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100 years ago: Abolish the Poor Law?

by
18 February 2009


February 19th, 1909

FOR many a day to come the public has been provided with reading by the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and relief of distress. Their Report, now issued, runs to more than 1,200 large pages, and we are informed that the detailed report containing the evidence of the wit­nesses called will fill forty volumes, each containing 1,000 pages. It appears that the Com­missioners are not entirely agreed, and a minority report contains suggestions of a more drastic character than that of their colleagues. But the points on which all are agreed afford a basis for most sweeping reforms. Briefly, they are these: The old Boards of Guardians are to go, their place being taken by Committees of County and Borough Councils, with co-opted members; for the term “Poor Law”, with its painful and rather degrading associations, it is proposed to substitute the phrase “Public Assistance”, which seems like an echo of the Entente Cordiale; the workhouse, as at present constituted, will give place to specialised institutions for the sick, the aged poor, the young and the mentally feeble, which recalls the classification of the London Charities in Edward the Sixth’s reign, for the benefit of the sick poor, the deserving poor, and the idle poor; public assistance and pri­vate charity are to be co-ordinated; a national system of labour ex­changes is to be set up; and, with the establishment of labour colonies for workless (a new substitute for the term “unemployed”) men, there will be detention colonies for vag­rants and shirkers. It should be added that the proposals which deal with the labour question include the provision of trade schools for boys, a very salutary way of arrest­ing the drift of our youth towards the goal of small clerk­ships. It will be seen that the pro­posals involve the complete transformation of our methods of relieving poverty.

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