Brexit has changed everything. Every conversation about the future is framed by it. The way is unmapped and repercussions will last for years. What we do know is that the vote forced an immediate changing of the guard at the highest levels of government. The new incumbents seem, on the face of it, to be forging markedly different paths from those of their predecessors. It’s not just the mood music that has changed. The entire dance routine is being reworked.
On July 13, Theresa May, in her first key statement as Prime Minister, insisted she wanted to speak for families caught in poverty. “I know that sometimes life can be a struggle,” she said. “The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours.”
Last week Damian Green, new Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, announced a raft of revisions to the welfare system. Even though he has not changed policy dramatically, the tone has softened and it signals a marked shift from old strivers versus skivers rhetoric and the hard-press of his longest-serving predecessor IDS.
Though some of the language of the Conservative Party Conference looking at British jobs for British workers carried a dark shadow, this at least pointed to a more common sense and compassionate approach towards the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country.
What you’re doing with sanctions is threatening people with hunger
It just so happens that this month also sees the release of I, Daniel Blake, the Ken Loach-directed film which won the Palme D’Or cat Cannes and which is a hugely potent summation of contemporary life in the UK [trailer below]. Fifty years ago, Loach caused a seismic shift in the way Britain looked at homelessness with Cathy Come Home. The firebrand film-maker, now 80, had hoped to do the same with what is likely to be his final film, this time with his sights set on the failures of the benefits system. Could it be that the film’s arrival and the noise around it has spurred a change in government thinking?
Let’s take a step backwards. It is November 2015. Benwell Grove is a typical terraced street in the west end of Newcastle. Outside the Church of the Venerable Bede snakes a line of people. The church hall serves as the Newcastle West End Foodbank. Many here are regular foodbank users but today they are acting as film extras in I, Daniel Blake.
The film follows 59-year-old joiner Blake who is advised not to work after suffering a heart attack yet is obliged to spend 35 hours a week looking for jobs he would be unable to take. He has to go through this in order to qualify for welfare. Together with Katie, a single mother relocated from London, they try to navigate the Kafkaesque system – inflexible and indifferent to the point of desperation.
Scriptwriter Paul Laverty, who has written the scripts for 12 of Loach’s films including Sweet Sixteen and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, explains the scene; Katie has gone without eating for a couple of days to feed her kids. “There are endless stories like this,” he says. “You understand mistakes but they are of such scale that it can’t be an accident. There has been a campaign of cruelty against our most vulnerable people.”
It’s just got worse and worse. As capitalism develops, the rate of profit falls through competition
Laverty’s research took him to foodbanks across the country where he met people caught in what he describes as “bureaucratic barbed wire”. He also met whistleblowers from the DWP appalled by the pressure they felt under to impose sanctions on people, often stopping their only source of income for minor infringements.
“What you’re doing with sanctions is threatening people with hunger,” Laverty says. “Hunger is being used as a weapon, as a means of coercion. I met so many people who are hungry. And I don’t think it does force people into work, it grinds people down.”
As the scene ends, the crowd of extras disperse, many huddling around Ken Loach to take a selfie. “It’s amazing they all know who he is,” says Dave Johns, who plays Blake. “The four guys I was talking to at the front were from the hostel down the road, just ordinary lads.” The extras head inside the church where tea and coffee has been provided. They are being paid for their time in Morrisons food vouchers.
Filming moves into the church hall. This place holds the dubious honour of being the busiest foodbank in the country – five times busier than number two – due to the fact it is in an area of high-density housing built to house workers for riverside industries that no longer exist.
Ken Loach considers the positioning of actors and camera. The film-making process must have changed dramatically in the 50 years since he made Cathy Come Home, in fact the whole world has changed radically, so I ask him why he thinks the problems that plague the poorest in society persist.
“The short answer is that the welfare state was founded when capitalism was on the up. There was so much reconstruction work to do, there was full employment. It started running into trouble in the ’70s. Thatcher came in to make the working class more easily exploitable, there were laws against trade unions, they had big strikes that the government could win, unemployment suddenly went from 500,000 to three million. In those circumstances labour is cheap – if you don’t want to do the job someone else will for half the money.
“It’s just got worse and worse. As capitalism develops, the rate of profit falls through competition, the need to get cheap labour increases until you end up with the big corporations demanding absolute supremacy – politically, economically, internationally – and the more power they get the less power the working class has to fight back. It’s a natural, inevitable progression. Sorry, that was a rather long answer…”
Having a job is one of the best things that can happen to you
Filming begins and after several takes with the volunteers and other foodbank users (played by real-life volunteers and clients), something dramatic suddenly happens. Apparently unbidden Katie, pale and faint, grabs a tin of beans from the shelf, rips it open and scoops out the contents into her mouth. The volunteers and other extras do not know quite how to react as she breaks down from a combination of hunger and humiliation. It is simple, shocking. After a moment or two it’s clear that this was scripted.
But the shocking and brutal immediacy lent it an air of reality. It may be because it came from reality. Laverty explains: “The first foodbank I went into I asked the worst thing that had happened. A mother was looking at beans, they thought she was looking for a specific brand but she was actually looking for a tin that had a ring pull that she could open. She was crying, all the volunteers were crying.”
Six months later I, Daniel Blake is the toast of Cannes. Accepting the Palme D’Or Loach attacks the “dangerous project of austerity” and says “we have to look again at this whole cruel sanctions and benefits system”.
Incredibly this has happened, to some extent. Less than a month afterwards, Brexit turned David Cameron’s government inside out and upside down. At last week’s Tory party conference it sounded as though change was in the air. Damian Green announced scrapping repeated work capability assessments for ESA recipients who have chronic conditions. The intention of Green to be “hard-headed but not hard-hearted” is to be welcomed, but is the impending release of Loach’s exposé of the nonsensical system responsible for the shift? After all, the fault lines exposed in the film are the very ones addressed in Green’s revisions.
When The Big Issue meets Damian Green at a social enterprise in the post-industrial Glasgow suburb of Hillington, he insists that’s not the case, though says he’s aware of the film: “I’ve not seen it, I’ve heard of it, obviously.”
You can’t turn back the clock. What you can do is have a more responsive benefits system
The Experience is an activity centre that includes go-karting, laser tag and a fuselage of a Boeing 737 that is popular as a venue for children’s parties. It is run by Kibble to train and provide work experience to young, unemployed people, and Green is here visiting to talk to staff and trainees. We sit down over aeroplane-shaped shortbread.
The Big Issue: Back to work and training programmes never sound very exciting but when go-karting and laser tag are involved…
Damian Green: That’s exactly right. People talk about training programmes and work experience and it never feels like big politics but actually, in terms of transforming lives, it’s huge politics. Having a job is one of the best things that can happen to you, not just as a way of earning money but also giving you structure to your life, self-respect, and all of that.
BI: You are leading a department that has a reputation for not being compassionate. How can you address that?
DG: We need a welfare state that’s fit for the 21st century. It was set up by great visionaries like Beveridge in a world where the work market was completely different. It was overwhelmingly dominated by men doing full-time jobs for a defined period of their lives, then stopping and very often dying a few years later. All of these things are no longer true. You need to keep to the principles of the welfare state – that we want to help people. There will be certain people who won’t be able to work at all, so they just need care and benefits, but there are many more who could benefit from work and we need to get ever better at preparing them for what is a very different labour market now. Making that transition is the most compassionate thing we can do because that’s the way we can help most people.
BI: There has been a rise in part-time jobs and zero-hour contracts. Could the jobs landscape be changed so people have more security in work?
DG: You can’t turn back the clock. What you can do is have a more responsive benefits system. The whole point of universal credit is that work always pays. You don’t have this cliff edge you used to have in the past where people had to make a calculation – ‘if I go into a job I lose all my benefits and so maybe I might be worse off but even more so, if I get a job that might only last for a couple of months I then have to go through the process of applying for benefits again’. A lot of people took the decision that it’s not worth it. We need a welfare system – and universal credit is a step towards that – where you’re better off in work, even if it is a part-time job or a temporary job.
This is the reality for hundreds of thousands of people
BI: A poll found that the general public think 27 per cent of benefits are claimed fraudulently while the actual figure is 0.7 per cent. Why is there such a misperception of people who are on benefits?
DG: There are high-profile media stories about individuals who do milk the system but they are a very small minority and we chase them all the time.
BI: I, Daniel Blake focuses on two people failed by a system that does not seem adaptable to exceptional individual circumstances – and lots of people claiming benefits do have exceptional individual circumstances.
DG: I mean, 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 systemic. The DWP does its best, Jobcentres are getting better and better at helping people. There will be individual failures for which we apologise, but it is absolutely not rooted in the system.
When I catch up with Ken Loach
I imagine he would be pleased that Damian Green “might” watch his film.
“He doesn’t need to see any film to know what’s going on in the Jobcentres – or if he does he’s not doing his job,” Loach retorts. Despite new leadership at the DWP, Loach doesn’t think anything has really changed. “The whole ethos is the same and will remain so because it’s ideologically driven. It has to prove that poverty is the fault of the poor, otherwise you’d challenge the system, wouldn’t you? If you’re poor it’s your own fault. If you haven’t got a home it’s your own fault. Those are the ideas that sustain their policy.
“This is happening,” he emphasises. “This is the reality for hundreds of thousands of people. If you know it’s happening, if you believe it, then you leave the cinema with a responsibility.”
Regardless of whether Damian Green will see the film, the nation will be watching, including those who use the Newcastle West End Foodbank – still the busiest in the UK. I call Michael Nixon, who runs the centre, to see if he thinks people are still being failed by the welfare system.
“There are a few holes in it… and I’m being polite,” he says. “What Paul Laverty wrote for the film script isn’t very far off. One of the problems is Jobcentres don’t have enough staff to spend enough time with people to explain things properly. A lot of clients struggle to read and write and there is not enough time to explain things. The two don’t mix – it conspires against people.”
That said, Nixon has seen some improvements. Their busiest day in 2014 – just before Christmas – saw more than 1000 queuing outside. On the equivalent day in 2015 it was closer to 700. The foodbank has also been able to help people resolve their problems and claim the amount they are entitled to.
So have government taken notice of the film to adapt their policy? They do not admit to it – but there is plenty governments do not admit to. In any case, perhaps there is a bigger, more important win here. Nixon says that clients and volunteers are hoping that I, Daniel Blake will change the perception of those living on benefits.
“They’re looking forward to somebody taking notice of the problems they’ve got,” he says. “Anything that raises public awareness of the problem is going to help solve it.”
I, Daniel Blake is in cinemas from October 21