The Development of Social Welfare in Britain

By Eric Midwinter.

Open University Press


ISBN 0 335 19104 5

When I joined social services as a trainee and was looking ahead
to undertaking a qualifying course, history was classed as a
non-relevant degree. Sociologists talked openly of the “death of

The later years of the 20th century, however, have seen a
reverse of this. Indeed, in respect of social welfare, a historical
perspective is ever more necessary to the social and health care
practitioner wishing to understand the UK’s low standing in the
European child poverty league and the tensions that exist between
national service frameworks and local autonomy.

Indeed, for the practitioner, manager and policy-maker, history
has role to play in both personal and policy terms. Anybody who
heard the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the
radio recently talking about her childhood experiences will have
ascertained just how much her views on American intervention in
world affairs were shaped by her family’s having to flee
Czechoslovakia twice – from the Nazis and then the Soviet

Midwinter’s book is an excellent sourcebook for anyone wanting a
bird’s eye view of social welfare in Britain, from medieval times
to the early nineties.

To aid our understanding and to provide continuity over such a
broad span of time, the author talks about four major themes: the
relationship between central and local government; the balance
between public and private provision; domiciliary versus
institutional care; and provision in cash or in kind.

It would have been helpful to have had a fifth thread of liberty
and safety, which is such a major policy preoccupation and the
social worker’s dilemma. The same topics are also treated in each
time-frame: poverty, ill-health (including housing), ignorance, and

Midwinter brings in useful comparisons with other countries and
specific gender, race and disability issues. Although the book
finishes early in the last decade, as this is a reprint not a
revision of the 1994 issue, it has some trenchant words in the last
chapter about how centralising tendencies have adversely affected
the health of local democracy.

It is to be seen as to how new moves in the NHS Plan strengthen
or weaken a local focus that stretches back to before the Norman

This is essential reading and senior managers should read it
alongside Simon Jenkins’ excellent Accountable to None
(Penguin, 1994).

Peter Gilbert is director of social services,
Worcestershire County Council and is co-author (with Terry Scragg)
of Managing to Care.

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