I, Daniel Blake demands a political response

Professor Mark Stephens
Professor Mark Stephens

Mark Stephens argues that the underlying solution to the misery inflicted on the characters portrayed in Ken Loach’s film lies in reforming policy, not charity.

Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning film, I, Daniel Blake, has publicised the way in which the social security system is administered and, in particular, the humiliating cruelty of the sanctions system.

The bureaucracy is portrayed as inhumane and indeed inhuman. No one in the DWP office is directly responsible for depriving people of benefits. One member of staff tries to help – but is reprimanded by her manager. Instead a mysterious “decision maker” lurks somewhere generating letters of devastating disappointment.

On-line application forms and call-centres serve further to deprive the 59 year-old Geordie carpenter, who has suffered a major heart attack, of the Job Seeker’s Allowance, his only possible source of income after his application for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is declined after an assessment process administered by a “health professional.”

A “health professional” is neither a doctor nor a nurse, but someone who is not medically qualified.

A health unprofessional, so to speak.

The film also humanises would-be claimants – something that is much needed after years of their vilification in newspapers and on misleadingly edited “reality” TV shows.

Daniel Blake steps in to stand up for Katie, a single mother of two who has been forced to leave her family in London where the only housing available to her is a single room. Late for her appointment because she is unfamiliar with the buses, she is immediately threatened with sanctions, with staff refusing to take into account the circumstances. Her plight first leads to her forgoing meals to feed her children, and then to the food bank, by which time she is so hungry that she tears the top of a tin of beans and scoops them into her mouth with her hand.

This scene is described by Deborah Ross in the Spectator as “so shockingly heart-rending you won’t ever get it out of your mind.” I read about a similar incident in a Glasgow foodbank a few years ago and that has never left my mind.

But not all reviewers have been sympathetic.

David Sexton, writing in the Evening Standard, characterises it as being “unyielding propaganda.” Camilla Long of The Times sneeringly dismisses the film as a “povvo safari for middle class people.” Toby Young (son of Michael who wrote the 1945 Labour Manifesto and The Rise of Meritocracy) complains “She [Katie] is more like a Dickens character than a resident of 21st-century Britain, the fourth richest country in the world.”

But that is the point. It is shocking that such extreme manifestations of poverty-cum-destitution are created seemingly as a matter of bureaucratic policy in the fourth richest country in the world.

It is a matter of record (not “unyielding propaganda”) that 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 after their claims for ESA were rejected after they had, like Daniel Blake,  failed a work capacity assessment.

In the film, Daniel Blake collapses and dies in a toilet just as he is about to be called into a room for his appeal to be heard. But as Jack Munroe records, there are still more heart-rending real world examples of the impact of the system. The woman who committed suicide by walking in front of a lorry on the M6 having been sanctioned. Another who died just weeks after having been declared fit for work, the letters from the DWP being delivered to her hospital bed.

Maybe Loach avoided portraying scenes such as these on the ground that they would seem far-fetched.

Driving home from watching I, Daniel Blake, I listened to a discussion about it on a Radio 4 arts programme. One of the contributors claimed that the film provided a clear message of what we should do: donate to foodbanks – a response both more obvious and humane than that of Sexton, Long and Young.

But are food banks a satisfactory solution for the failings of the social security system?

Food banks present us with a moral dilemma.

This week I showed my students a 20+-year old film made by the late Charles Wheeler about President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the United States, and his “Great Society” programmes of the 1960s. Wheeler revisited the US in the mid-1990s, by which time the social assistance scheme for people with dependent children introduced in the 1930s and extended by Johnson was about to be replaced by temporary assistance.

Wheeler records a scene in a food bank, a place for people to go when they run out of food stamps. I used to use this as an illustration of the way in which the US differed from the UK. Not very long ago it seemed unimaginable that we should come to depend on such a degrading means of support (no matter what efforts the food banks make to treat their users with respect). They are now on their way to becoming a fully institutionalised and permanent part of our system.

Yet would the sanctions and work assessment regimes be possible without them?

A foodbank in Nottingham was reported as being set to close after it concluded that the local authority was using its existence as a means of withdrawing hardship payments: “we are not being used as a temporary service of last resort, but rather being seen as a part of the long term strategy of replacement for statutory services, who have a duty and the resources to address a large part of the need.”

The work tests and sanctions regimes are created by the Government. They fall most heavily on young people and on homeless people. The miserable levels of benefits, especially for young people, are similarly a political choice. My I-SPHERE colleagues have demonstrated the extent and nature of destitution in the UK.

Only the Government can change this.

Fifty years ago Loach’s TV drama Cathy Came Home revealed similarly inhumane bureaucratic systems, that ultimately separated Cathy from her husband, and then from her children. Cathy was dismissed by Mary Whitehouse (the founder of the Clean-up TV Campaign) in much the same manner as Sexton today: “I am protesting to the BBC at this biased piece of propaganda,” she told the Birmingham Evening Mail.

But the film is credited with having created the climate that led to the Homeless Person’s Act, which ended the practice of splitting up homeless families.

Fifty years ago the solution was achieved by political means, and that is where the solution lies today.