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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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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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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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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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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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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