Review – I, Daniel Blake – holding a mirror up to the UK’s welfare system (QFT until 3 Nov)

i-daniel-blake-1Recovering from a heart attack while up scaffolding on a building site and told by his GP that he’s unable to work, casual labourer and skilled joiner Daniel Blake (played by Dave Johns) enters the nine circles of Department of Works and Pension hell as he battles for recognition of his health condition and financial support through the Employment and Support Allowance.

Unfortunately, points mean prizes benefits, and the widower’s heart attack doesn’t score highly enough to avoid him being deemed fit for work. After hours spent in the first circle (limbo) waiting for health professionals in all centres to explain the next stage of the mandatory and rigid process Dan jumps straight to the fifth circle (wrath) when his efforts to sell himself and find employment are rewarded with a referral for sanction.

All the while, Dan befriends a single parent Katie (Hayley Squires) from London who has been living with hew two primary school aged children in a homeless hostel. Finally offered accommodation in Newcastle upon Tyne, she has uprooted her children from school friends and family support to move north.

Dan’s selfless and angelic intervention makes a positive impact on the young family’s lives, slowing the spiralling descent of mother Katie as she is squeezed into making bad decisions, albeit perhaps the least worst under the desperate circumstances.

i-daniel-blake-2There are some moments of hope and kindness in this grey tale. A food bank based in a church hall offers dignity and respect once those queuing around the block enter inside. Ordinary people help the digitally challenged fifty nine year old, forced online at every welfare process twist and turn. Unfortunately the one DWP worker who goes off-script and displays a smidgeon of humanity is swiftly disciplined for nearly stimulating a dangerous precedent.

In the midst of claim forms and benefits, poor alternatives are shown. Entrepreneurial youths create income by exploiting high value goods sourced from overseas factory production lines; with some of the workers complicit in their scheme and also profiting from it. The sex trade offers steady income for those willing to sign on.

I, Daniel Blake offers a bruising critique of the system, but no answers. That’s not the point. It’s a cry for help, a plea for common sense and injection of humanity as the unfeeling social welfare system is laid bare. Someone curses Iain Duncan Whateveryoucallhim after Dan’s brief act of seventh circle violence against a wall is caught. It’s harsh but not cruel.

Letters, phone calls, hold music, inflexible questionnaires and bureaucratic bullies seem to have become the basic tenets of the UK government’s austere policies. Those with the most need and the least proficiency are asked to jump through the highest hoops to access support.

This morning’s breakfast radio bulletins brought the sickening news that the International Development Secretary Priti Patel plans to extend these principles to overseas aid, using it to help deliver trade deals and throw British soft power weight around rather than using the 0.7% tithe on Gross National Income to offer help without selfish strings attached.

While Paul Laverty’s screenplay avoids the convenient coincidences that plague many modern films, there are still moments within the 100 minute film that feel a little clunky. But director Ken Loach’s point is made and made well. It’s grim up t’north for Dan, but to be honest it’s grim for hundreds of thousands of Dans up and down the country, being slowly roasted in the DWP’s latest circles of hell. And with welfare reform in Northern Ireland, we’re not immune from this inhumane madness.

I, Daniel Blake is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre two or three times a day until Thursday 3 November. Bring tissues: if you’ve a heart you’ll need them.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • AntrimGael

    While no doubt the main story is Daniel and the young mother I have some experience of the other side of the counter as I worked for a while in a front line benefit office. They are real soul destroying places for most of the staff who are stuck there for years on end, on crap wages, and who are basically a punch bag for government policy and the anger and frustration of the public.
    As much as most of them would love to get the hell out of these negative, depressing holes most of these staff can’t just up and walk as they also have families to support and little hope of getting jobs anywhere else. From 9.00 on a Monday to 5.00 on a Friday it’s a diet of non stop abuse, threats, intimidation and aggression and when I hear some commentators saying public sector workers have it easy I say go and spend a few weeks in a dole office. Many staff I worked with were on medication from their doctors and had serious alcohol dependency just to get through the day.
    The front line staff have absolutely NO control over welfare policy or many of the decisions such as sanctions which are imposed by ‘decision makers’ who sit upstairs or in other buildings and who NEVER feel or bear the brunt of their decisions. ALL the anger, frustration and often violence is taken by the few clerks on the front desk and on the phones who have become the fall guys and whipping boys and girls for all the ills and unfairness of draconian Tory policies.
    So by all means yes expose the reality of the welfare system but the next time you are in one of these places look into the staff’s eyes; they are lifeless and zombie like. Only last week a former colleague informed me of the suicide in an office in England of a staff member. Not everyone who works in the benefits system is a cold, uncaring so and so. They are as much prisoners as many of the claimants.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Very true and thanks for writing that

  • Zorin001

    My mum works in one and she would concur with all the above.

    Instead of the blanket coverage of “malingering civil servants” when the sick figures are released each year I would like to see in depth coverage of exactly what departments and branches most sick leave is occurring in; I would bet a good sum of money it’s the Child Support Agency and the SSA.

  • chrisjones2

    Was it all differeent under Labour?

  • Simian Droog

    Yes. And you could just google that instead of pretending not to know.

  • Simian Droog
  • chrisjones2

    I am perfectly able to see Google but unlike you am not foolish enough to believe everything I read there.

    Yes if you offer free food in food banks, guess what happens? People come and take it. Its free!!! As for the article you quote it shows the problems with the figures. Oraganisations wanting to do good increased the supply of food banks by 700% … more people went to them ….cue howls that ‘demand has soared’ … the evdience is that supply has soared and its free so people are taking more.

    I have no doubt that many people do need help from food banks and that they do good.For others they are a useful free supplement.

    The question then is cause and effect ….why do so many people need them? Answer, because of the damage done to the economy by the last Labour Government which saw so many lose their jobs and homes.The Conservat6yiev /LIberal alliance set aboput reversing that and this Governmnet is conhtinuing it with more jobs and a higher % of people in work and ann increasing minimum wage towards a new living wage

    But what do we do about those who will not work? About those determined to live on benefits? That whole culture has to change and the biggest demand for that change comes from working people who see them given preference in so many areas from housing to education

    I am sure staff in the Job CEntres do have an awful time.I simply asked has it become demonstrably worse? And if it has why?

  • Katyusha

    You cannot just walk into a food bank and lift food because it’s free. You need to have a referral, a recognised third party that sees that you are in genuinely dire straits.

    The second thing you miss is that people genuinely wish to earn their crust and sustain themselves on their own income rather than beg for charity.

    If a body’s ever took charity, it makes a burn that don’t come out. … [I]f you ever took it, you don’t forget it… I did, … Las’ winter; an’ we was a starvin’—me an’ Pa an’ the little fellas. An’ it was a-rainin’. Fella tol’ us to go to the Salvation Army.” Her eyes grew fierce. “We was hungry — they made us crawl for our dinner. They took our dignity. They — I hate ’em!” … Her voice was fierce and hoarse. “I hate ’em,” she said. “I ain’t never seen my man beat before, but them — them Salvation Army done it to ‘im.

    Steinbeck. Seems relevant.

  • Zorin001

    “The Conservat6yiev /LIberal alliance set aboput reversing that and this Governmnet is conhtinuing it with more jobs and a higher % of people in work”

    All secure and contracted work no doubt, not zero hour contract jobs that give little to no income security and exist simply to benefit big business and massage the unemployment figures, deary me no.

  • chrisjones2

    Who said that?I just pointed out that if something is free people take it……….If you increase the supply of free stuff by 700% people take a lot more of it

  • chrisjones2

    Work is work ….money is money

  • Zorin001

    Sorry I don’t agree, there is a world of difference for someone on a 35 hpw contract with good terms and conditions of employment and someone on a zero hour contract with no certainty of their hours per week and little protection when it comes to hiring and firing.

  • Katyusha

    But what I am saying is that you are not free to come in and take it, and you cannot just take as much as you like.

    Secondly, people in dire straits will often refuse to take aid that is offered to them, for the precise reason that it is free – it would mean admitting they are desperate and have no choice but to rely on the charity of others to survive.

    And by the way, supply and demand curves do not work in the simple way you describe. In this case, supply is restricted by the charity of those donating to food banks, and demand is restricted by the number of people who are destitute enough to obtain a referral. Indeed, you could argue that while demand increases, supply decreases – the poorer the general populace get, the more people there are relying on food banks, and fewer people have the disposable income to donate to them. In any case, nothing in economics is truly free; you cannot estimate the costs of an economic activity by the prices (or lack of them) on the shelves. Supply and demand is a price setting mechanism, and the more people find themselves in destitution, the greater the number of that will decide that admitting their failure and humiliating themselves by accepting charity is a price worth paying to keep themselves and their families from going hungry. I’d suggest its a rather hefty price to pay, and one that you wouldn’t take without any other choice.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And the misery of not being able to offer any security of income to your bank because you are on a zero hour contract and have no idea if you will work or not is sheer, soul destroying misery.

    You do not really need a great deal of imagination to grasp this, chris. Now I’ve been freelance all my career, but with some clout. The kind of abusive employment behaviour which was coming in at the end of my film career for freelancers down the pecking order was one of the reasons I lefty film. I simply could not bring myself to treat decent people in that way.

  • chrisjones2

    The point on suppl;y doesnt stand.There was sufficent supply to increase it by 700% …hence the increase in demand

  • Abucs

    In a rural area of the Philippines a friend noticed that many children came to school without any breakfast. She got together with other volunteers and and provided a simple breakfast before school.

    She had to shut it down within a few months because everyone was turning up. All families began to see it as right. 🙁

  • Teddybear

    There is something that smells about criticising the poor, deserving or not.

    The problems are :
    Lack of full time jobs that pay a wage that can pay rent and support a household of 5 or thereabouts.

    Out sourcing abroad

    The solutions are:
    Scrap all incentives for companies taking advantage of tax and NI breaks for part time work

    Scrap zero hours contracts. I’m sure it may suit some people but it’s too rampant and hard to control. Easier to ban it

    Part time work is fine but companies should ensure that say 80% of its staff are full time and the rest part time.

    Rent controls and perhaps nationalisation of part of housing stock

    Wages to afford to rent a 3 bed house , feed water and cloth a family of 5 say, to run a car, heating and enough for a foreign holiday for household twice a year say

    Ensure final salary pension schemes are enforced

    Ensure companies employ at least 95% of jobs within UK and no more than 5% offshored.

    Nationalisation of those firms who flout the law

    I may be right wing on many many matters but it disgusts me to see the population in the state it’s in.

  • AntrimGael

    Every so often the Nolan Show and Belfast Telegraph put out big screaming headlines about the sickness levels within the Civil Service and it really angers me big time. Most civil servants go to their work and don’t abuse sick leave but long term absences for serious illnesses like cancer, heart problems etc push up the overall average and it’s very unfair on the vast majority of staff.
    I would also agree that prolonged working time in front line benefit offices, the wider Social Security Agency and Child Support Agency IS having a seriously detrimental affect on the mental and physical well being of employees. The administrative staff are like sponges who over a period of time just soak up non stop abuse and threats and eventually their bodies and minds start to react. Add in virtually no support from managers and you have big problems.
    There are high levels of skin problems, anxiety related illnesses, alcohol dependency and heart conditions, cancers etc are starting to affect employees in their 40’s and 50’s who have been there for lengthy periods. I have witnessed staff not taking sick for years and then bang ill health hits them very suddenly.
    I was talking to a former colleague today who told me that the benefit offices are on the point of collapse due to staff cuts, the redundancy programme, no new recruitment and sick levels. One benefits office in Belfast currently has 10,000 pieces of outstanding work and new claims are taking up to 3/4 months to clear. Why isn’t this being reported by the local media? You tell me.

  • Simian Droog

    You actually think people are running to food banks because there’s “free food” there? You’re a rightwing gargoyle and that’s the last time I’m indulging you. Embarrassing.

  • Simian Droog
  • chrisjones2

    Come come now…dont let reality intrude here

  • chrisjones2

    I understand that you now appreciate your argument is unsustainable and are hiding again.

  • chrisjones2

    I agree. And the key is to make sure they have the chance to do that and support them when they cant

  • chrisjones2

    I agree….but still work is work

    BTW I see from figures today that the average NI Public Sector worker earns 30% more than a private sector equivalent – and thats before the rest of the benefits package.Truely shocking

  • Kevin Breslin

    Did not a lot of people vote for something recently because of a lot of welfare state promises?

    And then you go and attack them like an elite too lazy to work for them to happen.

    It all seems a bit reverse ferret to me.