All mod cons

Can you imagine a world where married women had to prove that they were unable to do housework before they qualified for benefits?  This was the UK in the 1970s.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Not the 1920s or even the 1950s. In 1975, at the same time as the Sex Discrimination Act, legislators in the UK came up with a social security benefit which made specific rules barring married women from claiming unless they could prove that they could not do the housework.  This was Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension (HNCIP).  To be fair on the legislators, the idea was to make a benefit available to women who had been unable to collect enough national insurance contributions to qualify for Invalidity Benefit because they had been out of the labour market.  But the main benefit Non-contributory Invalidity Pension (NCIP) was only available to men and single women. Married women had to pass the extra ‘housework’ test.  The thinking was that married women did not expect to work outside the home, that they would be financially dependent on their husbands and that they should only qualify for a state benefit if they were unable to do their ‘normal work in the home’.

So what did these housewives have to do to show that they couldn’t do their housework? The claiming process was the same as for everyone else trying to get an invalidity benefit:  they needed a certificate of ‘incapacity for work’ from their doctor but then they also needed to fill out a lengthy claim form.  This form included questions about ability to dust, iron, stand in a queue, keep the home clean and tidy and other such ‘normal household duties.  It also asked whether the claimant need to use any ‘special appliances’ to carry out such duties.  Critics of the scheme pointed out that it was not clear at all what a ‘special appliance’ meant and whether or not it included such things as hoovers and automatic washing machines.

Disability campaigners and feminists at the time recognised the discrimination in this system and published detailed criticisms of it*.  Eventually, as a result of campaigning by various organisations, the practical difficulties identified by the policy makers and increasing pressure from equal opportunities policies, HNCIP was abolished and replaced by a non-contributory benefit which the same for all men and women: Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA) in 1984.  This benefit had its own problems which I’ll write about another time.

All mod cons or living in a slum

While HNCIP still existed, policy makers took the whole problem of assessing capacity for housework seriously and conducted inquiries and reports into whether it was possible to make the household duties test work better.  In one of these reports the authors pointed out that questions about the ability to carry out ‘normal household duties’ depended very much on the social circumstances of the claimant:

‘In the matter of shopping, a definition would have to cover the different requirements of a housewife with a car and a telephone on the one hand and on the other hand of another housewife living in a tower block half a mile from a bus stop with neither car nor telephone.  Similarly a definition of cleaning duties would have to embrace the cleaning required not only in a modern purpose built bungalow full of mechanical aids but also in a slum tenement with neither hot water nor inside toilet facilities’

National Insurance Advisory Committee (1980) Report of the National Insurance Advisory Committee on a question relating to the household duties test for non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: HMSO. p10

 

This may seem very dated to us today but illustrates very well how the social model of disability is better able to describe the challenges that disabled people have than a purely medical one.  It is obvious that someone living in a bungalow with ‘all mod cons’ will be more able to keep their house clean than someone living in a slum and that a woman with a car and a phone can more easily do the shopping than another woman living in a high rise flat without these.  If only policy makers could see that the same issues apply to assessing people’s ability to do paid work.

*For example, Lister, R. and Loach, I. (1978) Second Class Disabled – a report on the non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, London: Equal Rights for Disabled Women Campaign.

Share Button

Poverty and disability benefits: a view from the past

Print

This week is Challenge Poverty Week, organised by the Poverty Alliance and aiming to increase awareness of poverty in Scotland.  Poverty is unacceptable and is a continuing problem in modern Scotland.  As part of the week of action I contributed to a blog, along with other researchers on different aspects of poverty.  I thought I would share my post here.

Poverty and disability are closely linked

Researchers have shown that disabled people are more likely to be out of work, in poorly paid jobs and living in poverty than other groups in society.  As a result many disabled people find themselves claiming welfare benefits, including Employment and Support Allowance if they find it difficult to work.  My research concerns the history of incapacity benefits, that is, social security benefits for people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability.  As I set out to write this post, I wondered what the relevance of this work was for ‘Challenge poverty’ week.  After all, ‘challenge poverty’ is about today and anti-poverty campaigners sometimes have an uphill struggle to show that poverty is a problem today, with critics often pointing to the past to show how much worse things used to be.  Others on the challenge poverty blog can explain why poverty is such a problem today.

My task is to show how many of the debates about poverty today are rooted in questions which have been around since the beginning of the welfare state and beyond.  To show this, let’s have a look at some quotations about people claiming disability benefits.  Can you guess the date?

Guess the date of these quotations

  1. Against the continued advance of a tide of unjustified claims to [] benefit there are two main lines of defence. The first is the adoption of measures to secure that a proper standard is applied in the issue of medical certificates for incapacity while the second consists in strengthening the safeguards to be adopted by [decision makers] in connection with the supervision of claims
  2. A life of idleness is bad for [her], and in our judgment she would have no difficulty in the present state of the domestic labour market, in obtaining suitable remunerative employment which is well within her physical capacity. In her own best interests we strongly recommend the appellant to get work.
  3. A … person may be regarded as incapable of work because he is unable to travel to work, but it does not follow that because he is unable to travel to his former employment he is entitled to sickness benefit. It is the duty of a .. person to do what is reasonably necessary to regain his position as a wage earner and so overcome the effects of any physical disability which he may be under.

[answers at the bottom of the page]

 Implications for benefits today

These quotations show that policy makers have been worrying about how to define incapacity for work since the very first sickness benefits in 1911.  This concern has led to tough and intrusive mechanisms for checking up on people across the 20th century.  The continuing theme which we can see in the development of incapacity benefits is one of distrust:  that people cannot be trusted to claim benefits honestly and that there must always be mechanisms for checking up on them and keeping them in line.  There has also been a continuing argument that ‘work is good for you’ and that people have a duty to get back to work as soon as possible after illness or disability.

Critics of disability benefits policies today argue that access to benefits has become more difficult, first of all by the redefinition of ‘incapacity for work’ brought about by Employment and Support Allowance and, secondly, by the introduction of work requirements for claimants.  Both of these changes to benefits policy have made life more difficult for people claiming benefits but the ideas behind them are not new.

The relationship to poverty

So what does this have to do with poverty?  It is well established that people with health problems and disabilities find it more difficult to get work, to stay in work and to earn adequate wages and that these difficulties are intensified for people with low educational qualifications.  So ‘incapacity for work’ has a direct link with poverty.  If the benefits paid to people because they are unable to work (or to find work) are kept deliberately low, poverty becomes even further entrenched.  It is even worse for those who are refused benefits when the definition of incapacity for work is tightly drawn. Policy makers claim that they make it difficult to claim benefits and that they keep payments low in order to ‘make work pay’ and to encourage people get back to work.  That is all very well when decently paid work is available and the barriers to work are removed.  But so long as these barriers exist, people will need adequate benefit payments to keep them out of poverty.

Dates of quotations

  1. 1931 Ministry of Health circular ‘National Health Insurance control of Expenditure on Sickness and Disablement Benefits’
  2. 1920 Appeal hearing against a refusal of sickness benefit
  3. 1917 Annual report of National Health Insurance Committee 

Further reading

Bambra, C. (2011) Work, worklessness and the political economy of health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roulstone, A. and Prideaux, S. (2012) Understanding Disability Policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

blog first published on the Challenge Poverty blog

Share Button