True Grit – Ken Loach and the reality of welfare conditionality

by Ken Gibb

 It has been quite a week. I saw ‘I, Daniel Blake’ in the cinema, there has been considerable media scrutiny of the new lower benefit caps and their impact, the DWP has produced a controversial green paper on the future of Employment Support Allowance and the Scottish Parliament debated the effects of sanctions and welfare conditionality, in part as a result of the ongoing ESRC programme which includes the excellent work of my colleague Sharon Wright.

The new lower benefit cap moves the likely burden from very large working age households or people often only in high cost housing reliant on benefits to many more households and often with children right across the UK. From 7th November 2016, the lower benefit cap begins to be rolled out. For couples and single parents, it will fall from £500 per week to £384.62 outside of London and for single people it falls from £350 to £257.69 outside of London (higher costs in the capital mean the reduction in the cap is less there). The benefits primarily affected are housing benefit, universal credit (and its components) and other working age benefits but also things like child tax credits and child benefit. The Guardian reported that 116,000 households would be materially affected.

The Green Paper (Improving Lives) is focused on increasing economic activity among the sick and vulnerable.  It is critically summarised by Paul Spicker in a blog this week who said: “It proposes to extend to those for whom working is least viable the kind of regime that has so signally failed for people in the ‘work related activity group’. If people who are sick cannot find ways to engage with the labour market, why should we imagine that people who are  sick and vulnerable should fare any better?”

The conditionality debate in Parliament highlighted the strength of feeling among our politicians about the impacts of sanctions and the problems they pose for welfare policy and people affected. In a piece for the Daily Record Sharon Wright summarised the key difficulties evidenced in her research:

  • Sanctions led to short term crises and long term debt repayment problems.
  • They were associated with rent arrears, the threat of eviction and possibly homelessness.
  • Sanctions often come without warning – and if people don’t know about the sanction how can it effect the DWP’s desired behavioural change?
  • Sanctions had profound negative wellbeing effects on those directly affected and in the end it was support to help people into work that mattered not sanctions – carrots not sticks.

And what about the film? ‘I, Daniel Blake’ was highly-charged and emotional. I will long remember the complete silence in the cinema when the credits abruptly come up. People looked stunned and many were upset. The film uses highly plausible scenarios to document the descent into poverty of normal people who are dealing with  common human circumstances like sudden ill health or family break-up. Engaging with benefits and systems like Employment Support Allowance and ultimately conditionality, is overwhelming for those less skilled in the world of digital by default and coping with the abrupt shifts into conditionality, as also reported by Sharon in her research. Vulnerable people can be forced to turn to food banks for resources and the black market and illegality for income. There is a strong Kafka-like feeling in the film as Job Centre Plus officers repeatedly use the ‘decision maker’ as the disembodied arbiter of whether or not one gets the benefit they are applying for.

It is a great piece of fiction but one that has a real sense of authenticity. It is well acted and brilliantly made. I did however think the Job Centre Plus staff were with one or two exceptions a little two dimensional, especially the nurse ratchet character and the general demeanour of the staff who were ‘just following orders’.

Thinking on the big themes of the film, I think a complete overhaul of the employment support allowance is needed and the DWP has to end the byzantine and often impossible choices created by the system facing the lead character who was turned down for ESA and can only apply for JSA when he is patently not fit for work. Paul Spicker’s views about these matters as suggested in the new Green Paper seem to be a good place to start. Second, there can be no basis or situation where individuals and especially children in families face destitution as a result of sanctions. This has to end. Third,  the film stressed the confusion and lack of help available to vulnerable people so that they have some chance to navigate (consistently) the arcane complexities of this obtuse and often dehumanising system. There must be a clearly stated rapid assistance system 24/7 on the end of a phone or for working hours  in a town centre office that offers clear and independent advice across all of the UK. Or if it already exists, people must be clearly directed towards such support and this should be done at the earliest possible point in the journey.

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