Opinion Articles

Historians respond to the Queen’s speech

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Historian and former civil servant Geoffrey Rivett welcomes moves to create a National Care Service, but warns that today's proposals could be 'robbing Peter to pay Paul':

"When the NHS started, vast numbers of old people, sick and demented, were cared for in the back wards of the old poor law hospitals. Few doctors were concerned with the elderly and the specialty of geriatrics was slow to take root. But when it did, active and effective care made it possible for many to be discharged, and far fewer were admitted for more than a few days. Long term care of the sick elderly largely passed to local authorities and community nursing services. Yet the burden of sickness in old age is rising and the cost of care provides government with a vast problem. The bill is too big, so reports and White Papers have come and gone with little change.

"Against this background the proposal to move towards a national care service would be great - if one could believe it was for real. Instead, the transfer of money from the NHS budget to care for the a comparatively small number of the elderly at home is no more than a book keeping exercise. The NHS already pays for NHS continuing care, but this cuts in only for the most ill people, generally those with severe dementia and also severe physical problems, plus some nursing care for the less seriously ill. The new proposal is at best a 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' exercise and adds to the long list of 'non-solutions' to a grave problem. Sadly neither party is likely to produce a solution that requires a near bottomless purse.

Dr Mark Roodhouse of the University of York warns that cutting the bureaucracy associated with police stop and search powers could be a backwards step:

"The government's plans to the cut the red tape surrounding stop-and-search powers will mean that once again what you wear will shape your relations with the police. In future young men would be well advised to leave the hoodie in the wardrobe.

"Their counterparts in the late 1940s knew only too well what not to wear if they wanted to avoid police attention. Metropolitan police officers marked down young men wearing double-breasted, American-Look suits with a tilted hat as spivs involved in black marketeering. The links that the police and crime reporters made between youth subcultures and criminality in post-war Britain meant dressing like a Ted, a Mod or a Rocker increased your chances of being stopped and searched.

"The police power to stop and search suspected persons is an important but controversial tool for tackling crime. It is a key tactic in the strategy for tackling violent street crime, which is a real problem in some deprived urban areas. Making it easier for the bobby on the beat to stop and search people for drugs, guns and knives will be popular with voters in these areas, but these communities should be wary of Labour populism.

"Tempting though it may be to cut red tape, we must remember why it was introduced in the first place: public distrust of the Metropolitan Police's use of the SUS Laws was one of the factors that Lord Scarman identified as causing the Brixton riots in 1981. Forcing the police to explain themselves to the people they stop is an important means of tackling public suspicion that racial prejudice informs these decisions."

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Dr John Welshman of Lancaster University evaluates the government's plans to enshrine in law its target to eradicate child poverty by 2020:

"The Child Poverty Bill, introduced in the House of Commons in June 2009 and re-announced in the Queen's speech, enshrines in law the government's commitment to end child poverty by 2020. In some respects, this marks the culmination of extensive activity in this area over the last decade. Nevertheless this has been alongside other pressures, including the Green and White Papers on welfare reform, and a worsening economic climate. In fact the biggest causes of child poverty are worklessness and low pay, and half the children living in poverty are in working families.

"A historical analysis of the recent policy discourse leads to three broad conclusions. First, recent Government efforts to tackle child poverty, which have focused on work as the best route out, and which have run alongside welfare reform, have had mixed success. Second, given that half the children living in poverty are now in working households, efforts to combat poverty have not taken sufficient account of the complexity of the relationship between poverty, work, and low pay. Third, the single most important measure that the Government could take to reduce poverty would be to downplay the discourse on 'work that pays', and to focus on supporting those children in poverty living in working families, for instance by reforming Working Tax Credit and creating free universal childcare. For historians at least, these conclusions should be unsurprising. For Charles Booth, Seebohm Rowntree, Arthur Bowley, and Peter Townsend all drew attention to the issue of working poverty."

Ann Lyon of the University of Plymouth reacts to the Constitutional Renewal Bill:

"The gap in the law whereby there is no means of disqualifying a peer found guilty of a criminal offence has been commented on many times, most recently in relation to Jeffrey Archer's imprisonment for perjury in 2001.

"During the First World War, the issue arose of whether British princes (all close relations of King George V) who also held German titles and were resident in Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, could be deprived of their titles. It was concluded that the only means of doing so under existing law was via a Bill of Attainder for treason. This created a number of difficulties. First, a Bill of Attainder required a trial; all those concerned were resident abroad, and not available to be tried, and there was distaste for the idea of trials in absentia. Second, there was considerable doubt as to whether these princes all owed allegiance to the British Crown and could be liable for treason at all. The result was the Titles Deprivation Act 1917, which created a mechanism to deprive such individuals of their British peerages or royal titles, on the basis of a report to a committee of the Privy Council showing that they had been in German or Austrian service during the war. This resulted in four peers being deprived of their titles by Order in Council in March 1919.

"Removing the right to sit in the Lords from those convicted of criminal offences would bring the Upper House into line with the House of Commons. Peers who have committed serious offences are comparatively rare. Two recent examples were the 7th Marquess of Bristol, who was imprisoned twice for drug offences before his death in 1999 (his father had led a gang of jewel robbers known as the Mayfair Playboys in the late 1930s and served a prison sentence, but before succeeding to the peerage), and the 3rd Baron Brocket, who served a prison sentence for insurance fraud."

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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