Conscious cruelty’: Ken Loach’s shock at benefit sanctions and food banks

‘Hunger is being used as a weapon,’ says veteran director, calling for public rage over situation he says is worse than when he made Cathy Come Home in 1966

Diane Taylor

Monday 23 November 2015

The Guardian.

Ken Loach has said there needs to be more public outrage around benefit sanctions and the reliance on food banks, with the situation much worse for working people than when he made his seminal film Cathy Come Home, in 1966.

The veteran film-maker rarely speaks while developing a project but is so deeply concerned about government policy on benefits and the sanctions regime that he gave an interview to the Guardian on the set of his latest film.

Loach, 79, is shooting what may be his last film, I, Daniel Blake, based on writer Paul Laverty’s research of jobcentres, benefit sanctions and food banks. It tells the story of Blake, who has worked for years as a joiner but then is forced to give up work and claim benefits. “The present system is one of conscious cruelty,” Loach said. “It bears down on those least able to bear it. The bureaucratic inefficiency is vindictive and hunger is being used as a weapon. People are being forced to look for work that doesn’t exist.”

Loach, whose film is to be released next year, said he was shocked by the sheer number of hungry people he had seen at a food bank. “This is a real open wound in our society. We are just closing our eyes to this. The situation is much worse than in the days of Cathy Come Home, at least then if people had a trade they could have a job for life.

“Those jobs don’t exist now and working people are no longer in control of their own lives. All this is about dividing people into skivers and strivers. There needs to be public rage about this.”

Cathy Come Home, a celebrated television play originally broadcast on BBC1, followed the story of a couple who lose their home and face homelessness after being hit by unemployment.

The film-maker called on the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to do more to highlight the situation. “The idea that someone in the system can decide whether or not you can eat is appalling. Where is the Labour party on this? We should have the Tories on the run on this one.

“Come on Jeremy, we want to hear from you on this issue. People are feeling oppressed and crushed and powerless. What is the point of the Labour movement if not to give voice to people in these situations?”

There has been criticism of the government’s benefits sanctions regime with charities such as Mind claiming that fit-for-work tests are linked to hundreds of extra suicides. In September, a coroner said the suicide of one disabled man, Michael O’Sullivan, was triggered by intense anxiety caused by his experience with the controversial work-capability assessment process. It emerged last month that an early warning system for benefit claimants facing sanctions is to be trialled in response to claims that an excessively punitive and bureaucratic system is driving some claimants deeper into poverty.

As ever, real life and the world of Loach’s films are closely intertwined. Disaffected former staff from a real jobcentre in the north-east of England appear as extras in the film, along with people who have received benefits sanctions. A mix of professional actors and non-professionals appear in the film. One former jobcentre employee who appears in the film said the stress of the job made her ill and she was so uncomfortable about what managers expected of her that she quit.

“Back in 2002 we used to be able to sort out people’s queries about benefits there and then,” she said. “Now everything is centralised and we can’t do that any more. We used to be able to do more to help vulnerable people than is possible now. I remember one man who had multiple sclerosis. He worked …. for as long as he could but eventually his employers said he was too ill to continue working there. He was on employment support allowance (for people who have health problems) but was moved on to jobseekers allowance. He was too ill to look for work so he was sanctioned.”

She said people with mental-health problems particularly struggled under the current regime. “Some of these people haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of getting a job. The way they are treated is humiliating. I have seen people age 15 years over a five-year period. That is what the system has done to them. A terrible climate has been created where people are encouraged to snoop on others.

“We were told there were no targets for staff about how many people we sanctioned but some of those who didn’t sanction many claimants would be called into the manager’s office and might be given a performance-improvement plan. Whiteboards started to pop up with different targets and percentages on them.”

Stuart Macdonald,21, is an extra in the film. He gets work in call centres when he can but is often only offered short-term contracts and had been sanctioned several times when he has had to claim benefits. “I would say that when I have been sanctioned it has been down to poor communication rather than anything else. I have had to miss meals and the sanctions have put an enormous strain on my relationship with my mum,” he said.

Laverty, the film’s writer, said: “An administrative decision can sentence a person and their family to hunger. Where else in society do we have that? People are having to choose between heating or food. This is causing long-term damage and is defining people as non-citizens. Sanctions don’t help people get into work, it increases the chaos in their lives.”

Rebecca O’Brien, a producer of the film, said that it was particularly important to make it at the moment. “The situation seems increasingly urgent. The state doesn’t seem to be there for people in the way that it used to be.”

Dave Johns, 59, who plays Daniel Blake, is a standup comedian. He said that he was enjoying every minute of working with Loach and his team: “It is just like one big family on set.” Johns said that he had had no idea just how bad things were in the world of benefits and was horrified by the subject matter of the film.

“The last time I signed on was in the 1970s, when it was the labour exchange. Things were very different then. It is shocking what is happening to people and I hope that this film will help to let people know what is really going on.”

 

 

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