Did the Liberal Welfare Reforms Lay the Foundations of the Welfare State?
Did the liberal Welfare Reforms lay the foundations of the Welfare State? This essay will assess how far reaching the liberal Welfare Reforms were and how far they can be said to represent the foundations of the Welfare State. The Welfare State is when the Government takes care of the health and well-being of all its citizens from “cradle to grave”. The liberal Welfare Reforms did represent a move away from “laissez-faire” towards a programme of social reform.
The liberal reforms concentrated on five main groups.
These were the young, introducing school meals and medical inspections with the Education Act 1906 and 1907, the old with the Old Age Pensions Act 1908, and the sick who were helped with the first part of the National Health Act 1911. The employed were given compensation for injuries sustained at work with the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1906 and other things such as an eight hour day for miners due to the Coal Mines Act 1908. A half day off was also given to shop assistants following the Shops Act 1911 and there was a minimum wage for “sweated industry” workers with the Trade Boards Act of 1909.
The unemployed were given help to find work with the Labour Exchanges Act 1909 and unemployment insurance which was brought in with the second part of the National Insurance Act 1911. The first social reforms to be carried out by the Liberals were concerned with children and dealt with the provision of school meals and the medical inspection of all pupils. Now that education was compulsory it was made clear that many children were often coming to school hungry, dirty or suffering from ill health.
A study carried out in a poor area of Dundee in 1905 showed that children were significantly underweight and under height when compared with the national average. The report said “… a large number of children who should be under medical supervision” and “… they cannot apply their minds to lessons while their stomachs are empty”. The Boer War in 1899 had highlighted the problem that Britain had with the physical condition of its citizens. When recruiting soldiers to fight in the war, the height requirement had to be dropped from 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 2 inches so that Britain would have enough soldiers.
The leader of the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF) claimed at the time that 50% of the working-class recruits from towns and cities had been unfit to fight due to their poor physical condition. To bring Britain back to a good physical state, the Government decided it was best to start with children and did this with the Education (Provision of Meals) Act, 1906. Much of the credit for this Bill lies outside the Liberal Party. There was a lot of public concern created by reports carried out in the wake of the Boer War.
One of these was a report carried out by The Royal Commission of Physical Condition in Scotland and the other was carried out by The Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration. A labour backbencher called William Wilson introduced the school meals proposal which was so popular that the Liberals decided to give it a chance; this was then called the Education (Provision of Meals) Act. The act allowed local authorities to take steps as they saw fit to provide school meals for children either through voluntary work or using the local authority money.
Parents were to pay for school meals if they could afford it, however, if they could not the local authority could pay a halfpenny. The number of school meals provided by the Government started at 3 million in 1906 and eventually rose to 14 million in 1914. Within a short period of time a Government funded Welfare system was beginning to replace many of the efforts made by charities. There was still a long way to go though as in 1912, over half of the local authorities had not set up a school meals service. In 1907 there was another Bill passed in order to take care of the health of school pupils.
This was the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act which was not popular with the Liberal Government at first as they knew that health inspection in schools would lead to public demand for government funded medical treatment for everyone and the Liberals did not think that they could afford to do this. However, Robert L Morant, the Permanent Secretary of the Education Board during 1906 had been convinced about the need for school medical inspections through contact with a woman called Margaret Macmillan.
She said “for the good of the children and the public, what subjects are taught and how much they are taught do not matter anything like so much nowadays as attention to the physical condition of the scholars”. In 1912 the Board of Education started to give grants to local authorities to set up school clinics to provide all pupils with healthcare. Although this was a huge step towards a Welfare State it was not a foundation as these acts would not have been passed had Elementary education not been made compulsory in previous years.
The Old Age Pensions Act in 1908 was the conclusion of over 20 years of debate surrounding the subject of poverty amongst the elderly. Lloyd George the new Chancellor of the Exchequer in April 1908 made it his job to get the Old Age Pensions Bill through the House of Commons and although it passed through the House of Commons with very little opposition. However, the House of Lords was slightly more difficult to tackle as the majority of Lords still believed in “laissez-faire”. When eventually the Bill passed through all of its stages, it became law in 1908 and came into effect in January 1909.
The Act entitled people over the age of 70 to between 1 shilling (5p) a week and 5 shillings (25p) a week of pension. However, this amount of money still fell below what Rowntree considered to be the poverty line by 2 shillings (10p) a week. There were also a few exceptions. Any 70-year-old was entitled to the pension as long as they were British and had been a resident in the UK for over 20 years, they had avoided imprisonment in the past previous 10 years to receiving their pension and they had not regularly avoided work.
The Government had miscalculated how many of the public would need a pension as they estimated that there would only be around 500,000 but by 1914 there were 1 million pensioners in Britain. This made the Government very quickly aware of the poverty that the elderly people in the country were facing. Although the Old Age Pensions Act 1908 was a significant step towards the Welfare State, this was not part of the foundations as things such as Friendly Societies had been there before to help the Elderly. The sick created another task for the Liberal Government.
On returning from Germany, Lloyd George immediately started work in setting up a way to help people who couldn’t earn money on their own as they suffered from illness. However, he again came up against opposition from friendly societies but also came up against Trade Unions and Doctors. As Lloyd George was Chancellor of the Exchequer he was also very aware of the cost of bringing in National insurance. In order to pay for the National insurance scheme, income tax was made more progressive in that the more money you earned, the more money you paid in tax.
Lloyd George had to account for all of this in the 1909 budget, however, this was rejected by the House of Lords and the Parliament Act 1911 had to be passed to limit the power of the Lords. The Peoples Budget was passed in 1910 which meant that the Government now had the money to start its social welfare programme. The health insurance scheme was contained in part 1 of the National Insurance Act 1911, this was a compromised Act and there was a lot of work still to be done to help those at a disadvantage in society.
To stop the opposition to the Act from Trade Unions, Lloyd George decided to include them in the system along with Friendly Societies who would help him with his new system. When Lloyd George came out with his proposals, the British Medical Group had very strong objections to them. They did not want what existed between the Doctors and the Friendly Societies on a national scale where the Doctors felt they were being paid too little money to treat working-class patients.
When Lloyd George went to meet with the Doctors he had to tell them that Friendly Societies were too powerful for him but offered the Doctors a higher contract fee of 4 shillings (20p) per patient and 2 shillings (10p) to cover any drugs costs, this was much more than the Friendly Societies had been willing to give and therefore, when the Act was passed, many of the poorer Doctors joined and were able to double their income quickly. Although this was a better way of helping the sick, it was not one of the founding principles of the Welfare State as there were Friendly Societies there before who did almost the same thing.
Unemployment was still believed to be the fault of the individual who was unemployed up until the 1900s as many people wouldn’t accept that if a worker was unemployed it may be due to circumstances out with their control. The causes of unemployment were hidden by the belief in Samuel Smiles book on ‘Self-help’ which basically said that if a person was unemployed it was there own fault and they had to get themselves out of unemployment by hard work and belief that they could get a job. This was believed for a long time as nobody had accurate information on how bad the problem actually was.
Part 2 of the National Insurance Act covered the unemployed. This was a contributory insurance scheme where workers paid 2? d, the employer paid 2? d and the Government paid 3d per week. Insurance was compulsory for trades such as Shipbuilding, building construction and sawmilling as these were seasonal trades which had a repeated pattern of unemployment. Labour Exchanges had two roles, the first was to allow the unemployed to find work and the second was to pay out unemployment benefit to those who were insured.
In order to receive unemployment insurance the worker had to go to the Labour Exchanges and register as unemployed, he would then go back there to collect his money. On a weekly basis he would receive 7 shillings (35p) a week for up to 15 weeks of the year. However, if the worker had been dismissed from work following unsatisfactory work or bad conduct then he would not be entitled to any benefit as it was his fault that he was unemployed. Within 2 years of unemployment insurance starting 2. 3 million workers were insured, however, this was still only a small number of the working-class population.
Although this was not part of the foundations of the Welfare State as the Conservative Government had passed the Unemployed Workmen’s Act before it left office in 1905, this was seen as a much better way of dealing with the problem of unemployment in Britain. The Liberal Government passed four laws which wanted to improve the conditions of workers. These provided compensation for injuries that happened at work. Shorter hours were given to people who worked in dangerous and difficult jobs such as coal mining. This was a good turning point as miners had been campaigning for this for over 40 years.
Minimum wages were given to female workers who were exploited and worked in ‘sweated trades’ such as tailoring, a total of 200,000 workers were affected by The Trade Boards Act of 1909. There was also a half day off and a decent amount of time for meals given to shop assistants who mostly did not have trade unions behind them. The Workmen’s Compensation Act was built on previous Acts of 1897 and 1900, showing that helping the people who were employed had started before the Liberal Government came to power showing that they did not set the foundations of the Welfare State.
In conclusion, the Liberal Government did take a lot of steps towards making Britain a Welfare State such as setting up a national insurance system, a pension system for the elderly when they couldn’t work anymore and tried to tackle social issues with Government intervention. However, they did not stop poverty, medical inspections and school meals were not compulsory for local authorities so education was not up to the standard that it should have been, the workhouses were still there although not as widely used and there was no system of family allowance in place.
Although some historians think that you can see the origins of the Welfare State in the Liberal Reforms, others believe that the Liberal Reforms failed to deal adequately with the welfare of Britain and were not the origins of the Welfare State. The Liberal Welfare reforms did not lay the foundations of the Welfare State but did improve on measures that were already in place.