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An Assessment of the Liberal reforms
The Liberal reforms were aimed at helping people who faced poverty through no fault of their own. Their reforms helped five main areas:

  • Children

  • The elderly

  • The unemployed

  • The sick.

  • The low paid

As you study these, you should consider the issue of whether they effective in dealing with the problem of poverty?

verall Assessment of the Liberal Reforms

  • The Liberal reforms were the greatest body of social legislation passed by any one government up to that time. Between 1906 and 1914 the Liberals were responsible for a significant shift from the previous policy of Laissez Faire to direct government intervention in the lives of the more vulnerable sections of society. Welfare benefits started to be given as a right removing, to an extent, the moral element of the Poor Law. The state was for the first time addressing needs which, in the past, had been considered the responsibility of the individual.

These new benefits were provided from general taxation and the Government interfered with the laws of the market economy by setting up Labour exchanges and setting minimum wage levels in some industries.

Because the Liberals came to power with no specific plan for social reform they appear to have been more open to ideas from outside bodies and individuals than previous governments, especially in complex fields such as pensions and National Insurance.
The key reforming Ministers, such as Lloyd George and Churchill, had to rely on a mixture of expert advice and acute political judgment. They were aware of the balance to be kept between the benefits provided and the cost. With the opposition to Social reform and the expenditure on the Naval Race they risked overextending themselves and ending up with nothing. They were keenly aware of the potential threat from the Labour Party and in some ways considered their reforms to be a political antidote to socialism. At the same time the real threat to the Liberals was the Conservative party and they may have introduced reforms to gain political credit over the Conservatives before they could do so themselves. Social pressures were bearing down on all governments in the more democratic 20th century so to do nothing was not an alternative in the face of the political opposition.

  • The Liberals were aware that the reforms were limited and would require to be expanded in the future. Both Churchill and George proposed further reform. If it had not been for the outbreak of war in 1914, more reform seems to have been planned. It is therefore quite clear that the Liberal party took great initiatives to alleviate poverty during their time in Government between 1906 – until the outbreak of World War 1.

However, it could still be seen as reactive measures to help people who were poor and it could be said to address the symptoms rather than the root causes of poverty. It is interesting to note the link between the Liberal and Labour reforms, William Beveridge, made this distinction in his Report of 1942. The issue of education itself was not tackled, only health issues at schools (meals and medical inspections). Better housing was not addressed. Although some workers could claim free medical treatment the government was a long way from a comprehensive National Health Service. The government still operated a laissez faire approach to unemployment; a full employment policy was not the Liberal way. Overall, the Liberal reforms could be seen as limited and failing to deal with the problems of the day.

The historian Edward Boyle has commented that the Liberal Reforms: They “Showed a more humane understanding of poverty and sought to remove the respectable and deserving poor from the gambit of the poor law”.
Detailed Assessment of the Liberal Reforms.
By 1912, when the National Insurance provisions began to take effect, a very considerable boost had been given to the incomes of the poorest families. The combined effect of child welfare support, old age pensions, employment legislation, child allowances and National Insurance meant that a significant safety net had been established against poverty. Few families could fail to benefit from at least some aspect of this legislation. In particular, the relief to working-class budgets in supporting elderly relatives brought about by the introduction of Old Age Pensions should not be underestimated.
The Liberals introduced reforms dealing with children, the old, the sick and both the employed and the unemployed that sought to provide help for people in a way that, unlike the Poor Law, did not bring shame on the poor. The reforms also introduced some important principles. The state became involved in the regulation of life for the young. Old Age Pensions were financed from general taxation. The Insurance Principle was introduced to help fund some of the social reforms. Pensions were administered by the Post Office removing the shame of the Poor Law. Unemployment benefits were administered by the Labour Exchanges not the Poor Law.

The Liberal Reforms mark an important shift in the government’s attitude towards social reform and the problem of poverty. The idea of state responsibility for disadvantaged groups in society who were unable to help themselves was accepted.

In addition, there was a deliberate effort to redistribute wealth to provide for the poorest in society. Overall, the Liberal Reforms mark an important departure from the ideas of self-help and laissez-faire. They passed an impressive list of reforms which went some way to solving many of the worst problems facing the poor in Britain at the turn of the century. When the reforms are put in the context of the other major problems of the period, such as the Irish troubles, the Suffragettes, Industrial unrest and increasing international tension, they became even more impressive. Neither Lloyd George, nor Winston Churchill, saw the reforms as anything other than a beginning. But further reforms were thwarted by the outbreak of war. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Liberals established a welfare state but they certainly laid the foundations for one by establishing the principle of state intervention in the life of the nation.
Between 1906 and 1914, the Liberals introduced old age pensions, unemployment and sickness insurance, labour exchanges, school meals and medical inspections for school children, the eight hour day for miners, minimum wages for “sweated trades”, and a half-day off each week for shop assistants. Taken together, this formidable list of social reform measures adds up to a significant shift away from minimum interference in the laissez-faire tradition and must have done something to alleviate the worst effects of poverty. The state was for the first time addressing needs which, in the past, had been considered the responsibility of the individual. Although they may have been limited in scope, they were radical for the time.
The Liberals meant these Acts to be a start point towards State intervention but World War One intervened. If they had continued then the Welfare State may not have developed as it did.
The overall impact of the Liberals’ social reforms can be criticised as “too little, too late”.

The Liberal Reform programme had many limitations. Local authorities were not compelled to provide school meals. Medical inspections for children identified a problem but didn’t cure it.

Old Age Pensions were limited to some over 70s. Health Insurance only covered the worker not their family. Unemployment benefit was for a very limited number of industries and Labour Exchanges were voluntary NOT compulsory.

The inadequacies of the old Poor Law still remained e.g. workhouses. Agricultural workers were given no benefits and remained the lowest paid in the land. Pensions were still too low and started at 70. The National Insurance Act was not comprehensive enough as it only provided for the employee and not his family. Unemployment insurance applied to only 7 trades. Some reforms were resented by many of the people they were meant to help. The National Insurance Act in particular led to opposition. As one recent historian put it: “Liberalism got relatively little political credit from the workers, who resented the compulsory contributions involved.”

The problems of adequate housing and education were not tackled. It is clear that the Liberal reforms made only limited inroads into the problem of poverty.

The Liberals came to office without an overall strategy for the relief of poverty, and many of their reforms were little more than responses to pressing economic and political circumstances. The financial value of benefits was limited, and many of the poor found that they remained outside the unemployment insurance net.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of an overall plan and despite their limitations, attitudes to poverty and welfare had undergone a fundamental shift.
Between 1900 and 1914 real wages rose very little, if at all, and the trade unions were not in the least impressed by the Liberal social reforms, as they showed by their increasing militancy in the years between 1910-14. Another disturbing fact was that in 1914 the percentage of army volunteers rejected as physically unfit was almost as high as it had been in 1900. Of course, this was only to be expected; there was bound to be a time-lag before the benefits of the new state aid worked through. The vitally important fact was that the Liberals had laid foundations which men like Lloyd George and Churchill fully intended to build on later.
The reforms were certainly a radical step forward. But the issue of education was not tackled, only health issues at school (meals and medical inspection). Better housing which could have alleviated the squalor and disease associated with slum living was not addressed. Overall, the Liberal reforms were of a limited nature and failed to deal adequately with the pressing backlog of social problems of the day.
Successes and Problems of Individual Acts

1906 Education Provision of Meals

Successes: 3 M to 14 M get meals by 1914, Leads to compulsory meals by 1914, Children lose weight in holidays, Challenges Laissez faire.

Problems: Expensive, Only School Children helped, Not Compulsory till 1914.

1907 Medical Inspections

Successes: Identifies problem, Step towards collectivism, Leads to School Clinics by 1912.

Problems: Inspections not treatments, Too expensive for poor parents

1908 Children's Charter

Successes: Gives children separate legal status, Challenges self help.

Problems Seen as interference.


1908 Old Age Pensions Act

Successes: 1 M getting pension by 1914, Removes stigma of Poor House, Non-contributory, Topped up Savings, Highlighted scale of Poverty.

Problems: Too old, Too many exemptions pandering to the idea of Deserving and Undeserving poor, Too little to live on.


National Insurance Act Part I 1911

Successes: Removes fear of Poor House, All low waged covered, Compulsory, Insurance Based

Problems: Only worker covered, No hospital treatment, 26 weeks then Poor House, Contributions put people in poverty


A. National Insurance Act Part 2 1911

Successes: 2.2 M insured, Breathing space, Attacks Laissez faire

Problems: Only 7 cyclical trades helped, Only worker covered, Limited time, Contributions put people in poverty.

B. Labour Exchange Act 1908

Successes: 414 by 1911, Place to mend clothes, wash, Original.

Problems: Not Compulsory, Help skilled workers more

Low paid

1906 Workman's Compensation Act: Attacks Laissez Faire

1908 Mines Act: Attacks Laissez Faire

1909 Trade Boards Act: Attacks Laissez Faire

Problem: No minimum wage specified

1911 Shops Hours Act: Attacks Laissez faire
All these acts show that the government will interfere in the market place to enforce standards.

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