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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