Important UK Legislation Which Still Has Relevance Today

Important UK Legislation Which Still Has Relevance Today

‘‘Law and order are the medicine of the body politic and when the body politic gets sick, medicine must be administered.’’
-B.R. Ambedkar

In 1313, wearing armour suits or carrying weapons in houses of Parliament was banned, a law which still stands today, though people such as the monarch’s guards, and not the Members of Parliament (MPs) themselves, are legalized to carry weapons. It is easy to conclude the chain of events that might have encouraged such a law to be written.

In this article we take a look at some British commandments through history with relevance to the present day.

The First Act of Supremacy 1534

The quality or state of having more power, authority, or status than anyone else called supremacy.
-Merriam Webster Dictionary

Over the course of the 1520s and 1530s, Henry VIII passed a series of laws that rehabilitated the life cycle of England. The most noteworthy of these was the First Act of Supremacy in 1534. This professed that Henry VIII was the supreme head of the Church of England, instead of the Bishop of Rome, thus disuniting the association between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church and providing the cornerstone for the English overhaul.

This change was so far-ranging that it was difficult to cover every aspect. It meant that England (and ultimately, Britain) would be a Protestant country rather than a Catholic one, with consequences for her followers and her sense of connection to other countries of Europe. It gave Henry VIII an additional licence to continue despoliation and shut down the monasteries which had been vast centres of power in England. As a result, their role in lessening poverty and providing healthcare and education was lost and that also led to centuries of interior and exterior skirmishes between the Church of England and other faiths, some of which are still unending today.

The Slave Trade Act 1807

The traffic in slaves, or the buying and selling of slaves for profit is known as slave trade.
-Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th Edition

The British had played a pivotal role in international slave trade. Slavery had been unlawful in Britain itself since 1102, but with the launch of British colonies overseas, slaves were used as part of agricultural labour. It has been assessed that British ships carried more than three million slaves from Africa to the America, second only to the five million slaves transported by the Portuguese.

The Quakers group, or the Religious Society of Friends to give them their appropriate name, was a non-aggressive and pacifist religious movement founded in the mid-17th century. It was opposed to the idea of slavery from the very start of its movement. The Quakers initiated the Abolitionist Movement, despite being a marginalized group in their own rights because as non-Anglicans, they were not allowed to contest for Parliament. They founded a group to bring non-Quakers on board so as to have greater political effect and increase public awareness of the horrors of slave trade. This was attained through the publication of books and pamphlets and through a nationwide lecture tour. The effect of the Slave Trade Act, once passed, was rapid: the Royal Navy, which was the leading power at sea at the time, patrolled the coast of West Africa, and between 1808 and 1860 freed 150,000 captured slaves. In 1833, slavery was finally expelled throughout the British Empire.

The Factory Act 1833

“Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself.”
-Robert Ingersoll

Working conditions in British factories in the first few decades of the industrial revolution were terrible. It was common to work for fifteen hours every day, including weekends. Even though the factory owners were banned from employing children under the age of 9, they still did so, as a parent’s word was considered sufficient to prove a child’s age. It is pertinent to mention here that the wages given to factory workers were higher than those offered in the agricultural sector. As a result there was no lack of workers willing to put up with these despondent conditions, until they earned adequate money to seek out an alternative.

Then began a parallel social movement to the one that had brought an end to slavery. It was also believed that reducing working hours for children would lead to a knock-on effect where working hours for adults would also be reduced. The Factory Act of 1833, among a host of changes, disqualified children under 9 from working in textile mills as well as children under 18 from working at night, while children between 9 and 13 were not permitted to work unless they had a schoolmaster’s certificate showing that they had received two hours of education per day. So one could say that the Factory Act upgraded factory conditions along with focusing on the educational needs of children.

The Cruelty to Animals Act 1835

Until 1835, there had been no laws in Britain to prevent cruelty to animals, except for one in 1822 which exclusively concerned cattle. Animals were considered to be property and could be treated in whatever way the property-owner wished.

In 1824, a group of reformers founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which we know today as the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). It is one of the largest charities in UK with 1667 employees. Several of these reformers had also taken part in the abolition of the slave trade, including MP William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Their primary focus was on working animals, such as pit ponies. The 1835 Act, for which the members lobbied, concerned bear-baiting and cockfighting. It also paved way for further legislation concerning veterinary hospitals and animal transportation.

“Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test…consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.”
-Milan Kundera

The Married Women’s Property Act 1870

Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, when a woman married a man, she ceased to have a separate legal existence. All her property prior to marriage – whether collected through wages, inheritance, gifts or anything else – became his, and any property she came to possess during marriage was wholly under his control as well. There was a handful of exceptions, such as money held in trust, but this option was out of reach for everyone but the very wealthy. Given the difficulty of seeking divorce at that time, this effectively meant that a man could do whatever he wished with his wife’s money, leaving her destitute with very little legal recourse.

The Act changed that. It gave a woman the right to control money she earned while married, as well as keep inherited property, and made both spouses liable to maintain their children from their separate property – something that was important in relation to custody rights on divorce. But the Act had no immediate effect as women who had married and whose property had come into the ownership of their husbands, were not given back the property. Eventually, however, this law had been a key stage on the long road to equality between men and women in Britain.  

“Private property was the original source of freedom. It still is its main bulwark.”
-Walter Lippmann

The Education Act 1870

1870 was undoubtedly a big year in British politics. Before that, the government provided limited funding for schools which had resulted in many areas with no schools. This was further complicated by the fact that many schools were run by religious denominations and skirmishes took place as well (which is still the case today).

Those who educate children well are more to be honoured than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.’’

As seen under the Factory Act 1833 as well, there were provisions focusing on education.

Formerly, industrialists viewed education as something unwanted (at least when focusing on their bottom line), as the hours spent on education meant no work at factories. There were some specific factory jobs that only children could perform. But as automation advanced, it gradually became the case that a lack of educated workers was holding back industrial production, so industrialists became the driving force in pushing through wide-ranging education reforms. Although the Education Act 1870 failed to provide free education for all – that wouldn’t come until 1944 – it did provide a safeguard that schools would be built and funded wherever they were required, so that no child would miss out on education just because he or she didn’t live near a school.

The Representation of the People Act 1918

The Representation of the People Act 1918 is essentially remembered as the Act that gave women the right to vote, but in fact it went further than that. Only 60% of men in Britain had the right to vote prior to 1918 as voting rights were restricted to men who owned a certain amount of property.

The law was changed so that men over 21, or men who had turned 19 while fighting in the First World War, could be given the right to vote. But it was also evident that women had hugely contributed to the war efforts as well and so they too were given the right to vote under limited circumstances: the vote was granted to women over 30 who owned property, who were graduates voting in a university constituency, or who were either members themselves or married to members of the Local Government Register. There was confidence that this set of limitations would mean that most married women would be voting and that they would mostly be voting the same way as their husbands, so it wouldn’t make too much of a difference. Women were only approved equal suffrage with men in 1928.

‘The ballot is stronger than the bullet.’’
-Abraham Lincoln

The National Health Service Act 1946

‘‘It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.’’
-Mahatma Gandhi

In 1942, the economist William Beveridge had published a report on how to overthrow the five boundless evils of society namely, squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Ignorance, for instance, was to be defeated through the 1944 Education Act, which made education free for all children up to the age of 15. But possibly the most revolutionary outcome of the Beveridge Report was his reference to defeat disease: the conception of the National Health Service.

One of the principles behind this was that if healthcare were free, people would take good care of their health, thereby refining the health of the country overall. Or to put it another way, someone with an infectious disease could get it treated for free and then get back to work, rather than hoping it would go away, infecting others and leading to lots of lost working hours. This idea still remains widespread in the public.













The views expressed in this compilation are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any organization with which he might be associated.

Ahmad Sandhu

Author: Ahmad Sandhu

The writer is a law student at Quaid-E-Azam Law College.