National efficiency is Britain's ability to compete economically, socially and militarily with rivals. It is also about its ability to maintain the empire and its position of supremacy. Concern over poverty in Britain and increasing anxiety that Britain was in decline as a world power led to the idea that Britain had to improve her efficiency by taking steps to improve the quality of her workforce. The 1906 General election saw a landslide victory for the Liberal Party, a party who had been out of office for 10 years. The victory guaranteed many new faces among Liberal mps, some of whom were in favour of change.
Many Liberals realized the need for social reform. They accepted that the time had come for the Liberal Party to turn away from laissez-faire; only when the state intervened could the nationwide problems facing the newly elected Liberals, like national efficiency, be effectively tackled. This new idea of governing where there would have to be a role for the state was 'New Liberalism'. One of the reasons why the debate of national efficiency arose during the prescribed period was because of the difficulty of finding fit men to fight in the Boer War.
The Boer war left many in Britain with doubts about the quality of the working class male – and about his ability to perform the tasks expected of him, in the workplace and on battlefield. Almost one third of those who volunteered in Manchester had to be turned away on the grounds of physical unfitness. This was a major concern given Britain's huge Empire at the time and the need to defend and maintain control of it. Also, the Birmingham chamber of commerce expressed fears about efficiency of workforce in 1907 due to poor diet and poor health.
This resulted in concerns about Britain's position of economic prosperity as it was being threatened by the new industrial power of Germany and the USA. A fit and healthy workforce was needed to compete effectively against them and increase productivity. In order to try deal with these national efficiency concerns two pieces of legislation was passed early in the new Liberal administration, though neither originated from the Liberal Cabinet. The two acts that the Liberals introduced aimed at improving the health of the population to eventually improve the productivity (output per worker) of each individual.
The first of these, the Education (Provision of meals) Act of 1906, was the work of a labour backbencher. This legislation was designed to allow local authorities to raise a 1/2 d rate in order to provide free school meals for destitute children, in hope that an improved diet would improve the health of young people, enabling them to become fitter and healthier adults; therefore fitter and healthier workers. However, the Act was not compulsory so local authorities were not compelled to provide this service and many choose not to. By 1911, less than a third of all education authorities were providing free school meals.
It took to 1914 to make the Act compulsory. The second piece of legislation was the education (Medical Inspections in Schools) Act 1907. This Act was compulsory and made sure that a child had at least 3 medical inspections during their school years. The Liberals passed this Act in an attempt to reduce the outbreaks of disease and generally improve national health levels of children, enabling them to become fitter and healthier adults; therefore fitter and healthier workers. The Act was successful in helping to improve National health levels in children, but there was no such Act for after school life.
It helped to improve the health of children but not the health conditions if adults or school leavers who were existing members of the Britain's workforce. In 1908 the government brought together all existing law relating to the protection of children under the 'Children's Charter'. This had new regulations relating to the care of children and penalties for, among other things, parental negligence. There were also new regulations relating to the punishment and care of young offenders. The Liberal's attempt of this was successful but it had little or no benefit for promoting greater national efficiency.
In addition, the Liberal government was confronted with research conducted by Rowntree and Booth, which revealed that poverty was more widespread than previously thought and produced new evidence about the cause of poverty. In their surveys Booth and Rowntree showed that the low level of wages was a major contributory factor, and often working class men were simply unable to earn enough to provide for the basic needs of their families, let alone have enough to put money aside for periods of unemployment or sickness and old age.
This again suggested that the government would have to take action if such people were going to be able to make positive contribution to society. The acceptance of the above evidence led to a changing attitude from the Liberal government especially after Asquith replaced Campbell-Bannerman as PM and Lloyd George and Winston Churchill held Cabinet offices which enabled them to put 'New Liberal' policies into practice. Also, Lloyd George had returned from a visit to Germany in 1908 convinced of the need to introduce social reforms along the lines of those introduced in Germany.
He met with Churchill on his return and together they produced a plan to introduce Old Age Pensions and a National Insurance scheme. The Old Age Pensions Act was introduced in 1908. The act introduced a non-contributory pension for those aged over 70 and earning less than i?? 31 per year. Although the legislation was successful in helping to improve the social conditions of many old people in extreme poverty, the pension was meagre and had several disqualifications.
However, this did mean that workers no needed to worry about saving money for when they reached old age. This meant that they were able to use their money to afford a better diet; therefore they would be healthier, which would help them to work longer hours or be more productive then before. The National Insurance Act of 1911 had two parts. Part one dealt with health, included in it was a contributory sickness benefit. Part two provided a contributory insurance against unemployment.
Both parts of this Act required contributions from the worker, employer and government, and was criticised by the Trade Unions who said the government were taking money away from people who were already badly paid, and so this Act barely had any benefit for promoting greater national efficiency. Further legislation designed to deal with the problem of national efficiency included the 1909 Trade Boards Act, which went part of the way in dealing with the problem of low wages.
It established a minimum wage for those workers employed in the so called 'sweated' trades, which were difficult to unionise. A minimum wage enabled many to afford a better diet; therefore they would be healthier, which would help them to work longer hours or be more productive then before. Unemployment was seen as a waste of labour, which stood in the way of improving Britain's economy, yet it was increasing in 1908 and 1909. To ensure the national economy reached its full potential of productivity all factors of production, including labour, needed to be employed to capacity.
Churchill was responsible for the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909 which established a number of Labour exchanges across the country where the unemployed could be put in touch with employers who had jobs to fill. Lloyd George and Churchill had hoped that all the above legislation would be the start of an extensive programme of social reforms. However, the Liberal government was distracted after 1911 by other problems. There were the on going problems in Ireland, where the proposed Home Rule Act had brought the country to the verge of civil war.
Also, the increasing militancy of the suffragettes and their campaign for votes for women, and the strike wave which bedevilled industrial relations before the outbreak of war. The early stages of the First World War saw some improvements as the government used powers given to them under the Defence of the Realm Act to deal with some problems of national efficiency. Licensing Laws and pub opening hours were made stricter, in an attempt to prevent workers involved in the war effort being drunk at work and thus decreasing their productivity.
Also this meant that less money was spent on alcohol and used instead for a better diet; therefore to a healthier condition of living, which would help them to work longer hours or be more productive then before. In conclusion, the Liberal government had begun to promote greater national efficiency through their social reforms. However, the legislation that the Liberals had introduced between 1906 and 1915 aiming to promote greater national efficiency were full of holes and had a number of exclusions. In 1915 there were still some areas which had not been touched by any of this legislation.
For example, nothing had been done for agricultural labourers who remained the worst paid of all workers. Also, between 1906 and 1915 real wages rose very little, and the trade unions were not impressed by the reforms, as they showed by their increasing militancy between 1910 and 1914. Another disturbing fact was that in 1914 the percentage of army volunteers for the First World War rejected as physically unfit was almost as high as it had been for the Boer War. However, this was only to be expected; there was bound to be a time-lag before the benefits of the new state aid made themselves felt.