The Liberal Government of 1906-14 heralded a period of radical change with

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The Liberal Government of 1906-14 heralded a period of radical change with
reforms aimed at addressing the key issue of poverty in Britain. The Liberals
introduced a range of legislation aimed at improving the lives of working class
Britons. These reforms took place against a backdrop of Victorian Britain where
poverty was widespread and Government policy was dominated by a “laissez-faire”
approach. This resulted in the individual being considered self-sufficient with no
dependence on the state. Although radical for their time, they Liberal reforms failed to
comprehensively address the issue of poverty. They were however successful in
achieving a significant degree of social change in Britain and paved the way for the
establishment of a welfare state. This assignment aims to examine the implications of
the Liberal reforms on poverty and the reasons for their implementation.
The Liberal government introduced social reforms designed to tackle poverty in
Britain based on the reports by Charles Booth and B.S Rowntree on poverty in
London and York. It was previously thought that only 2 to 3 per cent of the
population received assistance during the 1880s. However both Booth and Rowntree
proved that the figure was nearer 28-30 per cent. This was alarming as the studies
indicated that the prevalence of poverty was much higher than expected. The surveys
were conducted in two separate cities and it was therefore reasonable to assume that
every city had similar levels of poverty. The belief at the time was that if you were
poor or suffering from poverty in some form it was down to individual failings and up
to the individual to escape from poverty. However both Rowntree and Booth
challenged this belief. Poverty was often a result of circumstances beyond the
individual’s control such as old age, casual or irregular labour, and cyclical
unemployment (Pugh 1999, P118). As a result of the reports, the grand scale and
severity of poverty was revealed and this helped change the view of many politicians
and upper class people away from the traditional “laissez-faire” stance to one of
support for social change. This was the result of genuine concern for the significant
numbers of people living in poverty in Britain. The Liberal party recognised the need
for social reform in order to tackle the higher levels of poverty that were now being
A further issue, which influenced the Liberals in tackling the problem of poverty,
was the rise of the Labour Party. The Liberal Party generally had the support of the
lower classes and Trade Unions. The political climate had changed in Britain due to
the fact that all men had the right to vote. The socialist movement was growing for a
variety of reasons. With the influence of such socialists as Karl Marx, the lower
classes wanted political representation and a better standard of life. The socialist
movement in politics began in 1883 with the creation of the Social Democratic
Society, Fabian Society (1884) and the Independent Labour Party in 1893. The ILP
had forged close links with some Trade Unions, which had been badly let down by the
Taff Vale decision (1901-2). The Taff Vale decision made Trade Unions liable for the
cost of strikes to the employer. However the Labour party wasn’t perceived as a
genuine threat until Labour defeated the Liberal party in the Colne Valley and Jarrow
by-elections in 1907. Bannerman later resigned due to illness allowing Henry Asquith
to take the helms. Asquith was very much a new liberalist who along with David
Lloyd George believed that social reforms and state intervention was required in
society at the time. In designing their response to social reform the Liberals were
clearly responding to the threat posed by the emerging Labour Party and although
their policies were well intentioned nonetheless they were inspired to a significant
extent by political preservation.
The Liberals in the first years of government brought in reforms that would help

children suffering from poverty. One problem that children suffering from poverty

experienced was malnutrition. Many children attending school were too hungry to
learn. A committee report stated, “ It is the height of cruelty to subject half starved
children to the process of education”. In order to reduce this problem the government
passed the Education Act of 1906. This gave the local authorities the power to provide
the poorest school children with school meals. The act was later made compulsory in
1914. This would help children suffering from poverty, as they would receive decent
meals from the school, which would prevent many from suffering from malnutrition
and improve their educational prospect. However 6 out of 10 authorities failed to
provide school meals until it became compulsory to do so in 1914.
In 1907 the Government passed the Education Act providing medical inspections of
school children. This enabled the school to perform at least three inspections while the
child was at school. This was designed to tackle the problem of disease as a result of
poverty. The medical inspections were designed to prevent the spreading of
preventable diseases and to detect any problems the child might have. Often children
living in poverty would not get the chance for medical help so this act was a move in
the right direction in tackling poverty amongst the younger generations. However
there were drawbacks, in many cases nothing could be done to alleviate the problems
identified such as the need for glasses for children with poor eyesight.
In addition to child welfare issues, problems existed in respect of poverty faced by
the older generation. The elderly at this time were provided with no financial support
from the government .In this respect, the wages earned throughout their working lives
was not sufficient to save and only provided enough funds to feed their family.
Therefore they had little or no savings to support them in later life. A way of avoiding
this was to have a large number of children. This gave households more income. The
elderly could be cared for, in financial terms, by their children once they stopped
working. For the elderly who had no children there was an additional struggle and
many had to turn to the dreaded poor law for relief. This meant an approach to the
poor houses resulting in the sale of valued assets, such as furniture, before they would
be given relief. The problem of poverty experienced by the elderly was severe and
had to be tackled through state intervention in order to provide consistent financial
support for the elderly. The Old Age Pensions Act was passed in 1908. In legal terms,
people who received assistance from the poor law automatically lost their right to be a
voter, a rule that remained in force until 1918 (Pugh, 1999 P139). The pensions were
available to men and women aged 70 years and over, and retained their political
rights. This was a major step in tackling the “laissez-faire” ideology and was a major
factor in the establishment of a welfare state in Britain. There were exclusions from
the pensions provision such as people who didn’t work regularly throughout their life.
By 1914, 970,000 people had claimed costing 12 million a year. This act was very
successful but did have its limitations in that the age limit was set too high. It may not
have solved the entire problem but did stop extreme poverty for claimants in most
cases. The reason why poverty remained was the fact that pension levels were set too
low. The government had set the pensions levels at 5s per week however Rowntree
had estimated that the level should have been set at 8s if poverty was to be avoided.
A significant factor affecting the poverty levels experienced by the people of Britain
was absence of sickness or unemployment insurance for workers. Sickness and
disease affected the health and attendance of workers. Where the breadwinner was too
ill to work there was no alternative source of income for the family. For many
unskilled workers employment was cyclical and therefore a regular wage wasn’t
guaranteed. Many could be out of work for considerable lengths of time for this
reason. In order to ease this problem the Liberals introduced the National Insurance
Act of 1911, which was made up of two parts. The first part dealt with health
insurance. All workers earning less than £160 a year were eligible. The insurance
gave sickness’ benefit of 10s per week for 13 weeks. This was a major step in the
right direction but poverty remained due to workers being off ill with contagious
diseases such as tuberculosis, which meant that they were absent from work for more
than 15 weeks leaving them with no source of income. The disadvantage to the health
part of the National Insurance Act was the fact that it only covered the worker and not
the family. Therefore where family members became ill and needed medical help no
assistance was available. Therefore the problem of poverty would not be solved until
the act was extended to the whole family. However the Act did ensure that when the
worker was sick the income would continue up to a point.
The second part of the Act covered unemployment insurance. It provided insurance
for people working in industries, such as construction and shipbuilding where periodic
unemployment prevailed. The Act however only covered seven trades and lasted only
15 weeks per year. This part of the National Insurance Act showed that the
government was now accepting responsibility for mass unemployment in Britain and
did not view it as a result of individual idleness. Although unemployment insurance
was a step in the right direction it was very limited as the amount paid was only 7s a
week. The insurance required a contribution from the employee of 2.5s a week, which
was a lot of money to be paying out each week to be protected for only 15 weeks.
However the National Insurance Act was a great success as it provided people with an
insurance scheme that previously was only available to those who could afford to
make weekly payments through Friendly Societies.
Further reforms for workers came in the form of the Trade Boards Act of 1909.
Trade Unions were not as established in the unskilled industries as they were in the
skilled industries. Employers exploited many workers over wages. The Liberal
Government set up boards to negotiate minimum wage levels for non-unioned
sweated trades. The government attempted to protect workers through reforms such as
the Coal Miners Act of 1908 establishing a minimum wage and an 8-hour day for
miners. The Workmen's Compensation Act of 1906 provided compensation for injury
sustained at work.
In summary although the Liberal Government of 1906-14 will always be identified
with social reform this essay has sought to demonstrate that although their reforms
were a step in the right direction nonetheless they were largely ameliorative when
analysing their effect on poverty. Poverty was endemic in Britain during the late
Victorian and early Edwardian eras. However in tackling social reforms the Liberals,
for political reasons, wanted to preserve wherever possible the existing capitalist
system in order not to threaten the middle class voters whilst at the same time
responding to the emerging threat of socialism.
As a consequence there were considerable restrictions placed on many of the reforms
and they fell well below a comprehensive programme of welfare. Despite economic
growth and low unemployment after 1910 poverty in Britain was far from eliminated.
Many family incomes remained below Rowntree’s calculation of poverty (Rose 1972,
However there was a genuine response to the mood of the country for social change
and although it was not upper most in their election manifesto nonetheless, for reason
of political expediency combined with social concern, the Liberal Government
embark on a programme of reform that ultimately, after two world wars, led to the
development of the modern welfare state in Britain.

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