Letter: Benevolent role for modern friendly societies

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The Independent Online
Sir: Keith Joseph's article (2 February) on the role of friendly societies in the past and their potential role in a future welfare system provoked a knee-jerk response from Gavin Weightman (Letters, 4 February). His claims that friendly societies are to be associated with hideous suffering and widespread misery betray an offensive lack of knowledge and understanding of their work in Victorian times. There was indeed hideous suffering in the 19th century, but not, generally speaking, among members of friendly societies.

The very purpose of friendly societies was to alleviate and eradicate such suffering among their members. The people who were exposed to deprivation and suffering were most likely to be those who chose not to make provision against adversity or those who were unable to do so.

Mr Weightman seems to think that today's state welfare scheme merely needs a little administrative tinkering. There is increasingly common consent to the view that the system is too impersonal, excessively bureaucratic, frequently ineffective, and economically unsustainable in the future. The friendly society movement stands for mutuality, self-help and benevolence: values that have no place in the state scheme and hold no appeal within the commercial insurance industry.

Friendly societies continue to provide a wide range of benefits to more than 3 million people in an efficient and cost-effective manner. We would not claim that we can resolve all of the problems faced by today's welfare system, but we can help to relieve the pressure and contribute to the improvement of the quality of life for many people throughout society. The values that friendly societies uniquely represent do have a role in the future of welfare.

Yours faithfully,


Chairman, Tunbridge Wells

Equitable Friendly Society

Tunbridge Wells, Kent