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Royal Commission on the Poor Law and the Unemployed

A review of the Poor Laws

In December 1905, the Royal Commission on the Poor Law and the Unemployed was set up to review the system of poor relief provision and consider alternative mechanisms to tackle issues relating to unemployment.

The commission was also asked to consider whether changes needed to be made to the Poor Laws. Commissioners included former guardians, Poor Law officials and clergymen.

Two for the price of one

4 years after it was set up, the commission was ready to report back. However, the commissioners were split and two reports were released in 1909. Both the majority and minority reports criticised the duplication and overlap of health services provided by voluntary and Poor Law institutions, but their recommendations differed.

The Majority Report

The Majority Report (backed by 14 commissioners) largely supported the use of the Poor Law to manage poor relief and recommended that it should be renamed 'public assistance'. The report reflected the feelings of commissioners that poverty was the result of immorality and that the Boards of Guardians were providing too much outdoor relief to people.

Additionally, the able-bodied poor were not being deterred from seeking relief because of the availability of mixed workhouses. The report recommended that workhouses should be replaced by institutions catering for specific groups such as children, the elderly or 'the mentally ill'. It was, in effect, the 'establishment' view.

The Minority Report

In contrast, the Minority Report, signed by four commissioners including Beatrice Webb (who co-founded the London School of Economics and Political Science and was a key member of the Fabian Society), argued for the abolition of the Poor Laws and the transfer of those functions to other institutions that could provide care. The approach of the report was to focus on prevention rather than providing relief (in effect the emerging liberal consensus).

Impact of the reports

Ultimately, neither set of recommendations was accepted by the government. Instead, a system of insurance against poor health was implemented in 1911 and Poor Law institutions continued to provide primary care to the uninsured.

Some argue that the Minority Report led to the Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942, better known as the Beveridge report. Beveridge was a civil servant in the Board of Trade at the time and knew Beatrice and her husband, Sidney Webb.


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