Ian Swanson: Scotland’s Daniel Blakes pin hopes on Holyrood

Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake has proved divisive
Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake has proved divisive
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KEN Loach’s award-winning film I, Daniel Blake is a powerful portrayal of the hopeless, heartless and humiliating reality of Britain’s benefits system.

The main character, a 59-year-old joiner recovering from a heart attack, is told by doctors he is not fit to go back to work, but a state-appointed “health professional” rules otherwise so he is required to prove he is looking for a job in order to get money to live on, in the shape of Employment and Support Allowance.

And that’s just the start of the indignities and illogicalities he is subjected to.

Too often governments seize on benefits as an easy – and popular – target to be cut, capped or frozen. They talk glibly of “helping people into work” but end up leaving the very poorest members of society to struggle even more.

The good news is that powers over some benefits are about to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. There is the chance to adopt a different approach. And comments from SNP Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman are encouraging.

She has been reported saying she wants to recruit an army of “Daniel Blakes” to help prevent Scotland repeating mistakes and failings in the UK benefits system.

She plans to recruit 2000 volunteers – mainly people currently relying on benefits, but also workers with knowledge of the system, such as welfare rights advisers and even former Department of Work and Pensions employees – to help shape Scotland’s new social security system.

Daniel Blake’s experience of the system represents the stories of many who claim benefits, Ms Freeman said. “None of it is exaggerated and too many people have exactly that kind of story to tell.”

And she argued levels of fraud within in the benefit system were overstated. “Where there are fraudulent behaviours, we need to spot them and deal with it. But that is very different from designing a system that presumes everyone who comes into it is trying to pull a fast one.”

The Scottish Government has insisted it will treat people “with dignity, fairness and respect”.

However, Holyrood’s new social security powers account for only 15 per cent of the total Scottish benefit bill, or £2.7 billion, with most benefits still controlled at Westminster, including Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance.

So the prospect of future Daniel Blakes getting better treatment from the system will still depend on a change of heart at UK level.

And if Business Secretary Greg Clark is any guide, it seems unlikely that will be forthcoming. Mr Clark clashed with Ken Loach on BBC’s Question Time, labelling the film “fictional” and adding: “People seeing it should not think these are the ways people are behaving in job centres.”

He argued Department of Work and Pensions staff “have to make incredibly difficult decisions and I think they should have our support in making those decisions”.

Loach agreed DWP staff were under incredible pressure, but told Mr Clark: “It’s your instructions that’s the problem. We talked to hundreds of people who work at the DWP under your guidance and instructions, and they are told to sanction people. If they don’t sanction them, they’re in trouble.”

Dealing with social security can, of course, be complex and challenging, but basic standards of decency and humanity would be a good start.