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Reversion to 1834 in United Kingdom

The Reversion to 1834 and the Majority Report of the Royal Commission of 1905-1909

In this issue about the reversion to 1834, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: With this clue to their meaning, it becomes possible to understand the main constructive proposals of the Majority Commissioners. The most distinctive feature of these proposals, as well as the most novel, is the setting up in every district, side by side, of two separate organisations for the assistance of the poor; one to deal with one set of people and the other with another set; one, the “Public Assistance Authority,” to administer the Poor Law, at the expense of the rates, whilst the other, the Voluntary Aid Committee, to carry out the desires of the charitable, mainly out of private funds. This proposal is, in our judgment, a bold attempt to get back the “Principles of 1834” in all their austerity. From the writings of Chadwick and Nassau Senior down to the latest pronouncements of the Charity Organisation Society, it has always been held that any Poor Law administration according to the “Principles of 1834,” involved the co-existence of voluntary charity sufficiently well-organised to prevent the deserving person from falling under the deterrent conditions of the Poor Law, and from being subject to the stigma of pauperism. According to this view, which received the endorsement of Mr. (afterwards Lord) Goschen’s celebrated Minute of 1870, the public assistance of the Poor Law Authority is designed and intended only for the undeserving, it being assumed that those worthy of anything better than the Poor Law supplied ought to be provided for by organised charity. When we find the Majority Report explicitly “accepting the principle of Mr. Goschen’s Minute”; setting up in every district a Voluntary Aid Committee to carry out this principle; definitely recommending that rules should be made requiring certain classes of applicants to apply to the Voluntary Aid Committee, and certain others to the public Authority, whether the applicants like it or not; and expressly stipulating that the treatment provided by the latter is to be “less eligible” than that which the former may be pleased to prescribe, we cannot help feeling that the policy of the future “Public Assistance Authority” is, after all, to be the Poor Law of 1834, dealing only (as is assumed) with the worthless and the undeserving whom the charitable have, because of their character, refused to aid, and to whom the New Poor Law is to extend only “less eligible” treatment. If the new Public Assistance Authorities are really intended to proceed on “curative and restorative” principles, and “to widen, strengthen, and humanise the Poor Law,” why is so much stress laid on Mr. Goschen’s Minute (which was based on a “deterrent” and “negative” Poor Law), and why is it so important to rescue, by means of a Voluntary Aid Committee, all the deserving cases from the clutches of the Public Assistance Authority? If the treatment applied by the Public Assistance Authority is really to be that calculated to be what is most “curative and restorative” to them, why should the “deserving” cases be debarred from it? In this ingenious mapping out of the relative spheres of Voluntary Charity and the Poor Law, we see embodied, in the most plausible and the most practical form, the two-fold assumption of Professor Bosanquet, namely, that those for whom provision is made by the Poor Law are persons with a moral defect, whom it is necessary to treat in such a way as to discourage, “by expectation and example,” others from applying for the public treatment.

We are not ourselves surprised to find the Majority Report, which started out with an acceptance of the “Principles of 1907,” thus reverting in its practical proposals to the “Principles of 1834.” What was brought out by the elaborate investigations of the Royal Commission of 1905-9 was that, however successful the new principles had proved in other hands, it was neither expedient nor practicable for a Poor Law Authority, just because it was a Poor Law Authority, to administer relief on the lines of Curative Treatment, Compulsion, and Universal Provision. Thus, the two halves of the Majority Report are incompatible with each other. If there is to be, under the name of the Public Assistance Authority, a general Destitution Authority, there cannot, in fact, be any universal or whole-hearted adoption of the “Principles of 1907,” even to the extent to which they receive apparent endorsement.

The mutual Incompatibility of the Proposals of the Majority Report

Now, in our judgment, both the positions successively taken up in the Majority Report are untenable. We propose first to show that it is not possible for the “Principles of 1907” (to which, as we have seen, three-quarters of a century of experience has driven the Local Government Board) to be carried out by a Destitution Authority, either efficiently or economically, or, indeed, without danger. It was just this impossibility that has led to the “diversity without deliberation, indulgence without cure, and relief without discipline,” which marks the Poor Law administration of to-day, and which caused the appointment of the Royal Commission. On this point we agree with those who stand on the old lines. If there is to be a Poor Law Authority, there is no safety but in the “Principles of 1834.” On the other hand, we hold public opinion to be justified in condemning these principles, and in demanding the application of Curative Treatment, Compulsion, and Universal Provision. But the economical and efficient administration of these three principles involves the acceptance of another, the Principle of Prevention-the principle of actively preventing the several causesof destitution, and of arresting their operation at the incipient stage, whether by operating on the individual or on the environment. Without the thorough-going application of this Principle of Prevention by the various Public Authorities concerned, Curative and Restorative Treatment inevitably undermines the motive of self-maintenance and weakens parental responsibility, Compulsion strikes at the consciousness of personal freedom, and Universal Provision tends to degrade into an unenlightened communism.

The incompatibility of the Principles of 1907 with the very nature of a general Destitution Authority will, we think, be clear to any one who will consider the subject in detail.

(i.) The Principle of Curative Treatment and a Destitution Authority

It is, to begin with, an inherent drawback of any general Destitution Authority for the work of Curative Treatment that it is necessarily a “mixed” Authority, having to deal, not with patients suffering from any one disease, but with persons of the most diverse needs, and requiring treatment of very different nature. To entrust to one and the same Authority the care of the infants and the aged, the children and the able-bodied adults, the sick and the healthy, maids and widows; and to instruct that Authority to adopt “curative and restorative treatment,” is inevitably to concentrate attention, not on the different methods that their several necessities require, but on their one common attribute of destitution, and on the one common remedy of “relief” upon whatever terms, strict or lax, that may be in fashion. To a Destitution Authority, however constituted, a sick person is not wholly a patient, he is also a pauper; and too often his character of pauper interferes with his being regarded with a single eye as a patient to be cured. To such an Authority a destitute child is not merely, or even mainly, a future citizen, to be nurtured and trained in the wisest way for the service of the community; the fact that the child is a pauper cannot by a Destitution Authority be forgotten, and all experience shows that this remembrance injuriously affects what is done for the child.

A further drawback is that the “mixed” Authority, having to deal simultaneously with all sections and all kinds of persons, tends invariably to a service of “mixed” officials; and with a Destitution Authority this service is almost necessarily composed of “Destitution” officials. They are not, and can scarcely be, specially trained to deal with infants, or with children, or with able-bodied adults, or with the sick, or with the mentally defective, or with the aged. The specialist training and experience that they acquire is not with any of these, but with the one common attribute of destitution. Thus the typical Relieving Officer or Workhouse Master has not, and can seldom hope to have, the specialist knowledge that would fit him to be a competent inspector of boarded-out girls, a useful guardian of feeble-minded boys, a successful administrator of a Rescue Home, a skilled superintendent of a phthisis sanatorium, a happy adviser in discovering situations for men out of work, or an expert trainer for those who have to be prepared for new occupations. Even when public-spirited Boards of Guardians, under the wisest administrative guidance, persistently strive to make “a classified Poor Law,” they fail to attain, in fact, the classification that they desire. This is seen in the persistence of the General Mixed Workhouse, in spite of the explicit condemnation of a succession of expert critics. It is seen in the fact that, after twenty years of “scattered homes” for children, we still find the Guardians unable to resist the temptation of putting into them, along with the children, feeble-minded and morally perverted girls in their adolescence. It is seen in the fact that, after fifty years of Poor Law Schools, there is still no classification of the pupils according to their educational needs; and we find everywhere, sitting side by side, in the same school, the feeble-minded child, the merely backward child, the precocious young scholar, and the incipient criminal, all submitted to the same curriculum, with the same books, under the same teacher. Even in the latest efforts at classification, by a model Board of Guardians, we find, housed on the same site and managed by the same superintendent, the most deserving aged persons, the epileptic patients, and the able-bodied men relegated to the discipline of “test labour.” Such specialised institutions as have come into existence under a Destitution Authority are, in fact, perpetually crumbling back into the General Mixed Workhouse. We see no reason to expect that a general Destitution Authority that was nominated, instead of being elected, would be free from this besetting tendency.

But the inherent incapacity of any Destitution Authority to cope with the task comes out most strongly in its inevitable failure to deal with the “incipient stage.” By the very nature of a Destitution Authority it can deal only with cases of destitution, and the greatest stress is laid, and rightly laid, on the necessity for this limitation. This means that it never does, and never can, deal with any disease or any moral defect, or any injurious influence of any kind, in its incipient stage. An independent citizen who begins in any way to be adversely affected in mind, body, or estate, in such a manner as to be reduced to a state of destitution, does not, in most cases, suddenly, or even quickly, reach that depth. The evil influence takes some time to bring him down. All that time, whilst the progress of the disease may still be arrested, and a cure is possible, Destitution Authority does not hear of the case, and would be legally precluded from intervening, even if it did hear of it, because there is not yet any destitution. Eventually, when the case has become so bad that employment is lost, savings are dissipated and friends exhausted, resort is had to the Destitution Authority. But the case is then too far gone for any useful intervention. All that can then be done is, whatever the case, to administer “relief,” and ease the patient’s sinking into senility or the grave. This inherent defect of a Destitution Authority, which no alteration of name or composition or policy can remedy, must for ever prevent it applying curative or restorative treatment in any really effective way. No Poor Law and no Poor Law Authority, just because it is a Poor Law and a Poor Law Authority, can ever reach out to anticipate and ward off destitution before it has occurred. And this failure to get hold of the incipient case applies to all the various kinds of adverse influences that cause destitution. It is, perhaps, most clearly seen in such physical diseases as phthisis, to which one-seventh of all the pauperism is due. Here the interval between the detection of the disease and its development to such an extent as to bring wage-earning employment to an end may often be several years. If treated at the early stage, before destitution has set in, the disease is often curable. If not treated until the patient is so ill as to be unable to earn wages, the case is invariably incurable. It is needless to instance other physical diseases of like kind. We may adduce unemployment as an example of an equally dangerous complaint, apt to be curable if dealt with at once; and only too likely to be hopeless if left until destitution has set in. The case of the infant or child suffering from neglect is another patent example. In short, if the Public Authority must in all cases hold its hand until destitution has set in, as any Destitution Authority must do, it might as well abandon all hope, in the vast majority of cases, of any effective curative or restorative treatment. It never gets the cases until they are too far gone. We might as well run a hospital on the plan of never consenting to admit any case until mortification had set in!

Now, it becomes more and more apparent that it is a useless extravagance to adopt the policy of curative and restorative treatment, unless we are prepared to “search out” the cases that need dealing with,-the infants and children who are just beginning to be neglected by their parents and guardians, the persons of all ages who are just beginning to suffer from disease, the feeble-minded lacking ameliorating care, the man just smitten with unemployment-at the stage in their complaint at which the application of our treatment has, at any rate, some chance of yielding effective results. The Local Education Authority or the Local Health Authority understands at once that it cannot do its work if it waits until it is applied to. It accordingly searches out illiterate children of school age, or persons smitten with infectious disease. But a Destitution Authority, administering a Poor Law, cannot in this way “search out” the cases needing its attention without thereby offering assistance to those who are not pecuniarily destitute. Accordingly, it is of the very nature of any Destitution Authority to restrict its operations as much as possible, to deter people from coming, or to wait, at any rate, until it is applied to. It is from this inability to adopt a policy of “searching out” that a Destitution Authority never gets hold of the case in its incipient stage, and is never really preventive of destitution.

An instance of the impracticability of the application of curative and restorative treatment by a Poor Law Authority, just because it is a Poor Law Authority, is afforded by the ebb and flow of the whole class of “Ins and Outs.” This well-known class, in all its varieties, comprises the able-bodied or semi-able-bodied frequenter of urban workhouses, the customer of the casual wards, the inebriate in his recurring attacks of delirium tremens, the feeble-minded girl in her annual confinements, and, last but not by any means least important, the unfortunate infants and children dragged to and fro by their parents. Whatever their sex, their age, their health, their character, or their conduct, these “Ins and Outs” come at the crisis of their destitution, and go as soon as they can see their way to some sort of a living outside, choosing their own times and seasons for demanding the maintenance which a Poor Law Authority dare not withhold, and for resuming the liberty which it cannot refuse. So long as the conditions offered by the Poor Law Authority are “deterrent,” few will apply for this maintenance; the vagrant, the able-bodied loafer, the temporarily sick, the disabled drunkard, parents with neglected children, the epileptic and the feeble-minded preferring, even at the cost of foregoing the treatment that they really need, such other forms of parasitism as free shelters, the doles of the charitable, the gifts of friends and relations, or the earnings of their unfortunate dependents. But let the conditions offered by the Poor Law Authority be “curative and restorative” in their character, and all classes of “Ins and Outs” will clamour for the hospitality of the Poor Law whenever their other means of parasitism show signs of falling short. Whether they come in or remain out, a Poor Law Authority, just because it is a Poor Law Authority, is wholly unable to enforce on them, before they are destitute, the sort of conduct that would prevent their becoming destitute, and would thus preserve the community from the danger and cost of their parasitic existence. The Poor Law Authority is thus incapable, not (as is often supposed) because it has no adequate powers of detention, and because it must let its patients go whenever they please. Its incapacity depends on the more fundamental and less curable defect that, as a Destitution Authority, it is inherently incapable of bringing pressure to bear on the lives and wills of these people, at the time when such pressure may be effective, namely, long before they have become destitute, at the moment when they are taking the first step towards the evil parasitism to which they eventually succumb.

(ii.) The Principle of Compulsion and a Destitution Authority

It has usually been considered impracticable to combine any powers of compulsion with a Poor Law system. The Majority Report proposes, however, to endow its new Public Assistance Authority with extensive powers of compulsory treatment; that is to say, to enable the administrators of the Poor Law to dispense with its limitation to those who are actually destitute and unable to maintain themselves, whenever such administrators choose to consider it expedient to compel particular persons, who claim not to be destitute, to become or to continue paupers, with the object of segregating them from their fellows. Such an extension of the powers of the Public Assistance Authority would be inconsistent with one of the cardinal principles of the Majority Report, namely, that the area of the operations of the Poor Law should not be extended. What is more important is that it does not seem at all probable that any House of Commons would consent to give to any Destitution Authority, maintaining the stigma of pauperism, the power to make a man a pauper against his will.

So far as compelling persons who are ill, and who need treatment, to come in and be treated for their own good, or for the health of the neighbourhood, this is a power which Parliament has already, in certain cases, conceded to the Local Health Authority, which has no stigma of pauperism, and which has, moreover, the machinery for searching out the cases, irrespective of their affluence. These powers could easily be extended. It would seem both futile and unnecessary, with regard to persons whose need is nursing and medical attendance, and who may not be pecuniarily destitute, to confer a similar power also on the Destitution Authority, which has no such machinery for searching out cases, and no particular responsibility for the Public Health.

With regard to the second great class of those whom it is desired to segregate compulsorily against their will, namely, the feeble-minded, the whole weight of expert opinion is against conferring this power upon either the existing Board of Guardians or any Poor Law Authority, and in favour of entrusting it to the Lunacy Authority, an Authority which-in contrast with any Destitution Authority-will treat these unfortunate persons in respect of their ascertained defect, and not in respect of their destitution, or in respect of any moral defect assumed to be connected therewith.

When we come to the children, the case is even clearer. If power is to be given to any Authority to separate a child from its parents, and to deprive the latter of its custody and care, public opinion emphatically demands that this power should be conferred and exercised solely for the good of the child, and with a view to its best possible nurture and training.

It is plain that this is best secured by freeing the child from all association with pauperism and entrusting its care to the Authority which deals, apart from any stigma of pauperism, with other children in a normal way, and which specialises on their proper training.

Finally, in the case of able-bodied and able-minded men and women in health, whose distress arises merely from their being without wage-earning employment-whatever may be the cause of such unemployment-it will, we think, be wholly impracticable to obtain, for a Destitution Authority, any powers of compulsory segregation. To compel, by law, able-bodied men and women to become paupers against their will; to force upon them a degrading status with the stigma of pauperism, when they do not even apply for public assistance; to compel them to come into an institution of the Destitution Authority, when they ask only to be let alone, must, we think, in the absence of any judicial conviction of a specific offence against the law, be dismissed as politically out of the question. It may be that some such restriction of personal liberty is essential to the effective curative treatment of particular individuals, whose unemployment proceeds from their own personal defects. But no power of compulsory segregation can be justified except in respect of individuals in which this personal defectiveness has been definitely ascertained and judicially certified. The Destitution Authority, having no means of ascertaining whether or not situations are available, and no opportunity of experimenting upon the personal willingness of its patients to accept and retain wage-earning employment, can never sift out the voluntary from the involuntary unemployed. Moreover, even if the Destitution Authority possessed the machinery for searching out the men who really needed reformatory treatment, but who did not apply for relief, and if it had some infallible method of recognising which of them were involuntarily idle, and which of them were unemployed through their own defects of character, it would still be impossible to justify the grant of compulsory powers of segregation, except to an Authority which was both authorised and qualified to improve-not to pauperise and degrade-the persons, unconvicted of any crime, whom it thus forcibly deprived of their freedom.

We come to quite a different kind of compulsion when no one is forced to become a pauper against his will, but those who have voluntarily entered a Poor Law Institution may be, under certain circumstances, detained against their will, either for their own advantage, or as a disciplinary measure. In such a case Parliament has already shown itself willing to grant certain minor powers of detention. But there is, as all Poor Law administrators know, a practical difficulty in enforcing any such detention at any time or in any way that is unpleasant to the common run of patients, even when it is sought only to exercise the power for the patient’s own good. Experience shows that, if those who need the shelter of the institution, or the care which it affords, believe that they will be liable to be detained against their will, many of them simply will not come in to be treated; and, least of all, if the liability to compulsory detention is combined with the stigma and the degradation of pauperism. Thus, compulsory detention is a natural and defective adjunct of a “deterrent” Poor Law, because it scares people off; but it is a fatal obstacle to the operations of a Poor Law which is intended to be curative and restorative. The very patients to whom the “order for continuous treatment” would be most appropriate and most useful will refuse to come in. Without the will, the power, or the machinery for “searching out” cases (other than those who apply for relief), which no Poor Law Authority can ever have, or the power to compel them to come in, irrespective of their pecuniary resources or their own consent, which no Poor Law Authority is ever likely to be granted, any policy of compulsory detention of those already in the Poor Law Institutions becomes, on any policy of curative and restorative treatment, simply suicidal. Those for whom the curative and restorative treatment is especially designed do not present themselves.

(iii.) The Principle of Universal Provision and a Destitution Authority

When we come to the third of the “Principles of 1907,” that of Universal Provision, we see at once that this is inherently inconsistent with the very nature of a Destitution Authority. It is of the essence of a Destitution Authority whatever its functions and whatever its designation, that it should confine its ministrations to a particular section of the community, namely those who are destitute. But with regard to one subject after another, such as primary education or sanitation, or the ordinary matters of municipal government, the community has come to the conclusion that it is in the public interest that these services should be rendered to all who need or claim them, whatever their affluence. Thus, whenever it is decided to apply the Principle of Universal Provision to any public service, either free of any charge or upon payment of a stated price or contribution, this public service necessarily falls to some Public Authority other than that administering the Poor Law. And the further consequence arises that at once we get, in respect of that particular service, an overlapping of functions and duplication of work. The Destitution Authority is bound to provide everything requisite (including the service in question) for its destitute clients. The other Public Authority is bound to supply the service in question to all who need it (including those who are destitute). This overlapping and duplication has, as we have elsewhere indicated, already gone very far. The Local Education Authorities are now providing for children, irrespective of their affluence, not only primary, secondary, and university education, but also, in many tens of thousands of cases, medical inspection and treatment, meals at school, and even complete board, lodging, and clothing. The Local Health Authorities are now providing for the sick, irrespective of their affluence, not only sanitary inspection and control, but also medical diagnosis and treatment, nursing, and (in 700 municipal hospitals) even maintenance. The Local Lunacy Authorities are now providing for all grades of the mentally defective, irrespective of their affluence, not only control, but also ameliorative treatment and maintenance. The Local Pension Authorities are now providing for all persons over seventy who do not possess more than twelve shillings a week of income, irrespective of whether or not they are destitute, regular pensions from national funds. The Local Unemployment Authorities (the Distress Committees) are providing for all men who are unemployed, quite irrespective of their affluence, various costly services, part of which are now in process of being transferred to a National Authority (the National Labour Exchange). It is not possible to stop this overlap and duplication by establishing, as the Majority Report vainly desiderates, in every district “one Authority and only one Authority” for all forms of public assistance, for this would be, as we see, to merge in the Poor Law all the services of Local Government, and to extend the “stigma of pauperism” to the entire community. Indeed, the adoption of the Principle of Universal Provision has already gone so far, and the services of the separate Public Authorities are already so all-embracing, that there is no section of the pauper host for which they do not nowadays provide. Destitute children are already being maintained by the Local Education Authorities, destitute sick by the Local Health Authorities, destitute mentally defective by the Local Lunacy Authorities, destitute aged by the Local Pension Authorities, and destitute able-bodied by the Local Unemployment Authorities-actually in greater numbers, in the aggregate, than those still under the Poor Law. There are no paupers who do not belong to one or other of these five sections. Hence the partial adoption by the community of this Principle of Universal Provision has rendered unnecessary the retention of any Destitution Authority. Its work is being done elsewhere.

We must remember that the Principle of Universal Provision in no way implies or involves, either the gratuitousness of the service or the charging of any uniform fee. The enforcement by the Local Health Authority of a National Minimum of sanitation and water-supply for each dwelling-house, does not mean that these things are necessarily provided by the Local Health Authority itself, or free of charge. Most of the service is ensured by an enforcement upon the owners and occupiers of dwelling-houses of the fulfilment of their personal obligations. The provision by the Local Education Authority of educational facilities for all who claimed them was long accompanied by a universal charging of fees, and is, above the primary grade, still usually made a matter of charge. The Local Lunacy Authorities insist on payment being made in respect of all their patients whose settlements they can trace, recovering the full cost (apart from the Government Grant) either from the patient’s own estate, or from his relations, or from the Union to which he belongs. Hence we see that the adoption of the Principle of Universal Provision does not imply or involve the gratuitousness of the service, or any diminution of the number or kinds of cases in which, under the present law and practice, payment is enforced on the individual or his relations. A transfer to the several Preventive Authorities (the Education Authority, the Health Authority, the Lunacy Authority, and the Unemployment Authority) of the various services now combined under the Board of Guardians, could, in fact, hardly fail to lead to a more systematic consideration and a far stricter enforcement of the duty of repaying the cost of the treatment than the present slipshod and logically inconsistent arrangements. What particular services should be charged for to the recipients as such, and which to the ratepayers as a whole; in what proportion the cost should be shared between the patient, the Local Authority, and the National Government; and at what rate and under what conditions any such charges should be recovered by legal process in particular cases, are all of them questions which should, in our view, be authoritatively determined by Parliament, in a clear and consistent code relating to Charge and Recovery of Cost.

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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: Reversion to 1834
  • Author: Patricia M. Leopold
  • Description: The Reversion to 1834 and the Majority Report of the Royal Commission of 1905-1909 In this issue about the reversion to [...]

This entry was last updated: January 13, 2017

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