To what extent did the Liberal Reforms (1906-1914) improve the lives of the British people? Between 1906 and 1914, the lives of many British people were improved due to the introduction of a series of welfare reforms by the Liberal Government. Yet in 1906, the Liberals won the general election based on the values of “old” Liberalism, which favoured Laissez-Faire rather than government intervention. However, with the resignation of Campbell-Bannerman in 1908, and the appointment of Herbert Henry Asquith as Prime Minister and David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill to the cabinet, these values were replaced by the values of “new” Liberalism. Both Churchill and Lloyd George were New Liberals who believed that the state should look after the Welfare of those who could not help themselves. Consequently, the government identified, and attempted to aid, five main sectors of society who were in need of help; the young, old, sick, unemployed and employed.
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After it was made compulsory for children to attend school until the age of ten, it became obvious that many children were going to school hungry, dirty and/or suffering from ill health, hence were unable to focus on their work. This meant that children were not fully benefiting from the education system. Margaret Macmillan, an educationalist, firmly believed in the adage, “Feed the stomach, then the mind”, and she promoted educational reforms. Also, the government had recognised that the national efficiency of Britain was facing decline, and decided to counteract this by first helping the young people of the country.
Labour backbencher, William Wilson, put forward the idea of free school meals as a Private Member’s Bill. It was so well received in the House of Commons that the Liberals gave it government time. Consequently, the Education (Provision of Meals) Act became law in December 1906, which allowed authorities to “take such steps as they think fit for the provision of meals”. Parents were to be charged only if they could afford it or else the local authority could put a halfpenny on the rates.
As a result of the Act being introduced, the number of school meals provided rose from 3 million in 1906 to 9 million in 1910 and 14 million in 1914. By 1914, the voluntary ages had become overwhelmed by the scale of the scheme and most of the provision was in the hands of the local authorities, who in turn were given a 50% grant from the treasury. Within a short time, a publicly funded welfare service, administered by the Board of Education (BOE), was beginning to replace a patchwork of local charitable efforts. The lives of a number of children were improved thanks to the introduction of free school meals. However, in 1912, over half of the local authorities were still to set up a school meals service, so many children’s lives had yet to be affected by the Act.
Following the introduction of the Education Act 1906, Margaret Macmillan drove Robert Morant, the Permanent Secretary of the Education Board, to introduce school medical inspections. The government was not enthusiastic about this proposal, as it knew that inspection would inevitably reveal chronic health problems and would be costly. Nonetheless, Morant smuggled the school medical inspection provisions into the innocuous Education (Administrative Provisions) Bill, which was seen as a formality therefore was not thoroughly read through by the government as they assumed it did not contain any new provisions. The government unknowingly signed the Bill, which then became law in 1907. Statutory school medical inspections were introduced to take account of the following: previous diseases; general conditions and circumstances including height, weight, nutrition, cleanliness and clothing; throat, nose and articulation; external eye disease and vision testing; ear infection and deafness; teeth and oral sepsis; mental capacity and present diseases or defects.
As predicted, inspection revealed the disturbing fact that children were going untreated because their parents were too poor to afford doctors’ bills. The government was soon under pressure to treat the problems revealed by the inspections. Consequently, in 1912, the BOE started to give grants to local authorities for treatment and school clinics were set up for the first time. It emerged that between 80% and 90% of the children examined had defective teeth, about 9% suffered from rickets, and about 30% were verminous. It was also found that 55% of children with defects had not had any form of treatment, whilst many of the others had not received the continuing treatment that they required.
It was also recognised in 1908 that many children were being mistreated and that laws had to be introduced to protect children. The Children’s Act (1908), or “Children’s Charter”, was subsequently introduced by the government in an attempt to eradicate the exploitation of children. It was now a legal offence for parents to neglect their children. The Act also stated that children under the age of sixteen were forbidden to smoke or drink and stiff penalties were brought in for shops selling alcohol or tobacco to children. Furthermore, children were forbidden to beg, young offenders were no longer to be tried in the ordinary courts but in new juvenile courts, and remand homes were set up to keep child offenders out of prison whilst waiting for trial. If convicted, children were to be sent to a borstal (corrective school) rather than to prison, and probation officers were appointed for the aftercare of young offenders.
Although not vastly, the lives of children were somewhat improved thanks to the “Children’s Charter”, but children were still exploited to a certain extent. However, the government had finally accepted responsibility for the mistreatment of children, which had been needed for many years. Admittedly, it can be said that legislation did not go far enough to totally negate the exploitation of children, but legislation was still in its infancy and needed time to mature.
The resignation of Campbell-Bannerman marked a turning point in the pace of reform under the Liberals. He was an Old Liberal, so was not enthusiastic about reforms. After his resignation, Lloyd George took his place. Because Lloyd George was a New Liberalist, he was in favour of change, so changes that Campbell-Bannerman would not have supported to improve peoples’ lives were now passed. The Liberals had realised that legislation was needed to help the elderly. For more than 20 years, there had been debates and enquiries into the subject of poverty amongst the elderly. Leading figures such as Charles Booth and Joseph Chamberlain had taken up the cause of pensions in the 1890s. Chamberlain argued that the cost of a state scheme would create opposition, as the House of Commons would never provide the money. Also, he feared opposition from the Friendly Societies who gained a great deal of business through providing pensions for the working class. In the meantime, Germany, Denmark and New Zealand had all established their own systems of old age pensions before the coming of the twentieth century.
The Liberal government had to overcome various problems financial if an Old Age Pensions Act was to be enacted. Asquith, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would only commit the government to the introduction of a Pensions Bill once the government finance was in surplus. Due to the reluctance of the Treasury to pay for the setup and administration of a contributory pension scheme, Asquith decided upon a scheme financed out of taxation. In order to persuade the Treasury to provide the finance necessary for the scheme, various exemptions were introduced to reduce the cost of the scheme.
Despite these obstacles, the Old Age Pensions Act (1908) was introduced. This entitled people over 70 with an annual income of between Â£21 and Â£31 to between 1 shilling and 5 shillings a week of a pension. There were, however, exceptions. For example, the recipient had to be British and had to have lived in the UK for the previous 20 years.
The Old Age Pensions Act made many old age pensioners feel secure and independent, and alleviated some poverty amongst the old in Britain, making the Liberals, and Britain itself, look caring and considerate of the needs of the people. However, many OAPs were still living below the poverty line (The maximum pension of 5 shillings per week was still 2 shillings short of what Rowntree considered to be the minimum necessary to remain above the “poverty line”), and some did not benefit at all as their money went into the poor houses. Also, it could be argued that the Act was actually only introduced as an antidote to Socialism and that if the Liberals truly cared about the welfare of the people, they would have found the extra 2 shillings which were needed to ensure that old people were kept above the poverty line.
The Liberals came to realise that reforms were needed to help look after the sick because they had recognised that if people were sick, it was through no fault of their own. Also, they wanted to improve the country’s national efficiency and have a good workforce and military. When Lloyd George drew up the People’s Budget in 1909, his aims were to tax the rich to finance the national insurance scheme that was in the pipeline. He justified his proposals by saying that it was a War Budget, for raising money to “wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness”. Groups such as the Friendly Societies, Trade Unions and Industrial Insurance Companies, as well as Doctors, opposed the plan for a contributory health insurance scheme, but Lloyd George offered the doctors more than the friendly societies to win them over. Furthermore, the administration of medical benefit was put in the hands of doctors.
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Thanks to the National Health Insurance Act, people could now afford medicines and diagnoses from doctors, didn’t have to worry about money not coming into the house if they were off work due to sickness, TB was treated and pregnant women were given pre-natal care for the first time. However, the Act left many gaps still to be plugged; general hospital treatment was not covered, people had to contribute to insurance by paying money weekly and the poor (for example the elderly) could not contribute, therefore did not benefit. Furthermore, medical benefits were confined to free GP treatment solely for the insured person, not their dependants, therefore nothing was done to improve the lives of children or wives. Again, it could be argued that this Act was only introduced as a means of warding off Socialism, and that the Liberals were not genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people.
The Liberals thought that reforms were needed to help look after the unemployed as they realised that not all unemployment was a result of individual idleness, but perhaps due to structural factors outwith the control of individual workers. Furthermore, the unemployed were no longer as impotent as they had been in previous years (they now had the vote) and hunger marches and unemployment demonstrations took place during the trade depression between 1903 and 1905. The working class also acquired growing organisational strength when the Labour Party was established in 1900. Lloyd George laid out the government’s plan for unemployment insurance during the important Budget speech of 1909. It steered a middle course between the “voluntarism” of the Majority Report and the “Socialism” of the Minority Report.
The National Insurance Act Part II stated that workers paid 2.5d per week, employers 2.5d and the state 3d in contributions, and that seasonal trades had to participate in the scheme. After a week of unemployment, the insured worker would receive 7 shillings a week for up to 15 weeks in any one year, as long as they had registered as unemployed at the Labour Exchange, where they would receive the benefit. If a worker were dismissed for his conduct, he would not be entitled to benefit.
There were many advantages of this Act. The unemployed were now able to maintain their standard of living, and there was a change in attitude towards employment (unemployment was no longer regarded as a personal defect). It was easier for people to gain access to job vacancies being made through the Labour Exchange. On the other hand, the Act also had a number of disadvantages. Not all trades were insured (only seasonal trades), benefits were limited to just 15 weeks of the year and the family of the unemployed worker received no benefits. Furthermore, it was a contributory scheme, so the worker had to pay money into the scheme whilst in employment in order to benefit when unemployed. Some workers objected to paying the National Insurance contributions. The chant “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief” was chanted at Lloyd George by workers and referred to the suggestion that Welshman Lloyd George was taking their wages away from them. However, Lloyd George responded with his famous phrase “Nine pence for four pence” which referred to that fact that employers and the government were topping up the workers’ contributions. However, it is difficult to assess the extent to which this reform improved the lives of the unemployed, as it was not implemented until 1913 – the eve of WWI.
It had come to the attention of the government that many workers were being exploited. Some of these workers were non-unionised, therefore did not have a say in how they were treated. Consequently, the Liberals introduced Acts in order to try to improve the lives of those in employment. The government highlighted four groups of workers: workmen, coal miners, women in sweated trades and shop assistants, whom they aimed to help through the introduction of various Acts.
To help those injured at work, the government introduced the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1906), which stated that workmen were to be compensated for injuries or industrial diseases caused by the nature of their job. Coal miners were helped by the Coal Mines Act (1908), which granted them eight-hour days, for which they had been campaigning for 40 years. This Act vastly improved the lives of coal miners. Furthermore, the Trade Boards Act (1909) meant that Boards were set up to negotiate minimum wage levels for the badly paid, non-unionised “sweated trades” -box, lace and chain making and tailoring-however, no attempt was made to define what a minimum wage was. Finally, the Shops Act (1911) stated that shop assistants were entitled to a weekly half-day off and a reasonable break for meals, which went a long way towards improving their quality of life.
Through these Acts, the government helped coal miners to achieve what they had wanted for 40 years (an eight-hour day), and granted shop assistants a half-day off each week. However, the lives of those in employment had not improved as substantially as they could have been; a minimum wage had not yet been introduced, and compensation was at the employers’ discretion.
Undoubtedly, from 1906 until 1914, many steps were taken by the Liberals to “improve the lives of the British people”. Young people were protected by law from exploitation. Old people were given hope, dignity and a certain amount of independence thanks to pensions, and the sick and unemployed were guaranteed an income. Furthermore, the employed were given more rights, and were exploited less than in previous times.
However, many issues still had to be addressed. The lives of the British people had not been completely transformed and what the Liberals achieved during this period was very limited. The most important development made during this period was that the government had finally begun to take some responsibility for the welfare of the people, which had been in the pipeline for a number of years.
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