Liberal Reforms

Liberal reforms

In 1906 the General Election returned a Liberal Government with a large majority. The Liberal Party had campaigned on welfare issues. They called for reforms that would transform the way in which poverty was managed. Following in the footsteps of reforms in Germany, the Liberal Reforms saw pensions, sick pay, maternity benefits and unemployment insurance for some workers introduced. The Liberal Reforms led to constitutional changes and faced criticism from both those who felt it went too far and those who wanted further reform. 

People's Budget Cartoon

At this time, it the popular belief was that people brought poverty on themselves due to waste, bad habits and low morals. It was not the job of the government to help the poor – they should help themselves by hard work, thrift and saving for the future. The only help for the poor was based on the 1834 Poor Law. Those in need had to go into a workhouse but these were so harsh and unpleasant that most poor people did not apply. At the start of the 20th Century there was a growing belief that politicians were not doing enough to tackle the causes of poverty and that with such a high percentage of the population living in poverty Britain’s future as a great power could be threatened. The Liberal Reforms intended to raise the standards of living with this leading to improved standards in the workplace.

Liberal Reforms - Homepage
Trade Disputes Act 1906Workmens Compensation Act 1906Merchant Shipping Act 1906
Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906Education (Administrative Provisions) Act 1907Matrimonial Causes Act 1907
Coal Mines Regulation Act 1908Children's and Young Persons Act (Children's Charter) 1908Old Age Pensions Act 1908
Labour Exchange Act 1909Trade Board Act 1909Housing and Town Planning Act 1909
National Insurance Act 1911Shops Act 1911Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act 1912

Important factors that made poverty become an important issue:

• Charles Booth in London and Sebohm Rowntree in York carried out the first serious studies into poverty and its causes. They discovered that the causes were casual labour, low pay, unemployment, large families, illness and old age – not laziness, drunkenness and gambling. These reports raised awareness of the extent of poverty in Britain and the problems it caused.

• The Boer war of 1899-1902 showed the poor state of health of the nation. One out of every three volunteers failed the army medical due to bad diet and living conditions. This could seriously affect Britain’s military strength if nothing was done to improve the situation.

• The effects of poverty were damaging to society. Health problems and infectious disease could affect rich and poor. The economy suffered if large numbers of people were too poor to buy goods and social problems such as crime, prostitution, slums and drunkenness were a direct result of poverty.

• There was a particular worry about the effects of poverty on children. Studies had shown many to be underweight, malformed and infested with lice scabies etc. This would lead to problems in the future – weak sickly children would become weak, sickly adults.

• There were concerns about Britain’s future ability to compete with new industrial nations such as Germany and the USA. National efficiency would only increase if the health and welfare of the population improved.

• The growth of Trade Unions and the Labour Party was a threat to the Liberals and the Conservatives. The new working class voters were turning to these organizations to improve their lives. The New Liberals recognized this and supported government help for the poor.

• In the 1905 general election, the Liberals and the Labour Party reached agreement not to stand against each other in many seats. If elected to power the Liberals promised a programme of welfare reforms which would recognize the government’s responsibility to help the weakest and poorest sections of society.

The Liberal Reforms:

Free School Meals

In 1906 the Liberal Government introduced Free School Meals for children. This allowed local education authorities to provide free meals to children on a means tested basis. About half of local authorities introduced the scheme and by the outbreak of the First World War some 14 million meals had been provided.

Medical Tests for Children

In 1907 a series of free medical tests were introduced for children. as with the Free School Meals the testing was optional for local authorities. These tests identified illnesses and diseases at an early stage and marked a change in central governments attitudes towards children. They were now being seen as a national asset worth looking after.

Children and Young Persons Act

The 1908 Children and Young Persons Act provided protection for children. From now on it was a legal requirement to look after children properly and the authorities were given the power to intervene in cases where this was not deemed to be the case.

Children’s Charter

Laws to stop cruelty and neglect of children and end baby farming. New Juvenile Courts no longer sent children to adult prisons. ‘Borstals’ and a probation service set up. Begging by children was made an offence. The sale of alcohol and tobacco to children under 16 years was forbidden.

Liberal Reforms

Old Age Pensions Act

The Old Age Pensions Act provided a small pension for everybody aged 70 or above. As this was a universal right, rather than being means tested, it took away the stigma that had been attached to Poor Law Benefits.

Opposition to the Liberal reforms

• Some Councils did not approve of free school meals and this had to be made compulsory in 1914.

• The Children’s Charter was opposed because the government was meddling in family life.

• Many people believed government help for the poor would encourage laziness. Pensions might stop people saving for their old age.

• Some doctors were opposed to Health Insurance because it did not pay enough.

• Friendly Societies and Insurance companies thought they would lose business.

• The Tories and the House of Lords objected to the new taxes needed to pay for the reforms.

• Some employers objected to paying for worker’s insurance.

• In 1909, the House of Lords rejected the People’s Budget. This led to the Parliament Act of 1911, which reduced the power of the Lords and stopped them interfering in money bills.

• There were concerns that tax payers would have to pay for the cost of these reforms. Many thought this was unfair as the middle class tax payers tended not to need to use the “safety net” provided by the Liberal reforms.


Source : Rowntree Report: Unemployment

‘He was wearing a ragged coat that was falling apart. That day he had walked 28 miles looking for work. He had only a crust of bread for breakfast and more bread for supper. His feet were blistered and swollen; he looked like a man who had given up all hope.’

Source: Rowntree Report: Poor Housing

‘Wooden floor of the upper room has holes admitting numbers of mice. Roof very defective, the rain falling through to the bed in wet weather. Outside wall also very damp. Plaster falling off. Tenants apparently clean. Courtyard houses all back to back. Water supply for 12 houses from tap placed in the privy wall.

Source: Charles Booth- Poor Housing

Few of the 200 families who lived there occupied more than one room. 15 rooms out of 20 were fifthly to the last degree. Not a room was free of vermin (mice or lice). The little yard at the back was only sufficient for a dust bin, toilet and water tap, which served 7 families.

Source : Speech by Lloyd George to a Liberal Party meeting in Cardiff, October 1906

I warn you about the Labour Party. I warn you it will become a terrifying force that will sweep away Liberalism. We have a Liberal Parliament, but we must act to help the poor. We must get rid of the national disgrace of slums. We must eliminate the widespread poverty which scars this land glittering with wealth, otherwise the working men of Britain will vote Labour instead of Liberal.

Source: From a letter Winston Churchill wrote to Asquith in December, 1908.

Germany is not rich as us, yet German social reforms mean they are better organised for peace and also for war. We are organised for nothing! We cannot rely on existing charities and this winter is causing misery. Consequently, there is an urgent need to help the working class and make England a safer and better country for them. When the people begin to feel the benefit of our social reforms they will give solid support to our Liberal Government.

Source: Description of a room in Lambert from a survey of poverty in South London by Maud reeves in 1913

Under the window facing the door is the large bed, in which sleep mother, father and two children. A baby is asleep in the pram by the bed and another child is asleep in the cot in the corner. The second window can be and is, left partly open at night. At the foot of the table is a small table. Three wooden chairs and a chest of drawers complete the furniture. The small fireplace has no oven, and open shelves go each side of it. There are two saucepans, both burnt. There is no larder. (Storage Cupboard)

Source: Will Crooks MP, who was born in a workhouse, describes his attitude towards old age pensions.

We were challenged by the MP for Preston who said: ‘Would you declare that you are in favour of giving 5s a week to a drunken, thriftless, worthless man or woman? My Reply is very prompt: ‘A man of 70 with nothing in the world is going to cut a pretty shine on 5s a week, whether his character be good or bad. Who are you, to be continually finding fault? Who amongst you has such a clear record as to be able to point to wickedness of an old man of 70? If a man is foolish enough to get old, and if he has not been artful enough to get rich, you have no right to punish him for it.’

Source: David Lloyd George Speaking in 1908

The Old Age Pension Act is just the beginning of things. We are still confronted with the more gigantic task of dealing with the sick, the infirm, the unemployed, the windows and the orphans. No country can be called civilised that allows them to starve. Starvation is a punishment that society has ceased to inflict for centuries on its worst criminals, and at its most barbarous stage humanity never starved the children of the criminal.

I have had some excruciating letters piled upon me from people whose cases I have investigated – honest workmen thrown out of work, tramping the streets from town to town, begging for work, and at the end of the day trudging home tired, disheartened, and empty handed, to be greeted by faces, and some of them little faces, haggard and pinched with starvation and anxiety. During years of prosperity the workmen has helped to create enormous piles of wealth that have accumulated in the country. Surely a few of these millions might be spared to preserve from huger the workmen who have helped to create that great wealth.

Source: An extract from the memoirs of Flora Thompson.

There were one or twp poorer couples, just holding onto their homes, but in daily fear of the workhouse. When the Old age Pension began, life was transformed for such aged cottagers. They were relieved of anxiety. They were suddenly rich. Independent for life! At first, when they went to the Post Office to draw it, tears of gratitude would run down the cheeks of some, and they would say as they picked up their money, ‘God bless that Lloyd George!’ (for they could not believe one so powerful and munificent (generous) could be plain ‘Mr.’

Source: The Classic Slum, Richard Roberts, 1973

At last, in 1908 the Liberal Government allocated £1,200,000 for the establishment of a non contributory old-age pension scheme, and an Act was passed to become law on 1 January 1909.

Pensions, however, would be withheld from those ‘who had failed to work according to their ability and need, and those who had failed to save money regularly’. Here was a means test with a vengeance. Paupers were not entitled to any pension. Nevertheless, even these small doses meant life itself for many among the elderly poor . Old folk, my mother (who was a shopkeeper) said, spending their allowance at the shop, ‘would bless the name of Lloyd George as if he was a saint from heaven.’

LIberal Reforms Links:

BBC Bitsize. Notes and revision tests.

National Archives. Use documents from the National Archives to investigate the Liberal Reforms.

Defence Dynamics. Lesson plan and notes from the Ministry of Defence.

Cat and Mouse Act – relates to Votes for Women but is a good contrast with the reforms.

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