A library and an art gallery: two Blakes in Newcastle 

Daniel Blake and Quentin Blake: what do a fictional character from a hard-hitting, award-winning Ken Loach film and a celebrated children’s book illustrator have in common?.  I found a connection at the Socio-Legal Studies Association annual conference, held this year at the University of Newcastle. I’ll try to explain.

The library – Daniel Blake

As I made my way through the Newcastle city streets, I could not help but notice the local accents and some of the memorable film locations in I Daniel Blake .  I passed the library where Daniel Blake tries to make an online claim for benefits and wondered if there were real people like him inside, struggling with the technology and the bureaucracy.  The library also contains a Citizens Advice Bureau so perhaps those real claimants will get the advice that Daniel Blake so desperately needed. It is perhaps obvious what the connection was between this film and the Socio-Legal Studies Association conference, where I spent most of my time in the Social Rights and Citizenship stream: listening to speakers discussing the effects of austerity and ‘welfare reform’, and the ways in which the law might, or might not, help to tackle the challenges of poverty and inequality.  I would have liked to go to other sessions, where people talked about access to justice, the increasing use of technology in social administration, homelessness, gender, disability: all themes that arise in this important film.  I referred to the film in my own paper, where I discussed historical data on how the welfare state has tried to distinguish between unemployment and ‘incapacity for work’.  Daniel Blake finds himself at the centre of this predicament but his problems are not new.  There were Daniel Blakes in the 1980s and in the 1930s, when disabled people and people with health issues struggled to find appropriate work at times of high unemployment and struggled to claim benefits when they could not access work. There were also Daniel Blakes in the 1950s, when the labour market was stronger but there was not always the right kind of work in the areas where people lived, or where social attitudes to gender and disability meant that disabled people were last in the queue for jobs.  Crucially, for my research, there were also women, facing different and often greater challenges to accessing benefits than men.  The connection between Daniel Blake and my paper at the conference was clear.

The Art Gallery – Quentin Blake

Opposite the library is the Laing Art Gallery, a less likely setting for my thoughts on this conference.  But here there was an exhibition of the work of Quentin Blake.

The conference package included a tour of the exhibition. Although I could not immediately see the socio-legal connection, as a committed fan of Quentin Blake’s work, I was not going to miss this.  The exhibition itself is stunning, with original art works, story boards, drafts, notes on how this great artist creates characters and scenes, how some of our favourite children’s book characters have come to life: Roald Dahls’s Matilda, and The Twits, David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, Michael Rosen in his devastating but somehow uplifting Sad Book and of course Quentin Blake’s own Cockatoos, Dancing Frog and the fabulous Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen (Information about all of these books here https://www.quentinblake.com/books). What I really loved about the exhibition was the space and the activity tables, which allowed adults as well as children to create their own stories, read the books and think about the nature of story-telling and illustration and, ultimately, being human.  You may think of Quentin Blake as an outstanding children’s illustrator.  That in itself is a wonderful thing but his illustrations: both in his own books and collaborations with other authors, also tackle the most important issues in society: grief and loss, inequality and difference, childhood and old age, loneliness and friendship, health and identity, justice and retribution and, in the depths of some of the darkest tales, hope.

Pop-up Museum of legal objects

But what does any of this have to do with socio-legal studies?  Well the theme of the SLSA conference this year was ‘Visions of Law’ and the plenary had speakers on graphic justice, photography, model making and art and law.  These speakers gave us much to think about.  I also participated this year in the ‘Pop-up Museum of Legal Objects’.

We were asked to choose an object – any object which could have a ‘legal’ aspect, relevant to our research – so long as the object was also publicly available in a museum or similar public place and that it had an online presence.  I chose The Family Guide to National Insurance, 1948, which I have written about here.

Family Guide to National Insurance 1948

 

We were also asked to make a model of our object – the idea being that making the model would help us to think about our research differently, perhaps bring a whole new angle to the research or maybe help us to describe our work in new ways.  My model for the conference was a mock-up of the Family Guide, showing a rather boring ‘official leaflet’.

Model of Family Guide Jackie Gulland

When you opened it up, an owl popped out, fitting I thought for a pop-up museum.

Pop-up owl Jackie Gulland

Making the model helped me to think about the nature of this leaflet, who wrote it, who read it, who drew the pictures and what were the images trying to portray?

Family Guide to National Insurance 1948

The owls under the umbrella appeared to symbolise a vision of an inclusive welfare state: one where everyone is protected, a long way from today’s vision of ‘welfare’ as negative and stigmatising.

Information about this and details of the objects are all available on the legal treasures website.  https://legaltreasure.wordpress.com/collections/pop-up-museum-of-legal-objects-2017/

So where is the connection to Quentin Blake?  I managed to bring one of his images to my talk, an image from his book Three Little Owls In this book, Quentin Blake’s owls also have umbrellas, just like those in the Family Guide.  But the main connection is in the link to creativity. Drawing, making, doing things in three dimensions can all help us to think about legal issues (or any research issues ) in new ways.  I had some great conversations about this and I left the conference buzzing.

If you haven’t done it yet, go and see I Daniel Blake (community showings going in many areas but now also out on DVD), go to the Quentin Blake exhibition (if you can’t get there, go to his website and read all of his books) and then think about what connections you can make between two Blakes and your work.

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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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