An Introduction to the Voluntary Sector by Justin Smith

By Justin Smith

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In this new model the state would provide the basic level of services and the voluntary sector would top up the provision, ‘carrying onward the work of the public authorities to their finer shades of physical, moral and spiritual perfection’ (Webb and Webb 1912:252). Although this view received little support at the time, it was an idea ahead of its time. In many respects the model of relations between the state and the voluntary sector which emerged after 1945 was based along these lines. The language of the extension ladder may not have reappeared, but the accepted role for the voluntary sector (until the 1970s) was very much that of supporting and complementing the work of the state.

The concerns of the friendly societies were acknowledged in the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 which, as a non-contributory scheme, posed less of a threat to their finances. In fact, the scheme actually helped the societies by removing the financial burden caused by the payment of continuous sick benefit for the elderly. But the general feeling of the societies was that the principle of self-help had been undermined fatally. The National Insurance Act of 1911, with its scheme of compulsory contributory insurance, posed more of a threat to the friendly societies and mutual insurance groups, although historians are divided upon the extent of the body blow which this dealt to them.

By 1886 the COS in London was dealing with 25,000 cases a year. The COS failed in its attempt to rationalise charitable activity. For one thing, other relief organisations were unwilling to surrender their independence of action and to leave judgements of worth to the Society. For another, the COS was never very influential outside London, as Yeo has suggested with his study of voluntary action in Reading (Yeo 1976). It was also the case that, with the exception of a few London boroughs and isolated provincial areas such as Brixworth, where leading COS personnel also sat on poor law boards, there was little success in linking in the Society with the poor law.

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