On 19 January 2019, The Times reported on the case of Joanne Mole. Between 2010 and 2016 Mole had made substantial claims for child tax credits, housing benefit and council tax support on the basis that she was a single mother. This was a lie, because her husband had moved back into the family home. Judge Angela Nield, sentencing Mole, argued that the British benefit system is ‘unique in the world’, and that it depends on the essential honesty of recipients because ‘it is not easy to detect claims of this nature which are made fraudulently’. This remarkable conclusion reveals the yawning gap in historical understandings of the welfare system and of the importance of that history as context for our current predicaments.
The revisionist history of the New Poor Law that emerges out of our AHRC project ‘In Their Own Write’ shows very clearly that welfare officials have never been able to rely on the honesty of claimants, and never expected to. Indeed, both the Old and New Poor Laws were designed specifically to contain dishonesty at a level which would still leave the claims of the poor with legitimacy in the eyes of local taxpayers. The workhouse test of the New Poor Law, for instance, was informed at its most basic conceptual level by a sense that a good number of claims on local welfare were either fraudulent or submitted (for contemporaries) by morally suspect individuals like single mothers. Forced residence in a workhouse would, it was felt, root out the genuinely needy.
Things did not turn out like this, of course. Workhouses rapidly filled up with the hopeless and helpless. But they were nonetheless built with the premise of dishonesty in mind. And we should be clear that the central authorities felt that the dishonest were a prominent feature of the New Poor Law, as with other past welfare systems. Thus, on 21 August 1848, the clerk serving the poor law union of Reeth (North Yorkshire), wrote to the central authorities on the case of ‘Phillis Brunskill a Widow with 9 Children all of who are under the age of 16 years’. Asking for permission to pay the widow 5s per week to supplement her income from a cow and small plot of land, the clerk added mournfully that ‘If this assistance is refused the Widow & her 9 Children will have to be taken into the Workhouse’. Outdoor relief of this sort would have been more-or-less automatic under the Old Poor Law more than 10 years earlier, but it stood starkly against the basic principles of the New Poor Law. More than this, it smacked to the central authorities of dishonesty. They wrote on 23 August to say that:
her destitution [is] very questionable – out of 9 children under 16 there must be some capable of working and helping to contribute to the resources of the family. [T]he widow herself is also probably in employment at this time of the year and the land she holds may probably be sufficiently [extended] to support her.
The authorities were clearly irked by incessant attempts in the Reeth union to bend the rules. On 11 September 1849 they wrote to the clerk in the case of Ann Birkbeck, a widow who had conceived two illegitimate children after her husband had died, making herself the archetype of Victorian immortality. Their letter expressed surprise that Reeth should consider paying an allowance to this sort of person because if it: ‘were [it] generally allowed in such cases, not only would it tend to encourage immorality but it could eventually bring an added expense on the Ratepayer increasing the number of applications for relief’. These words would later prove to have real force for Reeth. Ann Birkbeck eventually ended up in the workhouse and had a series of sexual encounters with the workhouse master which led to a further illegitimate birth and a long and fractious inquiry in 1855.
Notwithstanding the efforts of the variously constituted central authorities of the New Poor Law, it is clear that at the local level the capacity for officials to root out the fraudulent and morally unworthy, and then to keep them off welfare, was limited. Surveillance was expensive and there is (as under the Old Poor Law) a striking absence of letters through which neighbours informed on one another. In this sense, the New Poor Law simply had to live with dishonesty, ingratitude and the continuing eligibility of people like Ann Birkbeck. The modern welfare system, just like its historical counterparts, definitively does not (as judge Neild argues) rely on the honesty of applicants, merely the containment of dishonesty. The difference is a fine one, but nonetheless crucial to how we should think about the past, present and future of the welfare state.