Dave Johns meets Daniel Blakes every day. The 61-year-old stand-up comedian was on the verge of giving up the circuit when he auditioned for Ken Loach. He landed the lead in I, Daniel Blake and quickly realised this was not just an acting job. The film was Loach’s state-of-the-nation clarion call and Johns continues to witness its impact.
“Even today, a year after the film, people come up to me,” Johns says. “Time and time again they say this film shows it like it is; ordinary people in ordinary situations and the State failing them. Or they say, I thought Dan was like my dad or my grandfather then start telling me stories.
“An old guy in his eighties came up and said, ‘Next time you see Ken Loach tell him thank you from me because what this film has done is give the working classes a voice that nobody’s listened to for the last 50 years.’”
What this film has done is give the working classes a voice that nobody’s listened to for the last 50 years
The voice was heard but was the message received? Ahead of the film’s cinema release last October, The Big Issue looked at the policies behind the film that were failing many.
I, Daniel Blake exposed the sometimes inflexible and indifferent failings of a difficult-to-navigate welfare system. We spoke to politicians and people in foodbanks. One year on, what has changed?
Last October, a buoyant Theresa May triumphantly led her fledgling government into the Conservative party conference. A year on, things are rather more fragile and febrile. Her government, on the horns of the Brexit beast, looks unable to move beyond choppy waters. What a difference a year makes.
Back in late 2016, after a period of disrupted leadership at the Department for Work and Pensions (Iain Duncan Smith had been replaced by Stephen Crabb, but he lasted just four months), new appointee Damian Green pledged a fresh era of “compassionate” governance, promising policy revisions that would be “hard-headed but not hard-hearted”. Intentions were good; it was a new dawn that would bring stability to the department.
Green lasted less than a year. After Theresa May’s early election miscalculation Green was plucked to become May’s trusted right hand in Cabinet. Green was succeeded by David Gauke, who continues the Conservatives’ flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, against an increasing amount of resistance.
Universal Credit is the biggest change to the welfare system in 40 years, combining six benefits into one, affecting around eight million people. More than half a million people across the UK are already trialling the programme but there are growing voices against the extension and acceleration of the roll-out.
Nick Forbes, council leader in Newcastle – one of the roll-out cities – said the country is on the verge of a renewed housing crisis because of Universal Credit, and questioned the thinking behind a phased roll-out “if you do not adapt to the lessons picked up along the way”.
David Gauke continues with the Conservatives’ Universal Credit against an increasing amount of resistance
He compared the situation to the days of another Loach film, Cathy Come Home. “There are two lessons the government appears not to have learned from back then,” he said. “First, if you do not take a comprehensive approach to housing and welfare, you create a system in which wherever the less fortunate turn, they are faced with further misery.
“Second, this downward spiral costs the State. It is self-defeating.”
Dame Louise Casey, a former top advisor to the government, also urged a pause. “It’s like jumping over a cliff,” she said. “Once you’ve jumped, people end up at the bottom and we don’t want that to happen.
“It’s about delivery,” she continued. “The overall intention might be right but the fact of the matter is the actual delivery of it. [People] will end up in dire circumstances. More dire than we have seen in this country for years.” Citizens Advice also warned that the continuation of Universal Credit at the current rate is a “disaster waiting to happen”.
So why is Universal Credit not providing the safety net and route out of poverty, through readiness to work, that is its laudable plan?
Previously housing benefit was paid directly to landlords or housing authorities. Under Universal Credit it is paid to tenants. Although this gives claimants more independence, it has had the consequence of rent arrears running at three, four or even five times the level of those under the old system. Three councils – Croydon, Hounslow and Southwark – say they have built up £8m in rent arrears and that more than 2,500 tenants are now at risk of eviction.
People will end up in dire circumstances. More dire than we have seen in this country for years
Dame Casey also criticised the waiting period built into the system to dissuade short-term claims, but this means that people must wait six weeks between making a claim and receiving the first payment. Few claimants have savings to tide them over and official figures show 24 per cent actually wait longer.
The DWP are introducing “advanced cash payments”. They said: “The vast majority of claimants are comfortable managing their money, and for anyone who needs extra help, we have budgeting advice and benefit advances.”
Meanwhile, DWP data shows up to £12.4bn of benefits were unclaimed in 2015-16. The latest statistics for the previous year estimates £2.3bn of child tax credit and £3bn of working tax credit went unclaimed, affecting hundreds of thousands of families.
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An undercurrent to all of these benefit payments is the dreaded word sanction, which was the killer for Daniel Blake. According to the film’s writer Paul Laverty, sanctions are the equivalent to “threatening people with hunger”. Late last year the government’s austerity policies were said by the UN to be “systematic violations” of the rights of people with disabilities.
According to the National Audit Office, 24 per cent of all Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants between 2010 and 2015 received a sanction, often for minor infringements.
When The Big Issue spoke to Damian Green about this last year, he said the issues raised in the film were “absolutely not systematic… 22 million people receive either a pension or benefit from the DWP so there will always be one or two cases where things go wrong, but it is absolutely not rooted in the system.”
Universal Credit – the facts
- Roll-out of the single-payment scheme, to replace six benefits is currently being expanded from five to 50 areas. By 2022, seven million families will be on Universal Credit.
- An in-built delay in universal credit means people must wait at least 42 days for their first payment – six weeks with no money.
- Citizens Advice says more than 1 in 3 people have waited more than 6 WEEKS to receive ANY income. 11% are waiting over 10 weeks.
- Over 50% of people helped by Citizens Advice who receive Universal Credit borrowed money waiting for their first payment.
- The Resolution Foundation think tank has estimated that some families could lose up to £2,800 a year as a result of Universal Credit.
- Foodbanks in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out have seen a 16.85% spike in referrals for emergency food.
- Last week, the government bowed to pressure and scrapped a 55p-a-minute charge for a universal credit helpline.
So did I, Daniel Blake illustrate isolated failures? Vast numbers caught in Universal Credit’s traps suggest not.
One of the film’s key moments occurs in a foodbank, when struggling mother-of-two Katie, played by Hayley Squires, breaks down in hunger and desperation. The scene was filmed in a church hall, home to Newcastle West End Foodbank, the busiest in the UK. Michael Nixon, who runs the project, told The Big Issue in 2016 he was cautiously optimistic; numbers through the doors were falling. Today that has reversed.
“We see two trends,” he explains. “One is an increase in the people coming to us in need, and a reduction in the amount of food given to us.”
Nixon explained that public donations have gone down and he voiced worries of a severe shortage closer to Christmas when demand almost doubles.
“We’ve had an increase [in users] of about 25 per cent this month,” he says. “We put that down to problems with the roll-out of Universal Credit but also to do with people needing lighting and heating. They are now concerned about whether they can afford their bills.”
Will donations meet demand at Christmas?
“I don’t think so. The number of donations will increase, they always tend to go up in the winter time, but they won’t go up as much as they did last year. The relatively comfortable-off givers have a little less to give. Many of the foodbanks that used to help by giving us their surplus food can no longer do that. They’re asking us if we can help them.”
Last year, when asked if the clients he sees were being failed by the welfare system, Nixon said: “There are a few holes in it… and I’m being polite”.
This is no longer a temporary emergency for people, it’s an ongoing situation they’re being forced to live in
Those holes are now bigger, he says. “If it’s a cock-up, it’s a momentous cock-up. If it happened accidentally it would have been fixed, but there has been no effort made to fix it, and the situation is just getting worse.
“We’ve spent the last five years hoping we wouldn’t be here next year but it looks like we’re going to be here for the next five years. It’s no longer just a temporary emergency for people, this is an ongoing situation they’re being forced to live in.”
Elena came to the UK from Romania in 2009 and ended up selling The Big Issue to support her family. She heard about the foodbank, then joined as a volunteer. Today she is the manager. Why did she volunteer?
“To help,” she says. “I met a lady on the street and she said go here for some food. I didn’t know about the foodbank system. I went in and met Michael. He explained about the vouchers and how the foodbank works. I started volunteering and in March 2014 – when we were entitled to take a job – they gave me a job.”
When the government heard about this film they thought it would be one of Ken Loach’s lefty rants and it would just disappear
Although I, Daniel Blake was supposed to be Loach’s final film he is busier than ever. His office reports that the director is working flat out for the Labour movement, adding they are “entirely unsurprised” nothing has changed for people on the front line.
Loach received a standing ovation at the party conference. Dave Johns was also there. The film politicised him. “I think when the government heard about this film they thought it would be one of Ken Loach’s lefty rants and it would just disappear,” he says.
“Everybody was surprised about what happened in the general election. Even though the Tories won it was a big pointer that young people are ready for a real change. I hope they’re waking up to it, I think they are.”
In the last year, the problems faced by the most vulnerable have stayed the same while little has been done to improve their situation. One change was the political shift from right to left. Johns believes the film acted as a signpost to the road we’re now heading down.
“I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes to the plight of some people that they maybe didn’t think about,” Johns says. “I’m not saying it’s done everything, but it has changed the narrative.”
Dave Johns is on tour. For dates visit davejohns.net