You may have seen the news items about a recent report on food banks Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of food banks in the UK, published by The Child Poverty Action Group, Church of England, Oxfam GB and The Trussell Trust. It’s a shocking read but unsurprising given the current assault on benefits claimants. The report highlights particular problems with the benefits system, including the difficulties experienced by people trying to claim Employment and Support Allowance. It gives examples of people resorting to food banks because they had been found ‘fit for work’ under the ESA assessment system or because there had been delays in the processing of their claims or their appeals.
Refusals of benefits in the past
This set me to thinking about the people I have been researching who were trying to claim sickness and disablement benefits in the 1920s. These people had all appealed against refusals of benefits. Some were successful and were able to keep their benefits. Others were unsuccessful and were left with nothing. Even when people were unsuccessful, the appeal judges usually agreed that the claimants had health problems or were going to find it difficult to find work because of their impairments. When I read about these people who were refused benefit, I often wonder what happened to them. Did their health problems disappear and make it possible to work? Or did they take low paid, insecure jobs and hope that they could hold on to them, given their health issues? Or were they forced to turn to charities like the food banks of today? Or could they turn to family for support? The appeal papers do not always say much about the claimant’s wider circumstances but sometimes they show that claimants really had nowhere to turn.
For example, in a case from 1927, a woman was described in circumstances which seemed to be desperate. Her accommodation was:
‘dirty and insanitary and which from her account appears to be badly overcrowded. She is in arrears with her rent and is living at the present time on what she can borrow from her relations.’*
This woman was 49 and had been diagnosed with tuberculosis although she was now partially recovered. She had previously worked in factories and as a domestic servant. Her own doctor believed that she was unable to work as a domestic servant but that being in domestic service would at least give her better accommodation. He also thought that she could:
‘work in the fields in fine weather but thought that it would be dangerous for her to get damp’
The appeal judge decided that she was fit for work and said that she was:
‘quite capable of undertaking remunerative employment of a not too strenuous nature eg as a domestic servant, a shop assistant or an employee in a nursery garden’
I couldn’t help but wonder what job this was going to be. Did he really think that she could work in a nursery garden where she could only work in fine weather? Or find work as a domestic servant so that she could move out of her ‘insanitary’ lodgings but only do ‘light duties’?
Of course I don’t know what happened to her after her appeal failed but I can’t help but think that she would be unlikely to find work of this restricted kind.
In another case the claimant was a man aged 57 who had previously worked in print works although he had not done so for twenty years**. In the mean time he had worked as a messenger and had a newspaper stand. His doctor confirmed that he had rheumatism, bronchitis, emphysema and poor eyesight and had difficulty climbing stairs. The appeal judge decided that he was fit for work, based on the opinion of the government doctor, the ‘Regional Medical Officer’. The case papers do not give very much information as to why the Regional Medical Officer disagreed with the doctor but I can’t help but wonder what work it was that they thought he was going to be able to do and what happened to him next.
As with benefits decision makers today, it was not the job of the appeal judge to find solutions to the whole social circumstances of the people who appeared before them – only to decide whether they were fit for work or not. It seems that then, as now, once that decision had been made, it was up to the claimants to find solutions to their lack of income and lack of access to work by themselves or to turn in desperation to charity.
* National Archives PIN 63/1/410 1927
** National Archives PIN 63/3/487 1928