A remarkable life: The longevity of the National Assistance Act

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By Allan Norman, Associate Lecturer in Social Work Law, University of Birmingham
Social Worker, Non-practising solicitor

“The existing poor law shall cease to have effect.” With these opening words, the National Assistance Act 1948 dramatically brought about the end of an era, sweeping away the last vestiges of a Victorian scheme that had held on for more than a century prior. That included its infrastructure of workhouses, and it is hard to overestimate the significance of those words for a generation that had known, and in many cases feared, the law that was being swept away. This was indeed a significant plank of the post-World War II welfare state settlement, to deal with one of Beveridge’s five giants.

Not all its language was so appropriate. Section 29, which made provision for “welfare arrangements for blind, deaf, dumb and crippled persons, etc.” remained a key provision under which social workers secured services for adults in need, long after its language was abandoned elsewhere. But that very fact – that as recently as three years ago social services provision was grounded in law that uses such language – serves as a reminder of the longevity of the National Assistance Act 1948.

Indeed, the Act had taken on a new life for the last two decades of its existence. Since the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976, and later the Social Security Act 1988 which introduced income support, some of the welfare provisions of the National Assistance Act had fallen into disuse, replaced by an effective universal safety net of social security benefits. But then, the last two decades have seen a series of enactments to remove entitlement to subsistence benefits from a wide range of people, mainly but not always based on their immigration status. Some of those people – and their lawyers – noted that the welfare provisions of National Assistance Act may have fallen into disuse, but it was still the law. If it was no longer possible for people to claim benefits, surely social services would alternatively owe them a duty under the National Assistance Act?

The courts affirmed that this was correct , and in so doing gave new life to the Act, which became a “welfare state of last resort”, administered by local authority social services departments, for those who are destitute. Although those provisions (section 21 of the Act in particular) were repeatedly attacked in subsequent legislation, they still survived.

Indeed, the very first case under the new Care Act 2014 was brought to test precisely whether and in what form the National Assistance Act’s “substitute welfare state” provisions have survived into the future.

They have survived. The Act proved remarkably resilient and adaptable to modern needs and circumstances. Its replacement, the Care Act, somehow merges welfare statism, care in the community, the marketisation of care, and disability and carers rights into a single piece of legislation held together with the glue of “well-being”. Whether that stands the test of time as well as its predecessor remains to be seen.

[1] A, R (on the application of) v Westminster City Council [1997] EWCA Civ 1032 (17th February, 1997)

[1] SG , R (on the application of) v London Borough of Haringey & Ors [2015] EWHC Admin 2579 (4th August 2015)

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