Re-imagining the Workhouse for the Welfare State: Thoughts on the Alston Report

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  • This month, we present a guest blog from our very own Professor Steve King of the University of Leicester, who gives us his personal perspective on the recently published Alston Report on poverty in the UK: 

Earlier this month, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, delivered a highly publicised and damning report on the way that national and local austerity had consigned a significant proportion of the British population to unending misery. We learned that 14 million of our fellow citizens were in poverty and that 1.5 million of them were destitute, defined by Alston as being unable to buy ‘basic essentials’. He ascribed this situation primarily to government cuts put in place, not just for reasons of fiscal austerity, but as a deliberate ideological measure to dissolve the bonds of citizenship and fellow feeling that had shaped welfare since Beveridge. He is not alone in feeling both that poverty is increasing, and that different shades of Government since the financial crash have meant it to increase. The argument would be familiar to many of the readers of the Journal of Social Policy, for instance, where much detailed and rather more nuanced work than Alston’s has appeared.

Readers of his report will of course make up their own minds on its value and accuracy. From my perspective, though, it is littered with factual, conceptual, methodological and philosophical errors, not least when it comes to defining destitution and the regionality of welfare/poverty problems. Above all, Alston demonstrates an extraordinary ignorance of the history of British welfare – not unlike the British politicians he takes to task!

Let us explore three aspects of that ignorance. First, Alston suggests that the cuts to welfare since the financial crash represent a drastic (and negative) reshaping of the relationship between the State and its citizens, a fundamental attack on the collective principles of Beveridge and others who framed the post-war welfare state. The remotest grasp of British welfare history would have led him to a more cautious and nuanced approach. By the early 1950s it was already clear that the financing of the National Health Service was, and was going to remain, extraordinarily painful. Since then, Britain has experienced perhaps nine periods when fundamental attacks were launched on welfare broadly defined, each of which was represented at the time as catastrophic and unprecedented, and a direct threat to the collective principles established not, as it happens, after 1945, but during the Liberal Welfare Reforms of the early twentieth century. Whatever one’s personal take on those periods of welfare reform and austerity, the fact is that they happened. Had Alston grasped this basic point – that austerity was part of a long term post-1950s trend – then he may (arguably ought to, if he wanted to gain traction) have written his report with a different tone and sense.

Second, Alston fundamentally misunderstands the deep history of British welfare. Nowhere is this clearer than in his rather facile discussion of the drive to get people into work and the rise of working poverty. These trends he portrays as somehow ‘new’. In fact, the briefest discussion with a welfare historian on his two week trip around Britain would have revealed that the intersection of work and benefits has been central to the national welfare system since it was first developed for England and Wales in 1601. Such conclusions apply even more keenly to Scotland, which had its own welfare system and applied it with an eye more sharply focused on austerity before the 20th century. The United Kingdom has always had a residual welfare system linked to the need for everyone to work as hard and for as long as possible. Labour (notably Blair, Brown and Balls), Conservative and Coalition governments have always put work – whether it pays or not – at the heart of their welfare policies, as did the parishes and Unions that ran the welfare system between 1601 and 1929.

Finally, Alston claims that: ‘British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping’. The Department for Work and Pensions, he argues, ‘has been tasked with designing a digitised and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens’. We can (and should) debate whether the British welfare state has ever been compassionate, either in the post-war time-frame that Alston is confined by or in the deeper history of state welfare. I doubt that my father, grandparents and great grandparents, all of them poor working class people from immigrant stock, would have recognised such compassion. But we can also confront the hyperbole of the workhouse. Turned on its head and read against the rest of Alston’s report, his statement says: workhouses were a key component of a philosophical drive to smash the poor, to strip them of their dignity and power, and to force ordinary people into a sustained cycle of destitution. If, however, we reflect on recent writing on the New Poor Law, and in particular on the initial findings emerging from the In Their Own Write project, a very different picture emerges.

Plymouth workhouse ii
Plan of Plymouth Workhouse

There were plenty of workhouse scandals under the New Poor Law, though their number had almost certainly declined by the time Dickens was co-ordinating his attacks on the poor law to which Alston refers. We can find evidence of paupers – men, women and children – being mistreated, punished, and given poor food and inadequate clothing. Yet the surprising thing about the true history of the workhouse is not that we can find scandals, but that we do not find a lot more of them. If we believe Dickens – and Alston – then an ideological attack on the poor through the New Poor Law should have generated much more harshness. Here, then, are some useful correctives for Professor Alston:

  • Almost all welfare was paid to people in their own homes, who would not see the inside of a workhouse, much as we see today. If modern Governments really are trying to create a digitised and sanitised version of the workhouse and its regime, they have not chosen a great model given its subordinate place in the historical execution of welfare. Nor has Alston chosen a great reference point, either.
  • There is compelling evidence that workhouses rapidly became places where the sick, kinless, aged and abandoned were concentrated. These are not the people by-and-large that Alston was talking about in his report, not least because the aged have generally been insulated from the worst effects of the financial crash by the growth in the real value of their benefits.
  • There is equally compelling evidence that those who were resident in workhouses were not a sub-group of the poor squashed under the ideological yoke and related welfare practices of the state. They had agency: they could rebel, appeal, resort to the law. And, what is more, they did. As we hear more of their voices through In Their Own Write, we need to rethink the sense that workhouses and welfare more generally inevitably disempowered recipients and inmates. Modern benefits claimants and recipients are also not powerless, something that Alston fails to acknowledge in his hyperbole. A quick look at the way in which changes to disability benefit are being rolled back through coordinated advocacy and resort to the law, much as would have happened in the nineteenth century, would have shown this.
  • There is some evidence that workhouses were actively used by people who sought to construct an economy of making do (or ‘makeshifts,’ as historians prefer to call it). Parents might leave some of their children there while looking for work. Kin might put their sick relatives in the workhouse as a way of avoiding contagion, and thus wider unemployment in the family. And so the examples could multiply. Many benefit recipients in a modern sense also construct around them an economy of making do.
  • In the nineteenth century, the state, through its variously constituted central inspections, did not simply let localities punish the poor for their poverty. In most places and at most times, egregious practice was confronted. Alston is right to argue that in a modern sense obvious flaws in the welfare system have taken time to correct – the benefit delay in Universal credit for instance – but this has also been true throughout the political history of British welfare going back to 1601. To lambast modern Governments for something with a history this long is simply naïve.
  • Finally, and since Alston refers to Dickens, we need to confront the issue of public opinion. In the mid-nineteenth century Dickens was one (very small) part of an emerging sense that the New Poor Law in general and the workhouse in particular required reform. The welfare system needed to become more attuned to the fact that most of those captured by it were ‘deserving’, rather than benefit scroungers. Alston’s negative inferences regarding workhouses are simply taken out of this important context. Fast forward to today, and public opinion is decidedly not on the side of a more elastic and softer welfare system. We can be entertained by the outrage of Conservative Ministers about Alston and his report, but opinion polls are very clearly on their side – and they have been for a very long time! The sense that somehow we have moved on from an age of compassion is fundamentally misplaced.

Professor Alston’s report will no doubt be consigned to a box somewhere in Whitehall to gather dust. In this sense it is a missed opportunity. Perhaps another time he could add some welfare historians to his itinerary and we could, collectively, help him to understand modern welfare policy and the prospect of further welfare reform in its proper context.

 

Cold Hearts and Red Tape: Public Opinion and the New Poor Law

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What did contemporaries really think about the New Poor Law? It may seem a strange question given what we know about early protests against its adoption, about the resentment that was directed towards workhouses (those ‘Pauper Bastilles’), and about the many accounts of scandals and maladministration that litter the mid-Victorian press. But excavating the real feelings of contemporaries towards the poor law system overall is a surprisingly tricky business. On the one hand, it is hardly controversial to suggest that tales of workhouse cruelty, sexual predation and the incompetence of officials fed a growing appetite for sensationalism in the mid-Victorian press, and provided a rich vein of ‘scandals’ that newspapers and periodicals were only too happy to mine. On the other, shifting sentiment towards, but also among, the poor meant that pauperism, however blameless, carried a heavy burden of shame in Victorian England, so that paupers themselves rarely voiced their feelings in open forums.

It is also becoming clear in our work on letters written by, and on behalf of, paupers to the central authorities in London that even these were highly strategic documents. Just as under the Old Poor Law (and, often, in common with those sensational accounts in the papers) paupers rarely, if ever, passed judgement on the poor law or the workhouse system per se, instead concentrating their energies on specific instances of malpractice, maladministration and the contravention of rules and regulations. This means that their attitudes to the overarching framework of poor law policy – and those of the public at large – tend to get lost in the thicket of comment and condemnation relating to its day-to-day practice and administration.

Occasionally, however, we do find examples in MH12 of individuals who were prepared to cut through the detail and shine a light on the principles that underpinned the New Poor Law, and Isaac Ironside’s letters from Sheffield are a fine example of this. Ironside could hardly be described as an ordinary member of the public; in fact, he was in possession of a very large and sharp-bladed axe which he ground to considerable effect in mid-Victorian Yorkshire. He was a Chartist and Owenite socialist and, by the 1850s, he had risen to a position of considerable influence on Sheffield City Council. He was instrumental in establishing Sheffield’s Mechanics’ Institute and its Hall of Science, the first of its kind in England. Nonetheless, when Ironside wrote to the Poor Law Board on behalf of William Hodgson of Barnsley, he did so as a private citizen and an advocate for a poor man who found himself in a difficult, though far from uncommon, situation.

Hodgson was a widower who had been left with six children and suffered considerable ill health. His youngest child, an infant, was being cared for by Hodgson’s sister who received two shillings a week in financial support from her parish. Between March and May 1850, however, Ironside was moved to write three letters on their behalf because the Board of Guardians had stopped the child’s relief, and his aunt – Emma Mitchell – was unable to continue his care without it. She and Hodgson found themselves in an impossible situation, wanting to do their best for the child but lacking the means to do so. Ironside’s first letter was a polite enquiry, asking whether the Board could use its influence to get the child’s relief reinstated. His second was a response to the replies of both the Board and the local guardians, in which he assured them again that neither Hodgson nor his sister were able to provide for the child without assistance, and explained that Mitchell was now looking after two of her brother’s children, because their father had taken a turn for the worse.

But it is Ironside’s third letter that really catches the eye. By this time his patience with the local and national administrators had run out. He had witnessed first-hand the obfuscation and pettifoggery of the local Board of Guardians and the high-handed unwillingness of the Poor Law Commissioners to hold them to account, and he had also seen the devastating impact their actions had had on Hodgson and his family. Not a man to mince his words, Ironside’s final letter is a masterpiece of passionate polemic and it gives us a brief insight into how the ‘system’ of the New Poor Law was viewed – by some sections of mid-Victorian society, at least.  It also has a surprising resonance for the welfare politics of our own era, and in its clarity of thought and expression it deserves to be quoted in full.

My Lords & Gentlemen,

I duly received yours of the 23rd ult in reply to mine of the 18th ult. Poor Mrs Mitchell comes to me and I am forced to see that “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”! She wept bitterly this morning, and said she feared her brother would not live many days and then, said she, “he will be out of their way; they will have finished him”. She heard a few days ago that he was very ill; unattended except by his poor neighbours who were in his house expecting his death. She has 2 of his children as I have before informed you and she still provides [for] herself and them and struggles, but it is very hard.

You may not be aware that I hate the centralizing tendency of the legislation with a most perfect hatred. I do not believe in Malthus nor do I wish to see the poor people starved to death by law. This case is not likely to lessen my hatred. If I could see any thing like moral responsibility on behalf of the central authorities, I should be inclined to view centralization with more favour. But there is nothing of the kind. Stump orators make perfect laws, and legal responsibility is all that is ever thought of. For instance you have acted legally, I suppose, in this case, Lorimer [a local poor law official] would no doubt say the same, ditto the Board of Guardians at Barnsley etc. My first letter to Lorimer [was] on the 18th Jany. My first to you was on the 1st of March, the poor wretch starving all the time – more than 16 weeks. You breakfast every morning and transact your business with the perfect consciousness that you will also dine in due course. Not so the poor who have not sufficient interest to get an appeal to you. Those who have discover what a task they undertake. Carlyle is not far wrong in his description of what has to be done in Downing St.

Good Heavens how I shudder at the cold hearted official red tapism which governs this country.

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Disability and Independence: the Long View

PIP outline

In March 2018 the Daily Mirror reported that Government reforms to disability benefits had fallen into disrepute. Some 69% of all people who appealed against decisions not to award (or not to award at the full rate) Personal Independence Payments in the prior tax year had won their cases. Reforms had been launched to great fanfare in 2013, with these so-called ‘PIP’ payments superseding the former Disability Living Allowance. The latter allowance, the Government argued, had itself fallen into disrepute, with the process allowing hundreds of thousands of people to fake disability or at least its extent.

From 2013 onwards almost 1 million people had their disabilities and hence their allowances reassessed. Newspapers across the political spectrum reported negatively on the new ability/disability tests, with those able to make even the most basic exercise type movements suddenly deemed fit to work. Over 500,000 people found that their previous benefits were downgraded or stopped completely. The cases of some high profile benefit cheats, who claimed severe disability and then were found on holiday, working or even, in one case, laying on strip shows while dressed as Batman, provided some populist cover for the reforms.

Here in 2018, it has become clear that the tests of ability to work have been both harsh and incompetently administered, leading to the Daily Mirror headline, itself duplicated across the print and e-media from March through to May. This places the Government in a thorny position. On many measures, Britain is the most disabled country in Europe and the world. Epidemics of obesity, chronic conditions associated with ageing, diabetes and alcohol dependence have created a public and personal health crisis. Yet even allowing for this, it seems intrinsically unlikely that somewhere between 1 and 2 million people are genuinely too disabled to work. What, then, can politicians ‘do’ about disability?

For us at ITOW, the answer might be to look at the past to shape policies for the future. Many of the modern dilemmas of disability policy are familiar to us all: how to deal with the rapidly increasing numbers of those with the physical and mental impairments that emerge out of extreme old age; whether and how to define those with physical impairments as ‘able’ and thus to oblige them to find work; how to deal with funding shortfalls in the NHS as it struggles and fails to meet the spiralling costs of intervening in areas of mental and physical impairment; and questions over what the proper balance between state, voluntary and private actions should be on these and other issues. Modern policy-makers, fund-holders, charities and even disability pressure groups construct these questions as essentially ‘new’. In fact, they are not.

The modern narrative that those with mental, physical and sensory impairments must be enabled (and sometimes forced) into work as both a good in itself, and as a way to reduce the poverty that many people with impairments face, was part of the welfare wallpaper in the nineteenth-century. New tests for disability of the sort referred to above focus on where someone sits on a spectrum of ability rather than disability. This way of thinking about impairments was central to the relationship between ordinary people and the local state in the nineteenth-century. Indeed, applicants and officials shared a common language of degrees of ability. Here for instance is Sarah Giles. She wrote to the central poor law authorities from Northampton on 18 February 1837 and asked that they ‘stand as my last frend in this wurld’.

Giles explained that ‘I have not been able to walk since my accident Sir and have to be pushed around when I can’. But, she noted:

I am not nor dersabled as you might call it but I derpend on selling my little thyngs on the street and this gets me most of my part and with the kind help of my naybours and the indugunce of my landlord and no littel help from my Brother I can make do but now I have been ill these last wintur munths and I have not bin abul to git about in the snow and can not use the crutches or the wheel in these times and so I am beehind with all ands so will you please kindly show as a frend for just a month as I am less able that I may settle some littel deps and keep my head up here that I may once again do what I can without the asisternce of the Board here.

Giles had been paralysed in a fall down a disused quarry pit as a girl and we have records of the race to save her life at that time. As an adult of 34 years of age, she now applied for help from the Northampton Poor Law Union, clearly not understanding that she ought to have applied to the local relieving officer rather than the central authorities. Yet this accidental letter is important. Giles assumed that there was a shared understanding that her paralysis did not equate to disability. When the weather was good, and she was healthy, Giles could wheel or crutch herself around selling items from a basket on the street, and maintain independence with the help of friends and neighbours. She had, in other words, a degree of ability. Most of those with sensory or physical disability in the nineteenth-century constructed themselves in a similar way.

Our failure to build on historical knowledge like this is important. In the nineteenth century, keeping those with impairments out of full and long-term dependency on the State required a dynamic local partnership between the person with the impairment, their variously constructed communities and the welfare system. Officials were often called upon to act quickly and to use welfare payments flexibly in order to support people as they traversed a spectrum of ability and inability. They almost always acted in partnership with families and neighbours, and they carefully calibrated their actions in relation to the current state of ability of claimants. Where those with impairments worked and earned wages, this was not a bar to rapid or significant action by the welfare authorities. Only when someone had confined themselves to bed and thus withdrawn from the public world did the language of disability start to creep in.

Greenwich pensioner
Disabled Greenwich Pensioners (© Wellcome Image Library)

In this nineteenth-century context, where legal rights to receive relief as opposed to a legal right to apply for it were few, most of those with mental, physical or sensory impairments seem to have retained a moral right to favourable consideration. Local officials familiar with the stories of those who claimed welfare, could and did find it virtually impossible to erase moral rights even if they wanted to in the first place. The legal rights that can so easily be watered down in the face of budget constraints are, arguably, no substitute for the loss of such moral rights over time.

Now, as the threat of a new and substantial tide of impairment looms large, and reforms to disability welfare policy have (as the Daily Mirror reminds us so forcibly) failed , history has very much to teach us.

Further reading:

  • Borsay, A., Disability and Social Policy in Britain since 1750: A History of Exclusion (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005).
  • Croley, L., ‘A working distinction: Vagrants, beggars, and the labouring poor in mid-Victorian England’, Prose Studies, 18 (1995), 74-104.
  • Gulliver, M., ‘Insulting Jean Massieu: Debating Representational Control of Deaf People in Mid-Nineteenth Century Britain’, Social and Cultural History, 14 (2017), 321-42
  • King, S., ‘Constructing the disabled child in England, 1800-1860’, Family and Community History, 18 (2015), 56-89.
  • Phillips, G., The Blind in British Society: Charity, State and Community, c.1780-1930 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).