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Posted: July 4th, 2020

The origins of social welfare

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Historically, it is hard to trace the origins of social welfare or social policy in Britain. There is a debate when exactly the foundations of the welfare state were laid. Slack suggested that the welfare state was established by the end of the eighteenth century. On the other hand Roberts argued that the basis of the welfare state was laid between 1833 and 1854. However, most commentators incline to associate the term ‘Welfare State’ with the start of the modern welfare state of Britain in 1945 (Harris 2004, p.15).Contrary to this conception, in my view, the origins of welfare state could go back as the earliest medieval Poor Law which came into existence in 1349. Not to forget to mention, the idea of welfare emerged thousands of years ago in many societies and civilisations. Voluntary and charitable help was provided through individuals, the state and religious organisations (Day 2000).

The Poor Laws were introduced as a mechanism to tackle poverty amongst the poor by giving those help. Those poor people who are getting help including the sick and elderly were known as paupers. According to Oxford English Dictionary 2009 a pauper is ‘A recipient of relief under the provisions of the Poor Law or of public charity. Now hist.’ ( main criticism to the poor law was it paid more attention to the maintenance of public order rather than the relief of poverty. This raised a question, whether the start of the welfare system for the poor was an act of mercy and compassion or the fear that homeless people will involve in unlawful activities. Based on the historical facts, the poor laws were divided into the Old Poor Law and the New Poor Law. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was regarded as the start of a new era of Poor Laws referred to as the New Poor Law. (

The New Poor Law revolutionised the local and central governments relations. The Commissioners’ Report 1834 was the core of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act known also as ‘PLAA’ had taken the administrative power from the local authority (parishes) to the central government authorities. It also reformed the Old Poor Law which was in place. Furthermore, the act dealt with the flaws of the Old Poor Law due to the bad administration of the local parishes. However, the act faced criticism from the local parishes opposing the idea of the central control, which will put limitation on their powers. Another criticism that the act restricted the relief to the poor and the conditions inside the workhouses were harsh and repulsive.( . The commissioners’ report had also recommended the building of workhouses as a vital strategy to discourage claimants of the outdoor relief. However, many Northern Local Authorities opposed the building of warehouses, because they saw it as an expensive solution for the problem of unemployment (Harris 2004).

According to ( 2009, ‘The Oxford Dictionary’s first record of the word workhouse dates back to 1652 in Exeter – ‘The said house to bee converted for a workhouse for the poore of this cittye and also a house of correction for the vagrant and disorderly people within this cittye.’ However, workhouses were around even before that – in 1631 the Mayor of Abingdon reported that “wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

Under the New Poor Law (The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834) the workhouse unions acted as a deterrent for the able-bodied to claim outdoor relief. However , the law also introduced the outdoor labour test premised the distribution of outdoor relief to able-bodied men in return for a task of work .The initial plan of the workhouses to build different workhouses to accommodate different types of need such as children ,women and elderly . But later the plans had changed in favour mixed workhouses to accommodate all paupers. Apart from deterring able-bodied men from claiming relief, the workhouses were also intended to be institutional accommodation to accommodate various sections of the population who cannot look after themselves in their homes or in community. However during 1830’s and the 1840’s many cases of abuse and neglect inside the workhouses were reported in the media. The editor of The Times published more than a hundred cases of cruelty inside the workhouses in that period (Harris 2004, p.49 -52). Although the workhouses were not a prison, people inside were called inmates. The situation inside the workhouses was tough, the food was basic, and they had to wear rough uniform and to sleep in common dormitories. The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone breaking and picking old ropes apart called oakum (

During the 1800’s the notion of charity in response to the needy spread rapidly throughout the world. As a result this led to the emergence of Charity Organisation Society. The Charity Organisation Society shared the same values as the Poor Law and they complemented each other. There was a debate whether the charities made the poor more dependent on the help they receiving, which might discourage them from seeking work. Later, the Charity Organisation Society spread to the USA which was helped by the lack of consistent state support to the poor (Payne 2005, p.34-8).

From the origins of social work in the Victorian Charity Organisation Society (COS)

The idea of settlement houses was to bridge the gap between social classes, In order to achieve that, it was suggested that the rich and educated should spend time and live amongst the poor. According to Payne settlements emerged as a movement to educate the working class and to maintain the moral Christian social behaviour in poor neighbourhoods in the new cities. Those students involved would use their education and moral beliefs in activities which (Payne 2005)

The Seebohm Report was regarded as a landmark in the development of social work. Initially the Seebohm committee was set to find ways to reform local authority personal social services. The committee recommended the merge of local authority into social services department .As a result social work moved to be more generic, whereas before social work was specialised such as childcare and psychiatric social work . The object was to utilise resources. Consequently, the social work was modernised social work as it brought together the separate department offering social services to different client group into a single social services departments (James 2004) .Subsequently, social work in Britain reached its peak and saw massive state social work expansion by 1970 with the implementation of the Local Authority Personal Social Services Act 1970 which was an outcome of Seebohm Report. Additionally, this period saw the birth of British Association of Social Workers in April 1970 after the merging of 8 associations (Payne 2005). However, towards the 1980’s there been a move back towards specialisation especially in mental health and childcare. As the Mental Health Act 1983 made a condition that only approved social workers should be allowed to deal with mental health cases. Also, as a result of the rise in child abuse cases child protection teams became the norm within Local Authorities. Additionally in 1989 the government put £10 million pounds towards child protection training programme (Johnson 1990, p. 161-2).

The Beveridge Report 1942 was regarded as the foundation for the modern welfare state in Britain. Lowne R states that, Despite its somewhat unglamorous title (and author) , the Beveridge report on Social Insurance and Allied services immediately acquired immense popularity , both at home and aboard , as a practical programme for the elimination of poverty , and it has subsequently come to be regarded as a blueprint for the welfare state. (Lowne 1999, p. 130)

Beveridge stressed in his report the need to eradicate the five evils: Want, Disease, Idleness, Squalor and Ignorance. Furthermore, he suggested measures to be implemented by the government to tackle to issues. However, the Beveridge report was not fully implemented by the various governments and was abandoned by the conservatives. The conservatives criticised Beverdige for suggesting a flat rate contribution. Following his report, the National Health Service (NHS) was born on 5th July 1948 . In my opinion, this was one of the most important outcomes of the Beveridge Report and a major event in the history of modern welfare state in Britain. However, some social policy commentators had different view. Glennerster stated that Beveridge is often credited with the founding of the National Health Service, which definitely he did not do. And goes on, he is more possibly credited with the founding of post war system of social security, the subject of his great report, yet in many ways this is also a mistake. Although he acknowledge the report had a great impact at the time (Glennerster 2000, p. 18).

Payne (2005, p. 31) suggests that social work in Britain evolved from three different sources : the Poor Law , charity organisation and the settlement movement.

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, social work started to decline. Different factors contributed to the deterioration of social work. There was a service failure especially in child protection. Social work was seen as a soft police. Thatcher government increased control over public expenditure.

After the child care scandals, social work got a negative image in the media and the public. Then social work was seen as the problem rather than the solution.

One of the huge dilemmas for social workers in the 21th century, the shift in social work culture. Nowadays, on the managerial level, more importance being put on budgets and targets. Social workers had massive caseloads to deal with, topped with numerous paperwork to fill, which somehow hinder the process of service delivery to the service user. The rise in the workload for social workers led to divert the focus from the quality to the quantity. It became the quantity rather than the quality.

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