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The British Welfare System Essay


This paper is, for the most part, analysis and evaluation of the social welfare system in Britain. It will begin with a study of the history of the system and later delve into a discussion of the various theories that inform social welfare. It will then progress into focusing on the two most relevant theories to the system in Britain. Furthermore, it will seek to assess the impact of the social welfare system in Britain.

Finally, the paper will conclude with an examination as to whether or not there are health inequalities in the country. It will conduct the examination by comparing the current situation with the various theories which have been used to explain health disparities. In a nutshell, therefore, this paper is a study of how the social welfare system has impacted the quality of life of the citizens in the country and, more specifically, if it has had any positive implications of the problem of inequality between the classes.

Report Findings

Evaluation of the Nature of British State Welfare Provision

Poor Laws

British welfare provisions have their root in the Act for the relief of the poor, which was enacted in 1601. This was a law whose tentacles extended to almost every facet of Victorian life and labour (Englander 2013). The laws came about as a result of the liberal reforms 1601-1914. These reforms were a watershed occurrence because they marked the departure by the government of their laissez-faire approach to governance, which provided that the government should not interfere in matters of social life (Rowntree, n.d.).

For example, the poor laws now regulated employment, housing, marriage, education, migration, and charity, which were matters that touched closely on the social lives of the subjects. The new approach taken by the government was a collectivist approach whereby the government sought to accept responsibility for those sections of the society that were worse off and could not provide for themselves (Rowntree, n.d.).

These laws also carried a lot of social and political significance in that they described and regulated the relations between the rich and the have-nots and furthermore provided a lot of controversial issues that fueled the politics of the day (Englander 2013). The poor laws were developed at a time when England was going through a widespread and dreadful economic depression. They were, therefore, enacted to secure order and also to ensure that the general good of the kingdom was maintained.

They remained in force for over two centuries, with minor changes being made from time to time. The laws identified three categories of people that were considered as dependents, namely; the vagrant, involuntarily employed and the helpless (Hansan 2011). The purpose of these laws was to provide clear guidelines on how each category of dependents would be dealt with.

Before the coming into force of the poor laws, the poor in the society majorly received help from Christian charities which were set up by either churches or monasteries (Spicker 2014). The institutional framework that was put in place by the new legislation to secure the welfare of the poor was the local government which was also known as the parish. They were empowered to raise taxes to establish almshouses for the dependents (Hansan 2011).

Parents were also required by law to maintain their children and grandchildren, and the reverse was also required where the parents were unemployed and therefore dependents. Those children whose parents could not support them were committed into forced apprenticeships and also, any able bodied persons or vagrants who refused to work were either fined of committed in a correctional house (Hansan 2011).

The Beveridge report, which was authored and presented by Sir William Beveridge in 1942, is considered the blueprint for the modern welfare state. It led to the establishment of a social security system and also, a National Health system at the close of the Second World War. In a nutshell, it required that all working persons should pay a weekly fee to the state which would then be used to provide welfare services to the sick, unemployed, widowed and retired. Ideally, this new system aimed to provide for a minimum standard of living below which no person in the state would fall (The National Archives, n.d.).

From this history, it can be gleaned that the main benefits of the poor laws were to provide for the needy in a society which task was later adopted by the current state welfare provisions regarding social security. Although the idea behind the laws was noble, some commentators argue that the result was not all positive, especially because the workhouses began to be regarded by the poor as prisons. Fear of being condemned into the workhouses, in fact, led to numerous riots in the period during which the laws were in force.

Theories of Welfare

Social Democratic Theory

Its most striking claim is that the material interests of the different classes which make up the society are the fuel for both the opposition and the support that drives the welfare state (Mau & Veghte 2007). It mainly focuses on the classes as the primary drivers of the social welfare state with their varied interests being voiced politically through the right and left wing parties.

The Institutional Model of Welfare

This model of well-being is premised on the assumption that welfare provision is a normal and natural function of the modern industrial society. This theory, moreover, provides that it is the duty of the state to provide a reasonable standard of living for all its citizens (Harris 2000).

Marxist Theory

This theory asserts that there can be no welfare in a capitalist state (Roos 1973). Marx, who is the originator of this theory, focuses on the society as being divided into the owners of capital and the proletariat who act as their workers. With regards to welfare, he avers that the proletariat is deprived of actual needs and not just their realization (Roos 1973).

Feminist Theory

Feminist argument contends that all political and economic power is in the hands of men and therefore, that the welfare and health system of a state reflects the interests of men without due consideration to those of women. They further assert that the mainstream social welfare system is deficient because it is gender blind as it makes no room for the different experiences of men and women as players in the state.

The Market Liberal Theory

Liberals operate with the conviction that the state has no right to interfere with their personal choices. They usually divide the state into the private and public sphere and limit the government’s sphere of influence within the public domain. According to the liberals, therefore, the government has no power to reorder the private sphere of the citizens through the provision of welfare.

This paper will, however, focus on the social democratic and the institutional model theories as the most relevant to the British welfare system. The social democratic theory recognizes and acknowledges the presence of classes within a society. It is the varying interests of these classes which influence the politics of the day and the welfare system. This is more so true in Britain, where the politics are influenced by the interests of the labour and conservative parties.

Also, the institutional model of welfare is relevant because it asserts that the government has a major role to play in the welfare system of a state. In essence, the government is not only limited to operate in the public sphere, but it has a direct bearing on the private social lives of its citizens. This is a reflection of the goals that were set out under the Beveridge report, which provided that it is the duty of the state to ensure a minimum standard of life for all its citizens. This theory is therefore indicative of the system of welfare in Britain because it informs the decision of the state to interfere in the lives of its citizens to ensure that all of them achieve a quality of life that does not fall below a certain minimum requirement.

The Impact of the British Welfare System on Class Inequalities

The main inequalities in society are those that relate to disparities in income and wealth, gender, and race (Spicker 2014). All welfare is usually redistributive in the sense that the people that receive the benefits of welfare are not normally the ones that pay for them. Recently, the welfare system has fallen out of favour with the British public. But the negative review of the system is not only recent but has subsisted for a long time (Baumberg 2012).

Some authors assert that the British welfare system failed to address the class inequality problem because that was not the intention of its adoption in the first place (History in Focus, n.d.). Their argument is that the social welfare system was premised on the assumption that all the citizens would be employed, and all those that could work as a result of sickness or retirement or any other legitimate reason would receive a basic, minimum income.

Moreover, the welfare system has significantly reduced the gap between the highest and the lowest income even though it has not succeeded in bridging the gap between the rich and the have-nots (History in Focus, n.d). Other authors assert that the welfare system has failed in that some people have benefited very little from it while others argue that the inequalities have been made worse and more deeply entrenched (Calder & Gass 2012).

Part of the reason why the welfare system has failed to eliminate disparities is because of the general perception that the public has of it. Statistics show that 66% of Britons believe that the welfare system makes the recipients lazy (Baumberg 2012). This therefore goes to show that those that contribute towards the maintenance of the system may be jaundiced against those that are receiving its benefits. Furthermore, if this belief is true, then the income inequality can never be done away with because those that receive the welfare will never have the impetus to bridge the gap.

From the above discussion, it is evident that the British welfare system may not have ultimately achieved the purpose for which it was set up. However, this assertion is only true depending on the angle from which you view it. If its purpose was to bridge inequality, then it may be regarded as having failed, but as has been shown, some critics state that it has not failed at all because the intention of the welfare system was not to eradicate inequality but rather, to secure a minimum standard of life for every citizen.

Health Inequalities

Health inequalities are taken to mean the unjustifiable differences in health between the different groups that make up a society. Various theories attempt to explain health disparities. They include (Socialist Health Association 1980):

Artefact theory

Here, both health and class are treated as artefacts in the measurement process. The theory goes further to explain that the manner in which these inequalities present themselves in the 20th century may be a mirror of the changes in the structure of occupations in Britain and not of the connection between economic stability and health. The new entrants in the labour force will more often than not opt for the new job opportunities and therefore it may be that those who account for ill health are the people that choose to remain in trades that have poor medical records.

Natural and Social Selection theory

In this theory, the structure of occupational classes is viewed as some filter that selects people by health i.e., agility, physical strength, and vigour. The Register General’s class I is, therefore, considered to record the least numbers of premature death because it has the most physically fit while class V consists of the poorest in health. Mostly, poor health also carries a poor economic reward. It is, therefore, used to explain why people with diseases often live very short lives.

Materialist or Structural Theory

This uses economic and other social considerations to account for the distribution of standards of well-being in the society. This theory focuses on the direct influence that different poverty levels have on the varying rates of mortality. It leads to the question of whether the materially endowed have managed to maintain their health at the expense of the economically deprived.

In Britain, research shows that it is the poorest people who suffer the worst health. The reason for this has been posited to be the fact that there also exists a wide disparity in socioeconomic conditions between the various groups in the society (Pickett & Wilkinson 2013).

Furthermore, it has been argued that this gulf is only widening in the last thirty years, despite the existence of the social welfare system. Ideally, the argument is that those who are wealthy, powerful and economically stable can protect their health while the poorer percentage of the society cannot. The assumption, therefore, is that the only way that the social gradient in health will be reduced is by also reducing the difference in income and wealth.

The Register General’s Social Classes were introduced in 1913, and consisted of five classes as follows:

  1. Professional Occupations
  2. Managerial and Technical Occupations
  3. Skilled and Non-manual occupations
  4. Skilled manual occupations
  5. Unskilled occupations

The theories explained above, therefore, aim to explain the health inequalities between the members of class I and those of class V. These two categories represent the two ends of the spectrum and are therefore most appropriate to describe those who are economically stable and those who are not respectively. Extrapolating from these findings the situation in Britain is, therefore, such that the economic disparity between these two classes is increasing thus leading to a proportionate increase in health inequalities.


It is evident from the above research that the social welfare system in Britain has been of great importance as it has influenced every sphere of life since its inception in the 15th century. The introduction of social welfare was a landmark in the history of Britain as it marked the government’s decision to move beyond the public sphere to regulate the private lives of its citizens. Furthermore, this paper has also shown that the social welfare system has played a critical role in the politics of the country and still continues to do so.

However, some concerning findings include the fact that despite the welfare system which has been in place for a long time, the inequalities in Britain only continue to increase. This is more so in the economic and income sectors, and the direct result of these variations is disparities in the standards of health between the different groups that form the British Society. The conclusion that can be drawn, therefore, is that the social welfare system has failed to solve the inequality problem in Britain, and it will take a new strategy or the adoption of different policies if this issue is to be solved.

Reference List

Baumberg, B 2012, ‘’, Inequalities. Web.

Calder, G & Gass, J 2012, Changing directions of the British welfare state, University of Wales Press, Wales.

Englander, D 2013, Poverty and poor law reform in nineteenth-century Britain, 1834-1914: From Chadwick to Booth, Routledge, New York, NY.

Hansan, JE 2011, . Web.

Harris, NS 2000, Social security law in context, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

History in Focus. n.d., . Web.

Mau, S & Veghte, B 2007, Social justice, legitimacy and the welfare state, Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire.

Picket, K & Wilkinson, R 2013, ‘Health inequality is blighting the UK’, Independent. Web.

Roos, JP 1973. Welfare theory and social policy: a study in policy science, Roos Helsinki, Japan.

Rowntree, S n.d., ‘Poverty and reform’, Bitesize. Web.

Socialist Health Association. 1980, . Web.

Spicker, P 2014, Social policy: Theory and practice, Policy Press, New York, NY.

The National Archives. n.d., . Web.

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