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Another History Lesson – Poor Laws

This week Iain Duncan-Smith will launch the Coalition  Government’s White Paper on Welfare Reform. It has been widely leaked that the paper will include an element of making the “long-term” unemployed undertake some form of work tasks or “mandatory work activity” for their benefits – perhaps as much as 30 hours a week.  The unions and the charities that support people on welfare are up in arms with cries of “cheap labour” and “undermining the value and efforts of manual workers”. The very idea of post-graduate students and middle class professionals who can’t find work in the current climate being required to litter pick or clear out canals in return for the meagre payment of a combined “universal credit” sounds almost like a return to 19th century Dickensian values.

The Government says that this forms a new contract with the 1.4 million unemployed. The government’s side of the bargain will be the promise of a new “universal credit”, to replace all existing benefits, that will ensure it always pays to work rather than stay on welfare. They want to get people out of the habit of not working, to show that it doesn’t pay to live off benefits and that it is unacceptable to expect the state to keep you forever (or even beyond 12 months in the expected proposals). Opinion is and will remain divided; mostly polarised views between those who have never been unemployed for any significant period of time, and those who claim to represent those who are long-term unemployed. We are unlikely to hear much from those who are actually long-term unemployed; the NEETs and the “scroungers” that the Daily Mail et al so loves to berate.

But is what is being proposed really new? I would suggest, probably not. Indeed if we look at the history of welfare in England the idea of working for welfare dates back to the turn of the 17th century.  The Poor Law of 1601 saw the commencement of state welfare for those in poverty. The Poor Law, of itself, did not bring about the workhouse but it did place a duty on each parish to look after parishioners who, either because of age or infirmity, were unable to work. The Act proposed the construction of (social?) housing for, inter alia, the elderly and chronically ill, but most assistance for the poor continued to be in the form of money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes, funded by a local tax on the property of the wealthiest in the parish (income/property based council tax?). The workhouse “solution” evolved over the next 100  years or so as a way for the parishes (then the main form of local authority – Big Society?) to reduce the cost to ratepayers of providing poor relief (efficiencies/benefits too expensive?). The Workhouse Test Act was brought in as early as 1723 as a means test to prevent (or at least reduce) irresponsible claims. Anyone seeking poor relief could be obliged (note ‘could’, not ‘must’) to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work, usually without pay, in return for food and shelter. Many parishes established workhouses during the 18th century, and by the 1830s most parishes had at least one. The Gilberts Act of 1782 allowed the parishes to form unions to further reduce costs  of building and maintaining workhouses (shared services/assets?).

Perhaps the key lesson from the Poor Laws and workhouse ethics of working for benefits was that by the 1830’s the system was on the brink of collapse due to the major increase in numbers of people who required poor relief due to an economic collapse leading to significant rises in unemployment – quite simply there wasnt enough money coming in to support the system. Sound familiar?


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