I, Daniel Blake starts with one of those awful Kafkaesque conversations with a faceless bureaucrat at a call centre. As the conversation progresses, it becomes apparent that Daniel Blake is being “assessed” (using a one-size-fits-all procedure) to see if he is “fit for work”. As he is a self-employed carpenter who has been signed off work by a doctor because he had a heart attack and fell off some scaffolding at work, you would think that that would guarantee that he could get sickness benefits. This is not the case under the new regime brought in by the Tories, however, in which the “assessment” by which you are deemed “fit for work” has nothing to do with your actual diagnosis, and is not conducted by medical experts.
What happens next is that he tries to fill in an application form, despite having no idea how to use a computer, and gets into trouble at the job centre because he acts like a human being instead of the humble drone they were expecting. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is “digital by default” so a paper form is apparently not an option. Bad news if you are one of the very many people who are digital illiterates.
Anybody at the job centre who tries to be humane and helpful gets disciplined, so most of them learn to be heartless bureaucrats, “only following the rules” (where have we heard that before?)
At the job centre, he meets a young woman who has been displaced from London because there were apparently no flats in London, so they have relocated her to Newcastle. The friendship he develops with her and her kids, and other people around the neighbourhood, are what saves the film from being utterly bleak. In them, we see real humanity and neighbourliness and compassion.
The film was meticulously well-researched and uses ex-DWP staff, current food bank volunteers, and recent benefit claimants as extras and bit-part actors. It is directed by the highly-respected Ken Loach, director of many films on social justice themes, probably the most famous being Cathy Come Home. The excellent script was written by Paul Laverty, who has collaborated with Ken Loach for 25 years. The film was so moving that it made film critic Mark Kermode cry both times he went to see it. I started crying at the point when the young mother tells her kids that she’s not eating any dinner because she’s “not really hungry”, and didn’t really stop for most of the rest of the film. I wasn’t the only person in the cinema crying, either.
Right-wingers have of course claimed that the story of the film is atypical – but there have been many real-life stories similar to this. The Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign in Defence of Disability Rights reports that in 2012 alone, 10,600 people died within six weeks of their disability benefits being stopped. This is an appallingly high number.
Numerous stories similar to that of Daniel Blake have been reported in The Guardian. Like this guy who has been assessed ‘fit for work’ despite being in constant pain. Or the people in this video from The Guardian, Meet the real Daniel Blakes. Or Mark Wood, who died aged 44 after his benefits were cut off. Or the thousands of other people who died after their benefits were cut off.
People who have been on benefits recently confirm that the film is accurate. Like Jack Monroe, who was unemployed and wrote a book on how to feed yourself on no money at all (I’ve tried some of their recipes and they’re awful, thus proving it is really difficult to make nice food when you have no money). Or Marissa, a single mother with an autistic daughter of three, who has been on benefits since leaving an abusive partner.
A quiet man, someone I knew from my time at the food bank, hanged himself after his benefits were sanctioned for the second time. His crime? He attended a hospital appointment.
Yet still the deniers will shake their heads, sceptical. It’s just a story, they say. Just a film. It’s not real. It fucking is real. I carry the scars deep in my heart, from my own stories, and for lost friends, five years on. I’m not sure if I will ever truly recover.
The Black Triangle campaign was started to “galvanise opposition to the current vicious attack on the fundamental human rights of disabled people by the Government of the United Kingdom utilising “Work Capability Assessments” (as administered by ‘AtoS Healthcare Ltd’ on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions ‘DWP’) to re-classify sick and disabled individuals as “fit for work” – in flagrant violation of all accepted medical, and human, ethical standards.”
Anyone who doesn’t come out of this film determined to fight this injustice, and furious at the way that the welfare state has been destroyed by the heartless and vicious attacks of neoliberal governments, clearly has a stone in place of a heart.
I came out of the film and was tempted to go and get drunk, or eat chocolate. Instead I heard a homeless person crying for help to get enough money to get into a hostel for the night. I gave him some money and it turned out that he had a heart condition and Type I diabetes, and had been denied benefits because he missed an appointment with the job centre.
It clearly shows that once capitalism has used you up, it just wants to throw you on the scrap-heap. And the tabloid newspapers are complicit in this evil, labelling all these people as “workshy” and “benefit scroungers” when most of them have paid their national insurance all their lives, and claiming benefits is their right (and would still be their right whether or not they had paid their national insurance).
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are societies which haven’t imposed austerity, and where people with disabilities can get benefits, and there isn’t a huge divide between rich and poor.
Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities from Bath Spa University, and lives and works in Oxford, UK. Her most recent book is “All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca”. She has also written four books on the mythology and folklore of trees, birds, and animals, and two anthologies of poetry. She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.
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