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What I Daniel Blake can teach us about humanising New Zealand’s benefit system

A couple of years ago I had the harrowing experience of seeing I Daniel Blake, an impassioned film by Ken Loach who is, in my opinion, the greatest director of the social realism genre.

From Kes, Cathy Come Home to Raining Stones to My Name is Joe; he exposed the brutal, yet warmly unique side of working class life in the UK. It is the beautifully controlled balance between scripted and improvised acting that draws on real life characters, largely ignored, that is his hallmark.

In I Daniel Blake it is the brutality of the social security benefit system that Loach exposes in all its unedifying glory. Not only is it a coherent no holds barred look at the system, but a heart-breaking portrayal of one man’s attempt to stay sane when wrongly ‘categorised’ by social security, something that is ultimately destroying him.

Benefits and Work and Income

Many years ago, as a young student in England I was entitled to an Unemployment Benefit as a student before I went to University. It was indeed a very privileged position to be in. Living in a beautiful little village surrounded by quaint sandstone cottages as I did, I was sheltered from the lives of the poor.

Each fortnight I would travel to ‘sign on’ at the ‘dole office’ locally. It was a depressing experience. Here, for the first time, I met people who had no work and were genuinely subsisting of Unemployment Benefit. It seemed to me that these proud people had a quiet, if not ashamed, reserve. This was the 1980s as Margret Thatcher’s economic monetarist policies took hold and mass unemployment was the norm.

Today I support many people to access their Work and Income entitlements. The much abused and reinforced glass screens protecting staff may have gone, but the sense of ‘us and them’ remains. It is something you will never know unless you too have had to swallow your pride and seek help to make ends meet.

It is hard to underestimate the detrimental effect having an appointment at Work and Income can have upon people, especially for people who have a learning disability or who experience anxiety. And I’m proud that we work alongside the people we support to negotiate the complex and ever changing benefit system.

Why you need to see I Daniel Blake

Ken Loach is a complex figure; he is unashamedly left wing for one thing. Some see his films as mere propaganda, constantly decrying the system as a political ideologue. To me, this is far too simplistic. I Daniel Blake has the feeling of a historical drama of Dickensian proportions. A bleak yet fascinating playing out of a game of societal Russian roulette builds up into a climax that literally has you wanting to scream with rage and injustice, always Loach’s trump card.

So what is the film all about?

Daniel Blake is a skilled craftsman. But his highly rated skills are not of market value, they are innate ones like integrity, honesty and compassion. Yet these are of little use in the bureaucratic system of the UK in 2016.

Blake’s crime is to have a heart attack, a double blow after the loss of his wife. His doctor has said he is too ill to work, but he then has to spend 35 hours a week applying for jobs he cannot possibly do. “Why should he?” you might ask? His hand-written CV cuts no ice with the inhuman ‘work coach’ portrayed in the film.

In the middle of all this Daniel’s humanity and compassion finds its expression in the relationship he builds with Katie. Katie is a single parent with two kids who has had to move from London as there is little or no social housing stock, a mirror to the reality of an overcrowded British Isles.

Katie has her benefits frozen leaving her penniless. Daniel tries to support both her and the young children for whom he developed a fatherly love for. As the situation becomes financially untenable, Katie has to go ‘on the game’ and sell herself for money. In the most emotionally charged moment of the film Daniel follows her to a back street brothel and desperately pleads with her to return to the children. The emotional turmoil is captured perfectly as he is forced to leave and we are shown that there are choices in life we will never have to make.

The politics of entitlement New Zealand

In April 2018 the Prime Minister promised an overhaul of the welfare system. She acknowledged Work and Income were expected to make it hard for people to access benefits, and there had to be a cultural change in order to increase entitlement.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said these signalled changes were “imminent”. “The last time we were in Government we tried to flip the starting point of the conversation to one of what you’re entitled to rather than avoiding entitlement,” Ms Ardern said.

There have been signs already that things are changing, but it does not acknowledge how challenging this culture change will be, given the vast difference in provision and attitude of Case Managers across the country. Some are very good, but some are confrontational and frankly rude.

“When people walk through that door, they are often in their most desperate of situations. We save ourselves money in the long run if we make sure we get good support in behind them rather than having them go through a range of social services to top up with food bank needs and so on.”

The poor man’s solution to the all too swift cutting off of benefits has been food grants, which have seen expenditure climbed higher as the poor get poorer. A simplistic sticking plaster response it has to be said and pitiful in a so called developed country.

The National Party sees welfare differently social services spokesperson Paula Bennett said the Government should be careful about looking at overhauling the welfare system and she’d be “very concerned” if it was considering scrapping sanctions.

“If it’s to loosen it up and get people stuck on welfare for multi generations then that’s the wrong reason. If it’s because you want to modernise it and make it easier in different ways and use technology better then I suppose there’s some value in that.” She saw the state and individual linked by a mutual obligation, but what of those who for no fault of their own find it hard to fulfil this obligation? For her the welfare system is a fantastic one we should be proud of.

For me the truth lays as least somewhere the middle.

The importance of dignity

A compassionate benefit system is the mark of a civilised country. It should be one that in many ways New Zealand should be proud of and want to keep current. However, for disabled people and their whānau it can become a set of continuous hoops to jump through that in effect never go away.

Supported Living payments offer some relief from the endless proof required by Job Seekers Benefit with Medical Deferral. But a system seems to actively impose the stipulation that disability has to be somehow constantly proven. Such information could easily be accessed centrally and provide ongoing entitlement. What happens now merely wears down those it is intended to be there for.

CCS Disability Action should be rightly proud of the all-encompassing work it does with the most vulnerable to act as advocates, and in many instances the last line of support against benefit cuts and welfare mismanagement. Long may this it continue.

The film I Daniel Blake gives us a parable for how a dehumanising system can ultimately destroy us.

It is at the moment that Daniel has the opportunity to resolve his benefit issues, and the labyrinthine system finally acknowledges his hardship, that Daniel finally succumbs to the stress of it all. We are left not only touched but deeply moved by a morality play in microcosm that encapsulates all that is, can and will go on for years to come in both New Zealand and the UK, unless things change.

By Gareth Griffiths, Vocational Coordinator, CCS Disability Action