“A Prophet Before Her Time:” Beatrice Potter Webb, Part 2: The Poor Law Commission (1905-1909)

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Beatrice Webb

Nineteen men and women were appointed the Royal Commission For Poor Law Reform and Relieving of Distress. Most of the appointees were social reformers, investigators, and public officials who had dealt directly with relief efforts for the poor. Many had subscribed to common late-Victorian/Edwardian notions of responsibility and charity. Thus it was considered highly unlikely that the Commission would recommend drastic changes to the Poor Law; rather many saw the Commission’s goal simply to recommend ways of better administering the laws. [1]

By 1909, however, the Commission totally confounded all the expectations from 1905. The Commision split, with 15 signing the Majority Report, and the remaining four signing the Minority Report, which was authored by Webb. This report recommended the gradual abolition of the Poor Law. Even the Majority Report, while not agreeing that the Poor Law should be abolished, recommended significant and radical changes to it. As Webb wrote twenty years later:

…so empathetic and decisive a condemnation… a condemnation which is safe to say had not been in the mind of any one of the Commissioners on their appointment… [which] was entirely unexpected by the nation…. [which] produced a great effect on public opinion. [2]

It is interesting to note that Beatrice was writing about a transformation that she, more than anyone else, helped to create.

This transformation, however, was a long, bitter battle which began immediately after the Commission was formed. At first the contention was procedural. Initially, a majority on the committee wanted to rely on government officials to provide the evidence, a desire that Beatrice derided as being

…spoon-fed by evidence carefully selected and prepared they [the officials] were to draft the circular to the boards of guardians; they were to select the inspectors who were to give evidence; they were virtually to select the guardians to be called in support of this evidence… And above all we were to be given opinions and not facts. [emphasis mine] [3]

Instead of accepting this arrangement, which very well could have been utilized to rubber-stamp certain political positions, Beatrice fought it vigorously like a “restive… race-horse compelled to run in harness with a team of lumbering dray-horses.” [4] As a result, the battle soon expanded to become a broad ideological one, with the “lumbering” faction believing that the issue was how to relieve destitution, and Beatrice increasingly beginning to believe that it was rather to discover the causes of it. [5]

In this new conflict, the first major issue of contention was that of medical care for the poor. The majority of the committee recommended limiting medical relief to only the most technically destitute; Beatrice thought the exact opposite. Instead of rationing medical care, she argued for making “medical inspection and medical treatment compulsory on all sick persons – to treat illness, in fact, as a public nuisance to be suppressed in the interests of the community…” [6] Thus she decided to launch a separate investigation into the matter, with the help of several progressive doctors and medical officers. [7] This investigation was tremendously successful in its objectives; by the end of the year, “she had actually succeeded in driving the Commission, reluctantly, towards enquiring into the causes of destitution.” [8]

She then moved on to the subject of unemployment. This had been a subject which had interested her from her initial charity work in the 1880s. She began to become frustrated at the Commission’s slow handling of the issue, and as a result, she launched another independent investigation. At the same time, she issued a memorandum to the other Commissioners, maintaining that the statistics and evidence [then collected] before them proved “the total and universal failure of relief works for the unemployed [her italics]… whether conceived in the spirit of Mr [Joseph] Chamberlain’s Circular of 1886, or under the conditions of Employment of Workmen Act, 1905.” [9] To remedy the situation she advocated the proposals put forward by William Beveridge, a young social reformer [who would later go on to write the famous Beveridge Report during the Second World War] for the creation of labour exchanges, a proposal which entailed creating a government-run market where laborers could find work and would-be employers could find employees. [10] Although she did not convert the other Commissioners to this position, [11] she did convert members of the Liberal Government, including Winston Churchill, then the President of the Board of Trade [equivalent of U.S. Commerce and Labor Secretaries] and David Lloyd George, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer. [12] Labour exhanges were enacted into law in 1909, and remain on the statute books today. [13]

By 1908 it became evident that 1) the Commission would have to report, and that 2) unlike the 1832-34 Commission, there would not be an unanimous report. This was largely because by 1908, Webb had decided that it made no sense trying to reform a law that was, at its very core, wrongheaded. As she wrote in her Diary:

The majority [on the Commission] will flounder about seeking a new bottle for the old wine. Why not leave the old thing standing, and take the stuff out drop by drop – the sick first, and place them under the sanitary authority; then the children, placed under the education authority; then the aged [pensions], perhaps the unemployed and the vagrants. [14]

The majority, although harshly critical of the Poor Law as it had stood, did not want to abandon its central structure; they wanted “nothing to do with her proposals for breaking” it up. [15] Thus Beatrice decided to write a dissenting report that, surprisingly, instead of ensuring that the majority would be steadfast in advocating the opposite extreme, forced it to abandon some of its previous principles and adopt a more centrist position. [16]

Footnotes:

  1. [1] McBriar, p. 194.
  2. [2] Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English Local Government, 10 vols., vol. 9: English Poor Law History, Part II: The Last Hundred Years, (London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., 1963), p. 530.
  3. [3] Beatrice Webb, ed. by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, The Diaries of Beatrice Webb, vol. 3: 1905-24, (London: Virago Press in Association with the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1984) p. 15.
  4. [4] Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam, Beatrice Webb: A Life, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967), p. 180.
  5. [5] Ibid., p. 181.
  6. [6] Beatrice Webb, ed. by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, Diary, vol. 3, p. 45 [17 July 1906].
  7. [7] McBriar, p. 210.
  8. [8] Muggeridge and Adam, p. 182.
  9. [9] McBriar, p. 217.
  10. [10] Muggeridge and Adam, p. 185.
  11. [11] McBriar, pp. 220-21.
  12. [12] Muggeridge and Adam, pp. 185-86.
  13. [13] Ibid., p. 193.
  14. [14] Beatrice Webb, ed. by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, Diaries, vol. 3, p. 69 [10 April 1907].
  15. [15] McBriar, p. 242.
  16. [16] Ibid., p. 241.
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