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.

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.

 

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.

Owls in the archives

Researchers often talk about serendipity in research: that means coming across something when you didn’t expect to, or as the dictionary defines it: ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’ (Oxford English Dictionary). My last trip to the National Library of Scotland produced such a happy accident. I was trying to find a copy of the ‘model rules’ for approved societies from 1912. These advised societies how to write rules about things like ‘behaviour during sickness’, for example when it would be appropriate to stop someone’s benefit because they had been drinking or fighting. I knew I had read these in the library before and had made some notes but wanted to check them again for further details. So I duly ordered them up through the online library catalogue. Instead of providing me with just one booklet, the librarian produced an entire box of leaflets and pamphlets – it seemed there was more than one copy of the model rules. There were rules for men, rules for women, rules for Scotland, rules for England, rules for Ireland, rules for new societies, rules for old societies. Actually they were all quite similar to each other (at least in relation to things that I was interested in). The most exciting thing for me though was a tiny little leaflet which turned out to be in entirely the wrong place. This leaflet was ‘The Family Guide to National Insurance’*, published in 1948 and, it seems, delivered to every household in the country. In it was an introduction to the scheme and, best of all, cartoons of owls. Owls claiming benefits:

Family Guide 1948 'making a claim'

Family Guide 1948 ‘making a claim’

Owls cashing their benefits

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

I loved it. I couldn’t borrow it from the library but I found a copy online in the Science Museum, an archive film about the guide on the Pathé website and, eventually, a copy available from a second hand bookseller, so I now I have my very own ‘Family Guide’. I told the library that the booklet was wrongly filed so I hope they will now be able to catalogue it and make it available to other enthusiasts (whether interested in National Insurance, public information, mid-century cartoons or owls).

What does this add to my research though? Well the process of looking for the booklet also led me to the Science Museum and the Pathé website and a whole world of archive material on the post-war National Insurance scheme. That probably doesn’t add much to my actual research but it gives me another glimpse into the world when the scheme was first introduced – and an excuse to put owls on my blog (and tweet about them @JackieGulland).

* Ministry of National Insurance (1948) Family Guide to the National Insurance Scheme. London: HMSO.

Housework and child care, reflections from International Women’s Day

So we’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day.  All over the world women demonstrated for equal rights and celebrated women’s achievements.  I spent International Women’s Day at a workshop run by the ‘Women work and value’ network in Budapest. Apart from the network event, the only signs of International Women’s Day seemed to be discounts in the tourist bars: one woman 10% off drinks, 2 women 20% off etc. I’m not sure that is what the International Day is about, and, no, we didn’t take up the offers.

At our workshop we were a little more focussed on women’s rights in the more usual sense of the word, from trade union activists in post-war Italy to redundant textile workers in today’s Croatia and care workers fighting for the right to overtime payments in the USA. All women, all low paid and all trying to get a better deal. My contribution was on the household duties tests in the UK sickness benefits schemes from the 1900s to the 1980s.

Housework not child care

I’ve written in other posts about these housework tests but what struck me at this workshop was the discussion on housework duties and ‘care’. Several of the other speakers talked about ‘care work’, either paid or unpaid in connection with providing personal care for older people and disabled people, or the work of looking after small children. In all the discussion of ‘housework’ in the archives that I have been looking at, the focus is almost entirely on the daily work that has to be done to maintain a household, with little mention of the people who live in it. So it is all about cleaning and washing, dusting and hoovering, shopping and cooking. Obviously the existence of small children or many other people in the house will increase the volume of these activities but there is barely a mention of the personal care which small children need or the sheer daily grind of getting children up and out to school, keeping them clean and getting them to bed. I also realised that the discussion in the archives is always about ‘married women’ not ‘mothers’. Now it may be assumed that married women and mothers could easily be equated in the early to mid-twentieth century but in many of the housework cases that I’ve identified, the women’s status as mothers was not mentioned. Either they did not have children, or their children were grown up or it was not felt to be relevant to discuss them. So what is happening here? It looks to me that the emphasis on housework was really that: the cleaning, cooking etc that was needed to maintain the house or the household, not the ‘child care’ that we think about today in relation to women’s ‘double burden’. So this was a recognition that housework was work but perhaps that looking after children was not – or maybe it was just so taken for granted that there was no need to mention it.

There is nothing like an international workshop like this to get you thinking about your research in a new way.

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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

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.

From the sick poor to the mobility impaired

For the Sick Poor, 1828

I found this bench in a park in a local park in a small town in Scotland. A date on the side of the bench says that it was erected in 1828. I am not familiar with the detailed history of this bench but it struck me as a historical artifact that was relevant to my research. Who knows whether the ‘sick poor’ appreciated the provision of this bench but I am sure it was well meant.

Sign on bridge

Just a little bit further along the river there is a footbridge, built to celebrate the millennium. On it there is this sign, which says ‘mobility impaired rest area’.  There didn’t seem to be anywhere to rest, just a flat bit and a railing.  I presume the purpose of this is to provide a flat area for people using wheelchairs or mobility scooters stop and look at the view without rolling down the bridge.  In which case it should really say ‘safe place for wheelchair users to stop’ or something like that.  There are many people with mobility impairments who, I imagine, would find it much more useful to have seat at this point, if it was really intended as a rest area.

I wonder what these differences in language, from the ‘sick poor’ to the ‘mobility impaired’ tell us about changing attitudes and policies for disabled people.  In 1828 there was a specific reference to poverty, although I don’t imagine a cast iron bench did much to alleviate that.  In the twenty-first century, there is an attempt to build in accessibility to the design of the bridge but the sign seems to be more concerned with getting the language right than really explaining why it is there.

Neither of these artefacts has much direct bearing on my research but they span a couple of centuries and remind me of the wider social context in which benefits policies operate.

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

Disability History Month

This month is Disability History Month. The Disability History Month website describes it as ‘an annual event creating a platform to focus on the history of our struggle for equality and human rights’.There are events across the UK, including exhibitions and talks, with many having a focus on of the First World War see this link for information about different events.
Here in Scotland, Disability History Scotland is launching a new film ‘One Last Push – The Final Battle of WWI?’ , a short animation about the history of the disability movement from World War One to the present day. Disability History Scotland will show the film as part of an evening of events on Saturday 6th December at the City Chambers in Edinburgh.  For further information and tickets, see this link