I went to the premier of Ken Loach's Palme D'Ore winning film I, Daniel Blake on Wednesday. I wept.
What turned on the tears was the knowledge that there is no exaggeration in the film. I have witnessed the persistent steam rolling pressure of job centre bureaucracy on unemployed people. The laws they implement grind you down.
Daniel Blake is a skilled carpenter with a heart condition who longs for work. His doctor has told him he is not fit for work but the job centre says he is and makes him jump through hoops to find non-existent jobs. His condition is not improved by threats of a benefit sanction, which can stop his income for one, two months or three years, when he cannot prove he has been looking for work. The young mother in the film starves herself to feed her two children through lack of income.
The fact that benefit incomes are so low that mothers go without meals to feed their children was known long before central government started shredding them in 2011 and local government taxing them in 2013. The sensitive acting of Dave Johns and Haley Squires pointedly shows the contrast between the normal integrity and decency of unemployed people and a brutally harsh regime set up with propaganda from ministers yelling scroungers and skivers.
Gruelling and accurate though the film is, it understates the reality. In cases I have tried to help it is not only the job centres which stop the incomes of vulnerable people it is also the local authorities who enforce rents and council tax, the magistrates enforce poverty related fines for TV licence and fare evasion while sending in the bailiffs. Three powerful government departments descend on single households. It all leads to unmanageable debt, hunger, mental, physical and ill health.
I met John* after his three month sanction had ended. He lived in a fifth floor council flat and was wondering whether to throw himself off the balcony. He had a history of depression and I do not like to speculate what would have happened if he had been left on his own.
He had been sanctioned for three months by a job centre for attending a job-related interview a day late. His GP immediately sent him to the NHS for twelve sessions of therapy. Rent and council tax arrears had piled up because the job centre's computer is connected to the local council's computer. When John's £73.10 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) was stopped, the job centre's computer sent a signal to the council's computer telling it that John was no longer eligible for JSA. That signal automatically cancelled his eligibility for housing and council tax benefits, which were then stopped by the council's computer.
Then the bailiffs called at 7.30 in the morning demanding £400 the next day for a TV licence fine that John did not know existed. He called me at 8 am and I called the bailiffs telling them that they should not waste time enforcing that fine because we were taking the case back to the magistrates to seek remission of the debt and their fees. I also reminded them that there is guidance issued by the Ministry of Justice which advises them to return to the magistrate's court cases involving "vulnerable situations."
Anyone summoned to court, who attends without legal representation, is allowed a McKenzie Friend; so called because the person who won the right to a friend in court was called McKenzie. I have supported people that way for many years. I went to court with John and they let him off £135 of unpaid fine and dismissed the bailiffs without their fees.
The next thing to hit John was the news that his council flat was due to be demolished.
The mismatch between benefit income and rent is the cause of much debt, hunger, homelessness and illness. It is even worse when people are incapacitated by the stress of having no income. Governments have been told for years by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and other medical authorities that there is a link between debt and mental health problems. They report. "One in four adults will have a mental health problem at some point in their life. One in two adults with debts has a mental health problem. One in four people with a mental health problem is also in debt. Debt can cause - and be caused by - mental health problems."
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