Before you write anything, if you choose their words, they have won half the battle. What Britain possessed in the past was a social security system – something you paid into through National Insurance contributions and then received benefits from as of right when you were unemployed or sick. Slowly, inexorably this social security system has been transformed into a ‘welfare’ state, which dispenses financial assistance from ‘hard working taxpayers’ to those unfortunates who run into hard times. Unemployment benefit has morphed into Jobseekers Allowance (don’t spend it all on sweets children or we’ll take it away). These people inevitably become a burden borne by the majority. Think of that enormous ‘welfare bill’ or the ‘welfare cap’.
But even here words tell lies. As I Daniel Blake demonstrates (a fictional film which distils the real life experiences of hundreds of thousands of people) to describe the system administered by the Department of Work and Pensions as a welfare state, is rather like dubbing the Russian military a befriending service*. A more accurate depiction of it is a ‘punishment state’ or ‘fuck you state’ or a ‘please die quietly and don’t disturb us state’. The last thing this system does is to look after the welfare of its ‘customers’. If you don’t have a mental health problem before you enter this hellish world, you probably soon will.
“They’ll fuck you around and make it as miserable as possible,” says one character in I, Daniel Blake. Therein speaks the voice of experience that a thousand newspaper pundits seem unable to grasp. That’s the entire point – to humiliate you so you accept any conceivable work, or drop your claim altogether (which the lead character in I Daniel Blake does), so they can trim the figures and tell the media how well they are combatting ‘worklessness’.
‘Can you help me fill in the form because I can’t write?’ I asked a JobCentre ‘greeter’ after they had twice lost my application for Employment and Support Allowance I submitted with the help of a friend following a stroke in 2010 which made handwriting impossible. ‘No, we can’t do that because it involves money,” was the answer. A few weeks later came the farce of a work capability assessment which declared me fit to work, when I was barely fit to go the bathroom. But for any future employers out there, I can assure them it’s been categorically proved beyond a shadow of doubt that I can raise my hands above my shoulders at least once.
I know what the reaction of many people to I, Daniel Blake will be. The story is an extreme one based on anecdotal evidence, they will protest – most people who go through the system can’t have these experiences. But, if anything, the tale of 59 year old Daniel Blake, a carpenter who suffers a heart attack and applies for Employment and Support Allowance, is restrained. He goes through a work capability assessment, and is found (surprise, surprise) fit for work, a decision confirmed by a ‘mandatory re-assessment’. He appeals but is forced to claim Jobseekers Allowance in the meantime as his only source of income. He is sanctioned (all his money is stopped) for not being able to prove he is looking for work which his doctors have told him he’s not meant to do. Eventually, he drops his claim, and lives on nothing.
I, Daniel Blake seems filmed almost entirely in close-up. I only remember one wider city-scape shot. There is a reason for that. The claustrophobic style mimics the perception the protagonists themselves for whom the outside world gradually loses all meaning. Everything becomes focussed on the next thing you have to do – filling in that form, getting that GP certificate, proving you are looking for work, phoning the DWP. You live in a state of permanent anxiety.
You could be forgiven for thinking that should Daniel Blake win his appeal and be judged retrospectively unfit for work, he’d be safe (this doesn’t come to pass for reasons I won’t spoil). But you’d be wrong. To be unfit for work, you need to be awarded 15 points in a work capability assessment. He originally gets 12 and, if he won the appeal, most likely he’d have ended up with 18 or 20. This would have placed him in the Work Related Activity Group of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). As the name implies these people still have to look for work and if they don’t do so to the satisfaction of the JobCentre they can be sanctioned. In first three months of 2014, there were nearly 16,000 sanctions imposed on this group - people who have been found, to the satisfaction of the DWP, unfit for work. These are, just to be clear, indisputably sick people left with nothing or virtually nothing to live on.
Daniel befriends a single mother of two, Katie, who is sanctioned herself for arriving a few minutes late at Newcastle JobCentre when she had just moved up from London. Even if you are the sort of automaton that thinks this is justified, her young children are inevitably hurt too. At this point you realise you are in the presence of an ideology that has been let off the leash and knows no bounds. This is zero tolerance taken to an extreme. It, quite plainly, hates human beings.
How on earth did we get to this point? I have read several lamenting reviews of I, Daniel Blake pinning their anger on Tory austerity. If only it were that simple. Yes, the Tories have made the system Daniel Blake encounters more callous. In 2013, they abolished the right of people appealing against an incorrect fit to work decision to receive ESA while they waited (a process that can take months and months). This was an ‘incentive to appeal’ you understand. Thanks to the Conservatives, people in the work related activity group can only claim ESA as of right for 12 months – after that point if their partner earns £16,000 or more, they are screwed. Most recently, they changed the law so that new ESA claimants would receive only the same weekly amount as Jobseekers Allowance claimants - £30 a week less. This is all part of the plan to transform sickness into a personal failing of the claimant, in the same fashion that unemployment has been, where ‘work is abstracted from the material conditions of paid employment and inequality’.
But the basic rudiments of the system that awaits Daniel Blake when he has a heart attack were firmly in place when the Conservatives gained the keys to the car in 2010. It was New Labour who introduced work capability assessments as part of the 2007 Welfare Reform Act. It was New Labour who introduced sanctions for benefit claimants, including disabled benefit claimants (although, the length of sanctions and their conditionality were both intensified by the Coalition and the Conservatives). And the work capability system was actually harsher under Labour. According to the DWP’s own research over half (55 per cent) of people found fit for work after the WCA system was first introduced, were neither claiming benefits nor in work 15 months later. In 2012, this figure had been reduced to 30 per cent.
All mainstream politicians, who cleave so fervently to the fabled centre ground, support the system exposed in I, Daniel Blake. These centrists have carefully constructed it after all. It took that extremist interloper Jeremy Corbyn to finally commit the Labour party to scrapping the work capability assessment.
There is only one element of I, Daniel Blake I found remotely jarring. That is when Daniel Blake, driven to exasperation by the requirements of ‘benefit advisers’ that he can’t, indeed shouldn’t, fulfil, calmly walks out of the JobCentre to spray paint a protest on its outside walls. While he does he is cheered on by a gathering crowd across the street. I don’t know Newcastle that well, but I can’t help feeling that in many towns and cities of this country, he would not have been cheered. According former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, ex-Chancellor George Osborne (a man convinced he had created the ‘new centre ground’) would relish any chance to reduce or restrict benefits “because focus groups had shown that the voters they wanted to appeal to were very anti-welfare, and therefore there was almost no limit to those anti-welfare prejudices.” That’s the tragedy of I, Daniel Blake – the realisation that the inhumanity it exposes doesn’t produce revulsion from many of your fellow citizens but applause.
*There is, actually, an uncanny resemblance between the cuts imposed on disabled people by Vladimir Putin in Russia and the policies of the British government under David Cameron and Theresa May.