On Sunday I went to see I, Daniel Blake at the cinema. Thoughts of it still consume me. I was talking about it with my mum this morning on the phone and found myself welling up, describing some of the scenes to her. It is the most powerfully affecting film I have seen in years.
The power of the film is that it isn’t really showy, or dramatic. Terrible things happen and they happen in such ordinary, mundane ways that they become normal and that’s the worst thing of all.
Loach interviewed over a thousand benefits claimants to make this film as real as possible. He was approached by whistleblowers from the Department of Work and Pensions and Job Centres who are so sickened by what they are doing to people that they simply had to put their own jobs at risk to speak up. Job Centre staff admitted that they risked losing their jobs if they didn’t hit quotas for sanctioning people. There are quotas for denying people money for food. On weeks when people are complying, they may be sanctioned anyway if targets aren’t met.
For those who are not au fait with sanctioning, it is the immediate cessation of any benefits you may be receiving for any reason the Job Centre/DWP decide. You can be late for your appointment at the Job Centre through no fault of your own, for example. There is evidence that shows a woman was sanctioned because she missed an appointment while she was in hospital delivering a still born baby. A man was sanctioned for being in hospital after a heart attack. This kind of story is not unusual, nor is it refuted by the government. There are thousands of stories like this.
Initial sanctions last three weeks. If you still fail to comply they extend to thirteen weeks. They can, if they want, extend your sanctions up to 156 weeks. I honestly can’t imagine anyone surviving that long.
Even if you are sanctioned, you are expected to do a minimum of 35 hours of job seeking every week, and provide proof of this. You are also expected to turn up to your Job Centre appointments. Despite the fact that you may literally have no money at all with which to do this. Nobody asks you how you will get to job interviews, how you will pay for computer usage, print your CV, pay for stamps, how you will eat.
There are stories of people living in the dark, selling their furniture, selling their fridges because they didn’t have any food to put in them anyway. Figures show more and more people being admitted to UK hospitals with malnutrition.
There was an article in one of the papers this week that estimated hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are going hungry thanks to the fact that their parents are sanctioned. I know some schools that set up breakfast clubs to feed children, knowing that they are coming to school hungry. We are starving children in the fifth richest country in the world, and people still call benefits claimants ‘scroungers’ who deserve everything they get. I hope the moral high ground is worth the view.
Many people who suffer are already disadvantaged in some way through illness and declared unfit to work, like Daniel Blake in the film. It does not matter if you are declared unfit to work by your doctor or consultant by the way. It only matters what your ESA assessment says, and very often, they disagree with the medical profession, despite that 2,400 people died in the last two years after being declared fit to work under ESA, and the fact that many people who are strong enough to go on and appeal the ESA’s ruling, get that ruling overturned. For some people it’s too late.
On Question Time last week, Loach called benefit sanctions and the punishment of people by what is in blunt terms, starvation, ‘conscious cruelty’. I could not agree more.
The Trussell Trust is one of many food bank charities in the UK. It’s one of the largest. In April this year it estimated that it was handing out 1 million food parcels to people every six months. That’s just one trust. There are many other food bank charities doing the same. I spoke to a local councillor friend of mine this week. He tells me that it isn’t just people who aren’t working who have to rely on food banks these days. In his ward, there are countless families who work and yet earn so little they cannot put food on the table for their families.
Someone I was talking to about this was worried that if they gave to a food bank, that the food they donate might go to the ‘wrong’ sort of person. I would respectfully suggest that given what you have to go through to get help from a food bank, the queues and the quality of food on offer, that no matter how ‘wrong’ you are, you’re still pretty fucking desperate if you’re relying on a food bank to feed you.
There were two moments in the film that broke me. The first was when a young woman who had been starving herself to put food in her kids mouths, broke down in a food bank and scooped cold beans from a tin into her mouth with her hand because she couldn’t take the hunger anymore. The second was when she was reduced to shop lifting sanitary towels. Her shame and desperation came across so clearly, and it was devastating to watch, and to think that for many, many people in this country, these scenes are not fiction, they are a daily reality.
There are many things in life I don’t agree with that I can’t change, but I can help alleviate someone’s hunger for a moment by donating regularly to a food bank near me. I can donate sanitary towels so that no woman has to be forced to beg for, or steal something I take for granted. I can think about the fact that once, a long time ago, I myself was in need of help from the state that wasn’t forthcoming, and if it hadn’t been for my family and their unwavering support, it could have been me. It would have been me.