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The Liberal Welfare Reforms 1906-1914

Below is your section about Liberal Welfare Reforms between 1906-1914. I hope this helps you with your GCSE or Advanced Level History courses at school or college. Here we go…

In December 1905 the increasingly unpopular Conservative-Unionist Coalition Government ended with the resignation of the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour.

The Liberal Party formed a new government under Henry Campbell-Bannerman. He immediately called a General Election for January 1906.

The Liberal’s campaign focused more on the failings of Balfour’s Government than on the issue of welfare reform. It was a landslide victory for the Liberals who won with a large majority.

‘The health of the people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their powers as a state depend’ Benjamin Disraeli, 1877.

Studies conducted into the nature of poverty in Britain helped change people’s views on its causes. They also showed just how widespread the problem was.

The Second Boer War (1899-1902) demonstrated that poverty was linked to ill-health. It also raised questions about national efficiency and Britain’s ability to maintain its status as a world power.

Germany, Britain’s main economic rival, had already introduced a system of social welfare.

There was also support from within the Liberal Government for a move away from laissez-faire and the adoption of a more interventionist approach to the issue of poverty.

Some of this was due to genuine humanitarian reasons, to help those who could not help themselves. However, now that the issue of poverty was causing widespread concern, it was to the Liberal’s political advantage to be seen as the Party doing something about it.

The rise of the Labour Party and the growth of the trade unions also put pressure on the Liberal Government to address working-class concerns and introduce reforms.

Traditionally the Liberals believed in the principle of laissez-faire, valuing individualism and self-help. By the beginning of the twentieth century there were calls for greater state intervention to help the working classes.

This New Liberalism was advocated by many of the new Liberal MPs, such as Charles Masterman, who had been elected in 1906.

After Campbell-Bannerman’s resignation due to ill-health in April 1908, Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister. Asquith was more open to New Liberal ideas than Campbell-Bannerman had been.

David Lloyd George was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer and Winston Churchill went to the Board of Trade. Lloyd George and Churchill both supported interventionist ideas. They pushed the Liberal Government to introduce a more radical programme of reform.

Published in seventeen volumes between 1889 and 1903, Charles Booth’s The Life and Labour of the People in London revealed that thirty percent of London’s population lived in poverty.

Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life published in 1901, found that twenty eight percent of York’s population were living below the poverty line. This was defined by Rowntree as a minimum weekly sum of money ‘necessary to enable families to secure the necessities of a healthy life’.

Rowntree found that over half of the families living in primary poverty had a main wage-earner in work, but not earning enough to meet their family’s needs. Rowntree also identified that many families were trapped in a poverty cycle. Life events, such as the birth of a child or old age, would push them below the poverty line.

The prevailing view of the nineteenth century was that poverty was the fault of the poor. It was caused by drunkenness and idleness and the moral failings of the individual.

The studies by Booth and Rowntree were important as they showed that poverty was not the fault of the poor.

The main causes were low pay, unemployment, ill health, old age and large families.

They also showed that self-help would not work as poverty was caused by factors that were mostly outside of the poor’s control.

The studies also revealed just how widespread the problem of poverty was.

During the Second Boer War it was found that about one third of the men who volunteered were physically unfit for military service.

In July 1904 the Committee on Physical Deterioration published its findings on the issue. It attributed the poor physical condition of the working classes to malnourishment and the overcrowded living conditions in the industrial cities.

One of the Committee’s recommendations was the introduction of free school meals to needy children.

These findings demonstrated the link between poverty and ill-health. It also raised fears that in any future war Britain would not be able to recruit enough fit and healthy men.

At this time there were fears that Britain’s status as a world power was in decline. Britain’s share of the world’s markets was threatened by strong competition from other industrialised nations. This led to calls for improved national efficiency.

The country needed a workforce that was fit, healthy and educated if it were to compete with Germany and America.

Germany, which threatened to surpass Britain as an industrial and naval power, already had a system of social welfare. This had been introduced by Bismarck in the 1880’s as a way of combating the rise of socialism.

Both Churchill and Lloyd George took an interest, with Lloyd George visiting Germany in August 1908. Officials from the Board of Trade also studied Germany’s system of Labour Exchanges.

Formed in 1900, the Labour Party won twenty nine seats at the 1906 election and forty two in December 1910. Labour was committed to welfare reform.

By introducing these reforms the Liberals could attract the working class vote (many working class men had been enfranchised under the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts) away from Labour.

It was the Labour MP, W T Wilson who originally introduced the Bill for the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act.

In general the Liberals could count on Labour support for their welfare reforms. This became more important after the elections of 1910 when the Liberal’s failed to win a Commons majority and had to rely on Labour and Irish Nationalist support.

‘If we see a drowning man we do not drag him to the shore. Instead, we provide help to allow him to swim ashore’ Winston Churchill

The Liberal Government was not trying to create a welfare state as Clement Attlee’s Labour Government did after World War Two. Neither did they reform or abolish the Poor Law.

Instead they passed legislation to help those groups of people most likely to fall into poverty. These were the young, the old and those unable to earn a wage due to sickness or unemployment.

Welfare legislation was also passed to improve working conditions and to tackle low wages in the ‘sweated industries’.

Although the Liberal’s had moved away from the principle of laissez-faire and recognised the state should take responsibility for those in poverty, many still believed in the concept of self-help.

The Liberal’s intention was to provide people with the means to help themselves, hence the contributory element to National Insurance.

Between 1906 and 1908 the Liberal Government passed three Acts aimed at improving child welfare.

The Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906 allowed Local Authorities to provide free school meals to destitute children. Money could be raised by a levy of up to a halfpenny on local rates. The Act was prescriptive and did not make the provision of school meals compulsory.

The Education (Administrative Provisions) Act 1907 made it compulsory for all Local Authorities to ensure each school child received a medical inspection.

The Children and Young Persons Act 1908 brought in a number of regulations to protect children from cruelty and abuse. It became known as the Children’s Charter.

It was a criminal offence to neglect or ill-treat a child. Paid carers had to be registered. Children were to be tried in juvenile courts and kept out of adult prisons. Instead they would be sent to borstals. Children could not be sent out begging or purchase cigarettes and alcohol.

The provision of school meals did have a positive effect on the health of the poorest children, at least during term time. Studies showed that children lost weight and their growth slowed during school holidays.

However it was up to the Local Authorities to decide whether to provide free school meals. By 1911 only forty percent of Authorities did. School meals were made compulsory in 1914.

Medical inspections were of limited value until free medical treatment was introduced in 1912.

The 1908 Act did help protect children from abuse but had little success in preventing children from smoking or drinking.

The first payments under the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act were made in January 1909. This was a non-contributory pension scheme funded by the Treasury.

It was also means tested. People over seventy, with an annual income of less than £21 would get the maximum of 5s per week. Married couples were entitled to 7s 6d. It reduced on a sliding scale up to a maximum annual income of £31.

Initially pensions were only available to British subjects who had been resident in the country for at least twenty years and who had not been in prison for the previous ten years.

They would also not receive a pension if they had been detained under the Inebriates Act in the previous ten years or had deliberately avoided work.

The pension wasn’t enough to cover an elderly person’s basic necessities. Many people were unable to work long before the age of seventy. The high starting age, means testing and restrictions on eligibility limited the number of people who were entitled to make a claim.

However for many poor families it eased the burden of caring for an elderly relative and it removed the threat of the workhouse. By 1914 almost one million people were receiving a pension.

‘The problem of unemployment lies…at the root of most other social problems’ William Beveridge, Unemployment: A Problem of Industry, 1909.

The Labour Exchanges Act 1909 was brought in to help the unemployed find work.

Part II of the National Insurance Act 1911 dealt with unemployment. It made insurance compulsory for trades such as construction and ship building, which were susceptible to seasonal unemployment.

It was a contributory scheme with the employee (2½d), employer (2½d) and the state (3d) each making a weekly contribution.

If an insured worker lost their job they would receive 7s a week for up to fifteen weeks.

They had to sign up with a Labour Exchange to receive payment but would get nothing if they had been dismissed due to bad conduct.

2.5million workers were covered by unemployment insurance under the 1911 Act. The insurance was designed to cover short-term unemployment in a limited number of industries.

After fifteen weeks the unemployed worker would likely fall back into poverty and any further assistance would come under the Poor Law. Cover was also only provided for the worker and not their whole family.

By 1914 over 400 labour exchanges were in operation. However, it was not compulsory for employers to notify the exchanges of any vacancies. There were also objections from many trade unions.

‘…the working man, he is quite sensible enough to see that when he is offered 9d for 4d he is getting a good bargain’ David Lloyd George, House of Commons 19 July 1911.

Under the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906 most employees were now able to claim compensation for injury at work.

Part I of the National Insurance Act 1911 introduced a scheme of compulsory health insurance. The first payments under the scheme were made in January 1913.

All workers earning less than £160 per year had to contribute 4d a week to the scheme. Employers contributed 3d, the state 2d.

In return workers would be entitled to receive sickness benefits of 10s a week for thirteen weeks (7s 6d for women) and 5s a week for an additional thirteen weeks. They also received free medical treatment from a panel doctor, treatment in a sanatorium for TB and a maternity benefit of 30s for each child.

The chronically sick or disabled would receive 5s a week until they turned seventy.

The contributory nature of the scheme was seen as giving the poor a sense of self-respect. However some Labour MPs objected to the compulsory contributions as they felt it placed an unfair burden on the poorest workers.

The free medical treatment only applied to the insured worker and not their family. It also only allowed for treatment from a doctor. Hospital treatment was excluded. After twenty six weeks any further aid would be provided under the Poor Law.

The Labour Party’s Keir Hardie criticised the Liberal Government for not going far enough. The National Insurance Act would not ‘uproot the cause of poverty’ but only provide ‘a porous plaster to cover the disease that poverty causes’.

The Liberal Government also brought in legislation to try and help the low paid and those in jobs with poor working conditions.

The Trades Disputes Act 1906 overturned the Taff Vale ruling. It meant trade unions were no longer liable for damages if their members went on strike.

The Merchant Shipping Act 1906 aimed to improve conditions for workers on British registered merchant ships, with regulations governing food and accommodation.

The Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908 limited miners to working eight hours underground.

The Trade Boards Act 1909 tried to end the practice of ‘sweated labour’ in four industries (tailoring, lace, paper- box and chain making) with the formation of boards which could set a legally enforceable minimum wage.

The Shops Act 1911 allowed shop workers a half-day holiday each week.