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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Romany family in England, taken from Our Waifs and Strays magazine from December 1902

Romany family in England, taken from Our Waifs and Strays magazine from December 1902

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The boundaries of welfare

David Feldman, Birkbeck College, University of London

In the early years of the twenty-first century the impact of immigrants on the welfare state and, specifically, the capacity of the welfare state to absorb large numbers of immigrants has become a staple of discussion among policy makers and politicians. It is also a recurrent theme in the press, from the highbrow pages of Prospect to the populism of the Daily Mail. (1) Inevitably, these discussions focus on present-day dilemmas. But the issues themselves are not new and have historical roots that go much deeper than have been acknowledged.

When it comes to migration, however, the relationship between past and present has been obscured by the tendency of historians and social scientists to discuss immigration and internal migration as if they occupied incomparable realms of experience and presented distinct problems of understanding. But, at the very least, this is not always correct. As the powers of local and central government have shifted over time so too has the significance of their boundaries; sometimes in past centuries internal migrants have crossed boundaries that have been as significant as those traversed by immigrants in the present. Specifically, internal migrants in England under both the Old and the New Poor Law posed local authorities problems that were structurally similar to those presented to central government by international migrants in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

From the Elizabethan Poor Law to the reforms of the early nineteenth century, the English welfare system was both administered and financed by the civil parish – by overseers of the poor and by the poor rate. (The whole system was overseen by the courts; by justices of the peace, by quarter sessions and ultimately by the Court of King's Bench). When internal migrants crossed a parish boundary, therefore, they passed from one jurisdiction to another. This was no small matter because England was a highly mobile society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a world in which most people died in a parish other than the one in which they were born. (2)

People could move more freely than their entitlement to welfare. The combination of endemic mobility and chronic poverty inevitably gave rise to the question of which parish was responsible for poor migrants when they fell in need of the poor law. These questions were resolved by the law of settlement. This was a complex collection of statutes and precedents that were given formal expression in an Act of 1662. (3) The statute was not definitive, however. It was supplemented both by further legislation and by a huge and complex body of case law. Two provisions constituted the kernel of the law. First, anyone able to rent a tenement for 10 per annum was exempt from its provisions and, second, anyone who did not meet this criterion had to reside in a parish for forty days without objection if they were to gain a 'settlement'. A settlement would entitle migrants to poor relief in the parish in which they lived. In addition, there were other routes for men and women to gain a settlement; for example, by being bound to an indentured apprenticeship, for example, by being hired into service for a year and fulfilling that time, and, for a woman, by marriage. However, these provisions were all conceived as exceptions to the basic rule. The fundamental purpose of the law was to prevent poor migrants from acquiring a settlement and to sanction their removal. Migrants who stood in need of poor relief but who had not gained a settlement could, with the warrant of a justice of the peace, be sent away to their last parish of legal settlement. Indeed, before 1795 it was possible to expel 'strangers' merely on suspicion that at some time in the future they would apply for poor relief. (4)

The logic of this system was set by the parochial basis of poor relief. William Hay exaggerated but also grasped the underlying principle when in 1735 he observed, 'Every parish is in a state of expensive war with the rest of the nation, regards the poor of all other places as aliens and cares not what becomes of them if it can banish them from its own society'. Faced with a mobile population, parishes were eager not to become a resting place for indigent migrants. (5) Equally, the law provided overseers with a means of minimising the effects of economic fluctuations on ratepayers. Writing about Warwickshire in 1794, John Wedge noted 'A vast number of those who are employed in manufacturing towns are parishioners of different villages... and whenever infirmity, age or check in trade happens, these men... are sent for subsistence to their respective parishes'. (6)

In fact, these purges of the migrant poor were not the only course of action available to local officials. In particular, by the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries many parishes allowed non-resident relief. In other words a migrant's home parish would send money to relieve a pauper who would not then be forced to return 'home'. There was also a good deal of local discretion. In 1802-3 there were nearly 200,000 individuals being relieved by parishes to which they did not belong. (7) Nevertheless, the law of settlement placed the migrant poor in a particularly vulnerable and uncertain position. Parishes that had once been indulgent might change their attitudes as the state of the economy shifted or a new overseer of the poor was elected to office. From the 1846, as we shall see, the force of the law of settlement was greatly diminished. By 1864 36 per cent of all poor relief expenditure went on the 'irremoveable poor' – on paupers who, on account of recent reforms, could not be sent away even though their settlement was not where they lived. (8) It is almost double the figure for non-resident relief in 1802-3 and it is one rough and ready index of the level of disentitlement arising from the law of settlement before 1846.

The law of settlement was subject to mounting criticism from the eighteenth century but it was only after the creation in 1834 of a centralised poor law bureaucracy that this current of opinion became an effective force for reform. In 1846 the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, introduced legislation that gave rise to the Poor Removal Act. Now anyone who had been living in a parish for five years but had not gained a settlement could not be removed. Further acts in 1861 and 1865 reduced the term before irremoveability took effect from five years to one year, and extended the unit for irremoveability from the single parish to the considerably larger unit of the poor law union. The result was that removal became dramatically less frequent. In 1867-8 there were only 8,351 removals in England and Wales. In one sense, therefore the intervention of central government led to an improvement in the entitlements of the migrant poor. (9) Changes in the law of settlement meant that the boundaries crossed by internal migrants became less significant.

The creation of the poor law commission saw central government take a new level of administrative responsibility for welfare. Increasingly, in the twentieth century, this was matched by growing fiscal responsibility. Of course, where central government took responsibility for welfare the definition of who was an outsider changed. Migrants who crossed internal boundaries were no longer a source of difficulty. The problem of the stranger was now the problem of the immigrant. This became immediately apparent with the introduction of old age pensions in 1908. In this case both aliens and the British wives of aliens were declared ineligible. However, three years later aliens were included within the new scheme for national health insurance and were eligible to receive the state's 2d per week contribution, so long as they had been in the country for five years. This new pattern continued into the inter-war years as contributory old age pensions, unemployment insurance and unemployment assistance outside of the poor laws were all introduced and were all extended to immigrants. (10) The boundaries of entitlement to some central features of the welfare state introduced after the Second World War were similarly porous. The national Insurance Act of 1948 stated explicitly that it made 'no distinction on grounds of nationality', for Aneuran Bevan the free treatment of all comers within the National Health Service was a vigorously defended point of principle, and supplementary benefit, introduced in 1966, was available to anyone in Great Britain, regardless of the amount of time they had spent in the country. (11) In contrast, it was where welfare remained the administrative and, to a considerable extent, the fiscal responsibility of local government that the entitlements of immigrants were brought into question. In the 1930s Irish immigrants were targeted by some overburdened local authorities and, most notably, in the post-war local authorities prevented new immigrants from gaining access to council housing by operating a residence requirement. (12)

What this history suggests is that it is too simple to argue immigrants present problems for welfare systems. It is clear that we need to distinguish between different sorts of welfare systems. In particular, we have drawn attention to differences between systems which are funded and administered locally and nationally and also between systems that are based on contributions and others that are based on means testing. It is national systems and ones based on the insurance principle that historically have proven least controversial and most open to immigrants.

  1. David Goodhart, 'How many more immigrants can Britain take', Daily Mail 22 August 2006; 'Too diverse', Prospect, February 2004 Back to (1)
  2. P. Clark and D. Souden ed., Migration and Society in Early-Modern England (1987) Back to (2)
  3. 13&14 Car.II, cap.12 Back to (3)
  4. 1 Jac. II, cap.17; 3&4 Will. And M., cap11. R. Burns, Justice of the Peace and the Parish Officer (4th ed, 1780); J.S. Taylor,'The impact of pauper settlement, 1691-1834', Past and Present, 42 (1976), 42-74 Back to (4)
  5. A Member of Parliament, Remarks on the Laws Relating to the Poor, cited in Parliamentary Papers [PP] 1851 xxvi, Report on the Law of Settlement and Removal, 296; N. Landau, 'The Laws of settlement and the surveillance of immigration in eighteenth-century Kent', Continuity and Change, 3 (1988), 391-420; N. Landau, 'The regulation of migration, economic structures and definitions of the poor in eighteenth-century England', Historical Journal, 33 (1990), 541-71 Back to (5)
  6. Cited in A.W. Ashby, One Hundred Years of Poor Law Administration in a Warwickshire Village (Oxford, 1912), pp. iii, 67 Back to (6)
  7. PP 1803-4 xiii, Abstract of Answers and Returns... Relative to the Expense and Maintenance of the Poor in England, 715 Back to (7)
  8. PP 1865 xlviii, Poor Relief, 199 Back to (8)
  9. M. Rose, 'Settlement, removal and the new poor law', in D. Fraser ed., The New Poor Law in the Nineteenth Century (1976), pp. 25-43. The optimistic assessment above has to be qualified by an appreciation of the downward pressure on levels of poor relief. See P. Lindert, 'Poor relief before the welfare state: England versus the continent, 1780-1880', European Review of Economic History, 2 (1998), 114 Back to (9)
  10. D. Feldman, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture,1840-1914 (1994), pp. 370-8; 15&16 Geo V, cap 70; PP 1924 xv, Unemployment Insurance Directions to Local Employment Committees Regarding Grant of Uncovenanted Benefit; 24 & 25 Geo. V. Cap.29. Back to (10)
  11. PP 1947-8 iv, National Assistance Bill, 156; A. Bevan, In Place of Fear (1952), p. 81; 1969-70 xv, Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, 380-4. Back to (11)
  12. S. Glynn, 'Irish immigration to Britain, 1911-51', Irish Economic and Social History (1981), 63 Back to (12)

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