I, Katy Wheatley

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.

21 responses to “I, Katy Wheatley

  1. Yes.There but for the grace of god. It is appalling that we put people through this.

  2. And this is the government that are going to get the opportunity to overturn all the EU legislation protecting workers rights, human rights and the environment post brexit. All in the name of creating a more ‘competitive’ country and ‘balanced’ economy of course.
    These people are amoral and, despite Theresa May’s weaselly words on ascending the greasy pole, they are not interested in social justice or equality.
    Whilst I lay the blame fairly and squarely with tory policy, the distorted, malevolent and even fabricated stories printed by what pass for newspapers in this country (oh and the stories they choose to censor, like the impact of sanctions) have a great deal to answer for. They are part of an agenda to promote an insular selfishness, complacency and intolerance in their readers. Sometimes reading the comments section you can only conclude it is working.
    The lack of sympathy, empathy or compassion that they often demonstrate makes me want to weep. Whatever happened to ‘there but for the grace of God go I’?
    Whether it’s benefits claimants, refugees, foreigners, people who don’t think like them, or look like them, the list of people they want to condemn without evidence is endless.

    Thankfully we don’t all think like that, and you have to keep believing that there is good in everyone (well almost everyone) if you look for it.
    Now I’m off to find out where my nearest food bank is and buy some sanitary products to donate.

    • That is the phrase I thought of too. There but for the grace of God. People seem so blissfully unaware of how fragile their security is and how difficult it is to get your life back in balance if something happens to you. xx

  3. sharing to Facebook, Katy x

  4. well said Katy – I am still in shock and we do contribute to our local food bank but with two adult children with serious problems who we also support and who are not ‘allowed benefits’ for similar reasons – mental health is the area that is most being ignored and abused – we cant afford much more – and it shames me so deeply that I cannot do more – I feel trapped in a system that treats people like this in my name – well it is not in my name at all and never will be.x keep writing – if we all speak out loud and strong then maybe one day our voices will be heard above the self satisfied greedy voices. we need to make sure this story just keeps being told again and again until those who can do something actually do it. Sadly most people who need to go and see this film also probably wont bother – not entertaining or diverting enough for them

    • We all do our bit in whatever way we can and it sounds like you’re doing more than your fair share. I know how terrible things are for people with mental health problems. I sat in on a scrutiny committee on the state of mental health for young people in our city and it was appalling. It’s something close to my heart as I had a fairly paralysing nervous breakdown when I was seventeen, and again, if it hadn’t been for my family, I don’t know what would have happened to me, because there was little to no support then and I know things are a hundred times worse now. xx

  5. Hear! Hear! I haven’t seen the film – I don’t want to to be honest with you, and I’ve been lucky so far in life to only need the help of the state a couple of times, and that back when things were far less draconian and that was bad enough. It’s obviously so very much worse now. I have started dropping things into the food bank donation point in the supermarket on a regular basis though, and will continue to do so. I didn’t think of sanitary products so thank you for that suggestion. I shall do that from now on.

    Oh, and that’s no moral high ground those people who condemn anyone on any sort of benefit are standing on. That’s frankly the immoral high ground.

    • It took me a while to steel myself to see it. It isn’t an easy watch. I sympathise. I too hadn’t thought about sanitary towels until I saw the film. Aldi, by the way, do a brand that compares well to named brands but are 45p a packet. I’m off there next week to stock up and drop off. x

  6. frenchbrandywine

    ‘Conscious Cruelty’ What a dreadful phrase & what sort of evil brain can want to inflict it. The more I discover the more I realize that this government is really the lowest of the low and that actually, this new lot are setting out to be even worse than the last.
    Thank you for writing about it.

  7. Beautifully written as always. God I think our country, and indeed our world has gone a bit to hell. With one hand we are aspiring to a vacuous ‘made in Chelsea’ existence and the other starving ourselves to feed our kids- insane. I don’t know what the answe is and I we only ever see sanitised news, so I fear the real picture is far, far, worse. I live in Fife in an affluent wee village where people of all economic categories use the food bank. People working full time in two,3 jobs and still struggling, something is wrong? No more has the divide been so great between haves and have nots. Will be seeing the film over the next week, dreading but want to see it. Thanks again.

  8. Thank you Katy! I too have just seen “I, Daniel Blake”. It is good to see that Ken Loach is still able to get funding for such a film. In the same week I also went to see Dr Strange, mainly because of Benedict. What a shit film! What a waste of good actors. I just hope they use their undoubted mega millions salary to help fund the sort of films which Ken Loach and others are making. We all need such films to enlighten us. I have no objection to the millions who love Marvel films but please let’s also make films which tell us what life is really like for far too many in the U.K. And elsewhere now!
    Shame we don’t have a superhero to fix life for them too!

  9. We have a family member who has a firm job offer, but can’t start it until their CRB comes through, and that is taking ages because of the backlog of applications that the Police have. However, is the Dept of employ sympathetic? Are they fuck. They still insist he continues his job hunt and must accept any job offer or have his benefit stopped. The whole system is bonkers, as well as cruel.

  10. Food banks of course have no place in fair society, that is why I think it is so important to support political alternatives to austerity like those being offered by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Shame that so many councillors still support the Blairite (Progress) faction of the party. I wrote this article about the politics of food banks some years ago http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/02/the-politics-of-food-banks/

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