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Poor Laws in United Kingdom

Poor Laws Summary and Conclusion

In this issue about poor laws, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: We may now attempt to sum up the position as it presents itself, after the deliverance of the Royal Commission, to the statesman and to the public opinion of 1910.

There is first the chaos of authorities, the overlapping of functions and the duplication of services, resulting in the expenditure, out of rates and taxes in the United Kingdom, on the maintenance, schooling, and medical attendance of the poorer classes of nearly seventy millions sterling annually. During the past five years, even whilst the Royal Commission was sitting, this multiplication of overlapping authorities has proceeded at a great pace. In 1905 the Unemployed Workmen Act created a rival authority for relieving the able-bodied man. In 1906 the Education (Provision of Meals) Act, in 1907 the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act, and in 1908 the Education (Scotland) Act and the Children Act, set up the Local Education Authority as a rival to the Poor Law Authority in regard to providing food, medical attendance, and all other necessaries for children found destitute at school. In 1908, too, the Old Age Pensions Act established a rival authority for the maintenance of the destitute aged. Meanwhile, the Local Health Authorities have been told to take over the destitute man who has phthisis, and to extend in many directions the range of their work; the Departmental Committee on Vagrancy has declared that a new authority must be found for the vagrants, and the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-minded has come to the very authoritative conclusion that all grades and kinds of mentally defective persons must be taken out of the Poor Law altogether. The result is that, already in 1910, the number of persons being actually fed at the public expense by the Local Education Authorities, the Local Health Authorities, the Local Lunacy Authorities, the Local Unemployment Authorities, and the Local Pension Authorities, exceeds, in the aggregate, the number of persons being fed by the Poor Law Authorities. For every separate section of the pauper host there are now at least two Public Authorities at work-sometimes three or four Public Authorities-with duplicated machinery, overlapping services, officers competing with each other on rival principles of action, in not a few cases simultaneously providing for the same persons without knowing of each other’s work.

The Poor Law Authorities themselves, and the bulk of their work, the Royal Commission found extremely unsatisfactory, and are unanimous in condemning, not so much from any personal shortcomings of the 24,000 guardians as from the nature of the task to which they had been set. The assistance that they dispense, by its very nature, comes too late to be preventive of the occurrence of destitution, and, in the majority of cases, too late to be curative. Whatever may be decided as to its successor, it is clear that the existing Poor Law system, and the existing Poor Law Authority, must, to use the expressive words of Mr. Balfour’s election address, be “scrapped.”

The Majority Commissioners hold, on the assumption that every case of pauperism implies a moral defect, that there should be, in each locality, one Authority and only one Authority to deal with persons requiring maintenance from public funds. They, therefore, recommend the establishment of a new “Destitution Authority” to deal only with persons who are destitute, and only when they are destitute; and for such persons to provide, from birth to burial, in distinctively Poor Law Institutions, or under distinctively Poor Law officials, all that is required. It is admitted that this involves the repeal of the Unemployed Workmen Act and the Education (Provision of Meals) Act. We must leave politicians to judge whether it is practicable to thrust the unemployed workman, and the child found hungry at school, back into the Poor Law, even if the Poor Law is called by another name. But even if this were done, the Majority Report would still leave the overlap as regards the destitute aged which is involved in the Old Age Pensions Act; the overlap as regards the destitute sick which is involved in the evergrowing activities of the 700 rate-maintained municipal hospitals of the Local Health Authorities; the overlap with regard to destitute children which is involved by the activities of the Local Education Authorities and the Home Office under the Industrial Schools Acts, and now under the Children Act. And the Majority Commissioners cannot, it appears, make up their minds whether or not they wish the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Feeble-minded to be carried into law, and thus end the overlap between the Poor Law Authority and the Lunacy Authority.

The Majority Report purports to give the new “Public Assistance Authority” some guidance as to policy. It is to relieve none but those at present entitled to relief, and therefore, in all cases, to wait until destitution has set in. Thus the aid will, as now, come too late to prevent or to cure. On the other hand, the “deterrent” attitude of 1834 is to be given up; the workhouse is to be abolished; and “curative and restorative treatment,” at home or in an appropriate institution, is to be afforded to every case. Yet in order to afford to certain classes of applicants methods of relief and treatment more suitable than any Public Assistance Authority is to be allowed to afford, a complete system of Voluntary Aid Committees is to be set up, and to such Committees these particular applicants are to be required to apply, whether or not they prefer charity to public aid.

Against these proposals of the Majority Report the Minority Commissioners protest that they will not put a stop to the calamitous and extravagant overlapping of services and duplication of work which now exists or to the demoralising chaos that prevails as to recovery of cost. Moreover, the Minority Commissioners hold that if the community restricts itself to relieving persons at the crisis of their destitution, and this is a necessary condition of any Poor Law, or of the action of any Destitution Authority, whatever its name, the community cannot, without grave financial danger, and still graver danger to character, depart from the principles of 1834. However unpopular may be the doctrine, it is still true that if destitute persons are to be given “curative and restorative treatment” without deterrent conditions and without the stigma of pauperism, a constantly increasing number of persons will, unless they are in some way prevented from sinking into destitution, come in and out of the Poor Law as it suits their convenience, to their own grave demoralisation and at a ruinous cost to the nation. But the heart and conscience of the community will not tolerate the subjection of all the million paupers indiscriminately to deterrent conditions, especially as these have now been proved to be seriously detrimental in their effects. The whole phraseology of the Majority Report, and its proposals themselves, afford convincing testimony to the necessity of giving up the idea of a “deterrent” Poor Law. And the Majority Report gives us no substitute for this deterrence-unless, indeed, it can really be imagined that the operation of the Voluntary Aid Committees is somehow to protect us.

The only effective substitute for deterrence is, the Minority Commissioners suggest, the Principle of Prevention-prevention, that is, not merely of pauperism, but of the very occurrence of destitution. This negatives the very idea of a Destitution Authority, whatsoever its designation or its policy. It is in vain to hope that any Poor Law, or any Destitution Authority, however improved, can ever prevent or even diminish destitution; because, confined as it is to dealing with a destitution which has occurred, it is inherently precluded by its very nature from attacking any of the causes which produce the destitution that is perpetually coming on its hands. Thus, the twenty millions sterling now spent annually in the United Kingdom on the mere relief of destitution do practically nothing to prevent the creation, year by year, of new masses of destitution. Even the educational work which the Poor Law Authorities do for the Poor Law children is largely vitiated by their inherent disability to exercise any supervision over the life of the child before and after the crisis of destitution. The greater part of the expenditure on the Poor Law Medical Service is, so far as any gain to the health of the nation is concerned, wasted because no sick person can legally be treated in the incipient stage of his disease when it may still be curable; the Poor Law doctor must always wait until destitution has set in! This-so the Minority Commissioners claim-must necessarily be the same in the case of the “Public Assistance Authority” proposed in the Majority Report, or, indeed, in the case of anybody set to administer a Poor Law. On the other hand, the fact that universal provision of some services to all persons, whether destitute or not, has been adopted by Parliament, has led to a duplication and confusions of functions between the old Poor Law Authority and the new Preventive Authorities. This daily-increasing overlap and duplication can only be ended by either stripping the new Preventive Authorities of functions entrusted to them within the last few years by Parliament-which is plainly impossible-or by abolishing the Poor Law. Hence the only safe, as well as the only advantageous way out of this confusion is to go forward on the Principle of Prevention. This Principle of Prevention may take the form, on the one hand, of altering the environment, on the other, of treating the individual. But if the cost of curative treatment, or even of altering the environment, is to be borne by the community, it is essential, on grounds of economy, that there should be a searching out of all incipient cases and such a disciplinary supervision as will prevent persons from becoming destitute through neglected infancy, neglected childhood, preventable illness, and voluntary unemployment.

In this disciplinary supervision over those who repeatedly fall into the morass of destitution, or who, by failing to fulfil their social obligations, show signs of entering upon the descent into that morass, we see a more humane, as well as a more effective form of “deterrence” than that of the 1834 Poor Law. The newer preventive authorities deter from falling into destitution, not by fear of what will happen when the fall has taken place, but by timely insistence on the performance of the social duties that will prevent the fall. The parents who, under the pressure of the Local Education Authority, are induced and compelled to send their children to school from 5 to 14 years of age are not only effectually “deterred” from living on their children’s earnings, but are also prevented from so far neglecting their offspring as to fail to get them to school regularly and punctually, or to fail to maintain them in a state fit for admission to school, according to a standard that is constantly rising. In some districts the Local Education Authority has even gone far, by means of inspection, instruction, exhortation, and, in the last resort, prosecution, towards effectually “deterring” parents from letting their children become verminous. Deterrent action of this kind by the Local Education Authority has been accompanied by corresponding action by the Local Health Authority, which has-again by inspection, instruction, exhortation, and, in the last resort, prosecution-induced many occupiers of tenement dwellings to prevent these from remaining verminous or otherwise grossly below the current standard of sanitation. This form of deterrence it is that lies at the base of all our Public Health and Factory Legislation; a deterrence that leads the owners and occupiers to bestir themselves to keep their dwellings up to the current local standard of healthiness, the occupiers of factories to maintain these in accordance with the requirements of the law, and the operatives in unhealthy trades to observe the precautions prescribed against disease. The same idea of a preventive deterrence will inspire the Local Lunacy Authorities, once they are made responsible for the feeble-minded, to insist on proper care and control for those helpless girl mothers whom the Poor Law must perforce leave free to propagate a feeble-minded race. In the same way the Minority Commissioners believe that the new National Authority for Unemployment, of which we may detect the beginnings in the National Labour Exchange, will be able to “deter” men from becoming unemployed, not only by actually preventing many unnecessary breaches of continuity in employment (by equalising, year by year, the aggregate demand for labour, regularising employment in the seasonal trades, and “decasualising” the casual labourer in the ways elaborately described in the Report), but also by putting the necessary pressure on the will of those who are “born tired” or who have become “unemployable,” either to accept and retain the situations that will be definitely offered to them, or else to submit themselves to disciplinary training, with the reformatory Detention Colony in the background.

We venture to end this exposition of the philosophy of the Minority Report of 1909 by a repetition of the words that we used, perhaps prematurely, to describe those “Principles of 1907,” to which, as we have demonstrated, three-quarters of a century of experience has empirically brought the Local Government Board itself. These principles, we pointed out-in contrast to the laisser faire of 1834-“embody the doctrine of a mutual obligation between the individual and the community. The universal maintenance of a definite minimum of civilised life-seem to be in the interest of the community no less than in that of the individual-becomes the joint responsibility of an indissoluble partnership. The community recognises a duty in the curative treatment of all who are in need of it-a duty most clearly seen in the medical treatment of the sick and the education of the children. Once this corporate responsibility is accepted, it becomes a question whether the universal provision of any necessary common service is not the most advantageous method of fulfilling such responsibility-a method which has, at any rate, the advantage of leaving unimpaired the salutary inequality between the thrifty and the unthrifty. It is, moreover, an inevitable complement of this corporate responsibility, and of the recognition of the indissoluble partnership, that new and enlarged obligations, unknown in a state of laisser faire, are placed upon the individual-such as the obligation of the parent to keep his children in health, and to send them to school at the time and in the condition insisted upon; the obligation of the young person to be well conducted and to learn; the obligation of the adult not to infect his environment, and to submit when required to hospital treatment. To enforce these obligations-all new since 1834-upon the individual citizen, experience shows that some other pressure on his volition is required than merely leaving him alone. Hence the community, by the combination of the principles of Curative Treatment, Universal Provision and Compulsion, deliberately ‘weights the alternatives,’ in the guise of a series of experiments upon volition. The individual retains as much freedom of choice as-if not more than-he ever enjoyed before. But the father finds it made more easy for him to get his children educated, and made more disagreeable for him to neglect them. It is made more easy for the mother to keep her infants in health, and more disagreeable for her to let them die. The man suffering from disease finds it made more easy for him to get cured without infecting his neighbours, and more disagreeable for him not to take all the necessary precautions. The labour exchanges and the farm colonies aim at making it more easy for the wage-earner to get a situation; perhaps the reformatory establishment, with powers of detention, is needed to make it more disagreeable for him not to accept and retain that situation.” It is, in short, this doctrine of a mutual obligation-this fundamental principle that social health is not a matter for the individual alone, nor for the Government alone, but depends essentially on the joint responsibility of the individual and the community for the maintenance of a definite minimum of civilised life-that inspires every detail of the Minority Report.


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: Poor Laws
  • Author: Michael Mann
  • Description: Poor Laws Summary and Conclusion In this issue about poor laws, the book English Poor Law Policy [1] reads as follows: We [...]

This entry was last updated: November 4, 2020



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