A library and an art gallery: two Blakes in Newcastle 

Daniel Blake and Quentin Blake: what do a fictional character from a hard-hitting, award-winning Ken Loach film and a celebrated children’s book illustrator have in common?.  I found a connection at the Socio-Legal Studies Association annual conference, held this year at the University of Newcastle. I’ll try to explain.

The library – Daniel Blake

As I made my way through the Newcastle city streets, I could not help but notice the local accents and some of the memorable film locations in I Daniel Blake .  I passed the library where Daniel Blake tries to make an online claim for benefits and wondered if there were real people like him inside, struggling with the technology and the bureaucracy.  The library also contains a Citizens Advice Bureau so perhaps those real claimants will get the advice that Daniel Blake so desperately needed. It is perhaps obvious what the connection was between this film and the Socio-Legal Studies Association conference, where I spent most of my time in the Social Rights and Citizenship stream: listening to speakers discussing the effects of austerity and ‘welfare reform’, and the ways in which the law might, or might not, help to tackle the challenges of poverty and inequality.  I would have liked to go to other sessions, where people talked about access to justice, the increasing use of technology in social administration, homelessness, gender, disability: all themes that arise in this important film.  I referred to the film in my own paper, where I discussed historical data on how the welfare state has tried to distinguish between unemployment and ‘incapacity for work’.  Daniel Blake finds himself at the centre of this predicament but his problems are not new.  There were Daniel Blakes in the 1980s and in the 1930s, when disabled people and people with health issues struggled to find appropriate work at times of high unemployment and struggled to claim benefits when they could not access work. There were also Daniel Blakes in the 1950s, when the labour market was stronger but there was not always the right kind of work in the areas where people lived, or where social attitudes to gender and disability meant that disabled people were last in the queue for jobs.  Crucially, for my research, there were also women, facing different and often greater challenges to accessing benefits than men.  The connection between Daniel Blake and my paper at the conference was clear.

The Art Gallery – Quentin Blake

Opposite the library is the Laing Art Gallery, a less likely setting for my thoughts on this conference.  But here there was an exhibition of the work of Quentin Blake.

The conference package included a tour of the exhibition. Although I could not immediately see the socio-legal connection, as a committed fan of Quentin Blake’s work, I was not going to miss this.  The exhibition itself is stunning, with original art works, story boards, drafts, notes on how this great artist creates characters and scenes, how some of our favourite children’s book characters have come to life: Roald Dahls’s Matilda, and The Twits, David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, Michael Rosen in his devastating but somehow uplifting Sad Book and of course Quentin Blake’s own Cockatoos, Dancing Frog and the fabulous Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen (Information about all of these books here https://www.quentinblake.com/books). What I really loved about the exhibition was the space and the activity tables, which allowed adults as well as children to create their own stories, read the books and think about the nature of story-telling and illustration and, ultimately, being human.  You may think of Quentin Blake as an outstanding children’s illustrator.  That in itself is a wonderful thing but his illustrations: both in his own books and collaborations with other authors, also tackle the most important issues in society: grief and loss, inequality and difference, childhood and old age, loneliness and friendship, health and identity, justice and retribution and, in the depths of some of the darkest tales, hope.

Pop-up Museum of legal objects

But what does any of this have to do with socio-legal studies?  Well the theme of the SLSA conference this year was ‘Visions of Law’ and the plenary had speakers on graphic justice, photography, model making and art and law.  These speakers gave us much to think about.  I also participated this year in the ‘Pop-up Museum of Legal Objects’.

We were asked to choose an object – any object which could have a ‘legal’ aspect, relevant to our research – so long as the object was also publicly available in a museum or similar public place and that it had an online presence.  I chose The Family Guide to National Insurance, 1948, which I have written about here.

Family Guide to National Insurance 1948

 

We were also asked to make a model of our object – the idea being that making the model would help us to think about our research differently, perhaps bring a whole new angle to the research or maybe help us to describe our work in new ways.  My model for the conference was a mock-up of the Family Guide, showing a rather boring ‘official leaflet’.

Model of Family Guide Jackie Gulland

When you opened it up, an owl popped out, fitting I thought for a pop-up museum.

Pop-up owl Jackie Gulland

Making the model helped me to think about the nature of this leaflet, who wrote it, who read it, who drew the pictures and what were the images trying to portray?

Family Guide to National Insurance 1948

The owls under the umbrella appeared to symbolise a vision of an inclusive welfare state: one where everyone is protected, a long way from today’s vision of ‘welfare’ as negative and stigmatising.

Information about this and details of the objects are all available on the legal treasures website.  https://legaltreasure.wordpress.com/collections/pop-up-museum-of-legal-objects-2017/

So where is the connection to Quentin Blake?  I managed to bring one of his images to my talk, an image from his book Three Little Owls In this book, Quentin Blake’s owls also have umbrellas, just like those in the Family Guide.  But the main connection is in the link to creativity. Drawing, making, doing things in three dimensions can all help us to think about legal issues (or any research issues ) in new ways.  I had some great conversations about this and I left the conference buzzing.

If you haven’t done it yet, go and see I Daniel Blake (community showings going in many areas but now also out on DVD), go to the Quentin Blake exhibition (if you can’t get there, go to his website and read all of his books) and then think about what connections you can make between two Blakes and your work.

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Mary Macarthur

I’m delighted to see that Mary Macarthur, who was a campaigner for women’s rights to sickness benefits, has been commemorated today by a blue plaque on her home in London. Information here

In her very short life, Mary Macarthur was active in the labour and trade union movement, campaigning for women’s rights in the workplace. She stood (unsuccessfully) for parliament in 1918, as a Labour candidate, campaigning, among other things, for equal pay, a living wage, peace, the abolition of the Poor Law and the House of Lords and the right of allotment holders to ‘the fruits and vegetables of their labours’.*

Mary Macarthur and sickness benefits

Less well known are her efforts to improve sickness benefits for working women.  The UK’s first national insurance sickness benefit scheme was launched in 1911.  Within a year of its introduction a committee was set up to look at ‘excessive claims’ for benefit.  The committee met for seven months and collected evidence from ninety-four witnesses and looked at 1,500 pages of written evidence.  Mary Macarthur was a member of the committee, representing the Women’s Trade Union League.  Her involvement on the committee included listening to the evidence of the witnesses, giving evidence on behalf of the National Federation of Women Workers and writing a dissenting memorandum to the final report.  In her evidence and her dissenting memorandum she stressed the need to take account of the realities of working class women’s lives in deciding their claims for sickness benefit.  She dismissed ideas that women were claiming benefit in order to get away from the factories, or because they could get more money from benefit than they could earn her wages, or because they couldn’t understand the principles of the insurance scheme.  She argued instead that women had a right to benefit because they were ill and had contributed to the scheme through their work in the factories.

For more information about the committee and Mary Macarthur’s involvement in the sickness benefit scheme, see my contribution to the Dangerous Women project and  Gulland, J. (2013), ‘Extraordinary Housework: women and claims for sickness benefit in the early 20th century’, Women’s History Magazine, 71, Spring 2013, pp23-30.

For further information on Mary Macarthur, see Angela John, ‘Macarthur, Mary Reid (1880-1921)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004).  Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30411 Access to the online edition is often available through public libraries

* Election address reproduced in Barnesly, T. 2010 Breaking their chains: Mary Macarthur and the chainmaker’s strike of 1910, London: Bookmarks Publications.

Hunt, C. (2014) The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-1921. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

 

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Being creative with conference presentations

I’ve been a bit lost in book writing lately but I have the chance to do something a little different at a forthcoming conference. I will be going to the Socio-Legal Studies Association conference in Newcastle in April.

Incapacity and unemployment

In one presentation I will talk about the link between incapacity benefits and unemployment.  It is well established that claims for incapacity benefits go up in times of high unemployment and people are more likely to claim incapacity benefits in areas where there are fewer jobs.  It is fairly easy to understand why this is: people with health issues or impairments find it more difficult to find jobs at the best of times and struggle when there are fewer jobs to go around.  But legal decision makers have always argued that it is possible to distinguish between ‘unemployment’ and ‘incapacity for work’.  So people who have health issues and can’t find jobs are often described as unemployed rather than unable to work.  This has important consequences for their benefits entitlement, how much they may be entitled to and whether they have to look for work in order to qualify. My paper will show how these legal ideas developed across the twentieth century.

Owls popping up all over the place

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

My second paper will be a little different.  Here I will be taking part in the ‘Pop-up Museum of Legal Objects’.  I will use this innovative session to talk about a little booklet from 1948 which advertised the new post-war National Insurance scheme.  I’ve written about it on the blog before – see here.  When I was in the National Archives a few weeks ago, I found out a bit more about this leaflet so I have more to say. The pop-up museum asks me to make a model of my object so I have a bit of work to do. I’ve been looking in charity shops and getting out the glue….  If this gets too interesting, I might be taking the Blue Peter skills to the other session too.

 

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From driving a quiet horse to collecting bridge tolls: why benefits advice matters

In 1928 a furnace man had a stroke. He could no longer continue in his job so he claimed Sickness Benefit. He claimed benefit for several years but eventually the benefits decision makers decided that he was now fit for light work. They suggested that he could ‘drive a quiet horse and do goods delivery work of a quiet character’.  It was not clear how he was supposed to find a job where a ‘quiet horse’ was the main requirement. Fortunately for him, he was able to appeal this decision. At the hearing the appeal judges decided that he was unable to work and he was able to keep his benefit.

In my research on the meaning of ‘incapacity for work’ across the twentieth century I have found many examples of suggestions as to the kind of work that claimants might be able to do. It seems fairly simple. If someone was unable to carry on with their ‘usual work’, it was reasonable to expect them to consider what other work they might be able to do. When we look at the kinds of jobs that decision makers suggested we see that these suggestions were strongly influenced by social expectations about work.  In the early twentieth century almost all suggested occupations were different for men and women:  so men were frequently told that they could work as caretakers or watchmen while women were expected to do domestic work.  A few occupations were suggested for both men and women:  lift attendants, shop work and clerical work, although the language for these differed.  Men were told that they might be able to manage a shop, while women were told they could be shop assistants.  This is not at all surprising for the time but it illustrates that the definition of ‘incapacity for work’ was dependent on different assumptions about what men and women could do.  It was never suggested to men that they could work as domestic servants and it was never suggested to women that they could do the range of jobs usually expected of men.

Into the 1980s: bridge toll attendants and car park supervisors

Jumping forward to the late twentieth century and Invalidity Benefit decision makers began to use standardised suggestions for jobs which benefits claimants might be able to do.  From my own experience of working as a welfare rights officer in central Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s, the then Department of Health and Social Security often suggested that claimants could work as bridge toll attendants. No doubt the DHSS expected people to work on the Forth Road Bridge, which had staffed toll gates at the time.  Despite the fact that vacancies on the bridge tolls were probably few and far between, it was rarely the case that claimants were able to manage these jobs.  We often represented people with a range of back problems, which, combined with a lack of relevant experience or sometimes appropriate numeracy skills, made this kind of post particularly unsuitable. 

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In other parts of the country the jobs suggested would include attendants at car parks, swimming pools and museums, on the assumption that these were ‘sedentary’ jobs that would be manageable by people with a range of physical impairments.  Often these jobs were unsuitable because they involved sitting for long periods, lifting and bending, a range of numeracy and interpersonal skills and sometimes the need to act in an emergency as a first aider or security guard.  This is not to suggest that people claiming Invalidity Benefit could never do these jobs. However, in individual cases, the suggestions were often unsuitable.  With the help of advisers, claimants could challenge these assumptions when they appealed, using evidence about the reality of the work suggested.  This allowed people, who had great difficult in finding suitable work, to keep their much needed benefits.

Rules for incapacity benefits have changed dramatically since the 1980s and now we have the draconian Employment and Support Allowance.  There is still a pressing need for advice and the right of appeal against unreasonable decisions.

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Choosing names in research

I’m finally writing up the book from my archival project and I have to decide how I am going to deal with names in the archive papers. At an early stage of my project I decided that I would anonymise the people in the archive cases. This comes from my own social science training which is based on an assumption that we should anonymise any personal data derived from research. Writers in other disciplines do not always do this. Historians usually use real names, although not always. There seems to be a cut-off around the twentieth century when social historians sometimes start using pseudonyms. Legal scholars usually use real names because they are usually dealing with legal cases already in the public domain, where people’s names are part of the case name. Some social scientists and oral historians also argue for an ethical position of using real names. But I find this difficult. The information in the archive files is personal and not very far in the past. It is unlikely that any of the people in these files is still alive today and that is reflected in the status of the files in the archives. The files are ‘open’ – available to anyone to look at but I don’t believe that this gives me permission to use their real names. All of them may have living relatives and people who knew them who would be concerned about their personal details being made public. Some, of course, might be delighted to find an archive with their grandmother or great grandfather named in it, which would enable them to pursue their family history but I don’t think it is my role to expose people in this way. On top of this, around half of the case papers that I am using are already anonymised as they have been published in collections of anonymised legal cases. I don’t know the people’s names at all. Or at least not all of them. For some of these anonymised cases, I’ve also identified an archive file, which gives me the real names of the people in the anonymised published cases. For a very small number of the cases I am looking at, there is a higher level court case or a newspaper report which carries the name of the protaganists. These are fully in the public domain and traditions of legal writing require that I use the full names for these.
But I have made my decision to anonymise all the other cases and intend to stick with it. The question now is what to do when I discuss the people I’m writing about. Until now, in any published papers or conference presentations, I have referred to people by the case number of their legal case only and have not attempted to bring them to life by giving them names. Now that I am writing the book I feel that it would make for easier reading if the people had names. So how to go about choosing them.

Choosing names the old-fashioned way

When I’ve carried out interview based research in the past I used surnames from a local telephone directory. I knew that this created problems: surnames convey ethnicity, geography and religious associations. All of my interviewees had been white and Scottish or English so I could be fairly confident that names I had chosen would be associated with that identity. First names are even more clearly marked for gender, ethnicity, religion and social class and they are associated with different generations, according to popularity in naming patterns. So I found first names using information from the National Records of Scotland assigning age appropriate first names. I also tried to avoid names of celebrities, fictional characters or well known real people (although this was somewhat dependent on my rather useless knowledge of celebrities). I was happy with the result and my renamed interviewees became real characters, who I felt, began to become alive in my writing.

Wirecaester Barlow or James Bond

So how to go about this process with my archive material? Something else has come along in the way of technical support since I carried out previous research. I’m currently using scrivener software to draft my book and it has a ‘name generator’ built in. This allows writers to select from a very wide range of apparently ethnically and gender appropriate names. I’ve been searching for those of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origins, given the backgrounds of most of the people in my data. This produces some unusual names: Wirecaester Barlow, Sped Hell, Oxnaleah Flax? I don’t know how scrivener generates these names but they seem a little unlikely for England in the early 20th century and there don’t seem to be any date filters on the name generator unless you’re looking for Ancient Egyptian, Anglo Saxon or Shakespearean names. So I’m experimenting with names from the British 1881 census, available electronically, which produces the more likely sounding: Alfred Jones, Thomas Hudson and Annie Norton. Though my most recent search also produced James Bond, so I’ll still have to watch out for the celebrities and well known fictional characters.

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Disability Research Network

I’m part of a network of researchers interested in all aspects of disability, based in the University of Edinburgh. Our members’ interests range across many subjects, including social science, music, education, psychology and history. We’re launching our new website at an exciting free event on Wednesday 15th June. Why not join us?

See our new Website here

 

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Connecting the Turra Coo and women’s work

Turra Coo plateWhy would someone give me a plate with a cow on it? This was a gift from a family member, recognising my obsession with all things to do with the 1911 National Insurance Act. The plate commemorates the incident of the ‘Turra Coo’ in 1913. The National Insurance Act required employers and workers to make weekly contributions from their wages in return for sickness and unemployment benefits and the right to health care. Some employers objected to the principle of making contributions, including a farmer from Turriff in Aberdeenshire. When he refused to pay contributions for his farm workers, his cow (the Turra Coo) was impounded by the local sheriff officers, leading to a local riot and the cow becoming an emblem of local protest. For the full story, see here
A hundred years on from this farmer’s protest, the Coo has now become a tourist attraction, with a statue in Turriff town centre*:

Turra Coo 2015

Turra Coo 2015

and a commemorative plate. So now I have my plate but I’m not sure I really want the plate on my office wall. The problem with the Coo is that it symbolises objection to the Act and the principle of National Insurance. There are a lot of problems with National Insurance as a principle for funding the welfare state but it has its supporters too and, at least in 1911, it provided the basics of health care and sickness benefits for low paid workers, particularly women.

Connecting the Turra coo to women’s precarious work

But I found another connection between the Coo and my research at the Social History Society conference last week. Here I had the privilege of hearing a paper by Valerie Hall on women farmers in North East Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century. Professor Hall’s paper described the complex working lives of women, who combined domestic work, running the farm and a variety of entrepreneurial activities, including selling eggs and dairy products, breeding dogs, cattle and prize chickens, while also bringing up many children and grandchildren. Her presentation including some lovely pictures of cows and references to the Aberdeenshire ‘Doric’ – I couldn’t help but think of the Turra Coo. More important to my research though was the clear argument that it was not easy, or indeed possible, to identify where ‘work’ and ‘not work’ happened in these women’s lives. On the same panel we also heard from Professor Dianne Newell who talked about the indigenous women in British Columbia at around the same time, combining their ‘work’ in the salmon canning factories with household maintenance and ‘doorstep entrepreneurship’: making traditional baskets and rugs and trading these for cash or goods with middle class white tourists. Again the division between ‘work’ and ‘not work’ was blurred in an endless and seasonal struggle for survival.
The women described in these two conference papers lived in a different era and in worlds which have long changed but the reality of the complexity of women’s working lives continues, particularly for poor women in precarious part-time employment. In some ways these papers look like a reinforcement of the gendered idea that a ‘woman’s work is never done’, particularly a poor woman’s work, but for me they illustrate a rather different point.  Welfare benefits, and particularly incapacity benefits, depend on an understanding of what we mean by ‘work’.  Women’s working lives, and many disabled people’s lives, do not fit a conventional idea of work.  If welfare states are dependent on the idea that people (men or women) should ‘work’ and that their entitlement to benefits and services should be conditional on that, then we must question conventional, gendered assumptions about what constitutes ‘work’.
So thank you to the Turra Coo plate for helping me to make these links.

*thanks to Viv Cree for the photograph

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Bringing archives to life

Bureaucratic registers often contain scanty details about the ordinary people they record. Further digging can bring these to life.  The fascinating ‘Seeing our History’ project does this.  The project traced the lives of blind people living in Edinburgh and south east Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century.  Starting with the names and details on a ‘Register of the Outdoor Blind’ between 1903 and 1911, researchers traced the parents, children, lives and deaths of blind and partially sighted people on the Register.  The project’s findings have been published in two books, ‘Feeling our History’ and ‘Hearing our History’ and a series of podcasts. You can find out more about the project, the publications and podcasts on its webpage here:  Insight Radio

The researchers unearthed details about blind people’s work and family lives, which echoed some of the material that I have been finding in my research on early twentieth century sickness benefits.  A recurring theme across my research, and arising also in the ‘Seeing our History’ material is the complex nature of the concept of ‘work’.  Many, although not all, of the blind people in the Seeing our History material were those who were considered ‘unable to work’, because of other impairments or old age.  ‘Able bodied’ blind people at that time were often offered work in the workshops and asylums run by organisations such as the Edinburgh Blind Asylum: making baskets, ropes, mattresses and furniture.  Those who could not find work through the Asylum subsisted on income from a range of occupations and family support networks.  Some of these found work on the street, working as musicians, hawkers and turning mangles to assist with the weekly washing.  But work in the Asylum workshops was dependent not only on physical ability but on willingness to comply with the organisation’s strict moral code.  The Seeing our History project reports on the case of a man and a woman who were evicted from the Asylum because of their unseemly relationship.  They subsequently married and their story is powerfully told in ‘Feeling our History’.  This story is interesting to me because of the way in which access to work was entwined with moral behaviour.  Other workers lost their jobs at the Asylum because of alleged drunkenness or theft.  So a person’s ability to work was dependent not only on their physical and mental abilities but on their willingness or ability to meet strict moral expectations of behaviour*.

In my own research on appeals against refusal of benefits in the 1920s, I have found examples of blind people who had been working but were now trying to claim sickness benefits.  The discussion about their ability to work often focussed on whether or not work which had previously been available to them was still possible.  So we find a man who had been blind since childhood and who had worked for a local charity for blind people.  When he developed other physical health issues he was no longer able to do this job.  The adjudicator in his appeal decided that he was no longer fit for work, although they felt the need to add that he should ‘undergo some form of training for such light work as he can undertake’.  However, in another case, involving a young woman, it was felt that she should not be obliged to enter an institution for blind people to retrain as a basket maker or similar because this ‘would probably cause her nervous upset which would probably retard her recovery if not actually make her worse’

What does this tell us about ‘capacity for work’?  The stories in the Seeing our History project are mainly from a period before the 1911 National Insurance sickness benefit scheme.  They connect with those in my research because they reinforce, again, the appreciation that a person’s capacity for work can only be understood in the social context in which they live.  Two people with apparently similar impairments can be very differently capable of work, depending on what they have done before, their skills and education, their family support networks and, crucially, the work available to them.  Work may be unavailable because of the local labour market but it may also be unavailable because of the moral and other expectations of local employers.  Ideas about how and whether people should retrain for work also depends on ideas about men and women, their age and potential capacity for working in the future.

I am very pleased to have found the Seeing our History project, leading me to these fascinating stories and an insight into a creative use of archives to bring them to life.

* full information about these histories in Hutchison, I (2015) Feeling our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and Hutchison (2015) Hearing our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and on the project website

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Using libraries

We’ve just celebrated national libraries day. I’m all in favour of that. Libraries are great places and many libraries, up and down the country, used creative ways to remind us of that at the weekend. But sometimes it’s easy to say that libraries are great without actually using them. It’s so much easier to get information online and download digitised versions of documents. Libraries can also help us with that by helping us to find things and by subscribing to electronic resources and then making them available to us all. Now and again we should go back into the buildings and remind us what they can do in a more old fashioned way.

One way that they can help is to provide space to write. When you are writing, you are constantly distracted by emails, texts, social media, even just thoughts ‘I need to reread that article’, ‘have I got a copy of that book?’, ‘which conference paper did I mention that in?’ ‘Who was it that told me about that?’ ‘I’m sure I had an example of that in one my documents’ or even ‘Must write a blog piece about this’. For just now I’m trying to avoid that (apart from the write a blog piece bit) by working in the National Library of Scotland. This library provides a quiet, largely distraction free, space, to just get on and work. The atmosphere helps. Surrounded by other people working away, apparently more industriously, it is difficult to avoid getting on with the task at hand.

Libraries also have books! Today I’ve been returning to some old appeal cases relating to sickness benefit in the 1920s. Some of the cases I’m working on are available electronically, digitised by Parliamentary Papers Online.(digital access available through many  libraries). Others are only available in the National Archives, but there is one little collection that was published in a book in 1923, which has not been digitised and I have to come to the library to look at them. I first looked at these a couple of years ago and took detailed notes but there were some things that I realised I’d missed so today I’m reading them again. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back to the originals but looking at them again reminds me what is so fascinating about them.

When I first looked at these cases I was interested mainly in how the appeal panels defined the idea of ‘incapacity for work’. That is still my main interest and the one that most of the writing from this project will focus on. However I am also interested in the appeal hearings themselves: who was there? What evidence did they think was important? What was the role of lawyers and other representatives? How did claimants find out about their rights? This is at the heart of my writing just now. I’ve made quite detailed notes on most of my cases but it wasn’t at the front of my mind when I last looked at this little collection from 1923. So today’s task was to ask those questions as I read them. I’ve found a few more lawyers, clearly attempting to influence the course of the proceedings but I’ve also found cases where there were no representatives. In these cases we sometimes see comments about the claimants’ lack of education and knowledge and the adjudicators trying to compensate for that. Occasionally the claimants appear to be just a little bit too knowledgeable and that might work against them. Today’s work has given me another glimpse into the past world of appeal hearings and some more examples to help us understand who was there and why and what difference that made.

But the library’s closing and the battery on my laptop is failing – I’ll have to come back another day.

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Book reviews

I’ve recently published a couple of book reviews, one on the history of the ‘underclass’ and another on women and social security. These two books provide important background for my own work which concerns the history of concepts of incapacity for work and how that relates to policy on the ground and on the particular challenges for women claiming incapacity benefits. Here’s a brief summary of what I thought about them.

Welshman, J. (2013) Underclass: a history of the excluded since 1880 2nd ed.
Bloomsbury: London (review published in Social Policy and Administration)

Media of Underclass

Welshman’s book provides us with a guided tour of the concept of the ‘underclass’ since the late 19th century, moving through related concepts such as ‘problem families’, ‘unemployables’, ‘socially excluded’ to the recent Coalition Government’s idea of ’troubled families’. A lot of this is about language: the language that policy makers use to talk about social problems and how that relates to the ideas that researchers use to look at the same problems. They don’t often connect but these ideas really matter. Once a concept like the underclass takes hold it is difficult to escape from it. We see that in the field of disability benefits with the current media obsession with ‘benefit scroungers and ‘hardworking families’. There isn’t much evidence for either of these concepts but the ideas take hold never-the-less and make it much more difficult for real people to navigate the shark-infested waters of benefits claiming. Welshman’s book is important because it shows us how these ideas have developed over the last century.

Goldblatt, B. and Lamarche, L. (eds.) (2014). Women’s Rights to Social Security and Social Protection. Oñati International Series in Law and Society. Oxford: Hart Publishing. (review published in European Journal of Social Security)

http://www.hartpub.co.uk/coverimages/9781849466929.jpg

Goldblatt and Lamarche, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with the present day. Their focus is on the difficulties that women have with accessing social security across the globe. The book reminds us that, across countries and across time, men and women’s participation in paid work and unpaid domestic and caring responsibilities is unequal and that this leads to unequal access to social security in old age or when paid work is not available. The book has a very broad reach, covering countries as far apart as China and Bolivia. There is a lot of detail for readers interested in particular countries but perhaps the most useful chapters are those that look at the issues from a broader perspective. These chapters provide useful overviews of the debates and may be particularly useful for readers who are looking for an introduction to the issue of women and social security with an eye to human rights and feminist analysis.

For the full reviews, see the links to the journals.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to review books. Now I have to get on with some more.

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