History – To what extent were the social reforms of the Liberal Government between 1905 and 1914 a response to fuller knowledge about the extent and intensity of poverty?
During the late nineteenth century the British government, under the Liberal party, acted according to the principle of laissez faire. This term refers to an economic doctrine that opposes governmental regulation of or interference in commerce beyond the minimum necessary for a free-enterprise system to operate according to its own economic laws or simply, the non-interference in the affairs of others.
Individuals were solely responsible for their own lives and welfare. The government did not accept responsibility for the poverty and hardship that existed among its citizens. A popular point of view at the time was that poverty was caused by idleness, drunkenness and other such moral weaknesses on the part of the working classes. The poor were seen by the wealthy as an unfortunate but inevitable part of society. At the dawn of the twentieth century there were no old age pensions, unemployment benefits or family allowances. If the main wage-earner died or could not work, a whole family could be plunged into terrible poverty. The state would not interfere. During this period, the accepted role of the government was very limited. It was simply expected to maintain law and order and protect the country from invasion.
Two social surveys were published that not only shocked the British public but changed popular opinion on the causes of poverty. They helped pave the way for a whole range of government-led welfare reforms. Independently of each other, two wealthy businessmen, Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, sponsored major investigations into the extent and causes of poverty in British cities. Booth and Rowntree's findings agreed on two key points: up to 30% of the population of the cities were living in or below poverty levels the conditions were such that people could not pull themselves out of poverty by their own actions alone. Booth and Rowntree both identified the main causes of poverty as being illness, unemployment and age - both the very young and the old were at risk of poverty. It began to be recognised that the government had a role to play. To do this, political and social reforms were necessary.
After 1906, the Liberal government, with Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced reforms to help these three groups:
Children - In 1906 local authorities were allowed to provide free school meals. The 1908 Children and Young Persons Act introduced a set of regulations that became known as the Children's Charter. This imposed severe punishments for neglecting or treating children cruelly. It was made illegal to sell cigarettes to children or send them out begging. Separate juvenile courts were set up, which sent children convicted of a crime to borstals, instead of prison.
Old age - In 1908 pensions were introduced for the over 70s, which gave them 5s a week, or 7s 6d to a married couple. Old people cried as they collected their pensions, and said: 'God bless Lloyd George'.
Workers - In 1909 labour exchanges were set up to help unemployed people find work. The 1911 National Insurance Act was passed. Part 1 of the act gave people the right to free medical treatment, and sick pay of 10s a week for 26 weeks in return for a payment of 4d a week. Part 2 of the Act gave people the right to unemployment pay (dole) of 7s 6d a week for 15 weeks in return for a payment of 2½d a week.
More reforms passed during this period:
1906 - The Trades Disputes Act ruled that unions were not liable for damages because of strikes. 1906 - The Workers Compensation Act granted compensation for injury at work. 1907 - School medical inspections.
1908 - eight-hour day for miners.
1910 - half-day a week off for shop workers.
A Merchant Shipping Act improved conditions for sailors.
From 1911, MPs were paid. This gave working men...
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