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History of Welfare in Ireland: Poor Law and Beveridge Report

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This paper will briefly outline the development of social service provision in Ireland from 1922 to the present day, highlighting several factors such as the Poor Law (1598-1948) and The Beveridge Report (1942) that have played a significant role in the shaping of this welfare approach known as ‘residual welfare’. For a variety of reasons such as economic growth, different political parties and differing welfare system options, UK’s welfare state has gained much crisis discussion.

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Residual welfare is not a universal welfare model; rather it is a system aimed at providing provision for those specific individuals in society that need and fit certain criteria, generally defined as ‘the poor’. Within residual welfare systems, welfare provision is considered to be a safety net, available only to those defined within the policy context as most in need, usually when the market or family has failed. According to Titmuss’ framework from 1974, Britain represents the ‘individual welfare system’ where there is a limited function of state welfare. Universal welfare is based upon the premise that welfare services are accessible to everyone, usually determined on the basis of citizenship within a nation state. The difficulty with this system is that it can be costly. Therefore, a residual system is aiming to reduce those costs by apportioning provisions to only those who need them. (Mau 2001, pp. 5-9; Titmuss, R 1974, p.20).

It is helpful to acknowledge that welfare is an ambiguous term which can cause discrepancies between individuals and agencies when looking at welfare needs and services. Some individuals expect a return for any contribution they make to a social system whereas other are content with knowing the system is there for those that need it and that might not necessarily include themself. There is a strong belief that the system should be a premium-benefit one, where the current financiers will one day be the future users. It can also open the question of who it should be available to, how long, should they pay and are they deserving? Welfare is generally used in three main senses, the first referring to a person’s refers to general ‘well-being’. Of course, well-being is another term that can mean different things to different people. From a sociological framework, it generally means having access to basic needs such as shelter and food, but it does go beyond simply needs; to achieve well being, people must have choices, and the scope to choose personal goals and ambitions. Welfare also refers to the range of services available to look after people in a number of conditions throughout their life, for example childhood, sickness and old age. (Mau 2001, pp. 4-6).

Historically, the model of welfare which has been the most dominant model in English-speaking countries is known as ‘residual welfare’ which stemmed from Poor Law (1598-1948). Poor Law was first implemented in 1598 and continued until 1948. This Elizabethan method aimed at providing three central aspects, a compulsory poor rate, the creation of ‘overseers’ of relief and the provision for ‘setting the poor on work’. It provided discretionary payments to individuals assessed as being in need. It was a harsh law aimed at providing the bare minimum an individual would need to survive in the aim that people would rely upon it for existence, creating a dependence upon social security which would result in a negative image of public support. It aimed to control and discipline the poor and in some ways punch by providing support that was below the lowest wage, a principle known as ‘lowest eligibility’. This law continued to be important in the delivery of many means-tested benefits until the last two decades of the twentieth century. (Alcock 2003, p. 24-8; Williams 1989, pp. 150-4).

Following on this movement in Britain’s welfare system, Mau (2001) stated that on some levels, a welfare state can help to repair social divisions or at least ‘to mitigate social inequalities; not only in terms of material inequalities, but also in ideological and political terms.’ Thus the Beveridge Report from 1942 proposed a system of National Insurance, based on three ‘assumptions’, family allowances, a national health service, and lastly full employment. It was written by Sir William Beveridge, a highly respected economist and expert on unemployment problems. Opinion polls reported that the majority of the British public welcomed the report’s findings and wished to see them implemented as quickly as possible, seemingly relieved at the possibility of a less harsh social system than the Poor Law. The first post-war election, in June 1945, resulted in a victory for the Labour Party, devout promoters of the Beveridge Report. It quickly became the blueprint for the modern British welfare state, even being referred to as ‘by any measure a landmark’. (Alcock 2003, p. 24-8; Williams 1989, pp. 150-4; Historic Figures. William Beveridge, 23rd February 2007).

The Beveridge Report aimed to provide a expansive system of social insurance for an individual’s whole life. Here we have the induction of the ‘residual model’ that still exists to a degree in Ireland. It proposed that all working people should pay a weekly contribution to the state, in other words, tax. In return, benefits would be paid to the unemployed, the sick, the retired and the widowed, those who needed it. Beveridge wanted to ensure that there was an acceptable minimum standard of living in Britain below which nobody fell, very different to the aims of Poor Law. (Alcock 2003, p. 6; Mau 2001, p. 3; Schifferes, S, 26 July 2005).

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Changes in the welfare system have continued to the present day, post 1948, the key elements of Ireland’s welfare state have remained focused upon social security, health, housing, education and children. The ‘Welfare State’ was not intended to respond to poverty; that was what the Poor Law had aimed to, rather its main purpose was to encourage the provision of the social services on the same basis as the public services, including medical services, roads, libraries, local community needs. In other words, it aimed to create an ‘institutional’ model of welfare. (Mau 2001, pp. 3-5; ).

This paper has aimed to briefly illustrate the changes in Ireland’s welfare system highlighting several factors such as the Poor Law (1598-1948) and The Beveridge Report (1942) that have played a significant role in the shaping of this welfare approach known as ‘residual welfare’, a system, aimed to be available if and when an individual needs its services.The development and implication of welfare provision in Britain is a lengthy and complicated issue, therefore this paper aimed to provide a brief summary of some of the key events leading to its present situation known as a ‘residual welfare system’.


  1. Alcock, P. 2003. 2nd Edition. Social Policy in Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire.
  1. Esping-Anderson, G 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Polity Press, Oxford.
  1. Mau, S 2001. Patterns of Popular Support for the Welfare State. A Comparison of the United Kingdom and Germany. Social Research Center, Berlin.
  1. Offe, C 1987. Democracy against the Welfare State? Structural Foundations of Neoconservative Political Opportunities. In Political Theory, Vol.15, No 4, November, pp. 501-537).
  1. Page, R & Silburn, R 1999. British Social Welfare in the Twentieth Century. St Martin’s Press Inc, Hampshire.
  1. Titmuss, R.M. 1974. Social Policy. Allen and Unwin, London.
  1. Williams, F 1989. Social Policy. A Critical Introduction. Polity Press, Cambridge.


  1. bbc.cok.uk, 2007, Historic Figures. William Beveridge (1879 – 1963), BBC Homepage 23rd February, retrieved 23rd February 2007 from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/beveridge_william.shtml.
  1. Schifferes, S 2005, Britain’s long road to the welfare state, BBC News 26 July, retrieved 23rd February 2007 from:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4696391.stm.


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