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Brutal truth behind Ken Loach benefit film

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Issue 2525
A scene from I, Daniel Burke
A scene from I, Daniel Burke

Veteran left wing director Ken Loach’s new film tells the story of a joiner who stops work due to ill health.

He claims Employment Support Allowance (ESA) sickness benefit—then is hounded by a system out to take it from him.

In preview showings organised by trade unions and campaigns, people have been horrified at the attacks the film exposes.

But ESA claimant and leading Disabled People Against Cuts (Dpac) campaigner Paula Peters told Socialist Worker, “This is what we live every day.

“The right wing media has done a very good job of painting benefit claimants as scroungers.

“They put across the government’s side of the story, then give us a media ­blackout when we protest.

I have lost 25 of my friends in the last five years to this ­government. It has to stop.

Paula Peters, Dpac activist

“But the film is based on real stories—all these things have happened to people. And that’s what a lot of people don’t get.”

To claim ESA people have to prove they are not “fit for work” in hated Work Capability Assessments (WCA).

Claimants of Disability Living Allowance or its replacement Personal Independence Payment must do this too. The film shows the anguish this can cause.

“It’s devastating,” said Paula. “When you’re waiting to be assessed you feel absolute fear and anxiety. You’re filled with dread. You don’t know what will happen to you, so you’re left with a real insecurity about the future.

“And the film shows how your health really deteriorates under that stress.”


Others have their ESA or Job Seeker’s Allowance cut off by “sanctions” if they are deemed—by the most arbitrary standards—not to be doing enough to get work.

The results can be deadly.

Thousands of people have died after their benefits have been cut off.

Some have killed themselves, others have died as a result of their conditions. Former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith shrugged these off as a statistical fluke.

But coroners’ reports and 49 peer-reviewed reports from his own Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) explicitly draw the link.

Paula said, “Last week a friend of mine took her own life. She had received two brown envelopes that morning.

Paula Peters

Paula Peters (Pic: Guy Smallman)

“One said she had been found fit for work. The other said her Pip was being cut in half.

“I have lost 25 of my friends in the last five years to this ­government. It has to stop.”

New cuts pile up with a cumulative impact that goes beyond any single “reform”.

Both the attacks explored in the film are about to be tightened.

The ESA benefit claimed by Daniel (played by Dave Johns) is to have another £1.4 billion slashed from it—by cutting £30 a week from half a million claimants.

Before that many thousands could suffer the fate that befalls Daniel’s ally Katie (Hayley Squires). She and her children are uprooted and exiled far from their London roots because the council won’t pay to house them.

The main driver of cases such as these has been the benefit cap. This is set to be brought down next month to £20,000 a year for a household or £23,000 in London.


The government portrays this as a small fortune, comparing benefits to the wages of the lowest paid workers.

It’s a rotten red herring. Most of those workers will be on benefits. And most benefit claimants receive far less than the cap.

But a minority—mostly families with several children—need more to cope with soaring housing costs.

Almost two thirds are female lone parents. And the money often goes straight into the pockets of private landlords.

As job centre workers we know what happens to people who are sanctioned but we don’t see it. It would be great to get this film shown in every job centre and to every employee.

Pete, job centre worker

Housing activist Joe Halewood estimated that ­lowering the cap will increase those affected from around 20,000 households to over 150,000.

He pointed out that this won’t save money since many will need emergency ­homelessness support from councils.

Director Ken Loach (left) with Dave Johns, who plays Daniel in I, Daniel Blake

Director Ken Loach (left) with Dave Johns, who plays Daniel in I, Daniel Blake

Paula stressed, “This is an ideological assault. The government schemes have cost more than they have saved.

“They’ve not helped people into work. They’ve cut the support and capped the access to funds to help people work.

“Employers aren’t interested in taking on disabled people who need support or flexibility.

“But the model the government uses is designed to say it’s a person’s own fault if they can’t work, that they’re not trying hard enough.”

Many Tories would love to scrap welfare altogether. And bosses need the threat of unemployment to scare workers into accepting worse conditions.

The war on welfare serves to give it sharper claws and bigger teeth.


Central to that has been “conditionality and coercion”—­testing, sanctioning, and making sure that anyone ­relying on benefits knows they can be snatched away.

As well as brutal, this is expensive and controversial.

Damian Green

Damian Green (Pic: Policy Exchange)

New work and pensions secretary Damian Green announced that ESA claimants with long term conditions will now only undergo a WCA once, not repeatedly.

That’s partly so contractor Maximus doesn’t buckle under the caseload and opposition as its predecessor Atos did.

Universal Credit, the new benefit that extends the sanction regime to low paid workers, is so mired in delays it has become a running joke. But the Tories are pushing on.

Conditionality and coercion will inform the Health and Work Programme that replaces the failed Work Programme.

Paula said, “This is very dangerous. The severe mental health cuts that are going on mean that all you have is your GP.

“I used to have a very good care coordinator who saw me once a month.

“Then after 40 years working for the NHS he was told his job was no longer needed.

“His work permit was revoked and he was sent out of the country.

“So when someone in mental distress starts to see their GP surgery as a place of bullying and coercion, there’s nowhere left.”

The weak spot of this regime is that it rests on people—and people can say no.


Atos’ troubles hit home when it struggled to find health workers willing to put disabled people through tests, strip them of benefits—and ignore protests.

The government has tried to automate the process for appealing against WCA ­decisions, because human ­tribunals were upholding too many.

DWP employees—many of them in the PCS union—are on the front line. Job centre worker Pete said Loach’s film would make uncomfortable viewing.

A protest against benefit cuts last month

A protest against benefit cuts last month (Pic: Guy Smallman)

“Seeing the real experience of claimants on the screen was a very distressing experience,” he told Socialist Worker.

“As job centre workers we know what happens to people who are sanctioned but we don’t see it. It would be great to get this film shown in every job centre and to every employee.

“It would remind people that every one of those ­statistics they are told to chase is a real human being.”

The film shows some ­workers sympathetically, others as villains.

Pete said, “It’s a real argument in every office. You’ll have someone who does exactly what the government says because they agree with it.

“Then you’ll have ­someone who won’t give sanctions because it’s wrong.

“In between, the majority recognise the damage done by sanctions but are afraid of losing their job.”

This debate is shaped by struggles in wider society.

“PCS calls for sanctions to be scrapped, and it defends workers’ right to ‘use their discretion’—discretion some people use to never sanction,” said Pete.

“People are under pressure to give sanctions. But there isn’t the ­sanction mania that there was a few years ago. The government has lost the argument because of popular outrage—and we need more of that.”

The film has its part to play. Paula said, “I want everyone to watch I, Daniel Blake. And then don’t stop there.

“Do research into what’s being done. Read Socialist Worker, one of the only papers that tells it how it is and says what the struggles are.

“Join Dpac or one of the other campaigns. Watch the film, become incensed with anger—then join your voices to ours so there are no more Daniel Blakes.”

I, Daniel Blake is out on Friday 21 October

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