Britain in the early 1900s encountered a variety of problems from poverty. Reports from Booth and Rowntree emphasized the magnitude of the problem. The Liberal government felt the need to act in order to maintain the working class vote and passed a series of reforms. In an attempt to reduce poverty, Acts were put into place to provide children with free school meals and medical inspections. Also, the Liberal government recognised that workers required government support when unemployed or sick. The Liberals were the first to recognise that the elderly were victims of poverty and required financial help. However, the success of the reforms and the impact they had on Britain is questionable. Although they were the widest range of reforms ever passed, they solved very little problems Britain encountered. The working class faced low pay, long hours and an absence of regular paid work – if you did not work then you and your family did not eat. Most jobs were seasonal or were affected by long periods of unemployment. The Liberal Reforms would have to be extensive to solve all these problems.
One reform passed was the 1906 Education Act. This provided free school meals for primary aged children. Due to the introduction of compulsory education, children from poorer backgrounds could not concentrate on their education. This was due to the distraction of hunger. After this reform was passed the amount of free meals being given to children grew and 14 million meals were being supplied per week by 1914. Poor school children were now achieving better and their attendance was increasing due to having one beneficial meal per day. Therefore, it may appear that the Liberals had taken a step to improve child poverty and hunger but in reality very little difference was made to the children’s lives. The children only received one nutritious meal a day and were therefore left hungry. Also the meals were only given during school days so children went hungry at weekends. Although the Education Act of 1906 provided children with one nutritious meal a day very little was actually done towards reducing the poverty and hunger that poor children were affected by. For this reason the 1906 Education Act was unsuccessful at treating the problem of hunger in children.
The success of the reforms targeted at improving children’s health was limited. The Royal Commission 1904 said that ‘Provision should be made for regular inspection of school children.’ The Education Act of 1907 meant that children at school were given medical inspections. The Medical Officer for Glasgow stated that ‘90% of children had defective teeth … 9% suffered from rickets … 30% were verminous.’ The inspections meant advice could be given to the children’s parents on how to help them if their illness was identified early on. The medical inspections also showed how widespread some diseases were. The reforms did very little to actually cure illnesses and diseases. Only guidance was given and no treatment was provided. As poverty was the main cause of disease many parents did not have enough money to support their children. Many sick children therefore received no help. The 1907 Education Act had limited success as poorer children who had no treatment were unsuccessful in getting rid of their illnesses.
The reforms were also directed at the workforces and as large amount of the Liberal’s support came from the working class men of Britain. For that reason the liberals introduced the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 1) which provided compulsory health insurance for workers in certain trades who earned less than ??160 per year. The introduction of the act meant that employees were given money if they became ill and were not capable of working. However as with most of the liberal reforms its impact was limited. Lloyd George (15th June 1908) stated that ‘The provision made for the sick and unemployed is grossly inadequate in this country.’ The health insurance provided only included the employee and not his family. Also the money given to sick workers was not enough to support a large family. This meant many people ended up just as poor as before if they fell out of work. Even though the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 1) took responsibility for workers it did little to actually tackle the problem as many still found themselves in poverty if they fell out of work. The act had very limited success, however the Liberals were the first ever government to try and help sick and injured workers.
The next act aimed at workers was the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 2) which helped to provide unemployment benefit to trades that were affected by periodic unemployment e.g. shipbuilding and construction. The act was very limited as it only applied to certain trades e.g. shipbuilding and construction but not to others which also faced periodic unemployment such as farming. It was also only provided for a limited period of 15 weeks of unemployment. Unemployment longer than the set time limit meant that the employee was left unaided. The success of the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 2) was therefore also very limited.
Finally, the Liberals introduced reforms aimed at the elderly of Britain such as the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act which provided a weekly pension for those aged over 70. This act was the first time that any British government had sought to take care of the elderly population. This therefore made elderly and older people thankful and it increased the government’s popularity. However its success was very limited. Although it seemed as though the Liberals had taken steps towards caring for the elderly, in reality the pensions were only paid to those who reached 70 years or over despite average working class life expectancy being 51 in 1900. Therefore it was not designed to help many of the elderly living in poverty. The pension itself fell below Rowntree’s estimate of 35p per week as adequate to stay above the poverty line therefore did little to help the conditions of those receiving it. A. J. P. Taylor said ‘The state provided a meagre pension for the needy over 70.’ Many of the old were excluded from claiming pensions because they failed to meet the qualification rules. Eg. If had been in prison, poor moral character or those who had never worked. Therefore the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 had very little impact on poverty among the elderly as very few received it and for those who did the amount was not substantial enough to. We can therefore say that the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 had very little success in tackling poverty in elderly people.
In conclusion, the Liberal Reforms signalled a change and more social responsibility was taken in the attempt to fight poverty. However the reforms passed between 1906 and 1914 had very little impact on the problems of poverty in Britain. The reforms helped give children free meals and medical inspections at school, give workers health and unemployment insurance in case they fell out of work and give the elderly a weekly pension. On the other hand, however, the reforms did very little to actually help tackle poverty in British society as free school meals and medical inspections were not compulsory, unemployment and health insurance payments were not substantial enough and covered only certain trades and pensions were only given to the few people who lived to over 70. In reality, little was done by the Liberal government to help improve the problems that poverty caused. Overall, the reforms were limited in their success as they made an attempt to tackle the causes that poverty caused but had very little actua
The beginnings of reform
From the turn of the twentieth century, laissez faire (the policy of non-intervention in relation to social problems) became discredited. The same old problems of poverty and ill-health still remained.
The Liberal reforms of 1906 to 1914 are very important because they show a marked change in government policy from a largely laissez faire approach to a more 'collectivist' approach. The government now accepted that it should have a much larger role and responsibility in helping those sections of society who could not help themselves.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century governments began to take tentative steps towards the provision of basic welfare services, for example, the Education Acts and the public health laws that were passed.
However, many problems still needed to be tackled and it was in the relief from poverty that the government made the least movement from the Poor Law principle. Voluntary action, private charity and self-help were still the watchwords of the day, but local and national government now began to play a more positive part in enabling people to get back on their feet. The real turning point was when the Liberals passed their series of reforms between 1906 and 1914.
Between 1906 and 1914 the Liberal reforms attempted to deal with the problem of poverty. The Liberals focused on four groups in society - the old, the young, the sick and the unemployed. The liberals also introduced reforms to help those employed in low paying jobs and jobs with poor working conditions.
Old age pensions
In 1908, the Liberals introduced old age pensions which became law in 1909. This Act gave pensions of five shillings per week (25 pence in today's money) at the single rate to persons over 70 whose incomes were less than £21 per year. A married couple received seven shillings and sixpence a week. This sum could be collected at the Post Office. A smaller amount was paid to slightly higher earners. People who had an income greater than £31.50 per year received no pension at all. Those who had habitually failed to work or who had been in prison also received nothing.
The major criticism of this Act was that it did not go far enough. The money was not enough to enable people to pay for the barest necessities and, although it helped, it was not the answer to old age poverty. Also, many elderly people needed financial help long before they reached 70 years of age. In fact most died before receiving a pension.
In 1906, the government allowed local authorities to provide free school meals for poor children. In 1907 school medical inspections began, although it was not until 1912 that free medical treatment was available.
Social reformers blamed poverty for causing crime among the young people. There was also the view that by sending young law breakers to adult prisons they would simply learn how to be better criminals. As such, in 1908 juvenile courts and borstals were set up.
These reforms, including forbidding the sale of cigarettes and alcohol to children under 16 years of age, were given the name 'Children's Charter' because it was believed these measures would guarantee a better life for young people. However, the provision of school meals was not made compulsory until 1914 and researchers found that during school holidays the growth of children slowed and body weight often declined.
Medical inspections did little to solve any problems they uncovered and so it was not until free medical treatment became available in 1912 that the situation could get better. However, education authorities largely ignored the provision of free medical treatment for school children.
Finally, as we know by the standards of today, attempts to protect children from the effects of tobacco and alcohol have met with limited success.
In the early twentieth century a free National Health Service did not yet exist and the poor could not usually afford medical services. To help address this, the Liberal Government introduced the National Insurance Act in 1911.
For the first time, compulsory health insurance was provided for workers earning less than £160 per year. The scheme was contributory. The worker paid fourpence a week, employers paid threepence and the state paid twopence. The scheme provided sickness benefit entitlement of nine shillings (45 pence), free medical treatment and maternity benefit of 30 shillings (£1.50).
The second part of the National Insurance Act dealt with unemployment. Most insured workers were given seven shillings (35 pence) unemployment benefit a week for a maximum of 15 weeks in any year if they became unemployed. This scheme was also contributory - financed through a combination of worker and state contributions to the scheme.
However, this Act only provided for the insured employee and not his family. Also, the Act was meant only to cover temporary unemployment and only applied to seven trades, most of which suffered from seasonal unemployment. When long term unemployment increased after World War I, the system began to break down as the government was taking in less money from workers than it was paying out to the unemployed.
Overall, the Liberal reforms marked a transition point between old laissez-faire attitudes and those of a more collectivist nature. The reforms made only limited inroads into the problem of poverty. The pensions paid were inadequate and the unemployment benefits were limited to only certain trades, and then provided only for the employee and not his family. The government was prepared to intervene to help the poor, but the poor had also to help themselves by making contributions towards their benefits.
Winston Churchill summed up the aim of the Liberals when he said 'If we see a drowning man we do not drag him to the shore. Instead, we provide help to allow him to swim ashore.' In other words, the Liberals tried to provide some help for the poorer sections of society in order that they could help themselves.