I, Daniel Blake

I am a little wary about reviewing Ken Loach’s latest film, “I, Daniel Blake”. I am fortunate not to rely on benefits and never to have been so poor that I had to make the heartbreaking and unacceptable choices between feeding myself of my son or doing without electricity, as Katie does in the film. However, that does not, or should not mean that it is not a film for me or one that I as a relatively privileged person can have an opinion about. Indeed, I think, to be successful, the film has to be one for people like me – it certainly isn’t something I can imagine that a real life Katie would go to, even if you paid for her ticket and arranged for someone to look after Daisy and Dylan, nor could the eponymous hero really be visualised going to it. It is, therefore a film for all the people whose real lives it does not depict.

Most of the glowing praise the film has received has come from “the left”- MPs and poverty campaigners using it, as no doubt intended by Ken Loach, as the basis to shame “neoliberals”. On Question Time this week, Loach vehemently believed that people today are less compassionate than they ever were, but ironically, the film doesn’t really support that. There are only two truly compassion-free character, the presenter in a CV workshop, who rebukes Dan for not living in the real world, and a Job Centre official who is pedantically dismissive of his attempts to fulfil his job seeking requirements. Otherwise, the Job Centre and DWP officials range between trying to be as helpful as they can within the parameters of their job and just stoically trying to enforce the rules they have no discretion to over-ride. Elsewhere, people are caring. Dan’s neighbour offers to do whatever he can to help when he sees Dan selling all his furniture. His former boss offers to help him do his shopping and invites him to come out with his former colleagues. The manager of a garden centre wants to offer him a job. Even the furniture dealer who gives a pitiful £200 for the contents of his flat, right down to the carpets, is appreciative of the carved wooden mobiles he’s made and would buy them “for good money”.

But if it is only intended as a source of confirmation bias for those whose contact with the poorest in society is being their representatives rather than their peers, it won’t have any effect. It needs to persuade and shame those who are responsible for the wrongs it seeks to expose, as Loach’s first film, Cathy Come Home did 50 years ago. Otherwise it merely ends up treating its subjects as instruments for a particular agenda rather than people with dignity and self-respect (which is the final message which Daniel Blake wants to get across to the bureaucracy that so frustrates him through the film). An interesting blog from a former benefits adviser sets out why he wouldn’t watch the film. Some are beyond persuasion and focused on quibbles about accuracy while admitting no knowledge – Toby Young being the most egregious (but egregiousness is his raison d’etre). I hope not to fall into that category. Such criticisms are weak because it is a work of fiction based on reality, rather than a documentary. It is intending to make a point about this aspect of society generally rather than specific points about a particular instance: there are many things which Katie and Dan could do differently and perhaps which in real life would lead to different, happier outcomes, but what they actually do does not generally seem too implausible.

In fact, I think the doing of plausible, reasonable but self-defeating things by the main characters is what gives the film much of its realism. That’s why we watch or listen to soap operas – of course, from the outside, the decisions the characters make, make us shout at the telly or the radio “No! You can’t go and hide the body, just go and explain to the police straightaway that it was an accident”. So it is easy to watch I, Daniel Blake and say that a good piece of advice when dealing with any bureaucratic process is just to quietly grit your teeth and do precisely what it asks of you if you need it. The people in the Job Centre and the people in the DWP call centre, and their managers, can’t do anything different so there’s no point in pushing back against them, even if it is sorely tempting.

But, while that is reasonable advice in real life, that’s not what the film is about. My personal experience of unemployment and claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance was that staff wanted to help as much as they could but were disinclined to if people were abusive to them and things like punctuality and attendance, while petty in individual cases, were essential to make the system work. I got my signing on times mixed up once and had to explain myself to avoid being sanctioned – but, as I was fortunately not relying on the JSA money to eat was able to do so without it being undermined by the fear of failure. Many others will not be so fortunate. There was little they could do to assist in my job search and they understood that the online portal wasn’t going to be very helpful so they didn’t waste their time trying to challenge my compliance. Meanwhile I overheard their advisers giving more detailed and sensitive job seeking support to other claimants who were obviously trying but somewhat clueless than I’ve ever had from a careers adviser or recruitment consultant.

Where the film seems to come out is in a cry for there to be no bureaucratic decision-making about people’s entitlements as citizens. It is self-evident to viewers of the film that Dan and Katie are decent people who just want a roof over their heads and enough to allow them to heat and light their homes and to feed themselves and those they are responsible for. That there is a system to which this is not self-evident so that those in need have to evidence that need seems to be the real cruelty. If your doctor has said you’re not fit to work, why isn’t that the end of the matter?

 What the film, surprisingly, isn’t is a critique of “austerity” – apart from some throwaway references to Bedroom Tax, which can’t have applied to Dan – but of the process for getting what is due. The film is very good at showing how difficult it is for any bureaucratic system to function and that there is an inherent tension between people in dire need of support, who will quite normally be sometimes unable to detach their desperation from their way of dealing with the system, and the officials who have to administer the system. That tension is not there when the people giving the support are the ones whose resources are being used – so the food bank volunteer who witnesses the heartbreaking scene of a starving Katie cramming cold beans from the can into her mouth can go and offer a meal and a drink. Similarly, the manager of the shop Katie steals sanitary towels from can let her off because he can make good the shortfall in the takings. But it is hard to see how we could plausibly give such discretion to civil servants because it is not their money they are dispensing. While it is the opposite of what Loach intended, Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs’ take that the film is a libertarian rant against the welfare state has some strength to it.

So, what could be done to address the points raised by the film? One approach might be the libertarian one of cutting the state out because the tension between bureaucracy and compassion cannot be resolved. But that seems to me to be far too extreme. While the social networks around Dan are very strong (and he extends its reach to support Katie, Daisy and Dylan) and delivery of support by charitable work like the food bank show how local care can be more sensitive than the state, I’m always left with the questions, “but what if there aren’t enough charitable people, donors and volunteers, what if like Katie, you don’t know anyone who can help?”.

An alternative might be some form of universal basic income (UBI) which would require nothing more than identifying yourself as Daniel Blake’s final statement suggests “as a citizen”. The problems with this are that it is hard to see how it could be set at a high enough level to look after both Dan and Katie whose needs are very different, while being affordable. If there are roughly 40 million working age adults in Britain and a UBI were set at £10,000 a year, that would cost £400bn. That is well over double the current welfare budget excluding pensions and child benefits. It would equate to providing everybody with benefits at the level of the current welfare cap, which would be a large windfall needing to be recouped by taxation from the majority of the population while not providing a single extra penny to the very poorest who currently qualify for the highest level of welfare. Of course, it could be tweaked to address specific needs but then you are right back where we started of having a system which required those in need to provide evidence of that need.

So, maybe a more modest proposal would be to give greater flexibility and discretion to DWP staff. This is probably more difficult than it sounds. At the level of the film, it would be easy to encourage more officials to be like Ann, who offered Dan a glass of water when he looked unwell after standing up for Katie and helped him to complete the online JSA application. One of the other complaints voiced by Dan was about how everything was becoming “digital by default” rather than letting him speak to a human being or fill in a form and it would be possible to go back from having more things being principally and preferentially accessible online. Although as more and more people of all ages are becoming comfortable with using computers this is probably really only a plea to slow down the penetration of digital access to services when there’s an argument that all that is needed is to make digital access easier to navigate. Giving more real discretion is much harder while there are limits to entitlements and eligibility but relaxing some process steps, like orally going through what has already been filled out in writing as in the film’s first scene would be possible.

While the idea of relying more on people’s doctors rather than DWP assessors regardless of qualification has an appeal, I wonder whether that would be a good idea or attractive to doctors. It would have the effect of making clinical decisions, which ought to be made for clinical reasons also be definitive welfare benefits decisions. There is a difference between advising someone that it would be better for their health not to work and saying that they must certain benefits. While the finale of the film might have been an illustration of Spike Milligan’s proposed tombstone inscription (“I told you I was ill”) an odd thing for me was that Dan showed through the film that he was very capable of working. He walked for miles around Newcastle, did lots of DIY jobs around the house to help Katie, carved ornaments and built furniture to replace the furniture he sold when he dropped his JSA claim. Would it have been better for his health not to have done any of this? Would there be no work he could do that was no more physically and mentally onerous? The advice of his doctors did not seem to be this nuanced and to address the gap between being capable of working in some sense and it being advisable not to work. Would it be a good idea for medical diagnoses to be dependent upon the financial situation of the patient so that they might advise a wealthy person who had no need of work that they should rest, but to tell those who were poor but capable of some work that they should work? Or vice versa. If that is an intolerable decision to place in the hands of DWP, why isn’t it intolerable to make your GP tailor her diagnoses to your wealth?

I, Daniel Blake is a good film. It is a welcome counterbalance to the myriad sensationalist TV programmes about benefit claimants (although a recent episode of C5’s “On Benefits: Spend it Like Beckham” was unintentionally more depressing than I, Daniel Blake with the real world example of a tone deaf young woman believing her future lay as a singer and spending all her benefits money on recording a song or the massively obese man spending his benefits on cosmetic surgery to make him look like Beckham). It is sad that we need reminding that it is much more typical that those relying on benefits are ordinary people who have not chosen that life and would love to escape it than that they are scroungers laughing at the life of ease the taxpayer is mug enough to afford them, but we do. That awareness is perhaps the best legacy the film can have as there is nothing very much in the film to provide solutions to the systemic issues it is arguing against. Those will have to come from people more willing to grapple with the difficulty of setting humanising a state bureaucracy effectively in practice.