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To what extent could the Liberal reforms of 1906-1914 be described as a radical attempt to alleviate poverty?

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Introduction

To what extent could the Liberal reforms of 1906-1914 be described as a radical attempt to alleviate poverty? This essay will explore the Liberal reforms introduced between 1906-1914 and assess the government's efficacy in tackling poverty. In the early 20th century poverty was becoming an increasingly important issue and for a variety of reasons. Poverty had risen up the political agenda not least because of the advent of the Labour Party and their programme for social reform. At one end of the spectrum it is argued that the Liberal Government were crusaders for social reform, fighting oppression and poverty to emancipate the working classes. At the other end, the Liberals were seen as a Government with no plan or coherent strategy to deal with these issues and were not even united; with legislation being introduced piece meal as a response to individual crisis. At the turn of the century large numbers of men, women and children had to endure deplorable living and working conditions. The estimated unemployment rate for 15 to 64 year olds in 1902 was 69%1, although the unemployment rate as measured by those claiming unemployment related benefit was as low as 5%. However this raises questions about the accuracy of measuring and reporting conditions and begins to signify the potential numbers living on the poverty line. In 1900 trade union membership represented only 11% of those in employment and the impact of the Taff Vale2 judgement meant even the Trade Unions were powerless to improve the poor working conditions. Further, the school leaving age in 1900 was 12 and according to the 1901 census 10% (140,000) 10 - 14 year old boys were already working. The benefits paid by the state were in any event below subsistence level and these issues were compounded by poor housing and over crowding, poor diet and health. Together with lack of health care meant large numbers were living in extreme poverty.

Middle

(Martin Pugh 2000) However, the pension act was still a very controversial measure mainly due to the sectors of society excluded by the Act and the retention of the concept 'deserving' and 'undeserving' individuals. With regard to the unemployed Booth and Rowntree's investigations revealed that inadequate wages were another major cause of poverty and minimum wage legislation was identified as a radical step. The Liberals felt they had no option other than to address the problem and as a result passed the 1909 Trade Boards Act and the 1912 Mines Act. Although they were limited in scope and effect, the measures marked a shift away from the 19th century laissez faire attitude that the government should not intervene in the setting of wages. Some of the most far-reaching reforms introduced by the Liberals concerned working people. Throughout the early 1900s there were a range of different measures undertaken by local authorities to help the sick and unemployed. The government supported many. However, by 1911 the Liberals were convinced that some kind of government-controlled national system was needed. As a result they created National Insurance in 1911. The National Insurance Act was in two parts. The 1st part dealt with unemployment, the second with health. Workers earning under £160 per year had to join the scheme. They paid 4d per week from their own wages into an insurance scheme. The employer added a further 2d and the government added 3d on top of that. In return for their contributions workers got sick pay of 10 shillings a week for 6 months and unemployment pay of 7 shillings a week for up to 15 weeks. As with the other Liberal measures, when the scheme was introduced there was a lot of opposition suggesting its radical nature. Many workers resented the money being taken from their wages and many employers resented the amount of money it cost them.

Conclusion

(Murray, 1999) In conclusion, the nature and success of the Liberal reforms has been the subject of keen historical debate and almost unparalleled scrutiny, resulting in many conflicting views. It cannot be denied there was scope for more radical reform. However, when taking in to account the contemporary, social values and norms, political climate, and the argument of the state versus individual responsibility this was a bold attempt by the Liberal Administration to introduce radical reform. Such reforms helped to alleviate poverty and paved the way for future reforms, even though the Governments motivation may at times have been based upon expediency and was not always entirely principled or purist. 1 This and the following statistics were taken from the Natioanl statistics website. 2 The Taff Vale judgement prevented Unions from picketing and any union could be liable to pay unlimited damages for losses caused by a strike. 3 Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, undertook major investigations into the extent and causes of poverty in British cities. They discovered that up to 30% of the population of the cities were living in or below poverty levels and 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 old age. 4 Charles Booth published, Life and Labour of People in London in 1889 and Seeboh Rowntree published, Poverty A study of Town Life in 1901. 5 The Boer War was an attempt by the British to re-impose its control over Southern Africa, and when Britain put pressure on the Boers they had little option other than to fight. The British public expected the war to be over in a few weeks as the Boers were inexperienced and badly equipped. However the defeat of 50,000 Boers took 450,00 British troops and before the end, it cost 22,000 lives and well over £200,000,000 of money. 6 The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

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