The Liberal Reforms 1906-1911

The reforms implemented by the Liberal Government, between 1906 and 1911, are, in hindsight, seen as the first step towards an inclusive welfare system in Britain – a process that see a shift from ‘laissez-faire’ policies, towards a policy of increased state intervention. In this article, we will discuss many of these revolutionary acts, how they helped and how they perhaps, in some cases, did not go far enough.

The 1906 Free School Meals Act provided over 180,000 ‘needy’ children with free school meals in an effort to increase their concentration and learn more effectively. By 1914, over 14 million free school meals were being provided, despite only a half of local authorities at the time, ‘opting-in’ to this scheme’; this also highlights one significant drawback of the act. Though the Liberal government aimed to help all those who were in need, acts like this were not wholly inclusive. In this instance, many local authorities did not participate in enacting this legislation as it was a permissive act.

The 1907 School Medical Inspections Act ensured that health check-ups were compulsory for children attending school, and simultaneously setup the School Medical Service and established the medical department within the Board of Education. By 1914, three out of four local education authorities (LEAs) provided checks to school children; two out of three of these were also given treatment. Similarly, to the Free School Meals Act however, this act was not wholly inclusive and many children were not given treatment due to the fact that many simply could not afford such treatment – a point which would not be truly rectified until the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain in July 1948.

The 1908 Children’s Act (or Charter) sought to help children further by making parental neglect illegal whilst additionally making parents responsible for their child’s welfare. It also set up borstals and juvenile courts for young offenders and made it illegal for children to be sold alcohol or tobacco products. This act was not revolutionary however as the vast majority of the legislation was already in-place, and was merely re-written. Despite this, the act ensured the introduction of a minimum standard for children’s care and also allowed adults and children to be treated differently.

The 1908 Old Age Pensions Act also indicates the Liberal government’s desire to help people of all ages and backgrounds. It did this by providing a basic pension of five shillings a week for single people, and seven shillings and six pence a week for married couples (full payment was approximately £21-£31 a week). The pension was also paid out of general taxation and not by contributions that the recipients of the pensions gave. It was the first state-wide pension that provided a regular income for those who qualified, some examples of qualifying conditions including being over 70 and ‘of good character’. By 1915, approximately one million qualified for the state pension, with more women qualifying than men.

The 1909 Trade Boards Act introduced trade boards which sought to improve the working lives of employers and employees by introducing fixed minimum wages and setting minimum working conditions. The act initially covered 200,000 predominantly female workers in trades, such as tailoring and lace-making, where there were long hours, low wages and no trade unions. By 1913, this had been extended to six trade and included coal miners for the first time. The success of this act then led to a second act where further trade boards were set up.

The 1909 Labour Exchanges Act set up labour exchanges where workers could look for a job, and meet employers (and vice versa). By 1914, over two million workers had registered with 430 exchanges finding over 3,000 jobs a day. It was estimated however, that for every worker who found a job, three did not. It also failed to solve the unemployment issue at the time and merely made the job market easier to operate within.

The 1911 National Insurance (Unemployment) Act enabled workers to receive a weekly benefit if they became unemployed. This was done so by workers and employers in certain trades giving a weekly contribution to a national insurance fund that was topped-up by taxation. The act covered 2.25 million workers, and gave a weekly benefit of seven shillings a week for 15 weeks, enabling families to avoid destitution by giving them a regular income. One large drawback of this act however, was the fact that it only applied to ‘insured trades’, such as shipbuilding, where there was regular and/or seasonal unemployment. Workers in other trades were, therefore, not covered by the act and had so solely rely on their own savings.

The 1911 National Insurance (Sickness) Act paid a weekly benefit to workers if they fell ill. Similarly, to the aforementioned unemployment act, workers and employers contributed a weekly amount to a national fund that was topped-up by taxation. The act enabled a weekly benefit of 10 shillings a week for 13 weeks, with a further five shillings a week for a further 13 weeks; no benefit could be claimed however, after the 26 week (or six month) period. It also introduced maternity grants, disability benefits and made free medical treatment with an approved doctor available. The act, like many of the Liberal governments reforms however, was again not wholly inclusive as it only covered workers who earned below £160 per year, and only covered people aged between 16 and 60, which left a gap of 10 years before the old age pension could be claimed. It also only covered the contributor and not their family.

The 1911 Shops Act provided a weekly half-day holiday for workers and introduced a maximum working week, which was limited to 60 hours. The act also introduced washing facilities in shops. Though the maximum working week was limited, employers could potentially exploit a loophole that allowed them to make up the ‘lost time’ with longer hours on other days.

The 1908 and 1911 Coal Mines Acts fixed the length of a working day underground to eight hours. They also improved safety regulations, but, as is obvious, coal mining was still a dangerous occupation with long hours – especially as the time taken to get into the mines was unaccounted for – and low pay.

Download a PDF of this here