A new polemical film by Ken Loach about life on benefits – and a faceless bureaucracy at the heart of the welfare state – has created an emotive debate on whether it accurately portrays life on state support.
I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a 59-year-old joiner who is thrust into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, designed to ensure his disability benefit payments and Jobseeker’s Allowance are almost unobtainable. But, for some, the reaction has been uncomfortable.
Iain Duncan Smith has claimed the director has painted an unrealistic picture and treated Jobcentre staff unfairly. The former welfare chief, who presided over £15 billion of cuts to the welfare budget, claimed it focused only on the “very worst of anything that can ever happen to anybody”.
For commentator Toby Young the majority of the film, with the exception of the first five minutes, are “unremittingly depressing”. He added: “I’m no expert on the welfare system, but several aspect of I, Daniel Blake don’t ring true.
“The two protagonists are a far cry from the scroungers on Channel 4’s Benefits Street, who I accept aren’t representative of all welfare recipients.
"But Loach has erred in the opposite direction. For a filmmaker who styles himself a ‘social realist’, he has an absurdly romantic view of benefit claimants.”
But for many this film feels more like a documentary and appears to have been meticulously researched. Here The Independent looks back at some real-life stories and circumstances, which could have inspired the director in his work.
In I, Daniel Blake the threat of a sanction appears to be hanging over the characters throughout, wreaking havoc on the characters' lives. But does this ring true? While Mr Duncan Smith was at the helm of the welfare department tough new rules – branded “punitive” by some MPs – meant the length and severity of benefit sanctions increased. In the regime, introduced in 2012, the maximum length of sanctions went up from six months to three years.
‘Fit to work’ tests
I, Daniel Blake portrays the benefit system as cruel and unforgiving. Blake is assessed fit to work despite having a heart attack, meaning he has to actively seek work and go to appointment after appointment at his local job centre. If he misses any of them he gets sanctioned.
This actually happened to David Duncan, who had his jobseeker's allowance cut in 2013 when he failed to attend his Jobcentre appointment after suffering a major cardiac arrest two days before.
In a U-turn earlier this month, the new work and pensions secretary Damian Green said that chronically sick benefit claimants will no longer be required to prove they are still ill every six months. But for many this policy has wreaked havoc with the lives of vulnerable people like Duncan since it was introduced in 2012.
At one point in I, Daniel Blake, one of the women in the film, Katie, appears so hungry she opens a tin of baked beans she receives at a food bank and pours them down her throat. Is it far from reality?
When I visited a Salford food bank in 2015, the local coordinator told me: “A lot of people at the moment are just struggling to make ends meet. We’re here in a moment of crisis,”
“We had a gentleman walk seven miles for three days’ worth of food and then walk seven miles back. Another family who came through the doors couldn’t even afford nappies for their child and were actually using a carrier bag and kitchen paper. Things are tough.”
Ministers and the department for work and pensions have repeatedly refused to accept that welfare cuts are connected to the increased use of food banks in recent years – despite countless reports suggesting so. The latest, by academics at Oxford University, claims to have found evidence of a “strong, dynamic relationship” between people having their benefits stopped and not having enough money to meet basic needs.
Sanctions ‘can lead to crime and destitution’
In the film Katie, who is sanctioned by Jobcentre staff, is caught shoplifting in order to buy her children shoes for school – and is forced to turn to prostitution.
Does this “ring true”? It appears so. An internal report, seen by The Independent earlier this year, claimed that benefit sanctions are “devastating” for claimants and can lead to destitution, crime and suicide, as well as throwing up serious barriers to employment. The internal research, commissioned by Salford City Council, suggested that a sudden loss of income by removing benefits could damage mental health, create tensions within family relationships and cause individuals to commit a crime such as shoplifting.
It added that evidence provided by Salford Central food bank, run by the Trussell Trust, shows that 64 per cent of referrals for emergency food between 2013-14 were made by claimants who were experiencing a benefit delay or change, which includes receiving a sanction.
Benefit claimants who have died
David Clapson died of diabetic ketoacidosis – caused by an acute lack of insulin – 18 days after his benefits were terminated in July 2013 for missing two appointments. When his sister Gill Thompson discovered her brother’s body, she found his electricity had been cut off, meaning the fridge where he stored his insulin was no longer working.
With no money for his electricity meter, his family claim he was unable to chill his insulin in the height of summer. He also was found to have no food in his stomach when he died. His body was found a few metres away from a pile of CVs and he had £3.44 in his bank account.
Earlier this year his sister told me his sanction was a “death sentence”. She later protested outside Mr Duncan Smith’s former department with a banner, engraved with the names of 96 people she claims to have died while on a benefit sanction.
“The DWP actions did not help my brother’s situation. I feel that his death could have been prevented. By doing this, I can’t bring my brother back, I’m just hoping that this will save other people,” she added.
“All these people have died, it has to stop now. That’s all we ask for, that’s all I ask for, no more deaths, no more suffering.”
The 52-year-old dad-of-one, from Erdington, died from ischaemic heart disease after Government assessors had his benefits stopped and ruled he was fit for work.
According to the Birmingham Mail, Mr Turner was claiming around £400 per month incapacity benefit until he was called in for a review at the Midlands disability benefits centre in January 2012. Three weeks later he received a letter stating he was not entitled to the new Employment and Support Allowance – the payment that had replaced Incapacity Benefit.
At the time the department for work and pensions expressed sympathy to Mr Turner’s family “during what is obviously a very difficult time”.
“The work capability assessment is just that – an assessment of what, if any, work a person could undertake. Jobcentre Plus decision makers look at all available information, including any medical evidence, to support their claim.”
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