Last Saturday, I went to see a film called “I, Daniel Blake”. It focuses on a man who suffered a major heart attack and yet was still deemed fit to work by a “healthcare professional” from the company running Work Capability Assessments. He has to appeal to get his disability benefit whilst in the meantime claim Jobseeker’s Allowance and try to find work his doctor tells him he is not well enough to do. He befriends a single mother who gets her benefits stopped because she was slightly late to a job centre interview due to being lost in a city she didn’t know. She is then driven to get food from a foodbank. It is heart-breaking to see how desperate her and her family become and is sadly too common in a country in which the usage of foodbanks are steadily increasing.
During the majority of the Coalition government years many of us heard horror stories of how people being declared fit for work after their work capability assessment (WCA) subsequently died. We also saw how many people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance were being made to work for their benefits with the infamous “workfare” scheme. Many people campaigned against all of this and we made sure that people on the workfare scheme were then paid the minimum wage for their work. Furthermore the company ATOS who were in charge of the WCA lost their contract because of pressure from campaigners. However, instead of the government making sure doctors were at the forefront of assessing people’s fitness to work, the WCA contract was instead awarded to another private healthcare company, Maximus.
Since the Conservatives’ general election victory in 2015, there have been even worse things happening in the benefits system. ESA claimants had their benefits cut by £30 a week. Disabled people lost their Independent Living Fund which helped them function in everyday society. Some of that money was then given to local councils so they could administer the support. However this money was not ring-fenced so many people have now lost the support they previously got. The previous Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith even resigned supposedly because he felt the planned cuts to disability benefits were a step too far. Many of us doubted his sincerity in the reason for his resignation as he was a well-known advocate for leaving the EU. Subsequently he became one of the poster boys for the official leave campaign.
Given the Tories promise of a Referendum on the EU, the attention of the media and many of us became focused on the debate surrounding it. Given that were also local council elections, London, Scottish and Welsh Assembly elections at the same time, the cruelty of the benefits system sadly got side-lined. The closest we got to this issue in the national news since the 2015 general election was IDS’s resignation and Jeremy Corbyn pressuring the government to abandon their planned cuts to Working Tax Credits. Not that there wasn’t anybody campaigning on this. Indeed, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have been doing vital work on this and in his researching on the film, Ken Loach has been travelling around the country in the last few years to see the devastating impact of benefit sanctions and austerity.
Just a personal take on this now. After I graduated from University, I claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance for two years on and off whilst only finding temporary work. However since the summer of 2013, I have luckily been in steady full-time employment. Whilst I was claiming JSA, I was subjected to the “workfare” scheme and was made to work in Tesco for four weeks with just my benefits and travel expenses paid. If I had refused to do this, they said it could have affected my benefit payments because I would be refusing an offer of employment despite the fact that this job was paying far less than the legal minimum wage. Tesco got free Labour and there was not a paid full-time job at the end of it. Going back to the film, it shows the main character being forced to do a CV workshop despite the fact he wasn’t fit to work yet. This particularly resonated with me as I was put on a couple of pointless courses that were genuinely of no benefit to me. Indeed in the CV writing course I went on, they used my CV as a template for others to do theirs. I did do further education courses whilst I was unemployed but these were ones I found myself. Every job I applied for on the government’s Universal Jobmatch website led to nothing. I eventually found a full-time job but only due to my friend recommending me at his workplace. My point being that for the most part, the Job Centre barely helps you. An investigation has shown that the Job Centre advisors actually have targets to meet in terms of sanctioning claimants. Anyone of us could end up in a similar situation to Daniel Blake. Being made redundant, suffering major illness, being denied disability benefits and being forced to look for work despite the advice from your doctor.
Whilst “I, Daniel Blake” has stirred up my anger again towards the government’s disgusting treatment of our most vulnerable, it has also given me hope. Not only did the film shine a light on the degrading way benefit claimants are treated by the system, it showed that fellow citizens will help each other. Whether that is a neighbour, a Job Centre employee, a foodbank volunteer or indeed a stranger you meet in who is in a similar predicament.
I urge you and anyone you know to see the film if you haven’t and if it riles up a sense of anger and injustice, then good. Channel that anger in activism. If you know a friend that is being treatment awfully in the system, help them. If you see that a local foodbank needs volunteers or more food, do what you can to help. Even if you just share this blog or write to your MP or the Department of Work and Pensions, we can all play our part. Theresa May will continue her hollow rhetoric on creating a society “that works for everyone”. Don’t believe it for a second. The incredibly flawed Universal Credit system is being spread to more parts of the country and the Work Capability Assessments are continuing to play havoc and wreck people’s lives. The next four years at least are going to be grim for many of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. A few years ago, Cameron talked about creating a “Big Society”. Well you know what, let’s create that. Let’s show the Tories that we will not continue to accept their appalling treatment of our fellow citizens and that they are not “ just National Insurance Numbers or Statistics” as Daniel Blake puts it.