Based on research and interviews by the screenwriter Paul Laverty of jobcentres, benefit sanctions and food banks, this movie tells the fictional story of Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old joiner in the North East. When he falls ill, a functionary at the Department for Work and Pensions, DWP, decides that he is not entitled to sickness benefit. He crosses paths with single mother Katie and her two young children, Daisy and Dylan. Katie’s only chance to escape a one-roomed homeless hostel in London has been to accept a flat in a city she doesn’t know, some 300 miles away. Daniel and Katie find themselves in no-man’s land, caught on the barbed wire of welfare bureaucracy as played out against the rhetoric of ‘striver and skiver’ in modern-day Britain.
What lies at that root of the story?
The struggle for life of millions of British citizens and residents whose only crime is that they are poor, unemployed or disabled in the fifth richest economy in the world in the second decade of the 21st century. There has been a rise in agency work, short-term contracts, casual labour, zero-hour contracts. Yet, in Britain a sustained and systematic campaign against anyone on welfare. Studies found that the average person thought that in excess of 30% of welfare payments were claimed fraudulently. The truth is that it is 0.7%. So it is no surprise if welfare cuts became a prime target. We found out from experts the disabled have suffered on average six times more than any other group from the government’s raft of cuts.
Why do you call the benefits system as “cruel bureaucracy”?
If we look hard enough, we can all see the conscious cruelty at the heart of the state’s welfare system for those in desperate need. People, especially the most vulnerable, are told their poverty is their own fault. Political leaders are committed to reduce the number of those claiming benefits, because big business doesn’t want to pay the taxes to support it. The benefit sanctions regime is forcing people to sleep rough, go hungry and push them further away from getting a job. Claimants are often penalized for cruel and often absurd reasons. Like the father who was sanctioned for attending the birth of his child, or a relative attending a funeral, despite informing the DWP of the reasons. Claimants with mental illness or any kind of disabilities are also at high risk of being sanctioned, with serious health consequences.
You have defined the use of bureaucracy, the intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy, as a political weapon.
Yes. We need a new system that builds on people’s strengths and aspirations. The Jobcentres now are not about helping people, they’re about setting obstacles in people’s way. There’s a job coach, as they’re called, who is supposed to help them to find work. But more often people is forced to accept precarious and low paid jobs and short term contracts. There are also expectations of the amount of number of people who will be sanctioned. If the interviewers don’t sanction enough people, they themselves are put on ‘Personal Improvement Plans. With the sanctioning regime it means people will be relying on food banks and charities to survive. And this is something the government seems quite content about – that there should be food. So the food banks are becoming absorbed in to the state as part of the mechanism of dealing with poverty. Not to mention that many of those sanctioned have been psychologically vulnerable suffering from depression and other mental illnesses. There has always been a vicious streak of state bullying in our society when it comes to treating the vulnerable.
Was a Brexit a working class revolt?
I think the European Union is a neo-liberal project. Its economy is by no means dominated by giant corporations. They have to be profitable, they have to get the cheapest labour they can. European leaders keep on maintaining a political system that perpetuates social injustice. The massive inequality in British society contributed to the vote to leave the European Union. It is also hardly disputable that a large section of the working class, concentrated in towns and cities that have been quietly devastated by free-market economics, decided they’d had enough. What effect will Brexit have on the working class in Britain? no-one knows, mainly because the details of what Brexit actually mean haven’t been negotiated yet with Brussels. But one thing for sure, the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK would be hit hardest.
Cover Photo: credits Matteo Nardone