons as such, whether these are children or adults, sick or whole. “From the point of view thus indicated,” explains an authoritative exponent of the Majority Report, “there is, as it were, an army of social healers to be trained and organised; and it is like the army of war in the fundamental fact that it is to be disciplined and animated with a single spirit and purpose, however varied and specialised may be the duties that fall within its range. The whole of these proposals are founded on the conviction that there is a problem common and peculiar to the entire range of destitution or necessitousness, demanding a common and peculiar method of dealing with it.” This, indeed, is the fundamental difference between the Majority Report and the Minority Report. “The antagonism,” continues this exponent, “cannot be put too strongly. The Majority proceed upon the principle that where there is a failure of social self-maintenance in the sense above defined, there is a defect in the citizen character, or at least a grave danger to its integrity; and that, therefore, every case of this kind raises a problem which is ‘moral’ in the sense of affecting the whole capacity of self-management, to begin with in the person who has failed, and secondarily in the whole community so far as influenced by expectation and example.”

In this cogent argument for the retention of the Category of the Destitute, and of one Authority, and one Authority only, for all classes of destitute persons, we see two distinct and separate assumptions, one as to fact, and the other as to social expediency. We have first the suggestion that, in all classes of persons who need maintenance at the hands of the State, there is, as a matter of fact, a moral defect, common to the whole class and requiring specific treatment. Secondly, we see creeping out from behind this suggestion a further assumption as to the policy which ought to be pursued by the Poor Law Authority. This Authority, which is to have in its charge all the heterogeneous population of infants, children, sick and mentally defective persons, the aged and the infirm, the widows, the vagrants, and the unemployed, is to treat them, not with a single eye, to what is best calculated to turn them, or any of them, into efficient citizens, not even with a single eye to what will most successfully remedy the “moral defect” which they are assumed all to possess, but with the quite different object of warning off or deterring, “by expectation and example,” other persons from applying for like treatment. In other words, we must, by keeping all the different varieties of people who require State aid under one Authority, and under one that assumes the existence of this “moral defect,” retain for all alike, not only the “stigma of pauperism,” but also a method of provision which will “deter” others from coming to be treated. We find ourselves, in short, back at the “Principles of 1834.”


Notes and References

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

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  • Article Name: Plea for A Single Destitution Authority
  • Author: J. G. Collier
  • Description: The Plea for a Single Destitution Authority and the Majority Report of the Royal Commission of 1905-1909 In this issue [...]

This entry was last updated: April 21, 2017


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