The reviews of I, Daniel Blake, have already made Director Ken Loach's case for an Oscar, but if such a thing existed, the film would merit an award for critically explaining an aspect of public policy - in this case, the UK's welfare to work system. While Loach's insight into the condition of the poor in twenty-first century Britain speaks for itself, the policy background is less familiar.
As the film opens Daniel, a 60 year old widowed joiner recovering from a heart attack, is undergoing a telephone interview for his "Work Capability Assessment" (WCA) with an unseen "health professional" who is reading from a script without really wanting to know about Daniel's heart condition.
The film doesn't say so, but the introduction of the WCA has marked a particularly bad episode for Jobcentre Plus. It was introduced (with cross Party support in 2007) to try to shift long term Incapacity Benefit claimants to either the new Employment and Support Allowance or Job Seekers Allowance. A huge number of people needed to be reassessed and reallocated and many mistakes were made.
On BBC's Question Time recently, Loach asked why the Work Capability Assessments were needed when the opinion of an individual's GP or Consultant would be better informed. This indeed was the case up to 1995 - individuals could be signed off, sometimes for many years, and supported by what in those days was known as Invalidity Benefit.
From this time onwards, various changes took place, first affecting new claimants only and subsequently others who had been claiming incapacity benefits for many years. Medical assessments were reallocated from GPs (who knew and understood their patients' needs) to Department for Health and Social Security appointed doctors using a new All Work Test.
Then in 2000, this was replaced by a new Personal Capacity Assessment (PCA) applied to not only new claimants but some of the long term claimants too. Finally, the Incapacity Benefit was replaced in 2006 by a new Employment and Support Allowance, and the PCA changed for the present Work Capability Assessment.
So much for the background, but you also need to know that with each change, the tests have got progressively tougher. Not only this, but they have been coupled with a vast testing regime which in (in the case of the WCA) has required the recruitment of many nurses and doctors to work alongside doctors.
Today, the individual who claims to be too unwell to work, no longer meets a doctor with a sympathetic bedside manner, but is confronted by a battery of questions from a structured questionnaire supported by a computer generated template. This is the procedure which Daniel Blake is going through at the beginning of the film.
Of course, a large factor in Government welfare policy is the goal of keeping down costs. Under the old system, Doctors signed patients off work sometimes for years on end, which was not necessarily a good thing for the individual, let alone the state. Once out of work for this length of time their prospects of returning to work are virtually nil.
The Government's approach has been to encourage a stricter interpretation of "incapability." Present day assessments ask, "Could this person do any job, including on a part time basis, if one were available?" This is all very well but it assumes "do-able" jobs are available, whereas in practice this might not be the case.
So much for the theory - in fact the implementation of the WCA has been nothing short of disastrous. Tens of thousands of applicants have been refused benefits and there has been a huge level of successful appeals against awards. From the outset, the French company Atos, contracted to deliver the WCA, struggled to recruit enough nurses, doctors and physiotherapists to carry out the assessments. Atos was strongly criticised by the National Audit Office in 2012 and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in 2013. (Atos were replaced by USA firm Maximus in March 2015, but many of these problems remain.)
More than half of the original decisions (refusing Employment and Support Allowance) are overturned. In the meantime, before the appeal is heard, claimants are often expected to go out and seek work even though they may be suffering from conditions which make this impossible. Those who, like Daniel Blake, do not appear to be trying hard enough, may face being sanctioned - having their benefits withdrawn.
Can all this really happen in Britain in 2016? Even if we quibble with some of the details in the film, Daniel Blake's treatment is not so extra-ordinary. Sanctions against claimants have reached record levels and are being imposed for the tiniest of deviation from Jobseekers' Agreements. In fairness, Jobcentre staff are probably portrayed too harshly by the film. In reality, they are not without human sympathy but they operate a system which is deeply flawed.
As a reminder of why we have a welfare to work system at all, Daniel's passionate statement, drafted for his appeal hearing against sanctioning, should be hung on the walls of benefit offices around the country. I won't quote it now, but it is worth seeing the film for it.
Comments to: Chris.Ball@shaw-trust.org.uk
@shawTrust @taen_uk @crystal_ballsSuggest a correction