Webb essay winner: Goodbye to all that

The workhouse is gone, but child poverty demands attention.

Over one hundred years ago Beatrice Webb headed the group that published the Minority Report. Webb claimed that the purpose of the report was 'to secure a national minimum of civilised life open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes', by which she meant 'sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged' . The report represented one of the first attempts to determine and tackle the root causes of poverty. Unfortunately Webb's innovative claims went widely ignored at the time of their publication. The majority consensus remained that poverty was due to a weakness of individual character. Webb was a strong believer in the claim that poverty is a result of systemic factors. She believed that if the systemic factors were addressed then poverty could be ended. Time has allowed for major reforms and today Webb's ideas raise some important questions about what constitutes poverty and how it can be measured within the UK.

Modern day measures of poverty tend to focus on the number of people who earn below 60% of the median income. Income is important and should be considered when addressing poverty, however the individual causes and components of poverty deserve a greater appreciation. As a starting point it is worth using the most popular living standards index that exists today. The Human Development Index (HDI) is very well-known mainly due to its simplicity. It exemplifies how any good index should be easy to understand if it is going to be practical. The HDI has many qualities which suggest that Webb would have used it as a poverty index. The use of literacy rates and gross enrolment ratios are good indicators of 'training when young'. Life expectancy from birth is an all-encompassing indicator as it says something about whether there is 'sufficient nourishment', 'treatment when sick' and a 'modest ... livelihood' being provided within a society. Additionally the income index within the HDI acts as an indicator for the 'living wage when able bodied'.

However one problem with the HDI is that it does not take into account the inequalities that may exist within a seemingly well-functioning society. This means that the HDI does a bad job of addressing Webb's point of any national minimum being 'open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes'. A promising alternative is a disaggregated index. A widely cited example of a disaggregated index is the Gender-related Development Index (GDI). However Webb described her beliefs about wages with the phrase, 'Equal Pay for work of Equal Value in Quantity and Quality'. She stated that her main concern was for the 'national minimum' to be open to men and women alike, rather than men and women necessarily earning the same . However Webb did recognise that the phrase 'Equal Pay for Equal Work' had been used in her time to unfairly prohibit women.

If Webb were alive today she would more likely have preferred a disaggregated HDI that calculates different indexes for different income groups in society . Income inequality is arguably the bigger factor affecting UK poverty today as a citizen's disposable income is what has a greater effect on their ability to take part in social activities and buy necessities for daily life. The disaggregated HDI for the lowest quintile income group would therefore be a good poverty index keeping Webb's beliefs at heart. This type of HDI would identify whether a 'national minimum of civilised life' is being achieved in the UK.

On the other hand there is the question as to whether the equal weighting given to life expectancy and GDP per capita by the HDI is reflective of Webb's views. As life expectancy is such an all-encompassing factor it is only fair that it has greater weight placed on it. Not only that but GDP per capita is also the indicator that most suffers from using a disaggregated HDI. This is because GDP growth is simply an increase in output by a nation. If a nation increases its output in weaponry then this will do little to help the living standards of the poorest fifth of the UK . More specific to Webb is the fact that GDP per capita doesn't say anything about the income for the unemployed, the sick and the elderly. Therefore a better indicator is required.

The indicator that should replace GDP per capita should be one that is more appropriate to poverty. Considering Webb's initial desire for the more helpless members of society to be given support she would probably feel heartened by the claim that she needn't worry about the livelihood of the aged. Recent data suggests that this claim is accurate, going so far as to say that it is less likely for pensioners to live in low-income households than non-pensioners . This is of course something that should be monitored regularly to ensure its validity, but at the moment a UK poverty index doesn't have to make as many allowances for the income of elderly citizens. This conclusion may actually be considered an example of Webb's triumph in impacting modern policy as her consideration for the elderly helped to signal the foundations of pension schemes today.

The outlook is not as bright for the ill and the unemployed though; the original victims of the workhouse. In fact long-term unemployment and illness go hand in hand in some parts of the UK. Statistics have suggested that approximately three quarters of working age people who have been receiving out-of-work benefits for two years or more are either sick or disabled . One of the problems with long-term unemployment as a result of a sickness or disability is that it may lead to a vicious circle whereby the person is never able to fully recover due to their time spent away from professional or social activity. Unemployment in itself is not totally deplorable though. In fact short-term unemployment may actually be viewed as an opportunity for people to find better jobs for themselves. For people in this position there is a Job Seekers Allowance ensuring them a 'living wage' at all times.

However it is long-term unemployment that can contribute to poverty and lower living standards. To some extent even Webb appreciated the Majority's sentiment towards poverty when she advocated 'detention colonies...for able-bodied people who refused either work or training' . This suggests that Webb's desire was for sickly or disabled citizens to be preparing themselves for after treatment when they would be able to get back into work. The onset of citizens defrauding benefit services in modern times makes this an issue that needs addressing.

Therefore the indicator replacing GDP per capita is the percentage by which long-term benefit recipients' increases or decreases over the period of one year. To create an indicator for long-term benefit recipients there should be maximum values of increase and decrease specified which can be used appropriately to create a new component of the poverty index. Similar to the way one creates an index with GDP per capita data to compile the HDI. The only difference is that an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients pushes the index down whereas an increase in GDP per capita pushes the HDI up.

Webb's use of the phrase 'living-wage' is also important here and is embedded within the motivation to reduce long term benefits recipients. The minimum wage exists in order to mark a level of subsistence that is sufficient for all citizens. This means that getting people working means getting people earning, at the very least, the 'living-wage'.

On the other hand Webb specified the importance of treatment for those who are sick. The current index appears to have more of a focus on ensuring people are working rather than actually improving in health. Fortunately this issue is implicitly dealt with in two ways. The first way is through the fact that the UK has a universal healthcare system which means that treatment is accessible for all regardless of income. The second is the realisation that the long-term benefits recipients' indicator indirectly takes into account the quality of healthcare provision in the UK. If the healthcare system was to deteriorate and patient waiting lists grew longer, rendering more citizens incapable of working, then this would contribute to an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients.

The final, and possibly most important, issue that the index should address is 'sufficient nourishment ... when young'. The UK has seen a vast increase in the level of child poverty over the years and it is suggested that almost a third of all children in the UK are living in poverty . This means that the UK has a proportionally greater number of children in poverty than many other developed countries. The issue is serious enough to be given an individual indicator within any UK poverty index.

However there is a difficulty that arises in indexing child poverty. One might choose to use an indicator that focuses on the number of children in child poverty, or alternatively one could use an indicator that measures a major cause of child poverty. The latter type of indicator seems more appropriate when one considers Webb's tactic of approaching poverty by looking at structural causes.

The difficulty then arises in determining what causes are sufficiently worthy of being measured. There are numerous causes of child poverty within the UK. The main causes are often the same as the causes of most types of poverty; low income possibly caused by unemployment, lack of institutional support and social division. However there are also causes that are unique to child poverty such as higher divorce rates and greater numbers of teen pregnancies. The proposed index already considers long term unemployment and education levels within the UK which goes some way in raising public awareness about some of the main causes of child poverty.

However the final indicator will focus on causes specific to child poverty. To identify these causes within the realm of Webb's thinking the key word that needs to be recognised is 'nourishment'. Nourishment can refer to physical or emotional factors and when taken in a modern day context it refers to a good standard of living for the young. The indicator will therefore focus on factors that inhibit nourishment. The first factor to be included in the child poverty indicator is the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births. It is being used because, naturally, young mothers find it extremely difficult to nourish their children in the same way as an older, more settled woman would.

The second factor used is the concentration of poor children in the UK. It is sometimes the case that poverty breeds more poverty. In an area with highly concentrated child poverty the poor children only see other poor children; effectively depriving them of social nourishment. Currently half of the children in the UK who are eligible for free school meals are concentrated in a fifth of the schools . The proposed way of indexing this is by using a technique very similar to the one used when calculating the Gini coefficient. A line of absolute equality is formed which is based on all schools having an even proportion of children on free school meals and then the actual data is plotted. The ratio of the areas between these lines can then be used to create a concentration coefficient.

The third and final factor is the number of lone parents within the UK. Recent data suggests that 46% of children in lone parent households are living in poverty whereas within two-parent families the figure is 22% . The number of lone parents and the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births would both be indexed in similar ways. The percentage increase or decrease each year is expressed as a fraction of some maximum; similar to the way in which the long-term benefit recipients' indicator is indexed.

These four components can be used in an effective way to increase awareness of poverty. The first component is education and looks at gross enrolment ratios and literacy rates. The second component is living standards and uses the indicator of life expectancy. The third component is unemployment and is considered by the number of long-term benefits recipients. The fourth component is child poverty and uses the number of underage pregnancies that result in birth, the number of lone parents in the UK and the concentration of poor children. The four components are all weighted equally. The three indicators for child poverty are also weighted equally within their respective component.

Additionally the components of education and living standards are disaggregated and only focus on the poorest fifth of the UK; stemming from Webb's intention for a national minimum. After all if the index suggests that the UK's poorest citizens are living longer and learning more then the level of prosperity for the whole UK is either at the level suggested by the index or, more likely, even higher. The remaining components of the index are not disaggregated as they are not as directly affected by income.

The issue of poverty can be promoted by this index in the same way as the HDI. The minimum value possible is 0 and the maximum is 1. If the number given by the index increases one year then poverty, as defined by the components that make up the index, has decreased. Politicians hoping to increase the index number could only do so by increasing how long we live for, getting people back into work, improving access to education or tackling the causes of child poverty.

To conclude, this poverty index is designed with Beatrice Webb's initial vision. However it also recognises that she worked at a time when poverty in the UK was of an absolute nature. Her insight into the UK system with the Minority Report helped to recognise that the poverty people were experiencing was structural and it was up to the state to change it. She helped create the ideas that were behind the welfare state and the universal healthcare system. In doing this she achieved the structural change she had intended and it is because of her efforts that the index suggested in this essay is so particular to the UK. Not many countries can boast being a welfare state, having universal healthcare and a minimum wage. If Webb were alive today to compile her own poverty index for the UK she would probably smile at how UK citizens can keep out of the workhouse and not worry about the Poor Laws, that is, before turning her attention to the problems of child poverty and social cohesion.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...