Sociol Policy Essay: 6 questions on Poor Law, National Insurance, Beveridge Report – 3000 words



All students must answer each of the following 6 questions.


In question 1 and 2, write 400 words explaining the significance of the following pieces of legislation and the context within which they developed.

(Each question carries 15 marks.)


  1.  The New Poor Law (1834)
  2. The National Insurance Act (1911)


Write a 400 word biography of one of the following

 (this question counts for 10 marks).


  1. Either (a) Edwin Chadwick OR (b) Seebohm Rowntree OR William Beveridge OR George Lansbury


For question 4, 5 & 6  answer each of the following in 500 words.

(Each question carries 20 marks)


  1. Outline the main concerns of the Beveridge Report (1942)


  1. What is meant by the phrase ‘policy transfer’? Discuss with relevance to the Liberal welfare reforms.


  1. What factors led to the growth of the ’interventionist state’ in the period 1880-1920



1)  The Reformation era marked the erosion of local compulsory charity, based on old Christian values of religious duty.  Attempts to structure and organise the legal relief of poverty, sustained through a basic taxation system and still reliant on local parishes’ indoor and outdoor relief, culminated into the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 (Bloy,, 2002).  The premise of such relief was still based on the concept of charitable hand-outs towards an ‘under-class’, subdivisible in a complex hierarchy of entitlement, which was essentially seen as permanent and inevitable.

During the 18th century, however, as migration from farmland to towns rose dramatically to unprecedented levels, parish councils met increasing challenges in the provision of care for the more vulnerable sections of society, such as the elderly, the infirm, orphans and widows.  Though already in existence, the proliferation of houses where these individuals could live and contribute as they could, referred to as ‘workhouses’, became legalised and regulated.  Originally, these workhouses were merely an alternative to outdoor relief, often seen as the only solution for the weakest, most helpless section of homeless society; however, these ‘houses’  became increasingly burdened with demand from all sections of the poor, including the able-bodied, and it quickly became apparent that principles of eligibility were to be developed and implemented.  Thus, in 1834, England adopted a series of poverty relief and workhouse system reforms, collectively referred to as the New Poor Law (Besley, Coate, Guinnane 2001, p2);  outdoor relief was abolished and able-bodied individuals, though they could not be refused relief in principle, were obliged to enter the workhouses in order to benefit from such relief.  At the same time, in order to distinguish between those who could only survive through outside help and those who could make it on their own, living conditions in such houses were kept harsh and highly undesirable, so that anybody who could would, theoretically, do anything in their power to escape, thus seeking work and abandoning the relief system altogether.

The New Poor Law, therefore, marked a significant shift in the ideology surrounding poverty and how society is to treat such phenomenon.  It is clear that poverty was no longer seen merely as an unavoidable characteristic of a sub-section of the human race, to be ‘patched’ through hand-outs securing the survival but not the betterment of such people; instead, poverty began to be questioned.  Through the emerging concepts of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ of relief, moral judgement was adopted, with all the negative consequences of marginalisation and indifference.  However, at the same time, it arguably unleashed the possibility of movement from hand-out-based, mere survival to potential self-sustainment and, therefore, the long-term prospective of a non-static condition leading to a better life.


2) The British internal political map at the beginning of the twentieth century was changing; strengthening Socialist ideologies and the emergence of a basic trade union movement allowed for the emergence of the Labour Party which, though still not in power, brought attention to an ever increasing working class as well as to its needs.  This in turn gave impetus to a series of investigations into the living conditions of the poor and the practical problems faced by the working classes; here strong statistical evidence, highlighted in writings such as those by Charles Booth and Benjamin Rowntree ( 2008), suggested that illness and old age were the most significant causes of poverty and the greatest dangers encountered by the working class.

At the same time, Britain’s economic power place in the world was overtaken by Germany and the US; the implementation of measures to counteract this undeniable trend and to improve the nation’s economic and, arguably, even military efficiency (a healthier army was seen as a potential threat to a sicker one) became a priority; practical studies of those two economies and their workforce system arguably instigated similar innovative legislation, led by prominent Liberals such as David George and Winston Churchill ( 2008).  This culminated in the 1911 National Insurance Act, which gave the British working classes the first contributory system of insurance against illness and unemployment.  Under this legislation all wage-earners between sixteen and seventy had to join a contributory scheme, jointly with the employer and the state, which would secure free medical attention and a fixed-period unemployment compensation, as well as information on any local vacancies (Duffy, National Health Insurance From The Workers’ Standpoint, 1928, pp7-11).

Such piece of legislation arguably marks the emergence of the modern welfare state in the UK.  Ideologically, it highlights an unparalleled shift from previous philosophies and outlooks where the poor were primarily seen a static element in society, due to an innate physical inferiority or an acquired immoral, selfish lifestyle; such stance justified and instigated a laissez-faire system purposefully designed to punish the poor with institutions such as the workhouses.  Now, however, poverty was primarily seen as the consequence of several colliding environmental elements which could be prevented or, if already established, progressively alleviated.  The government was therefore to take a more active role in the improvement of its society; such role was summarised with the term of progressive liberalism ( 2008).


3)  William Beveridge (1879-1963) has often been referred to as the father of the modern welfare state (Harris 1977).  Son of a district sessions judge in the Bengal (now Bangladesh), he became a lawyer and served as a sub-warden in an East London Settlement House, where he was exposed to the poor sections of society (Harris 1977); such exposure instigated his interest in the social services, which prompted him to write extensively on the subject in the Morning Post newspaper.


Appointed as Director of Labour Exchanges in 1909, the newly-emerging unemployment national system which he co-organised and co-implemented, Beveridge was influential in the passing of the 1911 National Insurance Act; indeed, he often advised the Liberal government in its policies to combat poverty.


After the First World War, during which he headed and managed the mobilisation and control of manpower, he was knighted and became director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he remained until 1937;  he continued his prominent role in the evolvement of social policy.


When the British Conservative government commissioned a report on how the nation could be rebuilt after World War Two, William Beveridge was seen as the leading thinker in this arena and was therefore placed in charge of this report;  published in 1942, when the feeling of the country was beginning to embrace the notion that the war could and would be won, this report constituted an unparalleled model for a complete and total national network of health and social services, which began to be implemented by the Labour government, after its post-war victory over the Conservatives, and saw its full adoption in the establishment of the British National Health Service.


Often described as cold, dispassionate and pragmatic in his approach which was, in all likelihood influenced by his Law studies and legal work experience, Beveridge appealed to most elements of the political spectrum because of the very pro-capitalism, pro-competitiveness economic utilitarianism that transpired from his arguments.  His labour, healthcare and pension reforms were indeed flagged as pragmatic promoters of a healthier and more motivated workforce, as well as alleviators of the corporate burden (through the direct contribution of the state).


In 1944 Beveridge joined the Liberal Party and was elected to the House of Commons.  In 1946 he was made Baron Beveridge and became leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords.  He died at his home on 16th March 1963.




4) The Beveridge Report was to be the blueprint onto which to rebuild the nation after World War Two.  However, what was meant as a set of guidelines evolved in an unparalleled, comprehensive treatment of social reform.


Defeating poverty and the social problems stemming from it had always failed because, in Beveridge’s eyes, these were not seen as intertwined but had been dealt with separately with various piecemeal schemes aimed at ‘patching’ rather than ‘curing’ ( 2008).   Beveridge therefore sought out to define a pro-active plan to tackle what he perceived as the causes of poverty as opposed to the failed, traditional reactive approach towards what he referred to as the results or the consequences of poverty.  In his report, published in 1942, the main causes of poverty, the five enemies to the necessary socio-economic progress of the nation, were identified as follows:  disease (manifesting in the poor health of individuals), ignorance (manifesting in their the poor education of individuals), squalor (manifesting in poor living conditions), idleness (manifesting in unemployment and want (absence of basic tools for adequate living).    Tackling these main causes, which he defined as the ‘five giants on the road to reconstructions’ (Beveridge, 1942), was going to be

  • a ‘comprehensive policy of social progress’ of which social insurance was only one part; this meant that it would meet all the social challenges individual faced from cradle to grave
  • universal, namely it would not be means-tested but rather seen as a right of every individual irrespective of any circumstances or judgement
  • insurance-based, thus following the model of fixed contributions to a fund available when needed.
  • compulsory for those in work
  • integrated, that is it would be one payment covering a series of schemes, such as health benefits, unemployment benefits, paid leave, pension
  • based on a flat rate, regardless of income



This revolutionary approach clearly abandoned the previous Poor Law philosophy in which all payments to the old, sick and unemployed were to be based on the principle of charitable offerings and therefore kept as low as possible to prevent the proliferation of ‘idleness’ and ‘extravagance’ ( 2008).  Instead, it based itself on principles of ‘guaranteed rights’ in return for contributions (except for child benefits which were, for logistical reasons, to stem out of general taxation).



Beveridge’s ideas were in tune with current thinking; his report was, therefore, generally welcomed and hailed as the beginning of a revolutionary social change leading to a quasi-utopian state where prosperity, as well as peace, would be enjoyed by all.  Such design greatly stemmed out of the new post-war national solidarity, as well as desire for and expectation of a completely new, much better society.  However, though many misunderstood the report as proposing free welfare for the benefit of all ( 2008), Beveridge’s recommendations were clearly still in tune with his life-long pragmatism; they were highly practical and never supported the concept of a state gift:  instead, they were geared towards the empowerment of each individual for the ultimate provision of his own wealth and well-being.



5) The term ‘policy transfer’, though it has been interpreted with a variety of nuances over decades, refers to a process whereby knowledge, policies or administrative arrangements shift from one nation or policy domain to another.  Its approach is offered as alternative to an evolutionary process where governments facing the same problems eventually derive at the same conclusions and implement the same policies, as a natural cause-effect process;  policy transfer is, on the other hand, conceived as an intentional ‘learning process’, which can be voluntary or coercive.  It is seen as an important process leading to international policy convergence and globalisation, partly stemming from and partly caused by the needs of multinational corporations.

Policy transfer is a long-established process, arguably traceable back to ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, which were both admired, studied and, wherever, possible, imitated;  it has often been argued that the British Empire itself tried to learn and reproduce models from ancient Rome (Pierson, 2003).

With specific reference to pre-First World War Europe, it has often been argued that an ‘almost constant traffic in political delegations and investigating commissions sent out to report on developments abroad with a view to reform at home’ was strongly in place (Pierson, 2003).

The British liberal welfare reforms of the turn of the twentieth century and beyond, for example, have often been seen as an example of policy transfer from Bismarck’s 1880 Germany.  It has been argued that Britain attempted to emulate Germany’s socio-economic supremacy of the time, its industrial, social and economic efficiency by implementing what seemed to be the same types of reforms.  It has been general thought that British cabinet minister Lloyd George himself orchestrated policy transfer between the two countries, in this case from Germany to Britain, and sent an investigating commission to report back home and indeed begin the emulation process, involving William Beveridge (see previous paragraphs).  Germany’s socio-economic success, it has been argued, was not the only target of George’s policy transfer; indeed, Bismarck’s triumph over the perceived threat of the emerging Socialist movement, obtained through the ‘reconciling of the working classes to the authority of the state’ (Carr, 2008), was also a main target.  Bismarck’s compensation scheme to workers during illness (1883), his Accident Insurance Law of 1884 and his 1889 Old Age Pension scheme were, arguably, transferred to British policies; such transfer arguably stimulated Beveridge’s comprehensive report and his recommendations for revolutionary welfare reforms.

The similarities between these German and British welfare reforms are undeniable, as is the interest of the Liberal British Government in Bismarck’s socio-economic success and processes.  However, determining the level and extent of such perceived policy transfer is difficult.  To this day there seems to be a ‘lack of good metric (and methodology) for determining how much transfer of what kind has taken place’ (Carr 2008).  The so-called undeniable evidence history seems to provide is arguably anecdotal and/or circumstantial.  It is therefore difficult to disprove that the similarities between Bismarck’s and British liberal welfare reforms of the time occurred primarily as a ‘natural’ historical process in unique times rather than as the product of intentional policy transfer.


6) It has been argued that the pre-war and inter-war (as well as post-war) eras were the ‘decisive epochs in establishing the institutions and practices of an interventionist form of government in which the post-war welfare state was grounded’ (Pierson 2006).  It is common thinking that the British government of that period, for example, faced unique circumstances which led to unprecedented choices towards the macro management of the economy, its society and a more active and interventionist pursuit of full employment and its citizens’ wellbeing.



As highlighted in the previous paragraphs, economic, social and political factors seem to have converged and contributed to the emergence of a unique environment which, in turn, needed unique and innovative solutions.


The new industrial era and its consequences marked an unprecedented migration of labour from farmland to towns; in these new environments social challenges such as poverty, living conditions and disease spiralled out of controlled;  what was previously managed locally through relatively small, charity-based establishments (religious or otherwise) became an impossible task if locally processed.  It became increasingly clear that a new system of social practices, aimed at preventing total social collapse of the working and poor classes, was necessary.  At the same time, the demise of Britain as an international, economic power highlighted the need to introduce efficiency and productivity back in its workplace in wide-sweeping steps that afforded no time wasting nor room for trial and error.  The political and geographical threat of a strengthening German state was also accompanied by the emergence of Socialist ideologies, stemming out of the catastrophic conditions of the working and vulnerable sections of society.


As previously highlighted in the analysis of the factors surrounding the 1911 National Insurance Act, the view of poverty shifted from being seen as the manifestation of innate physical or moral inferiorities to be treated in its most acute set of symptomatologies, to the consequence of several colliding environmental elements which could and should be prevented; as this shift took place, the government was seen as the best tool for such change, via a revolutionary, nationally-structured and centrally administered set of policies stemming from such renewed principles.


Furthermore, the expanding concerns over society’s well-being, from mere employment and unemployment issues to matters of securing the health of the individual and promoting the most favourable conditions for his/her prosperity clearly signified the abandonment of the previous laissez-faire approach and the adoption of a centralized health system where the newly established rights of basic life conditions could be administered equally and centrally monitored.  Similarly, as it became clear that well-being extended to the individual’s capacity to sustain a decent lifestyle in its twilight years, the adoption of state-mandated regulations to force those at work to contribute to their own pension provisions established themselves as the only way to avoid extreme poverty in old age; the peak of state interventionism during the 1880-1920 period can, therefore, arguably be seen in the fixed and calculated state contribution to such pensions.


























Jose Harris, William Beveridge: A biography.  Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1977, pp viii, 488.


Chris Pierson, Learning from Labor? Welfare policy transfer between Australia and Britain.  Commonwealth & Comparitives Polics, 2003, pp 3, 4


L.J.Duffy, National Health Insurance from the Workers’ Standpoint, 1928, Read before the Society on April 26th 1928, pp 7-11


Marjie Bloy, The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law, 2002


Besley, Coate, Guinnane, Incentives, Information, and Welfare:

England‘s New Poor Law and the Workhouse Test, 2001

Stanford University Press, p.2


Christopher Pierson, Beyond the Welfare State?, 2006, Penn State University Press Third Edition, p.120.


William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Alllied Services, 1942, Presented to Parliament by Command of His Majesty, 2008 2008