This week I have been back in the National Archives in London, working my way through case files for appeals against refusals of sickness benefits from the 1950s. These case files are the main source of data for my research and have provided me with valuable insights into the decision making process for sickness benefits across the twentieth century. The files from the 1950s show me how the post-war national insurance scheme was beginning to define the important concept of incapacity for work. Most of the cases that I am looking at from the 1950s were published and can be found (with some difficulty) in libraries but the archive copies include all the background papers relating to the case, sometimes including letters from claimants, notes from doctors and the off-the-record opinions of the civil servants dealing with the cases. The cases include people who have been considered capable of work and often discuss alternative work that people might have been able to do.
A lost novelist?
Yesterday I came across a man who was claiming sickness benefits in the 1950s. The Ministry of National Insurance thought he was fit for ’light clerical work’. The claimant argued that he had tried various things and been unable to do them, including writing a novel. This set me thinking ‘I wonder if he ever wrote that novel? Maybe he became famous?’. Since I had his name I thought I’d just have a quick internet search and see if his name popped up anywhere in the second hand book websites. Sadly it didn’t. What would I have done with that information if he had? I’ve made a commitment to keep the people in the case files anonymous so I would have just kept the information to myself. But I like to think that maybe he did write that novel after all and maybe published it under a pen-name. Or maybe he had to find more mundane work after his benefit was stopped and didn’t have the energy left to write the novel in his spare time.
Doodles in the archives
And today I found a file with doodles on it. Pencil drawings. The creations of some bored civil servant perhaps. Maybe, like the novelist, this civil servant went on to become a famous artist? Probably not since they weren’t very good. In the mean time what was she or he doing doodling on a copy of an important legal document? Fortunately, perhaps for the perpetrator, it is not possible to put a name to these great works of art.
All of these things remind me of the pleasures of archive research. As well as adding information that just can’t be found in the published material, they add these personal touches that show that the cases concerned real people, with lives and futures. They also remind me that the people dealing with the paperwork were human too.
Most of the material for this research project is stored in the National Archives in London. As a social scientist, this foray into archives was new to me. Most of my work in the past has involved the usual social science methods of interviews and focus groups and quite a lot of documentary research, using both paper and online documents. So how is working in archives different? The National Archives is a busy place, with a reading room full of people working quietly. On each desk there are two or three intriguing files. Readers take notes by hand or on laptops or take photos of potentially useful documents. Many of the readers are older people and people from overseas, searching for their ancestors, looking up old war records and military lists. Records from the First World War are very popular in this anniversary year. Others are researchers like me, beavering away with our obscure research projects. During my most recent visit the man at the desk beside me was reading a file marked ‘most secret’ in red ink. What could that be about? Other people’s research sometimes seems more exciting than mine but occasionally I come across something equally secret.
Cover of PIN 8/106
In amongst some dusty civil services records from 1942 was a file marked ‘Confidential. To be circulate under sealed cover’. It did not concern the top secret activities of spies during the Second World War, but the proposed arrangements for checking up on claimants of sickness benefits. More on that in another post.
On my most recent trip to the archives I found a huge civil service file relating to appeals against refusals of ‘Housewives Non-contributory Invalidity Pension’ – a mouthful I know, but a fascinating benefit from the 1970s which I’ll write about another time. This file contained mountains of paperwork relating to appeals and will provide important information to me about how this benefit worked and the debates that mattered at the time. But the item that struck me was a handwritten note from one civil servant to another, reassuring him that the there would be no delay in getting the final decision on a forthcoming appeal:
‘’For the record, when speaking to the Chief commissioner this morning he told me that he hopes the decision of the Tribunal will issue within a week or at most a fortnight of the hearing. He wants to commence a two week fishing holiday (fly) before the middle of September!’
[in PIN 35/4911]
It’s nice to know that the decision would be made quickly but was this man’s fishing holiday more important than the thousands of women whose benefit would be affected by the Tribunal decision? These insights into the fundamental differences in the daily lives of the benefits claimants and the legal decision makers are not new but for me they bring home the reality of the papers I’m looking at. This is what Robinson* has described as the ‘physicality of archives’ – which somehow cannot be obtained from digital versions – the sense that actually seeing and touching the paper written or typed on 50 or a 100 years ago gives a closer connection to the past than a digital version can. Robinson is talking about the experience of historians and I suspect that for many historians the use of archives is a rite of passage which involves experiencing this physicality – as for sociologists or anthropologists it is the first face to face interview, drafting of a questionnaire or ethnographic encounter which provides this rite of passage – I am a social scientist of the present who uses historical material to try and understand social problems. I don’t think this physicality makes archives more factual or more reliable than any other data that social scientists rely on but they add a sense of reality.
*Robinson, E. (2010)’Touching the void: Affective history and the impossible’, in Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 14: p.503–520.
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.