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Social Policy in the UK

Social policy refers to procedures taken to ensure that the masses access certain public goods. Historically social policy in the UK has been established and managed by the central government. It is only in the early 20th century that local governments started participating in social policy programs in their jurisdictions. On the other hand, the private sector had been important in the provision of social services despite being overcrowded by subsequent government programs. Among the most popular and long-lasting social policies in the UK are the Poor Laws that were established in 1598 and abolished in 1948, meaning that they were in operation for three and a half centuries. This essay shall highlight various aspects of the Poor Laws throughout the period. The four aspects of Poor Law that would be explained include their ideological origins, aims, nature, and effects of the laws among the poor and British society in general. Each aspect would be addressed in its section.

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Ideological Origins

The ideological origins of the laws are based on three key foundations. First, the laws were based on-premise the foundation that the country had a large section of poor people that could not afford to end the poverty they were facing. According to (Paul (2004) the state was obliged to develop ways and means of helping the unfortunate people in the society. Therefore in 1598 under Queen Elizabeth, it was passed that the poor would be receiving some help from authorities. Later in 1601, an act establishing the poor was passed. This act was the first serious attempt by the state to embark on processes of helping the poor in their daily life struggles. The second ideological foundation was that the state was better placed to help the poor compared to individuals and churches. According to Townsend (Cole 2004), the country had had various citizen initiatives directed at helping the unfortunate people in their respective neighborhoods. Church parishes had also established help mechanisms directed at helping the poor. Despite these initiatives by churches and private citizens, the state had done little to develop its mechanisms. The introduction of the Poor Laws was therefore state’s initial contribution to addressing poverty issues in the country. The third ideological foundation for the enactment of the Poor Laws was that the industrial revolution, which started during the height of the laws, was only benefiting the well-to-do citizen classes while confining the poor deep into poverty (Paul 2004). The state, therefore, saw it fit to establish ways of cushioning the poor from the effects of the revolution. The state achieved embarked on achieving this through the establishment of workhorses (to be discussed later in the paper). The Poor Laws were therefore directed helping the poor in respective communities to access help provided by the state. However, the laws were established with little contribution from the poor, who were the target, as well as the populace, whose tax money was to be used in the financing processes. In addition, the church and citizen groups that had been vital in helping the poor before the arrival of the laws were not asked for respective inputs. This left legislature and government employees as the main decision-makers in that process. Being the originators provided politicians and bureaucrats with a free hand on ways of running the systems. The downside of this approach was that the society lacked opportunities to participate in the program, meaning that inefficiencies went unchecked (Morrison 2005). Also given that a larger proportion of Britain’s proportion was poor left the well-to-do class that was not affected by the laws to push for better management from the overseers of relief appointed by the state.


To meet their intended goals, poor laws were targeted at identifying the poor people in respective localities (Reid 2006). This was meant to understand the neediest people in the society and therefore help government agencies to develop ways and means of meeting their needs. Classes of the poor in the country were established and the necessary measures were taken. When this happened, the poorest ones were to be provided with more necessities than their counterparts facing fewer life challenges. For instance, orphans, widows, the elderly, and the sick were to be accorded more care compared more help compared to their colleagues.

The second aim of the Poor Laws was to establish government agencies to help people with their daily struggles. These individuals were referred to as relief overseers (Morrison 2005). These individuals were to be located closer to places where the poor were located. Having the overseers of relief being located close to the people who need their help most was thought to be the best measure of understanding the poor’s needs. In addition, the poor were thought to be placed in a better position of expressing their needs to the overseers of relief, who would then forward the grievances to authorities involved with distributing relief to the masses.

Third, the poor laws were targeted at putting the poor people to work, which meant providing them with job opportunities. To ensure that poor people in communities were provided with work opportunities, authorities established what to be called workhouses (Reid 2006). These workhouses were established in virtually all the neighborhoods in the country, to meet the work needs of the masses. Each of the workhouses was meant to provide certain services or production of specific goods. In this regard, the masses were provided with ways and means of earning their living. The state expected to stray away from paternalism that could have developed in the process of helping the masses. Rather than having the poor seat and wait for relief from the state, the state intended to have them work and earn their living. But as it happened in later years, workhouses became places of breeding poverty other than helping end it. The intensity of poverty in various workhouses was one of the reasons that the Poor Laws in England were abolished in the early 20th century—they were replaced by the current insurance programs. The failure of the workhouses to end poverty originated from the entry of the industrial revolution in production processes (Brundage 2007). Due to the industrial revolution, private producers of goods and service providers became more efficient in their respective processes. On their part, workhouses continued to be less efficient in performing their designated services. They, therefore, became expensive ventures for the state to maintain. The quality of goods and services produced by the workhouses was also of lower quality compared to those from the private sector. This meant that workhouse products were quickly out-competed from the market. The overseers of relief (mentioned above) were the ones responsible for running the workhouses, though directives came straight from state officials.

The fourth aim of Poor Laws was to put the needy children into apprentice shops so they can learn skills important for their future (MacKinnon 2006). Overseers of relief in workhouses were tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that the talented kids in their jurisdictions were matched with people who can help them achieve their trade. Some children were also provided with apprentice opportunities in the workhouses that housed them. In this regard, it became possible for the children to learn skills that would be used in other industries as the country was experiencing robust economic production during the height of the industrial revolutions. However, the workhouses stand accused of being too controlling over the children. Most of them were forced into a harsh apprenticeship in the workhouses, some of which were more of punishment and forced labor.


To achieve efficiency in achieving the set goals and helping the poor overcome their life challenges, the poor in the United Kingdom were divided into three groups: impotent poor, able-bodied poor, and vagrants (Cole 2004). The three groups will hereby discuss this in detail. The impotent poor included those in the community that was completely destitute. These groups were said to complete need help because of their situations. Individuals in the group were also said to have experienced generational poverty. It was, therefore, feared that a lack of addressing their plight would lead to their next generation. Some of the people included in this group were orphaned children that were housed in the workhouses and some with the apprentices, the elderly, and the sick that were placed under the care of overseers of relief. This group became the most important cluster in the attempt to end poverty in the country.

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The second group was termed as the able-bodied poor and included those who were not able to find work placements and those suffering from short-term employment. These persons were therefore placed with the workhouses and provided with the necessary work to ensure that they improved their lives. This means re was supposed to be a short-term approach for this class of individuals. However, it became a long-term solution for some persons as they became completely hooked to the system. Overseers of relief on relief were also not ready to let these individuals leave to other occupations, especially private establishments. These overseers of relief were seeing the exit of people from workhouses to private establishments as a loss to the state, the reason being that it was the state which had trained and instilled important skills. It was therefore necessary for the individuals to working for state establishments for payback. This was, however, crashing with the interests of the people in workhouses because they wanted to help themselves by joining the private sector. However, some workhouses embarked on assisting needy individuals to join the private sector. Such workhouses were therefore less affected by the negative consequences of holding people captive. Individuals housed in such workhouses successfully entered the labor force in the private sector and gradually succeeded in living better lives. The height of the industrial revolution was especially the period that benefited such individuals most because their services were needed by the producers.

The third group was referred to as vagrants and beggars and was also called the idle poor (Brundage 2007). The state saw it fit to help the individuals deal with their life challenges or else they would turn into criminals that would be terrorizing other citizens. In this sense, the state tried to both end poverty among this group, as well as take the preventative measure of avoiding chaos and crime in the society. Rather than taking them to workhouses with other poor people, the state chose to book them into correctional centers. In the correctional centers, these individuals were provided with work and received some meager earnings that could be used after leaving their respective facilities. Society expected these individuals to learn some skills that would be used to improve their lives after leaving the facilities. The state saw it fit to provide this group of the poor with employment because they could not be employed by other nonstate enterprises (Brundage & David 2004). This was done in consideration that employers would have locked their doors against those people regarded as criminals. The others would have received harsh treatment in marketplaces, especially when they performed acts not consistent with societal expectations.


The Poor Laws resulted in the establishment of the poor in society and the respective separation of thereof from the rest of the society (Boyer 2005). The establishment of workhouses, sometimes different to as “poor houses” resulted in the view that for prosperity to occur among the poor and the larger society, the poor had to be separated. This was an ill-advised move because it assumed that the poor cannot prosper while mixing with the rest of the society. This separation of the class had not existed before in the United Kingdom. Given that only the leadership was involved in the process of establishing and overseeing this social policy, the rest of the society felt neglected. However, the most destructive effect of this social policy was the reduction of help from the church and citizen initiatives (Brundage & David 2004). Indeed, entry of the state in the welfare of the poor resulted in the view that former helpers had no business in continuing with their gratitudes. The state had done little to commend or recognize the efforts made by these individuals and other organizations. According to Blaug (2007), the introduction of this social policy resulted in a gradual decline of private initiatives in helping the poor. This was especially necessitated by the collection of the poor into the workhouses, which help organizations were not provided the access to the poor as they had done before. The lack of access, therefore, meant that fewer needy persons were to continue receiving help from private groups other than the state.

The sad consequences of Poor Laws in the UK show that the state was ill-advised in implementing them in the first place. Their replacement by other measures was also a step towards helping people in the society to escape life’s torments. Though they were directed at helping the poor, the laws seem to have confined people more into poverty.


Blaug, M 2007, ‘Old an new poor law’. Economic History, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 175-180.

Boyer, G. 2005, ‘Economic role of the English poor law’, Economic History, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 453.

Brundage, A. & David E. 2004, New poor law Redivivus. Past and Present 127, 183-194.

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Brundage, A. & David E. 2004, New poor law Redivivus. Past and Present 127, 183-194.

Cole, J. 2004, ‘Down poorhouse Lane. Rochdale Workhouse diary.’ George Kelsall, Littleborough.

MacKinnon, M 2006, ‘Poverty and policy: English Poor Law, 1860-1910.’ Economic History vol. 46, no. 2 pp. 500-502.

Morrison, K. 2005, ‘Study of poor law buildings in England’. English Heritage, Swindon.

Paul, S. 2004, ‘The English poor law, 1531 – 1782’. Cambridge University, Cambridge.

Reid. A. 2006, ‘The union workhouse. Teachers & Historians study guide’. BA LL, Chichester.

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