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. 

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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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