Harry Quelch August 1910

The Prevention of Destitution

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIV, No. 8, August 15, 1910, pp. 337-346, (3,185 words);
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The part of critic is seldom a grateful one, and to look a gift horse in the mouth is proverbially ungracious. Yet it frequently falls to our lot to criticise adversely proposals which meet with almost universal approbation, and to critically and unfavourably examine the good gifts which from time to time the master class in all benevolence prepare for the delectation of their too easily satisfied slaves.

This critical attitude has earned for us very considerable opprobrium. We are “captious” and “carping”; we manifest a “spirit of Pharisaism” and are “unable to find good in anything that does not emanate from ourselves”; we are “too narrow, too doctrinaire,” “blatant” and “conceited,” and all because we decline to shut our eyes and open our mouths and swallow blindly any old quack measure of reform which may be flung at us.

“We urge reform; when it comes, because it is not revolution, we sneer at it.” On the contrary, we do not sneer at it; we vigorously oppose it, not “because it is not revolution,” but because it is not the reform it pretends to be. That was the case with the so-called “Licensing Bill” of the present Government, which was not a licensing Bill at all, but a Bill for abolishing licences. We want temperance reform; but we don’t want the iniquitous, Puritanical reactionism of the “Licensing Bill.” Yet, because we did not cordially welcome a measure which included everything from which a measure of temperance reform should be free, and left everything out which should be included in such a measure, we were ill-conditioned, bibulous critics of a well-intentioned Liberal Government!

So, too, with other measures of “social reform.” For years we Social-Democrats agitated for Labour Exchanges. Yet when a beneficent Liberal Government establishes Labour Exchanges we can say nothing bad enough about them! What an ill-conditioned, cantankerous, Pharisaical lot we must be! Only these Labour Exchanges were just what we had not asked for—an excellent illustration of “how not to do it.” We wanted real “Labour” Exchanges—establishments which, while provided by public bodies, would be under the control of organised Labour; where Labour, and not Capital, would be the purveyor of its own commodity. The present Labour Exchanges are as grotesque a caricature of what we asked for as would be, say, a corn exchange run, not by farmers or corn dealers, but by corn porters! And so we might go on enumerating the many measures of so-called reform which it has been our duty as Social-Democrats to oppose and expose. The latest instance is the doubtless well-meaning report of the Minority of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law.

Because we Social-Democrats are profoundly dissatisfied with the present Poor Law and Poor Law administration, and because we have persistently and consistently agitated for drastic changes in the present system, it is assumed that we ought to jump at any proposed change—good, bad, or indifferent—without question or examination. Because the present system is bad, any change, it is assumed, should be enthusiastically welcomed; and because we do not share in the enthusiasm with which many of our friends are tumbling over each other to endorse the report and recommendations of the Minority of the Poor Law Commission we are an ill-conditioned set of carping, captious critics, who can find no good in anything—not even in the reforms for which we ourselves have clamoured.

In answer to our critics we can only say that in the present instance, as in so many others, the proposed changes are in almost diametrical opposition to those we have asked for; and we take leave to doubt if they have been even cursorily examined by the majority of those who have so hastily endorsed them.

Shortly, the recommendations of the Minority of the Commission, as, regards all at present receiving relief, except the able-bodied, are these: The Abolition of the Boards of Guardians, and the transfer of their functions to the County and County Borough Councils and their various committees. The substitution for the Poor Law Relieving Officer, and the Relief Committees of the Boards of Guardians, of a sort of glorified Relieving Officer, to be styled the “Registrar of Public Assistance.”

The duties to be entrusted to this official are many and varied, and his powers are correspondingly extensive. He is “to be charged with the threefold duty of:—

“(1) Keeping a Public Register of all cases in receipt of public assistance;

“(2) Assessing and recovering, according to the law of the land and the evidence as to sufficiency of ability to pay, whatever charges Parliament may decide to make for particular kinds of relief or treatment; and

“(3) Sanctioning the grants of Home Aliment proposed by the Committees concerned with the treatment of the case.”

In the plenary powers thus to be placed in the hands of a permanent official—for it is insisted that the appointment of “Registrar of Public Assistance” should be a permanent one—we see manifested that love of bureaucracy which is so mischievous a characteristic of the authors of this report and recommendation.

Moreover, this “Registrar of Public Assistance should have under his direction (and under the control of the General Purposes Committee of the County or County Borough Council) the necessary staff of Inquiry and Recovering Officers and a local Receiving House for the strictly temporary accommodation of non-able-bodied persons found in need, and not as yet dealt with by the committees concerned.”

This is nothing more nor less than a proposal to create a perfect hierarchy of bureaucracy. The present democratic “Destitution Authority,” the Board of Guardians, is to be abolished, and a new “Destitution Authority,” consisting solely of permanent officials, is to be set up in its place.

What advantage is to be gained by this change it is difficult to see; the disadvantages are obvious. The authors of this scheme, while paying frequent and eulogistic tributes to the Boards of Guardians, contend that they have failed to perform the functions allotted to them, and that these functions are of so extensive and varied a character that it is impossible for any single body to efficiently perform them. That, moreover, by reason of this multifarious character of their functions and duties, it is impossible to regard the Boards of Guardians as “ad hoc” bodies, and they find their work in each department constantly being overlapped by that of one or another of the various committees of the County or County Borough Council. Therefore the whole of the work should be transferred to these committees.

That is the argument; and if it could be shown that these various committees had performed the duties entrusted to them with exemplary efficiency there might be something to be said for that argument although even then it would be by no means unanswerable. But that is the last thing that could be claimed for them. No-one can deny that the administration of popular education has suffered through its transference from an ad hoc authority—the School Board—to a County or County Borough Committee; and this, although the scope and area of that administration has been enlarged. And the reason for this is not far to seek. The duty of an education authority is much too important to be relegated to a Council Committee, meeting behind closed doors, and not directly answerable to the electorate, but to a Council whose chief duties are the administration of public services bearing no relation whatever to education. Sanitation, lighting, the making and maintenance of roads, open spaces, and of tramways, the assessment of local taxation, and the administration of the various Acts relating to public health—all these afford sufficient scope, it might be supposed, for the most energetic and indefatigable of town or county councils, without extending the field of their energies into regions hitherto supposed to require the undivided attention of those engaged therein. Even if the energies of a council were not sufficiently engrossed by the various duties necessarily belonging to it, the relegation of the important work of education meant the overshadowing of that work by a multitude of other concerns and interests of vastly less importance individually; and to all intents and purposes, popular education is completely withdrawn from public control and supervision, and relegated to bureaucratic permanent officials or self-appointed voluntary busy-bodies.

No Councillor, it is assumed, can give equal attention to all matters coming under the control of the council, but must specialise on one or two. The various committees, therefore, are composed of those members who have given special attention to the particular subject in hand. That is all very well in the matters that are closely related with each other in municipal administration, and thus we have a Drainage Committee, a Works Committee, a Tramways Committee, a Parks Committee, a Watch Committee, a Finance Committee, and so on. But to pretend that education is on the same level with these co-related services is obviously absurd. Yet an Education Committee of a county or borough council has no more direct responsibility to the public than any other committee, and in an election educational questions are thrust into the background, and those of lighting, trams, roads, parks, and especially of rates, obscure all considerations of good schools and proper education for the children of the people.

Yet it is to this subordinate and obscure “Education Authority“ that it is proposed to hand over the care of the children at present under the charge of the Guardians. It is frequently said of the Guardians that they are rather guardians of the rates than of the poor. How much more is this likely to be the case with an Education Committee not directly responsible to the public for the care of the children, but only responsible to a council which will be much more concerned with saving the rates than saving the children? With its hundreds of unemployed teachers, its absurdly large and unwieldy classes, and its neglect to make anything like adequate provision for the necessitous children at present under its care—although it is only dealing with children who have parents who may naturally be supposed to be actively concerned with their welfare—we do not find our present Education Authority such a model as to tempt us to hand over to it the care of children towards whom the Guardians now stand in the relation of parents.

And this holds good in greater or less degree with regard to the other categories of persons towards whom—on account of their helplessness—the present “Destitution Authority” is supposed to perform the duty of “Guardian.” That duty may not now be properly performed, and the persons elected to perform it may not be the best for the task; but at any rate they are directly elected for that duty, and are directly responsible to the public for its performance. There is surely no reason to suppose that the duty will be more efficiently performed when relegated to an obscure committee, the members of which are, in most cases, unknown as such to the public; who have no direct responsibility to the public; who are answerable only to the Council; and whose proposals can have no effect, except when “sanctioned” by the god evolved out of the bureaucratic machine in the person of the permanent Registrar of Public Assistance.

So far the proposals of the Minority of the Commission deal only with the treatment of destitution. Their aim, however, is much more ambitious. They claim to have evolved a scheme to abolish destitution, and have even formulated and presented to Parliament a Bill grandiloquently described as “a Bill to Provide for the more Effectual Prevention of Destitution.” So far as the proposals for dealing with all save the able-bodied are concerned, however, the prevention of destitution would appear to consist at nothing but a change of names, a shifting of responsibility, and a readjustment of machinery. Poor Law Guardians are to be abolished; the Poor Law is to be swept away, and the Poor Rate is to be abrogated, But all this will not prevent destitution, nor abolish its fertile parent—poverty. We do not get rid of things by changing their names; and there will be just as many destitute, sick, diseased, and aged and indigent men and women, and just as many poor, underfed, orphan, deserted and destitute children—though we abolish the Poor Law—and just as many persons requiring relief, though the Poor Rate be no longer levied and we no longer speak of Outdoor Relief, but call it “Home Aliment” instead.

It is, however, to the second part of their scheme, that dealing with the able-bodied, that the authors look to prevent destitution. In its proposals for the abolition of child labour, the reduction of that of young persons, and the limitation of that of adults, the Minority Report will receive the hearty endorsement of every Social-Democrat. So, too, with the proposal of a State subsidy for the out-of-work funds of trade unions. In this connection, however, it may be remarked, in passing, that this proposal has not, so far, found much favour among trade unionists themselves. That is a point worth noting, as the endorsement of the Minority Report in general by various Labour organisations is urged as evidence of its soundness, and as a reason why we should swallow it without question.

So much for the good points. When, however, we come to examine the general proposals for dealing with the unemployed question, the real cause of able-bodied pauperism, they will be found to be either inadequate or mischievous, and generally both. The Report and the Bill framed upon it appear to be based on the assumption that, as a rule, there is somewhere a vacancy for every unemployed man, provided only that he has been properly trained. Therefore, the remedy for unemployment, the abolition of able-bodied pauperism, and the prevention of destitution arising from unemployment is simply a matter of adjustment.

Here there is no Socialistic nonsense about unemployment being inherent in the capitalist system; no fantastic economic heresy that poverty is caused by the exploitation of the unpaid labour of the proletariat; that such poverty grows with the development of that exploitation; and that destitution is only an aggravated and inevitable form of that poverty. Not at all. The authors of this Report are practical politicians, who suffer from no delusion that surplus-value comes from unpaid labour. They understand, if no one else does, that surplus-value is made in exchange; and that the increasing productivity of the working-class, instead of increasing the precariousness and decreasing the chances of employment, really increases the demand for commodities and the area of employment. It is, therefore, not a question of organising the labour of the unemployed on useful, productive, self-supporting work, independent of the capitalist labour market. The unemployed question can be solved inside the capitalist system; by the appointment of a Minister of Labour at Five Thousand a year, with comfortable appointments for an unlimited number of subordinate bureaucrats, whose duty it is to be to collect or to disperse labour just as the demands of the capitalist labour market require its concentration or distribution. This collection or dispersal of labour is to be effected by means of a net-work of Labour Exchanges which are to draft men hither and thither as the requirements of the capitalist labour market demand. Among other functions the National Labour Exchange and its branches and local committees are to “ascertain what demands are occurring or likely to occur for particular kinds of labour, and to afford facilities to enable persons to keep in continuous employment by informing them in advance of such demands for labour,” and “to secure by the dovetailing of occupations as far as possible continuous employment throughout the year for all persons employed.”

Where the assiduous efforts of the Exchanges in giving information, or in “dovetailing occupations,” fail to discover an opening for an unemployed man, he may, unless the Minister for Labour decides to send him out of the country as an emigrant, be provided with maintenance in a training establishment. It is quite clear that if there is no opening in capitalist employ for such a man it can only be because he has not been sufficiently “trained,” and so he must go into training, “physical and mental, including technological,” until he is really fit to fill the vacancy which, heretofore, neither he nor the Labour Exchanges have been able to discover.

For any man who gets sick of repeated “training” and prefers to shift for himself, or who refuses to accept any employment offered him by the Labour Exchanges, or in any other fashion manifests the characteristics of a “work-shy” or vagabond, a short and simple method of treatment is to be provided by the Minister for Labour in the shape of a “Detention Colony,” to which he “may be committed by a court of summary jurisdiction” “for any period not exceeding twelve months.”

This provision, of course, like all the others, only applies to the poor. The wealthy “work-shy,” who “has habitually failed to work according to his ability,” is not in the least degree affected by it.

Information and “dovetailing” by the Labour Exchanges, coupled with the insurance funds of the trade unions, and the salutary influence of “training establishments” and “detention colonies,” it appears, are expected to suffice to suppress unemployment, or at least, to deter the unemployed from daring to become destitute under normal conditions. For periods of exceptional slackness a further provision is to be made, in the shape of Governmental works and services, which are to be estimated for each year but which can be deferred to provide employment on the occasion of such exceptional depression.

It is really extraordinary that anyone having the most superficial knowledge of unemployment and its causes should seriously put forward such proposals. It is still more extraordinary that we Social-Democrats, who were the first to call attention to the growing seriousness of unemployment, and who have for some five-and-twenty years been pointing the way along which alone any solution can be found, should be taken to task for not endorsing these naive, inadequate and mischievous proposals. These proposals are certainly neither Socialism nor Socialistic. They are bureaucratic and coercive, and give every occasion for blaspheming to the enemies who say that bureaucracy and coercion and Socialism are convertible terms. The Social-Democratic proposals for dealing with the unemployed have been published over and over again, and they may be set out at length in a future article. They do not consist of penal “Detention Colonies,” nor schemes for the maintenance of a wage-slave class, or for increasing the “fluidity” and “mobility” of labour in the interests of the master class. These latter proposals naturally emanate from bureaucrats and experts, but they merit the opposition, not the support, of all Socialists and Democrats.