Farewell National Assistance Act

The National Assistance Act 1948 is dead, long live the Care Act 2014.  Today, the adult social care provisions of the Care Act come into force, 66 years after the National Assistance Act 1948 laid the foundations of modern adult social care.  The last of the great post-war Beveridge Statutes will pass out of law.

By the twenty first century the 1948 Act was showing its age.  The language it used to described social care users was outdated and stigmatising.  It contained highly paternalistic elements thought to violate human rights standards.  And over the ensuing 66 years since it was passed it had been amended and supplemented by, in the words of the Law Commission, ‘a confusing patchwork of conflicting statutes’, resulting in an area of law notorious for its ‘tortuous complexity’.  It had had its day.

But as we enter a new Care Act age, let’s not forget what the National Assistance Act represented.  It was introduced by a Labour government following the war as part of a raft of raft of groundbreaking legislation that laid the foundations of the welfare state, to defeat the five ‘Giant evils’ identified by William Beveridge as squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease.  Looking back now, their achievements seem all the more incredible.  The welfare state was erected at a time when the national debt to GDP ratio dwarfed the recent financial crisis (source: UK Parliament):

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On the front bench were men who had worked in coal mines and dockyards, men who had not completed their secondary school education.  Who knew the bite of poverty first hand.  Will we ever see the like of a government like this again?

The National Assistance Act was deeply faulted by today’s lights.  But it did something remarkable.  It abolished the Poor Law.  It abolished the requirement that a person must show that they were destitute before they were entitled to assistance.  This statement from Betty Craddock MP upon the second reading of the 1948 Act, drawn to my attention by my colleagues Luke Clements and Alison Tarrant, always makes my eyes prickle:

I am particularly glad that I have had a part in this Bill, as a Member of the party responsible for it. I am very bitter about what has happened in the past to those people who found themselves in need of assistance. I am bitter because I know what has happened to them. I am bitter because I have been part of them. I have sat on a committee where public assistance had to be given out, and it has been a horrifying experience to me when people have come in and asked for a pair of boots and have had to stand in a corner and show the soles of their boots before another pair could be given to them. Some of the most difficult situations I have known have arisen in connection with clothing, because the regulations of the Poor Law were such that a person had to be destitute, not only from the point of view of cash, but also from the point of view of clothing before he or she was permitted to receive assistance. I have been in a committee where the chairman, who was not of my party, persisted—and I protested—in seeing the underclothing of old people before the committee was prepared to give an order that new underclothing should be supplied. These things remain with us. We remember them.

It is the fashion today to underpin modern legislation with a set of principles.  The first element of the wellbeing principle underpinning the Care Act is dignity.  Had that been the fashion in 1948, I think we could have said that the purpose of the National Assistance Act was to combat ‘The destruction of the dignity of man’ by poverty.

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