From the Workhouse to Welfare: What Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report can teach us today, edited by Ed Wallis

The Fabian Society, 2009, v + 93 pp, pbk 0 716 341062, £9.95

In 1909 the Poor Law Commission reported. A majority report recommended services tailored to specific needs: sheltered housing for the elderly, a welfare to work scheme for people of working age, services for children, and generally a casework approach to poverty amelioration with voluntary organisations as major providers. This is very much the way the welfare state went during the first half of the twentieth century and in which it is now going again.

Beatrice Webb’s minority report argued that poverty had structural causes and was not the fault of the poor, so what was required was poverty prevention, not poverty amelioration – and to do this a ‘national minimum’ was required: a national minimum wage, and a national system of benefits for those out of work to replace the locally organised Poor Law. The Webbs (for the concept of the ‘national minimum’ was Sidney’s as much as Beatrice’s) argued for services which didn’t discriminate between the poor and the non-poor, as only universal education and health care could prevent the conditions for a permanent pauper class.

It was this vision which was finally enacted during and after the Second World War and which underpinned the welfare state during most of the second half of the twentieth century.

The Fabian Society is to be congratulated on marking the centenary of the minority report. The Webbs were early and influential Fabians, so it is the minority report which is here celebrated; but Nick Bosanquet, a cousin by marriage of Helen Bosanquet, who contributed substantially to the majority report, not only defends the majority report as appropriate to its time, but also shows how it remains relevant. Sunder Katwala, General Secretary of the Fabian Society, shows in his introduction how it is often personal connections which influence policy change (Beveridge worked as a researcher on the minority report); Tim Horton provides a history and summary of the minority report (‘From the workhouse to welfare’), Roy Hattersley suggests that equality is a necessary condition for freedom, Sarah Wise tell us what it was really like in the Poor Law workhouse, Jon Trickett relates how in 1905 Poor Law Guardians refused help to families during a lock-out in West Yorkshire, Dianne Hayter suggests that today’s policy-makers could learn from the way in which Beatrice Webb combined the roles of researcher and campaigner, Jose Harris asks why the Webbs didn’t have the impact in their time that their researcher William Beveridge had in his, Seema Malhotva discusses the role of other Fabian women in fighting poverty, and Peter Townsend applies the Webbs’ methods to today’s global poverty. The book closes with a study guide, adverts for Fabian Society publications, an application form for joining the Society, and a direct debit form. This is all as it should be.

As Nick Bosanquet suggests, virtue wasn’t all on one side of the debate, but it is surely right to remind us of that debate and of its short- and long-term outcomes. One outcome for which we are still waiting, of course, is a Citizen’s Income.