Being creative with conference presentations

I’ve been a bit lost in book writing lately but I have the chance to do something a little different at a forthcoming conference. I will be going to the Socio-Legal Studies Association conference in Newcastle in April.

Incapacity and unemployment

In one presentation I will talk about the link between incapacity benefits and unemployment.  It is well established that claims for incapacity benefits go up in times of high unemployment and people are more likely to claim incapacity benefits in areas where there are fewer jobs.  It is fairly easy to understand why this is: people with health issues or impairments find it more difficult to find jobs at the best of times and struggle when there are fewer jobs to go around.  But legal decision makers have always argued that it is possible to distinguish between ‘unemployment’ and ‘incapacity for work’.  So people who have health issues and can’t find jobs are often described as unemployed rather than unable to work.  This has important consequences for their benefits entitlement, how much they may be entitled to and whether they have to look for work in order to qualify. My paper will show how these legal ideas developed across the twentieth century.

Owls popping up all over the place

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

My second paper will be a little different.  Here I will be taking part in the ‘Pop-up Museum of Legal Objects’.  I will use this innovative session to talk about a little booklet from 1948 which advertised the new post-war National Insurance scheme.  I’ve written about it on the blog before – see here.  When I was in the National Archives a few weeks ago, I found out a bit more about this leaflet so I have more to say. The pop-up museum asks me to make a model of my object so I have a bit of work to do. I’ve been looking in charity shops and getting out the glue….  If this gets too interesting, I might be taking the Blue Peter skills to the other session too.

 

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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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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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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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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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Gender history seminar

The gender history seminar at the University of Edinburgh has asked me to talk about my work.  I’ll be presenting ‘work in progress’ on Wednesday 6th May, 5-6.30pm, Meadows Lecture Theatre, William Robertson Wing, details at this link.  Access information at this link  All welcome. Find out more about the gender history network on their facebook page

My talk will provide an overview of the research discussed in this blog.  Here’s the outline:

A considerable capacity for housework”: gender, disability and the construction of (in)capacity for work across the 20 century

This paper is based on research the development of incapacity benefits in the UK across the 20th century. Incapacity benefits are usually paid to claimants who are considered to be ‘incapable of work’ but the legal and social construction of this concept has been debated since the first sickness insurance scheme was introduced in 1911. While we might expect definitions of ‘incapacity for work’ to focus solely on the kind of work that people can do outside the home, in the early 20th century, policy makers and decision makers continually struggled with whether or not women’s work in the home should count as evidence of capacity for work in the labour market. Students of social policy and post-war social history are familiar with William Beveridge’s statement that housewives did not need to be part of a scheme for national insurance because they had ‘other duties’*. The problem of the ‘male breadwinner’ model of national insurance has been widely discussed in the literature. However, little attention has been paid to the working women (both married and single) who did qualify for benefits as a result of their national insurance contribution records. This paper looks at these women and the ways in which gendered assumptions about their role in the domestic sphere were used to consider the capacity for work in the labour market.

Using archive data from across the 20th century and legal decisions on disputed claims, the paper explores the relationship between ‘household duties’ and ‘work’, showing that the concept of ‘incapacity for work ‘ was closely connected with assumptions about the kind of work that women (and men) were expected to do, both within and outside the home.

* Beveridge, W. (1942). Social Insurance and Allied Services, Cmnd 6404. London: HMSO, para 114.

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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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