Mary Macarthur

I’m delighted to see that Mary Macarthur, who was a campaigner for women’s rights to sickness benefits, has been commemorated today by a blue plaque on her home in London. Information here

In her very short life, Mary Macarthur was active in the labour and trade union movement, campaigning for women’s rights in the workplace. She stood (unsuccessfully) for parliament in 1918, as a Labour candidate, campaigning, among other things, for equal pay, a living wage, peace, the abolition of the Poor Law and the House of Lords and the right of allotment holders to ‘the fruits and vegetables of their labours’.*

Mary Macarthur and sickness benefits

Less well known are her efforts to improve sickness benefits for working women.  The UK’s first national insurance sickness benefit scheme was launched in 1911.  Within a year of its introduction a committee was set up to look at ‘excessive claims’ for benefit.  The committee met for seven months and collected evidence from ninety-four witnesses and looked at 1,500 pages of written evidence.  Mary Macarthur was a member of the committee, representing the Women’s Trade Union League.  Her involvement on the committee included listening to the evidence of the witnesses, giving evidence on behalf of the National Federation of Women Workers and writing a dissenting memorandum to the final report.  In her evidence and her dissenting memorandum she stressed the need to take account of the realities of working class women’s lives in deciding their claims for sickness benefit.  She dismissed ideas that women were claiming benefit in order to get away from the factories, or because they could get more money from benefit than they could earn her wages, or because they couldn’t understand the principles of the insurance scheme.  She argued instead that women had a right to benefit because they were ill and had contributed to the scheme through their work in the factories.

For more information about the committee and Mary Macarthur’s involvement in the sickness benefit scheme, see my contribution to the Dangerous Women project and  Gulland, J. (2013), ‘Extraordinary Housework: women and claims for sickness benefit in the early 20th century’, Women’s History Magazine, 71, Spring 2013, pp23-30.

For further information on Mary Macarthur, see Angela John, ‘Macarthur, Mary Reid (1880-1921)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004).  Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30411 Access to the online edition is often available through public libraries

* Election address reproduced in Barnesly, T. 2010 Breaking their chains: Mary Macarthur and the chainmaker’s strike of 1910, London: Bookmarks Publications.

Hunt, C. (2014) The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-1921. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

 

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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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Poverty and disability benefits: a view from the past

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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

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