“When you lose your self-respect, you’re done for,” says 59-year-old carpenter Daniel Blake, the protagonist of Ken Loach’s hard hitting film I, Daniel Blake.
Daniel has just suffered from a serious heart attack and is forced to apply for Employment and Support Allowance, otherwise known as ESA. He is deemed unfit to work by his doctors, yet fails the Work Capability Assessment – a tick-box heavy test used to decide the fate of his income – as he scores three points under the the required 15 needed to be considered too ill to work.
The story then follows Daniel’s unnerving journey, as he is referred to ‘The Decision Maker’ and forced to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance. The carpenter is stripped of his trade and dignity, obliged to swap his chisel for a computer mouse to keep up the charade of looking for non-existent jobs, in order to keep his head above water.
The film’s message and powerful dialogue, which has seen director Ken Loach win the Palme d’Or (the highest accolade at Cannes Film Festival) are not restricted to the narrative of the story. They have surpassed the realm of screen and script and penetrated the hearts of a generation confounded by the current state of our welfare system.
“[Daniel Blake] is a welfare claimant as imagined by a member of the upper-middle class metropolitan elite,” says Toby Young of the Daily Mail. He knocks Loach for ‘romanticising Benefits Britain’ – he obviously didn’t watch the same film as everyone in the teary-eyed cinema I went to.
Unfortunately, the authenticity of the film is blatant, and the morbid picture it portrays of the the ill and disabled’s struggle to claim benefits is crucially unromanticised.
A study, conducted across a 3-year period, examined whether the new Work Capability Assessment checklist had an adverse effect on the mental health of claimants.
The academic research concluded: “The Work Capability Assessment was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing.”
Between 2010 and 2013, a staggering 590 suicides were directly linked to the government’s controversial assessment. The Independent reports that there was an additional 279,000 cases of mental ill health and 725,000 more prescriptions for antidepressants in places where there was a higher administration of the test.
Since then, statistics have been released revealing that 2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 because a Work Capability Assessment found they were fit for work, ending their claim for Employment and Support Allowance.
On February 23rd 2010, Leanne Chambers became a victim of the Work Capability Assessment. Her body was discovered in the River Wear, five weeks after she had left the house she shared with her boyfriend, Steven Crossland.
Just weeks earlier Leanne, who had battled depression for years, had been told she had to visit a doctor to see if she was fit for work.
Mark Scott, 46, suffered from anxiety, epilepsy and chronic alcoholism. He was left penniless when Job Centre assessors said he was fit to work. He died just six weeks after his benefits were cut.
“I think the anxiety Mark suffered over this decision killed him. [The benefits] should never have stopped,”
Mark’s father, Cliff, told the Liverpool Echo, adding: “They pulled the rug from under him and I think the stress of it led to his death.”
I want to fight for justice, not just for Mark but for all the other people in the same situation.
If I am offered the money I won’t take it, I will give it to charity. I just want the DWP to realise the impact of what they are doing.
It is all very well to target the scroungers but that cannot be at the expense of those who have no options but to rely on the state.
In 2012, an independent tribunal ruled that the Department of Work and Pensions’ decision to stop Mark’s Employment and Support Allowance was incorrect.
Great medical tests for ESA patients with MS scrapped by the gov. I spent hours yesterday being stressed with medical assessment
— Gary May (@garymay15) October 1, 2016
In October, reassessments for Employment and Support Allowance were finally scrapped for chronically ill individuals, meaning that they would only be required to apply for support once.
MPs labelled the reassessments as ‘pointless’, and there are questions as to why they continued to be administered for so long – maybe someone within the government had a light-bulb moment and decided to google the definition of ‘chronically ill’?
Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of the MS Society called it ‘a victory for common sense’, however, this ‘light-bulb moment’ only shines a dim light. The end of ESA reassessment for people suffering from on-going illness marks the end of something that should never have been, but it is also an admission of failure to the thousands of people put through pointless repeated testing who subsequently took their own lives.
Beverly works for the Public and Commercial Services Union. She works in a Job Centre and tells me that it’s not unheard of for managers to have targets to refer people – potentially regardless of their needs – for further ESA assessment.
She says: “We have had whistleblowers in other parts of the country where managers have said ‘Yes, you do have a target, you’ve got to meet this target of referring to a decision maker.’”
Unbelievably, ‘The Decision Maker’ is a real thing. It is the apathetic, faceless name of a bureaucratic system refusing to acknowledge that a mental health epidemic is affecting people’s ability to work.
The Decision Maker sounds like he’d be more suited to a dystopian biopic or Hunger Games sequel – but the contestants of these Hunger Games are the ubiquitous Daniel Blake’s of our society, prisoners of the Job Centre, forced into food banks as a necessary lifeline.
Actress Kate Rutter plays the role of Ann in the film, a Job Centre worker. She told me:
Apart from myself and someone else, everybody else you see in the film, working in the Job Centre, has done that job.
They were all there on hand to tell us no you wouldn’t do that [in a Job Centre] or yes you might do that, and constantly telling us stories [like Daniel’s]. A lot of them very regretful about things they’ve had to do.
All of them left the Department of Work and Pensions because they couldn’t stand it anymore.
At the Conservative Party Conference last month, Welfare Secretary Damien Green quipped: “Anyone who thinks Job Centres are like [those in The Full Monty] would be pleasantly surprised by visiting [one today]… no screens, no queues no sense of sullen despair.”
Absolutely, Job Centres are not like the ones on The Full Monty any more – dark, dim, understaffed, and with the promise of a strip tease near the end – they’re like the one in I, Daniel Blake. They may lack screens, and visible queues, but you can see the sullen despair beyond the brave faces of the ill and disabled in crisis.
The film is fiercely real, reflective of many harsh realities. It is too tangible for fiction.
Ken Loach’s 1966 film Cathy Come Home called for a generation to rethink their attitude towards homelessness. And 50 years on, Loach continues to call for a reformation of how we treat social injustice. All that’s left now is for the government to start paying attention, and acknowledge the real life consequences of treating illness and disability with a tick-box.
We’re probably going to be waiting for a while on that front, though.