The National Insurance Act of 1911 set up the country's first unemployment benefit and national health insurance schemes. Workers made weekly contributions, collecting stamps such as these on a card as proof of payment, which enabled them to claim assistance if the need arose
How did the National Insurance Act of 1911 come about?
Part of a wider programme of social reforms by the Liberal government of 1906-14, the 1911 act set up the first national systems for unemployment and sickness benefit.
Britain was not the first country to introduce such a scheme. Bismarck's Germany had provided national sickness insurance in 1884. Some of the 1911 act was modelled after the clubs set up in working areas of Britain in the previous century, to which workers would pay a fixed weekly contribution to a doctor who provided free services in return.
The 1911 act had a major impact on social welfare: it removed the stigma of unemployed workers having to rely on payments made through the Poor Law, which became consigned to the past. It also proved the basis for the modern idea of social insurance, laying the foundations for the welfare state revolution of the late 1940s.
What did the National Insurance Act of 1911 do?
Under the 1911 act, employers were obliged to contribute to a fund to provide sickness payments to their workers. In practice the scheme was limited mostly to manual labourers earning £160 a year or less. Rates varied; typically workers paid 4d (deducted from their payment at source), employers 3d, and government 2d. (At the time, a pint of beer cost 6d or so. There were 240d in a pound.)
The contributions by employer and worker were made by means of stamping cards every week. The benefits provided were “medical” (that is, treatment), “sanatorium” (for tuberculosis suffers), “sickness” (for up to 26 weeks), “disablement”, “maternity” (£1.50) and certain other specified circumstances.
What about unemployment benefit?
The act also enabled unemployment benefit to be paid to certain “insured trades”: building construction, shipbuilding, iron founding, mechanical engineering, vehicle contracting, and sawmills. The fund was created out of contributions from employer and worker of 2.5d each per week. Evidence of payment was provided by fixing special stamps in books or cards. If contributing workers were made redundant, they could receive 7s 6d (90d) per week for 15 weeks.
What are these stamps?
The stamps shown here are unemployment benefit stamps of various amounts from summer and autumn 1912. Stamps identical to these would have been familiar to workers all over the country every week as they received their pay packet: by 1914 2.3 million people were insured under the scheme.
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