2009 marks the centenary of one of the most important moments in British welfare history: the publication of Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report on the Poor Law . From the Workhouse to Welfare: What Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report can teach us today is a collection of essays commissioned by the Fabian Society to commemorate this moment and draw out the lessons for today.
Contributions to this Fabian special edition come from:
“While the language of the Poor Law is arcane, the idea is far from unfashionable a century later. I guarantee that millions of American Republicans still hold the view which Ronald Reagan put to me when, in 1976, he was on a ‘swing round Europe’ during his first, and unsuccessful, attempt to secure the presidential nomination. Nobody, he said, had to be unemployed. The Founding Fathers of the Great Republic had not asked for handouts. They had gone out into the wilderness, felled trees, planted corn and shot turkeys.”
“At the centenary of the Poor Law Commission, it is the values of the Majority Report which seem to be attracting renewed interest: the twentieth century welfare state based on state monopoly and automatic entitlement seems likely to be replaced by a system which lays more emphasis on personal capability and local initiative. Many Fabians have yet to face up to the fact that more responsibility and choice for individuals must mean that they have more of their own money to spend.”
“In its elegantly constructed, earnest and occasionally acidic prose, the Minority Report skewered the parsimony, amateurism and obstinate clinging to local custom that had grown around the 1834 New Poor Law, in contradiction of its precepts. The Poor Law, which was now lumping together all sorts and conditions of men (and women), had had its day, since it was treating the symptom – poverty – and not the underlying causes: old age, infancy, unemployment, illness, lunacy, ‘moral imbecility’.”
“One very positive outcome of the Webbs’ proposals, and of their ensuing ‘campaign for the break-up of the Poor Laws’, was that they galvanised what might otherwise have been a rather stuffy, legalistic, and behind-the-scenes inquiry, into a deeply ideological national debate on all aspects of the social problem, that was to last for many decades (indeed it was still ongoing three decades later, at the time of the Beveridge Plan). But there were nevertheless a number of negative consequences to the Webbs’ increasingly intransigent, even messianic, minority position.”
“There is no doubt that the solid research on which the Minority Report (as well as her earlier and subsequent writings) was based contributed to its impact. For the Webbs, there were no kite flying schema, no back-of-the-envelope pieces in The Guardian, but diligently considered and practical proposals, rooted in an understanding of the present as well as the possibility of the future. Today we hear of ‘evidence-based’ proposals as if this was a new concept rather than new terminology for an embedded Fabian attribute.”
“Contrary to the Victorian idea that the poor are responsible for their own poverty because of moral failure, the miners throughout the three and a half years [of the 1905 Kinsley lockout] continued to demonstrate moral strength, courage, and the virtues of hard work and enterprise. The Poor Law and the workhouse were deployed – as they were intended – in an attempt to drive the men back to work on lower pay (which the Webbs called ‘sweated labour’). The truth is that affluent Britain turned its back on the poor of Kinsley and so the pauperised miners and their families had to rely on working class solidarity. The miners were well aware of this class divide: ‘only the poor help the poor’, one told a local reporter.”
“That the Fabian Society itself had such a critical mass of educated and committed women is a testament to the environment the early Fabians created. To some extent the Fabian women were overshadowed by the men, and – apart from Webb – the work of the other Fabian women is rarely referred to. But Fabian women increased the focus on class and gender issues relating to poverty, and directly contributed to a sea change in attitude towards the power and necessity of social investigation and evidence based social policy”
“The World Bank has helped to implant neo-liberal ideology among governments, corporations and consumers, weakened the state and reinforced economic inequality and gross destitution. In 2009 its resonance has a hollow ring. As a vehicle with capacity to influence organisations world-wide by employing a large number of internationally informed and intelligent people, it has been driven by the wrong forces subservient to that neo-liberal philosophy. It advocates disastrous policies, lends with discriminatory conditions, and has little experience or resources to invest grants directly in jobs, services and people.”
You can buy a printed copy edition of From the Workhouse to Welfare for £9.95, plus £1 p+p, by phoning the Fabian Society bookshop on 020 7227 4900, emailing us at email@example.com or send a cheque payable to “The Fabian Society” to 11 Dartmouth Street, London, SW1H 9BN.