The Return of the Poor laws

by George Hatjoullis

The issue of welfare, migration and unemployment is (obviously) not new. In England it was governed by the poor laws. The poor law system fell out of use in the 20th Century but was not formally abolished until the National Assistance Act of 1948 and some parts were still on the statute books until 1967 (according to Wikipedia). The poor law system dates back to Edward III but the old poor law system is often attributed to Elisabeth I and the 1601 Poor Law. This was a parish based system but there was quite a bit of variation in parish practices so the ‘poor’ tended to migrate to the more generous parishes. The result was Settlement Act 1662 which restricted relief only to established residents of a parish. Any of this sound familiar? An applicant for relief needed to prove settlement and if they could not they were removed to a parish that had some connection (such as birth). This could be miles away and the journey was no picnic. The system discouraged labour mobility, to say the least.

The work house movement of Oliver Twist fame grew over the 18th Century but eventually became only for the old, infirm and orphaned, with able-bodied poor being given wage top-ups via the Speenhamland System, a kind of early in-work benefit system. The 1795 Removal Act also stopped removal of non-settled persons unless they applied for relief, which helped labour mobility. The Napoleonic wars and the 1815 Corn Laws saw the price of grain kept excessively high putting pressure on the cost of relief systems. In addition, the change being brought about by the industrial revolution was generating a lot of people needing relief.

The result was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. All relief was to be restricted to the workhouse. Conditions in the workhouse was to be harsh to discourage people from claiming. Taking any job at any wage was to be preferable. The needs of Industry was printed all over this act. This was the workhouse of Oliver Twist. In  practice outdoor relief continued to be offered despite the best efforts of respective governments to outlaw it. For those condemned to the workhouse conditions became scandalous and pressure to prohibit outdoor relief continued because it undermined self-reliance. The population of workhouses grew.The workhouse system was gradually displaced by other forms of assistance (Friendly Societies, Unions) and new Liberal reforms. It was abolished in the inter-war years though apparently a lot of people were receiving assistance in some form of institution as late as 1936.The poor laws were formally abolished in 1948.

The purpose of my little digression into history is to highlight the parallels with modern political issues. The EU debate in the UK is all about migration allegedly encouraged by benefits. The debate is discussed in terms of costs, as historians choose to discuss the same issue in Elisabeth I reign, but it is about much more, and it was then also. The Conservative governments’ Welfare Reforms are all about making it less pleasant to be on welfare than in work. Nothing much seems to have changed 800 or so years.

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