Reinventing the Poor Law
I’ve just been reading the excellent report on Local welfare provision, low-income households, and third sector financial services provision, written by Damon Gibbons for Inclusion and the Centre for Responsible Credit. The report looks at the abolition of the Discretionary Social Fund and the local schemes local authorities are required to set up to replace it.
One thing that comes across clearly is that (as some commentators said from the start) this policy is all about disguising cuts. But the other point that jumps out at you is the new emphasis in these schemes on the objective of (re-)establishing yourself in the community. That has been there since the Social Fund was created in the 1980s to replace the old (and better) system of Single Payments, but in practice the Fund has been used to help people who would need support getting back on their feet regardless of which community they would be in.
A local benefit for local people…
It looks as though the local authorities are taking this a lot more literally; Damon points out that a number of Councils
have introduced residence requirements – requiring that people either already live in the area or can demonstrate that it is their ‘centre of interest’, or are subject to a statutory housing duty.
A dozen London boroughs will require claimants to have lived locally for at least 6 weeks; some local authorities will require evidence of 6 months’ residence. The report asks, quite reasonably, what will happen to people who cannot meet this requirement? It worries that there a risk “that some vulnerable people could be passed from one local authority to another as a result”.
Almost certainly this is a real risk. This is one of those rare occasions when having a History degree turns out to be relevant to my job, because the Elizabethan Poor Law included a very similar requirement. Under the Poor Law, to get Parish relief, you had to claim from your Parish of ‘legal settlement’ and there were rules for hard cases to determine which was your Parish.
The original intention was humane – everyone would have a Parish that had to support them if they fell on hard times. But it soon came up against problems. The system was designed for a time when very few people moved far from where they were born, but was introduced at a time when enclosures and other forces were changing that drastically. For day labourers and other landless peasants – the class most likely to need Parish Relief – the best chance of economic advancement should have been to move to areas with big harvests or booming new industries, but this system effectively discouraged labour mobility.
Parishes that suffered poor harvests or other problems would find that the Poor Rate (the tax to pay for the system) had to be put up at precisely the time that the number of rate-payers was falling, along with the ability to pay of those that remained. Parishes responded by encouraging poor families to leave, sometimes issuing them with a certificate to show other Parishes that they would be accepted back if they couldn’t find work. Other Parishes, faced with an influx of potential claimants, looked at these certificates sceptically. Even before the Poor Laws were passed, the informal relief of the preceding period had created a group of excluded families, harried from one town or village to another, with no home Parish to “go back” to.
Rate-payers in Parishes with growing numbers on relief would become very suspicious; there was no concept of recessions or the business cycle and this would be seen as a symptom of moral decay. And there was a grain of truth to justify those concerns: there was a criminal underworld of cony-catchers and bawdy baskets and evicted families could find that this was the only community that accepted them, making it difficult for the overseers of the poor to tell them apart. The law responded with harshness: “sturdy beggars” who chose not to work could be whipped or branded.
Thank goodness we are more enlightened these days!
The Poor Law was, for it’s time, progressive – or at least a recognition that there is such a thing as society. But the requirement that people show a local connection made it harsher than it would have been otherwise and undermined the mobility of labour that might have helped English society to cope with economic changes. For all the issues with our modern benefit system, that has been one problem we have avoided re-creating.