I, Daniel Blake

With the release of Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film I, Daniel Blake, ears will be burning in Jobcentre Plus offices around the country. For those who have not yet seen it, the film is about the extremities of insensitivity in our benefits system and the unfairness it is capable of inflicting on people claiming benefits. A number of JCP staff in Newcastle (where the film is set) are depicted as uncaring bureaucrats, administering a cruel system, driving decent people to penury.

That’s the story –in real life it must surely be making staff in JCP offices think hard about how they help people who are out of work. In my experience, most JCP staff want to support clients and sometimes break the rules to do so (as indeed, does one adviser in the film.) Some doubtless feel the system is stacked against them. 

The ordeals that the main characters suffer at the hands of the system are all plausible, though they may not, in truth, reflect the experience of most claimants. That there are seriously dysfunctional elements in the system however, is hard to dispute.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) comes in for special criticism. As the film opens Daniel, a 60 year old widowed joiner recovering from a heart attack, is undergoing a telephone interview for his  WCA with an unseen and singularly uncompassionate “health professional.” His interviewer seems under pressure to get the job done and sticks slavishly to her script without wanting to hear about, Daniel’s heart condition.

Daniel is declared “fit for work,” when in fact he is nothing of the sort. His struggle with DWP bureaucracy and its confusing plethora of computer generated electronic forms and anonymous  telephone voice messages, begins with this shoddy assessment.

Elements in much of what follows will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed the UK’s “welfare to work” system first hand. Through the characters of Daniel, a single mother Katie and her two children, Loach’s critique emerges. Its predominant theme is that the system is inhumanly cruel – Loach feels deliberately so.

A Jobcentre Plus officer I spoke to yesterday reassured me that his colleagues were not all the hard, ruthless individuals depicted in the film and that in many cases they disagreed with the system they had to apply. (I hardly needed to be told this, having met many personally in connection with my work in Shaw Trust.)

Daniel is sanctioned by an insensitive JCP Adviser who refuses to accept his face to face efforts in job searching in preference to printed CV’s and emailed applications, which he can’t manage because of his lack of IT skills. In fact, I am told, such sanctioning would be unlikely to happen without prior warning.

Similarly, in real life Daniel would be sure to get help in his struggles with the Jobcentre’s computer based Universal Job-Match system.  In reality, JCP staff are not just vindictive jobs-worths making life difficult for people less fortunate than themselves, but ordinary people operating a flawed system -  though one accepts that it is really the latter which Loach is targeting in the film.    

These exaggerations should not disguise the fact of fundamental injustices in the welfare to work system however. The Work Capability Assessment, rightly singled out for criticism, has marked a particularly bad episode for JCP. It was introduced (with cross Party support in 2007) to try to shift long term Incapacity Benefit claimants to either the new Employment and Support Allowance or Job Seeker’s Allowance. A huge number of people needed to be reassessed and reallocated and many mistakes were made in the haste.

On BBC’s Question Time last night, Loach asked why the Work Capability Assessments were needed when the opinion of an individual’s GP or Consultant would be based on better knowledge of the individual’s health condition. This seems a fair point.

The WCA was conceived as a tool to encourage people to focus on work they could do rather than that which they could not, as well of course, as a device to reduce the welfare bill.  Viewed abstractly, this seems reasonable though in practice it has proved disastrous. The tests have been widely criticised for refusing benefits to deserving applicants and the very high level of successful appeals against awards.  

From the outset, the French company Atos, contracted to deliver the WCA, struggled to recruit enough nurses, doctors and physiotherapists to carry out the assessments. Maximus, an American company which has taken over the contract since March 2015, appears to be having the same problem today.

The performance of Atos was strongly criticised by among others, the National Audit Office in 2012 and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in 2013. More than half of the original decisions (refusing Employment and Support Allowance) are overturned. In a modest concession announced on the 1st October, the Government removed the requirement for chronically sick benefit claimants to undergo six monthly test to prove they are still ill.

Another aspect of what Loach describes as cruelty in our welfare to work system, is the regime  of sanctions for claimants who do not comply with the terms of their Jobseekers Agreements.  He is not alone. The Parliamentary Select Committee for Work and Pensions (comprising MPs from all parties) has repeatedly called for a full independent review of whether benefits sanctions are being fairly applied across the JCP network. (Surely the Government should now respond.)

Sanctions can be applied when someone fails to follow the terms of their Jobseeker’s Agreement including failing to show they are actively seeking work, so in this the film reflects reality. For Daniel, a horny handed joiner who only muster a handwritten CV, face to face approaches to find work seems a logical method – but proof of his efforts is not available to show his adviser.

Can all this really happen in Britain in 2016? According to Benefits and Work, www.benefitsandwork.co.uk an organisation supporting UK benefits claimants, “Sanctions against claimants have reached record levels and it is very clear that they are being imposed for the tiniest of deviation from agreements or even for no good reason whatsoever.” One problem is that while sanctions can be disputed and are often overturned, the individual will frequently be without payment while their appeal is being progressed.

So this film will give pause for thought to everyone who works in the welfare to work system -  however remote from the disaster zone depicted. In some respects it falls short of reality, but then what movie doesn’t?

Awarded the Cannes festival’s Palme d’Or, the film was also released in France this week. The Newspaper Liberation criticised it for a “binary view” of society, in other words a black and white picture in which “disadvantaged people with their pockets full of goodness are opposed to the perverse stiffness of the social services… All the poor people are good and all the bureaucrats are evil.”  

Well perhaps, but I still think that Daniel’s passionate statement, drafted for his appeal hearing, should be hung on the walls of benefit offices around the country. I won’t quote it now, but go and see the film. As a reminder of our why we are here, it takes some beating.

Comments to: Chris.Ball@shaw-trust.org.uk 

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