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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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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Festive themes in the archives

I was inspired by a recent blog on burglaries at Christmas to see if there were any Christmas themes in my data. A simple search on my NVIVO files for the term ‘Christmas’ produced two results, one from 1914 and another from 1949. While adding a little Christmas spirit to the blog, both cases bring up interesting points about how eligibility for incapacity benefits concerns more than just the medical assessment of a person’s health.

A Christmas Day Brawl

In the case from 1914, the claimant had been involved in a fight outside a club on Christmas Day, had broken his leg and claimed sickness benefit. His approved society had refused benefit on the grounds that his incapacity arose out of his own ‘serious or wilful misconduct’ because the fall was the result of a drunken fight. The claimant appealed against this refusal and the appeal decision looked at the question of whether or not it was misconduct and whether the claimant was entitled to benefit. The Society also argued that, if the claimant had not started the fight, he ought to have taken his assailant to court to claim damages for the assault. There was no dispute in the case about the medical issues. Here’s what happened:

‘The Appellant was, on the afternoon of the 25th December 1914, in a working men’s club of which he is a member. Early in the afternoon there had been a dispute between the Appellant and a man named X over a game of cards and, at about 6 o’clock, after the two had left the Club the Appellant was found lying outside the door of the Club with his leg broken above the ankle. It was alleged by the Society that he had challenged X to a fight and had pulled him out of the Club for that purpose; that he had been the aggressor outside and had over-balanced himself in aiming a blow at his opponent and, in falling had broken his leg. The Appellant’s story on the other hand, was that he had left the Club first and had been followed by X who had called out to him to stop and had then broken his leg with a violent kick and had afterwards struck him more than once as he lay on the ground’

 

During the appeal hearing the adjudicators heard evidence from three witnesses: the claimant himself, ‘X’ who was the alleged assailant in the case and ‘Y’ who was a witness to the alleged fight. The case contains a long discussion of the dispute over the card game, the actions of the Club in refusing to sell alcohol to the participants and the adjudicators’ musings as to the likelihood of the dispute leading to a further fight outside. The adjudicators felt that it was more likely that X had started the fight since he was the one who had been accused ‘rightly or wrongly’ of cheating in the card game. They also discussed the likelihood of a man breaking his leg just by falling over or whether it was more likely that a leg would be broken as a result of a kick. There are several references to the amount of alcohol that each man had consumed. The claimant had ‘only one glass of beer early in the afternoon’, while X had ‘been drinking in a public house’ before going to the Club. They decided that they believed the claimant’s story, that there was no misconduct. They did not think that it was reasonable to expect him to take his assailant to court. This was irrelevant to the sickness benefit claim and so the claimant was entitled to benefit.

A Christmas Salesman

The other Christmas case comes from 1949 and concerned a man who was a self-employed salesman. He had broken his right hand and had claimed sickness benefit for two months on the grounds that the broken hand prevented him from carrying out his normal work. He was refused benefit on the grounds that he had continued to do some work, keeping his business going, and so flouting the rules which required claimants to ‘do no work’ while claiming benefit. He appealed to a local tribunal against this decision and, when he was refused again, he appealed to the National Insurance Commissioners. The published Commissioners decision gives us the outline of the case, and reveals the relevance of Christmas. In this case it was absolutely crucial. The claimant was a salesman who relied Christmas sales for his business to make a profit. He broke his hand in late October and was claiming benefit from then until mid-December, a period when he would normally be maximising his Christmas sales.

‘It is unreasonable – as in my case- to expect a self-employed man with stocks of Christmas goods laid in for selling to the shops to do absolutely nothing and idly watch the selling season pass by thus having his capital tied up in goods which will not sell the rest of the year.’

The Commissioners accepted his argument. Although he had attended to some book-keeping and tried to sell some of his Christmas stock, he was effectively not working over the relevant period and so he was entitled to sickness benefit. This case is interesting, mainly because it contains a useful discussion of the rules concerning working while claiming and how far a self-employed person could be allowed to keep their business ticking over while still being eligible for benefit. The question that remained for me was what on earth was he selling? The papers tell us that he was selling ‘Christmas goods’ and that he would be unable to sell them at other times of the year, that he was selling them to shops, that he normally drove around in a car carrying ‘heavy bags’ but we don’t know what the bags contained.

Information from:

National Health Insurance Commission (England) (1916) Reports of Decisions on Appeals and Applications under Section 67 of the National Insurance Act 1911 and Section 27 of the National Insurance Act 1913 Part III  Cd. 8239. London: HMSO,case 62
Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (1955) Reported Decisions of the Commissioner under the National Insurance Acts Vol 1. London: H.M.S.O, CS 499 KL
Archive material from The National Archives file CT 11/25

Photographs from Getty Images for illustration only

 

 

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Housework and child care, reflections from International Women’s Day

So we’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day.  All over the world women demonstrated for equal rights and celebrated women’s achievements.  I spent International Women’s Day at a workshop run by the ‘Women work and value’ network in Budapest. Apart from the network event, the only signs of International Women’s Day seemed to be discounts in the tourist bars: one woman 10% off drinks, 2 women 20% off etc. I’m not sure that is what the International Day is about, and, no, we didn’t take up the offers.

At our workshop we were a little more focussed on women’s rights in the more usual sense of the word, from trade union activists in post-war Italy to redundant textile workers in today’s Croatia and care workers fighting for the right to overtime payments in the USA. All women, all low paid and all trying to get a better deal. My contribution was on the household duties tests in the UK sickness benefits schemes from the 1900s to the 1980s.

Housework not child care

I’ve written in other posts about these housework tests but what struck me at this workshop was the discussion on housework duties and ‘care’. Several of the other speakers talked about ‘care work’, either paid or unpaid in connection with providing personal care for older people and disabled people, or the work of looking after small children. In all the discussion of ‘housework’ in the archives that I have been looking at, the focus is almost entirely on the daily work that has to be done to maintain a household, with little mention of the people who live in it. So it is all about cleaning and washing, dusting and hoovering, shopping and cooking. Obviously the existence of small children or many other people in the house will increase the volume of these activities but there is barely a mention of the personal care which small children need or the sheer daily grind of getting children up and out to school, keeping them clean and getting them to bed. I also realised that the discussion in the archives is always about ‘married women’ not ‘mothers’. Now it may be assumed that married women and mothers could easily be equated in the early to mid-twentieth century but in many of the housework cases that I’ve identified, the women’s status as mothers was not mentioned. Either they did not have children, or their children were grown up or it was not felt to be relevant to discuss them. So what is happening here? It looks to me that the emphasis on housework was really that: the cleaning, cooking etc that was needed to maintain the house or the household, not the ‘child care’ that we think about today in relation to women’s ‘double burden’. So this was a recognition that housework was work but perhaps that looking after children was not – or maybe it was just so taken for granted that there was no need to mention it.

There is nothing like an international workshop like this to get you thinking about your research in a new way.

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Gender, housework and incapacity

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I have been thinking about men and women and claims for incapacity benefits. One recurring theme has been how to deal with housework. After all, as the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley told us in 1974: ‘the only difference between employment work and housework is housework’s lack of pay’ (Oakley 1974, The  Sociology of Housework, p26).

Across the twentieth century, policy makers worried about how to decide whether or not women’s work in the home should count as evidence for capacity for work when they claimed sickness benefits.

If we count housework as ‘work’, then we can understand why it might be appropriate to use evidence of capacity for housework as evidence of capacity for paid work.  Policy makers battled over this problem for the first forty years of sickness benefits.  By the 1950s they came to a more considered view.  A legal test case in 1951 said that that  a woman’s housework should only be considered as evidence of capacity for work if it was reasonable to assume that she could be paid to do similar work for an employer, for example as a cleaner or cook:

Thus for example if a woman is capable of doing the domestic work of a normal household that would be evidence to support the view that she was capable of remunerative work because by doing for an employer what she does for her family she could reasonably be expected to obtain remuneration. [Commissioners Decision R(S)11/51, para 6]

But what about men?  The legal case did not discuss the position of men but the civil servants at the time thought about it.  They were discussing how to crack down on married women who were capable of doing housework and pondered how to treat single women.  They thought that they should be treated in the same way as married women:

I agree that the spinster or widow running a home for her sisters (or brothers) should be covered as well as the married woman

Handwritten note, October 1951 in TNA PIN 35/41

But not men:

but I think we should not be too avid in our search for the mere male who is doing his best with the housework while his wife goes out to maintain the home.

So men doing housework were just ‘helping out’ and were not to be policed in the same way as the women.

That is not to say that men were left off the hook. Gendered assumptions about men and work could also mean that men were refused benefit if they did not fit expectations of masculinities and work.

And of course the whole housework question reappeared in the 1970s when they invented Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension which I’ve discussed before here.

belated Happy International Women’s Day

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Desperate measures

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

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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.

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Mr Bingo

Should playing bingo stop your benefit? In my research in the National Archives I found a civil service file from the 1960s which included a press cutting about the case of ‘Mr Bingo’.  According to the Daily Mail Mr Bingo was claiming sickness benefit because of a back injury but he had hit a winning streak in his local bingo hall, bringing in an average of £50 a week for the previous four months.

His sickness benefit came to £7 a week and he was also claiming the means-tested National Assistance of around £3 a week. Civil servants of the day copied the press cutting and asked what should be done about him.  There were two problems: on the one hand he was claiming a means-tested benefit and they needed to decide how to treat his ‘earnings’.  Were they income or capital?  If they were income, his National Assistance should stop.  If they counted as capital he could go on claiming so long as his winnings didn’t go above the capital limits of £600 at the time.  The other problem was whether or not playing bingo counted as work.  If Mr Bingo was working, he was not eligible for sickness benefit.  The handwritten note in the civil service file says:

Does this put him in class II [in other words, is he self-employed]?  If so he would not be entitled to sickness benefit – not incapable of playing bingo – and we could reclaim the sickness benefit paid for days of bingo

 National Archives file PIN 35/72, memo dated 2 March 1965

I’m not sure if they were being entirely serious about Mr Bingo being a self-employed professional bingo player, but his story in the media did lead to his case being referred to the Regional Medical Officer to check that he was still incapable of work.  His case illustrates one of the problems that policy makers have to struggle with when making rules about incapacity benefits

Dealing with claimants who work

Most incapacity benefits have rules that prohibit claimants from ‘working’ when they claim.  This may seem like a simple rule.  It makes sense that someone who is incapable of work is not also working.  The problem is that, if you take that rule to its logical conclusion, claimants of incapacity benefits should do nothing at all.  We can see this happening today when benefits claimants are caught going on holiday or taking part in charity fundraising events.  These kinds of activities are clearly not work but they might be evidence that a claimant is not as disabled as they say.  Equally they might be evidence that claimants are trying to do useful things with their lives even when they are unable to find or hold down conventional jobs. Decision makers have always looked for ways of finding out if someone is claiming inappropriately. But are there some kinds of work that it would be reasonable to let a claimant do? Would it not be a good idea to let people to do some work to help them get back into the labour market or learn new skills? Benefits rules have often been developed to allow ‘therapeutic work’ for these purposes.  Policy makers need a definition of ‘work’ before they can apply such a rule.  In the early years of the sickness benefit scheme, policy makers struggled with what kind of activities might count as work and would therefore stop people getting benefits.  They were particularly concerned about women doing housework.  I’ve written about this before in ‘Researching the history of incapacity benefits’.  Women were often refused benefit when they were caught doing the laundry or doing more than the most insignificant amounts of housework.  But what other kinds of work might stop a claim?

In the appeal cases I have found a woman who was selling cigarettes in her husband’s shop, a man who was helping out with his brother’s shoemaking business, a woman who was teaching herself to type with her left hand after a stroke, a man who was working as a political organiser during an election campaign and a man who was selling second-hand furniture from his back door.  All of these people had their benefit stopped because they were ‘working’.  Some won their benefit back after appeal, by persuading the judges that what they did was not ‘work’ or that their disabilities were so extensive that they could not reasonably expect to be paid by an employer.  Others were not successful and were told that they were capable of work.

As the benefits system developed over the twentieth century policy makers and legal decision makers devised rules to decide whether or not such activities counted as work and how much work a claimant could do before their benefit would be stopped.

Today ESA has its own rules about ‘permitted work’ which limit the number of hours a claimant can work and the amount of money they can earn.  There are also complicated rules about special circumstances, including ‘medically supervised work’.  But the problem still remains for claimants who successfully navigate these complex rules, that participating in work or worklike activities might lead to an investigation into their incapacity for work and to a loss of benefit.

 

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Making links across time and space

What links German peasants in the 1500s, travelling people in Sweden in the 1960s, and applicants to special educational needs appeals in the USA today?

These groups of people were all discussed in papers at conferences which I attended recently. One of the great things about conferences is the opportunity to hear about research that you wouldn’t immediately think was relevant to your own but which allows you to make links across time and space and topic. So what did I learn about this group of  people from very different times and places?

Disability and social welfare in Germany in the 1500s

It was at a European conference on social history  that I went to a session on ‘Disability in early modern society’, which focussed on times before 1800. Angela Schattner from the German Historical Institute in London talked about her research on Public welfare in Germany in the 1500s. She observed that access to welfare only became available when all other sources of support had fallen away. Such welfare was pretty limited and might amount only to the right to beg. The definition of incapacity in her cases had nothing to do with impairment as such or the ‘ability to work’ but people’s ability to provide for themselves, which included access to family resources.  In those days, before the welfare state as we understand it today, there was less of a concern with ‘incapacity for work’ and more of a concern with ‘inability to have enough money to live on’, which are two slightly different things.

Travelling people in Sweden

Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir from Linnaeus University in Sweden talked about a social initiative in Sweden in the 1960s which attempted to provide medical and social services to ‘Swedish Gypsies’. A campaigning doctor of the time, John Takman, carried out a mass study of everybody classified as a ‘gypsy’, which involved medical examinations, home visits and advice on social needs, including housing, education, health needs and job advice. The study was organised by the Swedish Labour Board and its purpose was to integrate the Gypsy people into mainstream Swedish community and for them to find work . When I first saw the title of this paper I did not immediately think it had any relevance to my research but I was struck almost straight away when Ida introduced the paper, describing the Swedish gypsies as ‘socially handicapped’ and ‘partially able-bodied’. These were not her words but (translations of) the words used at the time to describe the travelling community. Here was a link between her research and mine. Although the group of people that she is interested in were discriminated against on the grounds of ethnicity rather than disability, the problems they were experiencing were framed in the same way as those of people who have difficulty finding work because of disabilities or health issues.
As with many government attempts to provide services for disabled people, the survey and its consequences were not entirely positive and there have been many criticisms of it. What I learned from this though, was that a social model of ‘labour market disadvantage’ can encompass both physical or mental impairment and social disadvantage because of ethnicity and social background … but the views of professionals, in particular medical professionals, can still carry very heavy weight within this model.

Thanks to Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir for this information, also available on her University website

The secret law of disability?

And, finally, at the Law and Society Association conference  Jasmine Harris from the American University Washington College of Law gave a paper on the ‘Secret Law of Disability’ where she argued that legal hearings on social security, special educational needs and mental health should be held in public rather than in private. We tend to think these kinds of hearings should be private to protect people’s privacy but Jasmine Harris argued that they should be public so that issues concerning discrimination against disabled people would be more publicly debated. That connects to some ideas that I have been having about the ethics of using people’s names compared with keeping them anonymous in historical research. As a social scientist, the codes of ethics that I follow usually emphasise the importance of anonymity but historians tend to use people’s real names, and sometimes photographs if they are available. I’ve been wondering where the boundary lies.

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