Explorathon European Researchers’ Night

On Friday 26th September I’ll be helping out with the Explorathon European Researchers’ Night in Edinburgh.  It’s all about public engagement: getting research out of the universities and connecting with the public.  This time I won’t be talking about my research but helping out with some of the other exciting events going on in Edinburgh. Everything from ‘Meet the experts’, through ‘PhDs in an hour’ to ‘Steampunk Science’, covering topics from stem cells to teachers.  And its not just at night either.  Events start from 1pm and go on until late evening. Most events are free but you need to book for some of them. Find out more here: www.explorathon.co.uk/edinburgh

My involvement with Explorathon comes through the Beltane Public Engagement Network.  Through Beltane we try to make our research accessible to the general public.  Events like this provide exciting opportunities to do this in new and interesting ways.  An added bonus for me is that I get to meet researchers from universities across Scotland, doing research on a wide range of subjects, from science to medicine to languages and social science. We often find surprising connections in our research as well as good ideas about how to explain what we do to non-specialists.  You can meet some of them too through Explorathon.

Inclusion or exclusion?

Sometimes my research feels as if it is being conducted in a bubble. I am looking at a fairly small part of the world of social welfare and mostly in the past. A recent publication by Inclusion Scotland helps us to see things from a wider view. A Vision for an Inclusive Scotland provides a clear overview of the many ways in which disabled people are left behind: in employment, social care, transport, social security, education, protection from abuse, housing and healthcare. The general message is that policies and services should be integrated to prevent exclusion. It also reminds us that welfare benefits should not just be about getting people back to work but that they should also

support all citizens by providing an adequate income and assisting disabled people to achieve and maintain independent living. A welfare system worthy of the name should be underpinned by a commitment to fundamental human rights. All of those using it should be treated with dignity and respect. (p10).

Across the twentieth century benefits systems have often made getting back to work the key objective and have rarely treated claimants with dignity and respect. Incapacity benefits decision making has usually been focussed on narrow medical evidence which has not taken account of the many disabling barriers that make it difficult for people with disabilities and health problems to get into work. A Vision for an Inclusive Scotland reminds us that these issues are interlinked.  If public transport is inaccessible, then it is more difficult for disabled people to get to work.  If people do not get the personal help they need at the time they need it, it is more difficult for them to work.  And if it is difficult or impossible for someone to find a paid job, they need enough money to live on.  The booklet was published in Scotland just before the recent referendum on independence but its message is important at all levels of policy making and provides suggestions for how different levels of government (UK, Scotland and local) can do something about this exclusion.

Mr Bingo

Should playing bingo stop your benefit? In my research in the National Archives I found a civil service file from the 1960s which included a press cutting about the case of ‘Mr Bingo’.  According to the Daily Mail Mr Bingo was claiming sickness benefit because of a back injury but he had hit a winning streak in his local bingo hall, bringing in an average of £50 a week for the previous four months.

His sickness benefit came to £7 a week and he was also claiming the means-tested National Assistance of around £3 a week. Civil servants of the day copied the press cutting and asked what should be done about him.  There were two problems: on the one hand he was claiming a means-tested benefit and they needed to decide how to treat his ‘earnings’.  Were they income or capital?  If they were income, his National Assistance should stop.  If they counted as capital he could go on claiming so long as his winnings didn’t go above the capital limits of £600 at the time.  The other problem was whether or not playing bingo counted as work.  If Mr Bingo was working, he was not eligible for sickness benefit.  The handwritten note in the civil service file says:

Does this put him in class II [in other words, is he self-employed]?  If so he would not be entitled to sickness benefit – not incapable of playing bingo – and we could reclaim the sickness benefit paid for days of bingo

 National Archives file PIN 35/72, memo dated 2 March 1965

I’m not sure if they were being entirely serious about Mr Bingo being a self-employed professional bingo player, but his story in the media did lead to his case being referred to the Regional Medical Officer to check that he was still incapable of work.  His case illustrates one of the problems that policy makers have to struggle with when making rules about incapacity benefits

Dealing with claimants who work

Most incapacity benefits have rules that prohibit claimants from ‘working’ when they claim.  This may seem like a simple rule.  It makes sense that someone who is incapable of work is not also working.  The problem is that, if you take that rule to its logical conclusion, claimants of incapacity benefits should do nothing at all.  We can see this happening today when benefits claimants are caught going on holiday or taking part in charity fundraising events.  These kinds of activities are clearly not work but they might be evidence that a claimant is not as disabled as they say.  Equally they might be evidence that claimants are trying to do useful things with their lives even when they are unable to find or hold down conventional jobs. Decision makers have always looked for ways of finding out if someone is claiming inappropriately. But are there some kinds of work that it would be reasonable to let a claimant do? Would it not be a good idea to let people to do some work to help them get back into the labour market or learn new skills? Benefits rules have often been developed to allow ‘therapeutic work’ for these purposes.  Policy makers need a definition of ‘work’ before they can apply such a rule.  In the early years of the sickness benefit scheme, policy makers struggled with what kind of activities might count as work and would therefore stop people getting benefits.  They were particularly concerned about women doing housework.  I’ve written about this before in ‘Researching the history of incapacity benefits’.  Women were often refused benefit when they were caught doing the laundry or doing more than the most insignificant amounts of housework.  But what other kinds of work might stop a claim?

In the appeal cases I have found a woman who was selling cigarettes in her husband’s shop, a man who was helping out with his brother’s shoemaking business, a woman who was teaching herself to type with her left hand after a stroke, a man who was working as a political organiser during an election campaign and a man who was selling second-hand furniture from his back door.  All of these people had their benefit stopped because they were ‘working’.  Some won their benefit back after appeal, by persuading the judges that what they did was not ‘work’ or that their disabilities were so extensive that they could not reasonably expect to be paid by an employer.  Others were not successful and were told that they were capable of work.

As the benefits system developed over the twentieth century policy makers and legal decision makers devised rules to decide whether or not such activities counted as work and how much work a claimant could do before their benefit would be stopped.

Today ESA has its own rules about ‘permitted work’ which limit the number of hours a claimant can work and the amount of money they can earn.  There are also complicated rules about special circumstances, including ‘medically supervised work’.  But the problem still remains for claimants who successfully navigate these complex rules, that participating in work or worklike activities might lead to an investigation into their incapacity for work and to a loss of benefit.