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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Red tape in the archives

I was in Belfast for the Social Policy Association annual conference.  The talk at the conference was all about austerity, poverty, stigma, the decline of the welfare state, the Budget.  There were excellent presentations from researchers at all stages of their academic careers.  There were discussions of ‘impact’, questions about whether or not social policy research makes a difference, how we can do it better.

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

But my trip to Belfast also had another purpose: to have a look at some benefits papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, conveniently located next door to the conference, in another magnificent purpose-built building.  As with the National Archives in London and the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, many of those using the Northern Ireland records are ancestor-hunters, looking up long lost family members using official papers of all kinds.  My hunt was for benefit claimants.  Throughout my research on the history of incapacity benefits,  I have often wondered what happened to the people who were refused benefits. Some of them appealed and some of them won their appeals but many didn’t.  In a collection of files in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland I have found out about some of them.  The Public Record Office holds files of correspondence to the Northern Ireland Prime Minister’s office in the 1920s and 30s, and there are about a dozen files concerning people’s problems with sickness benefits.

A Tale of Persistence

Here I found a man who claimed sickness benefit in July 1928 and was told he was fit for light work.  He appealed against that decision and the appeal confirmed the original decision.  He wrote to the Prime Minister asking for advice so that he could ‘procure justice’.  The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that, since he had unsuccessfully used the appeal procedure, there was nothing more that could be done. So then he claimed unemployment benefit.  His unemployment benefit was refused.  He appealed against that decision and the decision was upheld. So he wrote again in March 1929 to the Prime Minister asking for advice.  He was told that all the appeal procedures had been followed correctly.  What to do next?  In November 1930 he wrote to the Prime Minister again about his unemployment benefit and asking whether, if he couldn’t get either sickness benefit or unemployment benefit, perhaps they could give him a job with the labour exchange.  The Prime Minister’s office replied saying that, since he had followed all the appeal procedures, there was nothing they could do about his benefit but that should a suitable vacancy arise, he would be considered for a job.  By August 1931, his persistence seemed to have paid off as his next letter concerned his dismissal from a two month temporary contract at the labour exchange.  Unsurprisingly there was nothing that could be done, since: ‘retrenchments are necessary and that those who can best be spared are the ones who are selected first of all for retrenchment’.

Fast forward to 1938 and we find the same man writing to the Prime Minster again asking for a job.  This time we are told that he worked for a temporary period for the employment exchange in 1934 but had been laid off again.  The file closes with a polite letter from the Prime Minister’s private secretary ‘regretting that there are no vacancies at present for which you could be considered’.  At that point he seems to have given up.

Learning from the letters

What did I learn from this file?  I learned a lot about this particular claimant. Over the course of the correspondence, which amounts to thirty-three letters altogether, I learned that he was married and had seven children, including three who were grown up and unemployed , that he had worked in the ‘shirt and collar trade’ and that he had a war injury of some kind from the First World War and that he was desperate to find work. One thing can be said for him and that is his tenacity.  I also learned a bit about the appeal procedures for sickness and unemployment benefits and how they operated in Northern Ireland in the 1920s, providing further evidence to support what I had found in the archives in London and Edinburgh.  There are a few more files like this in the Northern Ireland archives, though none quite so lengthy, which provide a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who were claiming sickness benefits in the 1920s and 30s.

Red tape

Even more exciting were some legal papers concerning an appeal to the National Health Insurance Commissioners.  These papers gave me detailed insight into the Dickensian legal procedure, complete with the original ‘red tape’.

These papers describe a young man’s, ultimately unsuccessful, claim for sickness benefit in 1913.  The papers are there by chance, having been deposited by the legal firm which represented him.  This case was particularly interesting because it seemed to be the same one that I had read about in a published version of the appeal decision, but this time with all the letters, backwards and forwards between the legal firm, the Approved Society and the National Health Insurance Commissioners.  There was even a copy of the final decision, still in its envelope with a stamp, addressed to the claimant.  In the short time I had, I made some hurried notes.

The conference, hosted by the University of Ulster, was held in the newly built Belfast Metropolitan College, in Belfast’s ‘Titanic quarter’, in the shadow of the stunning Titanic museum.  There wasn’t time for me to have a look round the museum, so I’ll have to go back another day, see the museum properly and read some more of those papers.

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The sound of breaking glass

In January 1927, Miss O claimed sickness benefit from her local Approved Society. They told her she wasn’t entitled, so she took revenge on them by ‘creating a disturbance’ at their office and ‘maliciously broke the glass of the vestibule door’. Unsurprisingly, she found herself up before the local police court and was ordered to pay a fine of 21 shillings or endure ten days imprisonment. She was also expelled from the Society, thus cutting off any possibility of any further sickness benefit from them. She had been a member of the Society since the beginning of the National Health Insurance scheme in 1912.

Unfortunately I know little more about Miss O. I don’t know what her health issue was or what her usual work was. All I know is that her claim for benefit from January to June 1927 was refused and that, by September 1928, she had acquired a criminal record and her place of residence was described as the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. The Southern General was an old poor house which, by the 1920s, was being used mainly as a long term hospital for people with ‘incurable’ psychiatric conditions. Things didn’t look too good for her. But somewhere between smashing the glass door of the Society’s office and ending up in the hospital eighteen months later, someone had advised her to appeal against the refusal of benefit and the expulsion from the Society. She appealed using the internal society appeal procedure and, when she was unsuccessful, she appealed again to the Scottish Board of Health. The referee at the Scottish Board of Health was pretty clear that the expulsion from the Society was legitimate – creating a disturbance, breaking a glass door and being convicted of breach of the peace was clearly a case of ‘personal misconduct’ and so the Society was entitled to expel her. The problem was how to decide on the date of the expulsion. This was important, because the earlier the date, the less likely there would be a need to consider the claim for sickness benefit, which was no doubt going to be more complicated. The Referee referred the case to the courts to decide on the date of expulsion. The court was pretty clear – the original decision by the Society to expel was the correct date. The decision about the sickness benefit would then have to be looked at again, but now only for a few weeks.

This case is important for several reasons. It provides yet another case of someone being effectively refused benefit because of moral behaviour – breaking glass and making a fuss in a local office is perhaps a criminal offence, but is it really a reason to refuse someone benefit, by expelling from the Society? The fact that she ended up in a psychiatric institution may or may not be evidence of earlier mental health issues which would have entitled her to benefit. One thing is clear and that is that somewhere along the line she got advice about her right to appeal, from someone who understood the law well enough to know how to work through the complicated appeal procedures.

But more importantly for this research, Miss O’s bad behaviour in her local office has provided me with the first conclusive example of an appeal  case being heard by the Scottish Board of Health in the period between the two World Wars. Up until today, all the cases I have been able to find have related to England or Ireland. The procedure in Scotland was a little different and I haven’t been able to find any records before now. Miss O’s case ended up at the Court of Session, so a record was kept. There are a couple of others like hers but perhaps that is all I will find.

Today I have been working in the historical search room in the National Records of Scotland. It’s a small and friendly place, with wood-panelled walls, a balcony with shelves of old books, people working at terminals consulting digitised records and others sitting at big desks with old documents. Some are making handwritten notes. Others, like me, use laptops. One has a ‘Hogwarts’ sticker on her laptop. I hope she likes the atmosphere here, though it’s rather more welcoming than the Hogwarts library. Other than the excitement of finding old documents, there is no magic and no dragons though there is a carved wooden lion and unicorn above the door. There are no malicious wizards or scary teachers in sight, no quills but lots of parchment. Outside there is the archivists’ garden:

Archivists' garden, National Records of Scotland

Archivists’ garden, National Records of Scotland, June 2015

Perhaps a magic place after all.

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Cake in the archives

Heron outside the National Archives, Kew, London

Heron outside the National Archives, Kew, London

I was working my way through another batch of appeals papers in the National Archives this week.  It was slightly tedious work.  The papers had a depressing similarity to ones I’d seen before.  I wanted to stop and have another coffee. But that would involve packing up my things and going downstairs to the lovely coffee shop. Then I found cake in the archives. I was looking at an appeal case by a farmer in 1960.  He had been claiming sickness benefit until a sick visitor came spying around his farm and caught him:

‘Feeding cake to the sheep’

I don’t suppose it was chocolate gateau but it made me smile and kept me from the cafe for a little longer.  Quite apart from the cake, it turned out to be a most interesting case.  The farmer’s benefit was stopped because he was thought to be ‘working’ while claiming and so the whole case concerned whether feeding his sheep and riding a tractor constituted ‘work’.  The National Insurance Commissioners decided that it didn’t and so he was allowed to keep his benefit. But his case was typical of many cases around that time, concerning farmers and other self-employed people.  The dilemma for the decision makers was how much ‘work’ a self-employed person was allowed to do while retaining their right to benefit.  It wasn’t easy.  Most self-employed people cannot let their small businesses run entirely without some supervision, even when they are ill, but does that constitute ‘work’?  And the claimants all felt justified in their claims for benefit because, they argued, they were making considerably less money than usual, and were often losing money by paying supervisors or other assistants to do the work they normally did.  These examples of self-employed people’s claims for benefit provide useful illustrations of how sickness benefit schemes are designed to suit the working lives of people in conventional employment and do not operate well for anyone who doesn’t fit that pattern.

and a dog

My second cake moment came when I was looking through the minutes of an ‘approved society’, responsible for paying sickness benefits between 1911 and 1948.  The National Archives kept some quite detailed records of a couple of societies, for preservation, when the sickness benefit scheme transferred to the state National Insurance scheme in 1948.  The minutes, from 1912-21, mainly contain tedious discussions about staff wages and office supplies, such as how much to spend on new typewriter ribbons, as well as more interesting statistics on the cost of administering the scheme and how to manage the work of the scheme during the First World War. This is all very useful information, if you are interested in how the approved societies managed their business but it wasn’t really what I was looking for.  And then I found a dog in the archives.  In the minutes from October 1918 was this statement:

‘Brother Aubin reported a dog in Office and Brother Thompsett moved that the Secretary be asked to leave the dog at home.’

It wasn’t cake but it had the same effect. This time I really couldn’t make a connection with my research but, again, it kept me going until the next coffee break.  I stayed on till the archives shut, then I came out into the sunshine and spotted the heron in the pond outside.

 

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Novelists and doodlers

This week I have been back in the National Archives in London, working  my way through case files for appeals against refusals of sickness benefits from the 1950s.  These case files are the main source of data for my research and have provided me with valuable insights into the decision making process for sickness benefits across the twentieth century.  The files from the 1950s show me how the post-war national insurance scheme was beginning to define the important concept of incapacity for work.  Most of the cases that I am looking at from the 1950s were published and can be found (with some difficulty) in libraries but the archive copies include all the background papers relating to the case,  sometimes including letters from claimants, notes from doctors and the off-the-record opinions of the civil servants dealing with the cases. The cases include people who have been considered capable of work and often discuss alternative work that people might have been able to do.

A lost novelist?

Yesterday I came across a man who was claiming sickness benefits in the 1950s.  The Ministry of National Insurance thought he was fit for ’light clerical work’.  The claimant argued that he had tried various things and been unable to do them, including writing a novel.  This set me thinking ‘I wonder if he ever wrote that novel?  Maybe he became famous?’.  Since I had his name I thought I’d just have a quick internet search and see if his name popped up anywhere in the second hand book websites.  Sadly it didn’t.  What would I have done with that information if he had?  I’ve made a commitment to keep the people in the case files anonymous so I would have just kept the information to myself.  But I like to think that maybe he did write that novel after all and maybe published it under a pen-name.  Or maybe he had to find more mundane work after his benefit was stopped and didn’t have the energy left to write the novel in his spare time.

Doodles in the archives

And today I found a file with doodles on it.  Pencil drawings. The creations of some bored civil servant perhaps.  Maybe, like the novelist, this civil servant went on to become a famous artist? Probably not since they weren’t very good.  In the mean time what was she or he doing doodling on a copy of an important legal document?  Fortunately, perhaps for the perpetrator, it is not possible to put a name to these great works of art.

All of these things remind me of the pleasures of archive research.  As well as adding information that just can’t be found in the published material, they add these personal touches that show that the cases concerned real people, with lives and futures.  They also remind me that the people dealing with the paperwork were human too.

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Gone Fishing? working in the National Archives

Most of the material for this research project is stored in the National Archives in London. As a social scientist, this foray into archives was new to me. Most of my work in the past has involved the usual social science methods of interviews and focus groups and quite a lot of documentary research, using both paper and online documents. So how is working in archives different? The National Archives is a busy place, with a reading room full of people working quietly. On each desk there are two or three intriguing files. Readers take notes by hand or on laptops or take photos of potentially useful documents. Many of the readers are older people and people from overseas, searching for their ancestors, looking up old war records and military lists. Records from the First World War are very popular in this anniversary year. Others are researchers like me, beavering away with our obscure research projects. During my most recent visit the man at the desk beside me was reading a file marked ‘most secret’ in red ink. What could that be about? Other people’s research sometimes seems more exciting than mine but occasionally I come across something equally secret.

Cover of PIN 8/106

Cover of PIN 8/106

In amongst some dusty civil services records from 1942 was a file marked ‘Confidential. To be circulate under sealed cover’. It did not concern the top secret activities of spies during the Second World War, but the proposed arrangements for checking up on claimants of sickness benefits.  More on that in another post.

On my most recent trip to the archives I found a huge civil service file relating to appeals against refusals of ‘Housewives Non-contributory Invalidity Pension’ – a mouthful I know, but a fascinating benefit from the 1970s which I’ll write about another time. This file contained mountains of paperwork relating to appeals and will provide important information to me about how this benefit worked and the debates that mattered at the time. But the item that struck me was a handwritten note from one civil servant to another, reassuring him that the there would be no delay in getting the final decision on a forthcoming appeal:

‘’For the record, when speaking to the Chief commissioner this morning he told me that he hopes the decision of the Tribunal will issue within a week or at most a fortnight of the hearing. He wants to commence a two week fishing holiday (fly) before the middle of September!’

[in PIN 35/4911]

It’s nice to know that the decision would be made quickly but was this man’s fishing holiday more important than the thousands of women whose benefit would be affected by the Tribunal decision? These insights into the fundamental differences in the daily lives of the benefits claimants and the legal decision makers are not new but for me they bring home the reality of the papers I’m looking at. This is what Robinson* has described as the ‘physicality of archives’ – which somehow cannot be obtained from digital versions – the sense that actually seeing and touching the paper written or typed on 50 or a 100 years ago gives a closer connection to the past than a digital version can. Robinson is talking about the experience of historians and I suspect that for many historians the use of archives is a rite of passage which involves experiencing this physicality – as for sociologists or anthropologists it is the first face to face interview, drafting of a questionnaire or ethnographic encounter which provides this rite of passage – I am a social scientist of the present who uses historical material to try and understand social problems. I don’t think this physicality makes archives more factual or more reliable than any other data that social scientists rely on but they add a sense of reality.

*Robinson, E. (2010)’Touching the void: Affective history and the impossible’, in Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 14: p.503–520.

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Researching the history of incapacity benefits

Claiming incapacity benefits

If you claim Employment and Support Allowance in the UK today you will undergo a medical test to assess whether or not you are ‘capable of work’. If you are found capable of work you can appeal against this decision.  Not everybody appeals of course but many of those who do are successful, raising questions about whether the medical tests are fair.

Looking to the past

These debates are not new.   I have been looking at similar questions about how to assess people’s capacity for work right back at the beginning of the welfare state in the early 20th century.  In the National Archives in London there are records of appeal hearings against refusals of sickness benefits.  These include the case of a former miner, who could no longer work in the mines.  He was that told there was nothing wrong with his voice and he could work as a public speaker.  This man used the appeal procedure to get the decision overturned.  Another housebound disabled woman was not so lucky as the appeal judges told her that she could take in lodgers, echoing some of the debates we hear today about the bedroom tax.

My research shows that decision makers used an assortment of measures to check whether people were capable of work, ranging from sick visitors who spied on claimants to state doctors who provided second opinions on cases.  Like today, people were often unhappy with these decisions and appealed against them.  These cases involved ordinary working people who had little experience of dealing with paperwork or the law but somehow they made their way through this process to have their cases heard.

What do we mean by ‘incapacity for work’ and how has this changed?

If people qualify for benefit because they are ‘unable’ to ‘work’ then we need to have a common understanding of what we mean by work and who is expected to perform it. Looking at these appeal cases shows me that there were a whole lot of social assumptions about ‘work’ and particularly about men and women – so men were expected to do manual labour but not domestic work like cleaning or taking in washing.  Women, on the other hand, could have their benefit stopped because they had been caught doing the laundry – if they could do their own washing, then they could go out and do someone else’s; they were capable of work

I’m looking at how these ideas changed – or possibly stayed the same – across a hundred years, from the first sickness benefit scheme in 1911, the effects of mass unemployment in the 1930s, the introduction of the modern welfare state following the second world war, then the changes brought about by European laws on gender equality in the 1970s and up to the Employment and Support Allowance reforms today.

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