At the beginning of this year I had to help a close family friend with serious mental health difficulties make a claim for ESA (Employment SupportAllowance).
He was jobless, just out of an Edinburgh psychiatric ward, overdue with his rent and unable to pay for food, transport or heating.
We visited the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Leith twice to get background information and support. We got the correct medical certificate from my friend’s GP, stating that he was unfit for work. We filled in the ESA assessment form together and sent it off. Nothing happened for three weeks, so we made a phone call to the ESA.
After listening to their infuriatingly fuzzy Vivaldi ‘hold music’ for 20 minutes, a call handler told us the medical certificate was ‘out of date and has to be renewed’.
We duly renewed it. I went online to download the ESA form again. You can’t email it, so I had to print off a copy. Once we’d completed it we wondered where to send it. A note along the bottom said “Please send completed form to the address on the enclosed envelope.”
Well, that was a laugh. How can an envelope be ‘enclosed’ with an online form? Anyway, we found the address, God knows how.
I tried to post the form by Recorded Delivery but the Post Office guy said that was impossible because it was a Freepost address.
Weeks went by. When I called to ask how long the process would take, I was told, “there’s no set time for us to get back to you”. By the time two months had elapsed, I was scunnered.
I spoke to another call handler who said, yes, they had my friend’s completed form but “couldn’t find the medical certificate”. Luckily, I had a scan of it on my desktop. This time I was allowed to email it and the money was transferred into my friend’s account.
That’s just a taste of a welfare system that is so out of touch and bureaucratic that it often makes the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society even harder to bear. The full reality of this was brought home to me last Tuesday when I went along to a screening of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ at The Citadel Community Centre in Leith, organised by Willy Barr and his team and funded by Unite The Union, who are financing free screenings of the film around the country, especially for the benefit of communities hardest-hit by this Tory government’s campaign of social welfare cuts.
In case you’ve never seen the film, which has already won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it tells the story of Daniel, a 57-year-old unemployed Geordie carpenter who’s just had a heart attack. Deemed too ill to work by his doctor, but not ill enough to claim sickness benefits by the government, he gets trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare that further harms his health.
When the film first appeared in UK cinemas, Tory ministers and right-wing columnists were queuing up to give it a kicking. Welfare slasher Iain Duncan Smith dismissed it as “unfair” and said he didn’t believe people lived like the characters it shows.
Greg Clark, Secretary Of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “It’s a fictional film (duh). People seeing it should not think these are the ways staff are behaving in job centres.”
Toby Young, editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine said “Don’t call it social realism. Judging by its misty-eyed, laughably inaccurate portrait of benefits Britain, it should be called a ‘romantic comedy’.”
I didn’t see anyone laughing when the lights went up. In fact, half the audience were in tears, myself included.
There was a Q & A session afterwards where it emerged that the screenwriter, Paul Laverty lives in Edinburgh and used the experiences of real people from here and from Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle to create his characters and the nightmarish problems they have getting the benefits they’re entitled to, without being sanctioned.
The film’s producer, Rebecca O’Brien said “Every plot element is backed up by 20, 50, 100 real-life cases.” But the depth of feeling in Edinburgh about ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is best summed up by an astonishing collection of notes pinned to the wall of Edinburgh’s Cameo cinema in Tollcross, written by people who have had to endure very similar experiences to the movie’s main character.
Paul Laverty was asked in one interview why he wrote the film. He said: “There’s this whole narrative of the skiver—someone who lives off other people. But what attracted our attention was this massive gap between what was perception and what was reality.
“There were all these YouGov polls that demonstrated that people thought 25 per cent of the welfare budget was fraudulently claimed; in fact it was less than one percent!
“It really does make you ask the question, ‘Why is there such an effort to stigmatise the most vulnerable people in our society?’
It’s a political decision, you know? A great deal of the cuts have fallen on welfare and most particularly on people who are vulnerable and disabled. So that was the thing that drew us to the territory.
“And the reality is we could have told much tougher stories, because the stories we heard, if you had them on screen you’d hardly believe them, really.
“We went to the food banks and we were struck by the number of people having to choose between heat and food.”
These issues are closer to home than some of us might care to look. One of the panellists, Rev Ian May of Leith South Parish Church, told us they set up a food bank three years ago and it fed 5000 people a year. Now it’s feeding 9000.
Out of Edinburgh’s half a million population, only 350,000 have a job. 79,550 live in poverty of whom 42,000 are the ‘working poor’, a relatively recent phrase which really unsettles me.
What can we do about this? First of all, some people need to stop thinking that just because they’re doing well that must automatically mean that everybody on benefits is a scrounger or a skiver. Let me repeat it here – only 1% of all benefits in the UK are fraudulently claimed. That figure comes straight from the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions). That amounts to £1.2 billion.
A fraction of the £30 billion in tax that is uncollected or evaded and avoided by the likes of Apple and Starbucks, according to HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs).
The other thing we can all do is put pressure on the Scottish Government to address these problems. Westminster is transferring eight benefits to Scotland and our own Scottish Government is asking for more time - until 2020 - to take on this responsibility.
One of those benefits is the Disability Living Allowance that Daniel Blake was refused. A caring Holyrood wouldn’t dither over this.
They’d take it on right now.