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The Right to Strike$

K. D. Ewing

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780198254393

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198254393.001.0001

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(p.167) Appendix 2 Poor Law Guardians and the General Strike

(p.167) Appendix 2 Poor Law Guardians and the General Strike

The Right to Strike
Oxford University Press

Boards of Guardians

Circular 703.

(England and Wales).

Ministry of Health

Whitehall, S.W.I.

5th May, 1926.


I am directed by the Minister of Health to transmit for the consideration of the guardians the following notes and suggestions with reference to the action to be taken in view of the general stoppage of industry.

The position of the guardians now becomes one of great responsibility and importance.

It is to be anticipated that there may be large numbers of applications for relief arising directly or indirectly out of the stoppage, and it will be necessary on the one hand for the guardians to make adequate arrangements for carrying out their statutory duty of relieving destitution and on the other to take all possible steps to conserve their financial resources in face of the demands that may be made upon them, and the possibly prolonged duration of the stoppage. An emergency like the present makes it the plain duty of every board to keep this second consideration always before them in deciding what they can properly do.

With regard to the limits within which relief may be given to persons who are destitute in consequence of a trade dispute, the Minister desires to draw attention to the declaration of the law contained in the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Attorney General v. Merthyr Tydfil Guardians (1900).

The function of the guardians is the relief of destitution within the limits prescribed by law and they are in no way concerned in the merits of an industrial dispute, even though it results in applications for relief. They cannot, therefore, properly give any weight to their views of such merits in dealing with the applications made to them.

The questions for the consideration of the guardians on any application for relief made by a person who is destitute in consequence of a trade dispute are questions of fact, namely, whether the applicant for relief is or is not a person who is able-bodied and physically capable of work; whether work is or is not available for him and if such work is not available for him, whether it is or is not so unavailable through his own act or consent.

Where the applicant for relief is able-bodied and physically capable of work the grant of relief to him is unlawful if work is available for him or he is thrown on the guardians through his own act or consent, and penalties are provided by law in case of failure to support dependents, though the guardians may lawfully relieve such dependents if they are in fact destitute.

In cases in which the applicant, though ordinarily able-bodied is, as a result of (p.168) continued unemployment or otherwise, no longer physically able to perform work, relief may be granted, but it is obviously proper that in such a case a full report should be made to the guardians by the relieving officer and ordinarily by a medical officer. As a rule, however, in the event of a man being so reduced by want as is contemplated in the judgment, his necessity would be urgent and should be relieved by the appropriate officer of the guardians on his own responsibility under the powers reserved to him to meet such contingencies.

It will be of special importance for the guardians to scrutinize each individual application with a view to ascertaining that it is a case which they may properly relieve, and that destitution is present before relief is granted. In this connection it should be noted that there have been instances of applications for relief being made by persons immediately on cessation of work, when they would normally have just received at least the wages for the previous week’s work.

In the special circumstances likely to arise, it will probably be necessary for the guardians to adopt some defined scale of relief for their guidance, or, where such a scale has already been adopted, to review its provisions and consider whether any modification is desirable.

It is recognised that there will be in every union cases in receipt of relief in respect of which existing arrangements cannot be modified, and it will, of course, be for the guardians to use the discretion in these matters which has been entrusted to them. But the Minister considers that at this moment it is necessary to examine the general situation and in this connection he desires first to draw attention to the scale on which unemployment benefit is paid and to suggest that, as is already the practice in a considerable number of unions, the relief given by the guardians should be so restricted as to be within this scale. The scale is as follows:— 18s. weekly for a man, 5s. for a wife, 2s. for each child.

In cases where, under the Merthyr Tydfil Judgment, relief may not lawfully be given to the man, it may be found necessary to increase the allowances to the women and children above the figures of unemployment benefit but it is thought that such allowances should not exceed the sum of 12s. and 4s. for the woman and each child respectively, these amounts representing what was found reasonable in the emergency of 1921, subject to a reduction corresponding to the fall in the cost of living. Exceptions would naturally be made in this scale, or any other scale that may be adopted by the guardians, in cases in which sickness or other special need was present in the family.

A substantial proportion, not less in any event than one-half of the relief, should invariably be given in kind and the experience of relief given during the dispute of 1921 suggests that the most practicable and successful way of meeting the needs of the distressed areas is by the institution of some form of communal meals. In some districts feeding, especially of children, was organised on a large scale in 1921. There is no legal authority for any bulk payment to another agency by the guardians for the establishment of communal feeding centres, but it is open to them to pay for meals supplied to individual children or adults on the order of a relieving officer or of the guardians, and the Minister hopes that, wherever this is found practicable, the guardians will avail themselves of any facilities that may be provided in their union. He has no doubt that individual guardians will be prominent in the organisation of arrangements of this kind, and that there will be every facility for co-operation between the guardians and the organisations.

The value of any meals so received, and of any other means of subsistence available to (p.169) the applicant for relief, should, of course, be strictly taken into account in applying any scale of relief which is adopted.

The Minister would add that he attaches particular importance to close co-ordination and exchange of information between the guardians and the local education authority as regards the provision of meals by that authority.

It will be realised, of course, that the powers conferred upon local education authorities by the Education Act, 1921, in regard to the provision of meals are not intended to be so used as to throw the burden of the relief of destitution upon the education rate.

I am, Sir,

Your obedient Servant,


Source: Justice of the Peace, 15 May 1926, pp. 299–300.