The Slippery Slope/The Reports of the Commissions of 1834 and 1909

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The issue of the Report of the Royal Commission of 1909 marks a new stage in the three hundred years' history of the English Poor Law. That of the first two hundred years was brought to a close by the Royal Commission of 1834. The present Report brings the question up to date in the light of modern developments, both social and industrial.

For nearly eighty years all our Poor Law administration has been, in theory at least, based upon the Report of 1834. That Report has been the text-book—one may almost say the classic—of students of the Poor Law, not only in this country, but in Europe and across the Atlantic. It is, therefore, of special interest now to inquire whether that Report has been superseded by that of 1909; whether its conclusions have been tried and found wanting, and what is the general attitude of the Commissioners of 1909 towards the verdict of their predecessors. A discussion of the question in this aspect will serve, perhaps better than anything else, to illustrate the difference of principle underlying the Majority and Minority Reports of the Commissioners.

There appears to be the very general misunderstanding as to what these differences are. It is urged, for example, that because the two Reports agree upon points of detail in recommending or deprecating certain things, because they would both abolish Boards of Guardians and mixed workhouses, because they both advocate labour exchanges, labour colonies, and, though in different ways, workmen's insurance, that there is, therefore, no very fundamental difference between them. Thus Mr Russell Wakefield, in a short speech to the Central Unemployed Body, recently expressed the opinion that "there is no necessary antagonism between the two Reports." An article in the "Athenæum " expresses the same opinion. In an admirable "Synopsis" issued by Messrs Knight, the well-known publishers, it is stated that the "root difference" between the two Reports is that the Minority Report divides necessitous persons into non-able-bodied and able-bodied, and deals with them by separate methods, whilst the Majority makes no such distinction, and it is plain that the author has very imperfectly grasped the fundamental divergence between the two Reports. What, then, is this "root difference"?

In the first place, the Minority Report definitely breaks with all tradition, and dissociates itself from the Report of 1834. Its authors are industriously circulating the suggestion that the Majority Report does the same. They have said that the Majority do not render "even lip service" to the conclusions of their predecessors. It will not be difficult to show that such statements are contrary to the facts.

The main principle adopted by the Majority Report, in comparison with which all others sink into insignificance, is that the basis of all Poor Law legislation should be to "foster the instincts of independence and self-maintenance amongst those assisted," and thereafter, upon almost every page, we find some reference to this principle, which is, of course, a simple restatement of the principles of 1834. Moreover, almost every section of the Report, except those dealing with entirely new matter, is prefaced by a recital of the views of the 1834 Report, these views being treated as almost axiomatic. In many cases when the Commissioners propose a new departure, they take pains to show that it was either the original intention or the natural corollary of the old Report. For example, classification by workhouses instead of in workhouses was, they contend, the original intention in 1834, though it was abandoned in 1840. So, again, their proposals for bringing voluntary charity into line with the Poor Law are the natural development of the opinions of the older Commission. We may go further, and say that their recommendation for the abolition of Boards of Guardians is a reversion to the views of some of those who were mainly responsible for the Report of 1834. Sir Edwin Chadwick was never in favour of placing the administration of the Poor Law in the hands of casually elected bodies, because he said "there is no security for qualifications of which a high degree of speciality is needed for a very difficult service." When the Government of the day refused to listen to him, he prophesied that the lessons of 1834 would have to be learnt over again, and that is the present position. The Majority Report accepts the doctrine of "less eligibility" again and again in scattered sentences, though it is to be regretted that it does not put it forward as a separate recommendation. Both here and elsewhere its language might have been more clear and definite, and it might have left less to be inferred by that great body of readers who, coming fresh to the subject, will look to it for guidance. It seems, for example, to be a serious omission that in its chapter upon the causes of pauperism it submits the question to no psychological analysis, and altogether ignores the old and well-recognised distinction between poverty and pauperism. In the words of an old writer:—

"It is of the utmost importance to distinguish between poverty and pauperism, for, by confounding them, poverty is dishonoured and pauperism countenanced. Supply poverty with means and it vanishes; but pauperism is the more confirmed. Poverty is a natural appetite merely wanting food, pauperism a ravenous atrophy which no food can satisfy. Poverty strives to cure itself, pauperism to contaminate others. Poverty often stimulates to exertion, pauperism always paralyses. Poverty is sincere, pauperism an arch-hypocrite. Poverty has naturally a proud spirit, pauperism a base one—now servile, now insolent. Poverty is silent and retiring, pauperism clamorous and imposing: the one grateful, the other the reverse. There is much that is alluring in poverty, but pauperism is altogether hateful. It is delightful to succour the one, and irksome to be taxed for the other. Poverty has the blessing of heaven, as well as of those who relieve it. Pauperism, on the other hand, has nothing in common with the Christian virtues." Except for a few stray phrases, the Report takes little heed of this side of the question, and it is noteworthy that the chapter upon the "causes of pauperism" is one of the few chapters which ends with no "conclusions." It approaches the subject of administration as a cause of pauperism, a question which is at the root of the difference of opinion between different schools of thought, half timidly, as "controversial." But it is for the very purpose of deciding controversial questions that a Royal Commission is appointed.

Elsewhere we find the same indecisiveness. Its characteristic is that it attempts to convey its opinions by suggestion and illustration, and though those who read between the lines have little difficulty in grasping its meaning, yet it does not speak out in language intelligible to the average citizen who knows little about the Poor Law. In this respect it compares unfavourably with the older Report, which is conspicuous for its masterly analysis of human nature, and for the clearness and preciseness of its conclusions. But at least it cannot be said that the majority, whatever the form in which their Report is presented, and whatever the result of their recommendations, if adopted, might be, have "abandoned the principles of 1834." They hold fast to dispauperisation and the preservation of independence. They accept the principle of "less eligibility" and of destitution as a qualification for public relief. They insist upon the administration of the Poor Law by a separate and homogeneous branch of the public service to be guided by these principles and carried out by a special and independent organisation. It is clear, then, that the Majority Report neither supersedes the 1834 Report nor, though it modifies its methods, does it question its conclusions.

When we come to consider the Minority Report, we are on altogether different ground. That Report definitely and frankly breaks with all tradition, and demands the repeal of all Poor Law legislation subsequent to 43rd Elizabeth. It is, therefore, in so far as it is constructive, a totally new proposal based upon no previous experience. No more, however, need be said about it here as it is dealt with fully in the following chapter.

The problem of pauperism is one which has no place in the economy of the authors of the Minority Report. It hardly receives adequate consideration even from that of the Majority. To understand it in its true light we must turn back to the old Report of 1834, and it is safe to say that that Report will continue to be read and studied by students of Poor Laws in all countries. However that may be, we have now at least arrived at this—that fourteen out of eighteen Commissioners appointed on account of their special fitness for this inquiry have once again endorsed the wisdom of the principles laid down by their predecessors in the great inquiry of 1834. "Poor Law administration," they say, "moves in cycles determined in part by varying prosperity and in part by the coming of a new generation which lacks the experience of its predecessors and has ideas of its own. Difficulties recur; old abuses and old evils which were thought to have been buried reassert themselves; the scale of needs and resources is greater, but the problems are fundamentally the same" (Report, Part IV., 238).