Ahead of the Beveridge 2.0 event Five LSE Giants’ Perspectives on Poverty, Professor Lucinda Platt explores LSE founder Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law, Webb’s views on poor relief and potential influence on William Beveridge. Her report, for which Beveridge was a researcher, called for national and local appropriate coordinated provision for the poor and discussed healthcare, pensions and work.
Two influential reports
Beatrice Webb’s points of connection with William Beveridge, were multiple: she, with husband, Sidney, Graham Wallas and George Bernard Shaw founded LSE in 1895, the institution he was later to run. But her influence in his life and work went back much further. Beveridge was a researcher on the 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law, on which Webb was the main author. This report was to prove influential when he came to write his own report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942. Beveridge wrote that “the Beveridge Report stemmed from what all of us had imbibed from the Webbs”.
Even though Webb’s report was ignored at the time, its long reach can be felt in today’s welfare state via its influence on Beveridge and the way the post-war Attlee government took Beveridge’s report for its “blueprint” for the welfare state, dramatically changing the way poor relief had been delivered. What Webb’s compendious report set out was an exhaustively researched, detailed and comprehensive proposal for the complete break-up of the existing system of poor relief, and for a state that coordinated the provision of relief to the poor and destitute.
Beatrice Webb’s early years
Born in 1858 to well to-do parents, Webb was influenced in her youth both by Herbert Spencer, who was a family friend, and the radical politician, Joseph Chamberlain, whom she fell in love with. She began her career as a social investigator in 1883, when she worked as a rent collector for the Charity Organisation Society. However, she found the approach unsatisfactory as she felt the individualised approach ignored structural causes of poverty. While she adhered – and continued to adhere – to the distinction central to the COS’s work between the deserving and undeserving poor – she considered that problems of the “deserving poor” needed a more coordinated approach, that also encompassed the different areas of people’s lives. These ideas would return in developed form in the Minority Report.
She therefore left the organisation in 1885, and subsequently joined those researchers working on Charles Booth’s monumental study of the Life and Labour of the People in London. Her work for this study involved collecting detailed information on dock work and sweated labour, which would inform her understanding of underemployment emphasised in the Poor Law. She also carried out participant observation, working under cover as a trouser hand. She combined her observation with a structural analysis that, instead of putting the middlemen at the heart of the exploitative work, condemned the whole production process as an example of unregulated competition, emphasising the need for regulation.
After coming into contact with the Fabians as a consequence of work she was undertaking on the co-operative movement, she met and eventually married Sidney Webb in 1892. This was the beginning of what Webb described as their Partnership. The Webbs worked closely together throughout their lives, including on the Minority Report, which Sidney contributed to, even if not as an official author.
Researching poor relief
The Minority Report came about as a result of Webb’s participation in the Poor Law Commission of 1905-9. The Commission also included Helen Bosanquet, who had herself been closely involved with the Charity Organisation Society. Bosanquet subscribed to the view that the problem of poor relief was primarily an issue of able-bodied men, who needed to be incentivised to work – or at least to avoid relief – and saw a major role for charity in meeting the needs of the destitute. Webb’s disagreement with her on both the facts of and the solution to poverty led to the closely researched Minority Report, which was published alongside the main report.
The analysis in the Minority Report is both far-reaching, but also a product of the prevailing view, still held by many today, of the need for conditionality in relation to poor relief. The Report works through the different stages of life – noting that the vast majority (90 per cent) of recipients of poor relief were not the able bodied working age men who had consistently been the focus, but women, children, older people, and those with chronic physical or mental health conditions.
Appropriate coordinated provision
The Report begins by an attack on the tendency for provision to be made, regardless of the original intent of the 1834 Poor Law, in “mixed” workhouses, where all these different classes of people were combined, promoting “promiscuity” and “injurious” contact between those with different needs and different reasons for being confined to the workhouse. This mixing was regarded as demeaning for the “deserving poor”, such as the elderly, damaging for children and provided inappropriate provision and care for all.
The fundamental message of the Minority Report is the separation of these different classes of people – primarily outside the workhouse – and the institution of appropriate coordinated provision, whether at national or local level for those individuals and families destitute for different reasons. Using trenchant language, the Report works through the different phases and conditions of life, drawing on extensive research and citing multiple figures and footnotes.
The Minority Report argues for a system of out-relief for families, at appropriate levels, but linked to conditions, to ensure that funds are not used to subsidise drinking, insanitary household conditions and child neglect. It highlights the inappropriateness of workhouses for infants, devastatingly demonstrated by their mortality rates, which were almost double those that even impoverished families faced outside the workhouse. It proposes that no infants should be cared for in the workhouse but supported within their families through outdoor relief. In exceptional circumstances properly monitored and inspected foster and community homes could be used.
Education, healthcare, pensions and work
The Report offers a heated account of the extent to which children were being fed in school, despite the existence of relief for destitution, because the rates were too small to keep them sufficiently fed. It proposes that the care of children should become fully the responsibility of education authorities who were already responsible for education and could also monitor children’s health – as schools were already doing – and implement family visits and compliance with school attendance and any other conditions.
Old age pensions had been introduced for the over 70s in 1908; and the Report regards this as the main way in which older people should be supported, proposing also a reduction in the age of receipt to 65 or even 60. Age should be separated from “mental infirmity”, it argues, with the latter becoming the responsibility of a distinct jurisdiction.
Health care should be met by a unified “state medical service”, coordinated at district level and based on public health principles – partly because of the public good nature of health. But it does not favour insurance cover for the short term sick, because of the perceived problem of perverse incentives. By contrast with the majority report it argues that charity is insufficient to step in to meet the needs of the poor and destitute, and rejects the idea that state and coordinated national and local government solutions will crowd-out philanthropy. It notes, rather, that charity is insufficient to address the wasting of human life as a result of insufficient “doles” and consequent chronic malnutrition of old and young.
The analysis of working age includes consideration of working age women, currently covered by the Poor Law. It argues that these women are predominantly mothers with caring responsibilities for whom work responsibilities would be inappropriate – a rather different perspective from that currently applied to lone parents, though one which chimes with Beveridge’s proposals. Having dealt with all these other classes of poor relief and offered specific administrative solutions it then turns to the issue of able bodied men, who were the central concern of the original 1834 Poor Law.
The Minority Report discusses the issues of temporary and chronic unemployment and chronic underemployment. The language of the report is strong and often passionate but it is only in the discussion of underemployment, which it describes as the “Evil of underemployment” that it approaches directly Beveridge’s conception of giants.
The Report also vividly describes the enervating effects of unemployment. The report suggests a form of national labour exchange is needed to fit workers to jobs in the case of temporary unemployment. For more chronic unemployment, the use of worker colonies and retraining is promoted – what today might be considered “work activation programmes”. Underemployment is regarded as requiring a more wide-ranging set of solutions that both reduce the supply of lower-paid (women and youth) workers and involves greater emphasis on constraints on employers benefiting from high levels of casualisation. These provisions, it argues, should be overseen by a Ministry of Labour.
National and local provision
The Report thus outlines a programme of distinct but comprehensive nationally and locally administered provision for those destitute, organised in a systematic way for discrete classes of need: those past working age, infants, children, etc. In this way, its prefiguring and influence on Beveridge is clear, even if it was not able to leverage any change in those directions at the time. Its promotion of a state medical service, and emphasis on family incomes and child wellbeing, alongside the need for more unconditional support for pensioners, anticipate key features of the subsequent welfare state.
However, even if Webb’s report was highly influential on Beveridge’s thinking about how to reorganising the basis of financial support for the poor, separating out education and health care from issues of poverty and destitution, Webb did not return the favour. On the publication of the Beveridge report she noted that:
“If carried out (which I think unlikely), it will increase the catastrophic mass unemployment, which could happen here as in the U.S.A. The better you treat the unemployed in the way of means, without service, the worse the evil becomes; because it is better to do nothing than to work at low wages and conditions.”
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Quoted in Jose Harris. 1977. William Beveridge: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press
 Quoted in Jose Harris. 1977. William Beveridge: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press