Researching the history of incapacity benefits

Claiming incapacity benefits

If you claim Employment and Support Allowance in the UK today you will undergo a medical test to assess whether or not you are ‘capable of work’. If you are found capable of work you can appeal against this decision.  Not everybody appeals of course but many of those who do are successful, raising questions about whether the medical tests are fair.

Looking to the past

These debates are not new.   I have been looking at similar questions about how to assess people’s capacity for work right back at the beginning of the welfare state in the early 20th century.  In the National Archives in London there are records of appeal hearings against refusals of sickness benefits.  These include the case of a former miner, who could no longer work in the mines.  He was that told there was nothing wrong with his voice and he could work as a public speaker.  This man used the appeal procedure to get the decision overturned.  Another housebound disabled woman was not so lucky as the appeal judges told her that she could take in lodgers, echoing some of the debates we hear today about the bedroom tax.

My research shows that decision makers used an assortment of measures to check whether people were capable of work, ranging from sick visitors who spied on claimants to state doctors who provided second opinions on cases.  Like today, people were often unhappy with these decisions and appealed against them.  These cases involved ordinary working people who had little experience of dealing with paperwork or the law but somehow they made their way through this process to have their cases heard.

What do we mean by ‘incapacity for work’ and how has this changed?

If people qualify for benefit because they are ‘unable’ to ‘work’ then we need to have a common understanding of what we mean by work and who is expected to perform it. Looking at these appeal cases shows me that there were a whole lot of social assumptions about ‘work’ and particularly about men and women – so men were expected to do manual labour but not domestic work like cleaning or taking in washing.  Women, on the other hand, could have their benefit stopped because they had been caught doing the laundry – if they could do their own washing, then they could go out and do someone else’s; they were capable of work

I’m looking at how these ideas changed – or possibly stayed the same – across a hundred years, from the first sickness benefit scheme in 1911, the effects of mass unemployment in the 1930s, the introduction of the modern welfare state following the second world war, then the changes brought about by European laws on gender equality in the 1970s and up to the Employment and Support Allowance reforms today.

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