When the State Is Scrooge

A conversation with I, Daniel Blake screenwriter Paul Laverty about the indignities of the welfare system in an age of austerity.

It’s not often a film has the impact of I, Daniel Blake.

An authentic and cutting tale of social outrage at the welfare system in an age of austerity, it has repeatedly been referenced in the British parliament, described as a “battle cry for the dispossessed” and even had its title taken up as a slogan by activists.

Directed by Ken Loach, it tells the story of a carpenter — Daniel Blake — who has suffered a serious heart attack and is told by his doctor that he is unable to work. He applies for Employment Support Allowance but is deemed “fit for work,” largely due to the fact he can still raise both of his arms above his head.

For many, this struck a chord: thousands of people in similar situations have died after being deemed fit for work in similar tests by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Blake befriends a young mother who has also fallen on difficult times, finding scant support from an inhumane and bureaucratic system in which being late for one appointment can lead to your benefits being withdrawn. Without dampening its rage, I, Daniel Blake manages to tell this story with a light touch, full of humor and humanity.

For its writer Paul Laverty there is nothing inevitable or accidental about the hardship on display. Instead, when we meet at the Glasgow Film Theatre, he tells me it’s a direct consequence of Conservative government policies which have pushed people to the brink of existence.

“It’s a conscious cruelty,” he says, his voice laced with anger. “There’s an absolutely vicious sanctions regime and it’s been responsible for suicides, homelessness, misery, hunger; in all sorts of ways. I’m not saying this rhetorically. I’ve been up and down the country hearing about it first hand from people.”

Laverty is Ken Loach’s long-term collaborator, having worked with him on a series of films for over thirty years. The relationship has proved immensely fruitful and I, Daniel Blake became their second film to win the coveted Palme Dor at the Cannes Film Festival.

However, it has been the film’s social impact that has pleased Laverty most. “We are all Daniel Blake” has been taken up as a moniker for activists in the United Kingdom and beyond. The film gave fresh impetuous to longstanding campaigns against austerity and brought the brutality of the welfare system to a wider audience. At a recent march against unemployment in France there were hundreds of “Moi, Daniel Blake” placards on display.

Did Laverty envisage the galvanizing effect that the story would have?

“Well, it’s only a film. It’s a story. Stories sometimes end up in cul-de-sacs and nobody sees them; sometimes they echo. What I’m very, very heartened by is the fact it has had an amazing echo, this one, more than any of the films I’ve ever done.”

“We’ve tapped into something, not only here but in other places that we’ve shown it. I think it’s like the dignity of each human person. They’re not statistics. They’re not just a client or a customer or a National Insurance Number. Everyone is entitled to it: a dignified life with security and safety.”

“There are plenty of resources to do that but what we have to imagine is an alternative. A film by itself changes nothing, only the activity and organizing afterwards.”

That activity has begun in earnest. Before our interview, Laverty was at the Scottish Parliament where the UK’s Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green was giving evidence to a parliamentary committee. The minister has been outspoken in his criticism of the film, calling it a “monstrously unfair” work of fiction — though he later admitted not to have watched it.

This statement led to Scottish politician George Adam presenting Green with a copy of the film’s screenplay during the committee. It was signed by Laverty with a note inside saying that he “stands by every single incident” as a “fair reflection of what is going on today.” Meanwhile, throughout the evidence session, an activist sat behind Green with an I, Daniel Blake t-shirt on.

Laverty smiles when I mention it.

“Aye, it’s like Daniel Blake is following him about wherever he goes! But it did make me laugh when he described it as a work of fiction. I’m not putting myself in these boots but, you know, is Dickens a work of fiction? Zola? Steinbeck? These are all things that try to capture the moment.”

“We’re storytellers, we’re filmmakers. We don’t want just a piece of agitprop. That means finding delicate, fragile, complicated relationships. That’s key. I think that’s why it has touched people, because we’ve attempted that. If it’s cheek agitprop that’s not well-researched and doesn’t reflect something bigger, it’s not going to have this echo.”

“[Minister] Damian Green and these officials, they talk about customers. No, they’re not customers. They’re citizens. When you listen to people and you hear the misery they go through; they just get worn down and they give up. Many, many do.”

“But I think this whole culture of fear is really important. They deny it and say: ‘Oh, no, we must have sanctions.’ It’s the misery and fear that makes people take these zero [hour] contract jobs. It’s this kind of fear of just being up to here all the time. I think it suits their worldview.”

The fact that the film is based on events that have happened to real people make them all the more harrowing. One particular scene paints a dark picture of the desperation felt by some people hit by poverty and austerity.

It involves Katie, who has not eaten for days, ripping open a tin of beans in her local food bank and attempting to eat the contents with her bare hands. It’s a devastating moment that reflects the fact that food banks are becoming an increasingly regular part of survival for so many in the United Kingdom.

Before the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power in 2009-2010, the charity Trussell Trust issued 41,000 emergency food supplies from 56 food banks. That figure has risen dramatically year-on-year with the trust issuing over one million packages from 424 food banks last year.

Another scene in the film shows Daniel growing increasingly frustrated at being left on hold on the phone for hours when trying to make his claim for income support.

“I heard the most amazing stories,” Laverty says. “There’s the legislation that you’ve got to get your head around, but then it’s the little detail of it that you don’t get until you dig around… like the telephones… how long people have to wait on the telephones. If you haven’t done it, you don’t realize. Then you realize people are phoning these telephones at premium rates and costing a fortune listening to fucking Vivaldi for an hour and a half.”

“I spoke to a young woman outside Dundee who’d been on the phone for two hours, until she used up all her credit. Then she went back home and cost her parents their credit. All to change her address. A couple of weeks later, all her money stops. She’s sanctioned. She goes in. She goes, ‘Why am I being sanctioned?’ The job center employee says, well, we sent you a letter for an appointment. And she says, ‘But you never sent me a letter.’ And she goes, yes they did. And it’s back again to the old address. There she is again, all this time later. All this money short. All this frustration. All her life thrown into confusion. There’s kind of a planned inefficiency in it all.”

The DWP’s sanctions regime is an element of the welfare system that the film helped to bring into sharp focus. Laverty tells me the story of a man in Edinburgh he met who was sanctioned after missing an appointment because his wife went into labor. Two people phoned up to tell the DWP why the man couldn’t make the appointment but the pleas fell on deaf ear. He had his benefits withdrawn.

The regularity of sanctions isn’t accidental. Leaked emails have revealed that DWP staff are under pressure from management to sanction claimants or else be subject to performance reviews and “personal improvement plans.” Sanctions can involve welfare payments being stopped altogether for anywhere between four weeks and three years.

The effectiveness of the measures have been called into question by campaigners and, recently, a report by the UK’s own National Audit Office. In a scathing assessment it found that sanctions pushed thousands of people into hardship and depression without any evidence that they actually worked. The study also found that the sanctions cost far more to administer than they save.

The Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black MP has been a vocal opponent of the regime and recently brought forward a Private Member’s Bill in Westminster which sought to introduce a new code of conduct for Job Centre staff across the United Kingdom. The measure would require them to take individual circumstances into account before issuing a sanction. However, Conservative MPs filibustered the debate.

The British government’s approach has found critics beyond the corridors of Westminster too. A United Nations inquiry judged that the rights of disabled people had been “systematically violated” by changes to welfare and social care in the country. Disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the welfare changes and the report echoed what campaigners have been saying for a long time, that they had been victimized by a narrative that cast them as “lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers.”

The film is due for full release in the United States over Christmas, but it’s already been shown at the New York Film Festival in October. Laverty’s experience there convinced him that that the themes and issues it deals with are international.

“It was shown at the Lincoln Center and there was about nine hundred people there,” he explains, “I wondered what all these people would make of this little film set in the northeast of England. As I wandering around I passed by a beautiful church not that far from the center. There was a food cue outside and I got speaking to this guy called James Green. He was just recently made homeless because his Dad had died then he lost the house so he ended up on the streets. But just listening to his story, I thought this [film] could be ‘I, James Green.’ So I introduced the film like this.”

“Because, at the end of the day, it raises much bigger questions about how we organize our economy, even if we get rid of the sanctions regime. How are we going to share work? Can we have a society of people trying to look after each other?”

“Yes, there would probably be the occasional lazy bastard who sat on his arse watching telly. But isn’t it a better price to pay than driving people to depression or suicide? Can we not instead raise people’s spirits?”