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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Challenge Poverty Week

PrintIt’s Challenge Poverty Week.  I’ve contributed a blog post to ‘Let’s discuss Poverty’ a blog site with contributions from writers and academics across Scotland, writing about their research on poverty. There are blogs on women, sanctions, children, students, and one from me on history. Have a look here

Challenge Poverty Week is co-ordinated by the Poverty Alliance. Here’s what they say about Challenge Poverty Week  17-23 October 2015:

“More than 900,000 people in Scotland live in low income households. In a rich country like ours this is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Challenge Poverty Week is an opportunity for you to raise you voice against poverty and show what is being done to tackle poverty across. Organisations large and small supported Challenge Poverty Week last year, and we hope even more get behind it this year. 

The main aims of the week are to:

  • Highlight the reality of poverty and challenge the stereotypes about exist about it;
  • Demonstrate what is being done across Scotland to address poverty
  • Increase public support for more action to combat poverty 

We are encouraging as many groups and individuals to get involved in Challenge Poverty Week by organising activities or taking part in activities organised by others.”

For information on events go to http://povertyalliance.org/challenge_poverty

and on Twitter #CPW15

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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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Severe Disablement Allowance in Scotland

This week I have been thinking about the proposals to devolve some welfare benefits to the Scottish Parliament.  You can find the detailed proposals in Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement here.  One of the proposals that has been puzzling me is the plan to devolve powers for ‘Benefits for carers, disabled people and those who are ill’ (page 51).  This proposes to devolve Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Carers Benefit,  Personal Independence Payment and Industrial Injuries Benefits.  These are benefits for ‘carers and disabled people’.  But who are they thinking about when they say they are going to devolve benefits for ‘people who are ill’?  Most of us would imagine that this meant people who are short term sick (who might currently be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay or an employer’s sick pay scheme) or perhaps people who might be currently entitled to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).  But the Report is quite clear that ESA and the new Universal Credit will remain reserved to Westminster.  The only benefit to be devolved which appears to be for ‘people who are ill’ is Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA).  Now this is a strange thing.  Severe Disablement Allowance was stopped in 2001 and the only people who qualify for it are people who were eligible at that point and who have a continuing entitlement.  There is a program to transfer all of those claimants to ESA eventually. This clause looks as if it is proposing to give the Scottish Parliament powers to decide what to do with the people who are currently claiming SDA in Scotland, but that is all.  According to government statistics there were around 25,000 people claiming SDA in Scotland in 2011. I can’t immediately find up-to-date figures but the number will be less now that some of those will have been transferred to ESA. What puzzles me is why this benefit has been included in the plans to devolve disability benefits while all the other ‘earnings replacement’ benefits for disabled people will remain reserved to Westminster.

Severe Disablement Allowance and history

So what does this have to do with my research on the history of incapacity benefits?  Severe Disablement Allowance has an interesting history because it was first introduced in 1983 to replace the discredited and sexist Non-contributory Invalidity Pension and Housewives Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension.  It was designed to make sure that roughly the same number of people who had qualified for NCIP and HNCIP would qualify.  It was always an unusual benefit because it was non-means-tested and non-contributory and paid at a lower rate than most other contributory benefits.  This meant that the people who qualified for it either had to depend on means-tested benefits as well or had other income, for example from a working partner or a pension or private income from another source.  The main people who really benefitted from it were married women with working partners – the very people that HNCIP had attempted to exclude.  When it was abolished in 2001 these married or cohabiting women were the people most likely to lose out again (Wikely 2000).

Was there a mistake?

So why has it been included in the proposals to devolve benefits to Scotland?  I suspect it is not because of its convoluted history. Having a whole new separate set of rules for the remaining 25,000 or so claimants in Scotland seems quite bizarre and it is very strange that this is the only earnings replacement disability benefit to be devolved. The Scotland in the United Kingdom report makes a snide comment about the Smith Commission when it comments on its failure to get its terms right in relation to industrial injuries benefits ‘This is not at term used by the UK Government’ (p51, footnote 5).  There is a form of industrial injuries benefit called Exceptionally Severe Disablement Allowance. This is paid to people with impairments as a result of an industrial injury or disease which means they need constant care and attention and are likely to need this on a permanent basis.  Is it possible that this is what the Smith Commission meant to recommend devolving and that neither report understood what it meant when it proposed to devolve Severe Disablement Allowance?

Maybe I’ve missed something but these proposals only add to the strange and confused history of Severe Disablement Allowance and its predecessors.

References

Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement Cm 8990, (2015) London, HMSO

Smith, (2015) The Smith Commission: Report of the Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament

Wikely, N (2000) ‘Social Security and Disability ‘ in  Harris, N. (Ed.), Social Security Law in Context. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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