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A benefit system inspired by Kafka  

28 October 2016

Ken Loach’s new film has exposed new bureaucratic cruelty, says Paul Vallely

THERE was, the film­maker Ken Loach noted, something incongruous about receiving the top award at the world’s glitziest film festival for a work about the miserable living conditions of the victims of Britain’s latest round of draconian welfare cuts.

The Palme d’Or award in Cannes this year went to I, Daniel Blake (Letters, 21 October), the story of a 59-year-old carpenter in the north-east who is denied disability benefit by an inflexible welfare system, despite being signed off from work by his doctors after a massive heart attack.

The eponymous hero befriends a young single mother, Katie, who has been dispatched to New­castle from London by a welfare system for which the cheaper cost of living in the north outweighs the disruption caused to her young family when they are forced to leave behind relatives and friends, and her children’s school, to be trans­ported to a place where they know no one.

Predictably, perhaps, The Guardian described the film as “a movie of radical plainness” which “should fill us all with shame and anger”, while The Sunday Times saw it as “misery porn” for “smug . . . middle-class do-gooders”. I shall reserve judgement until I see the film this weekend.

But what is inescapable is that last year’s Budget made a further 30-per-cent cut to the funds for what used to be called Incapacity Benefit and is now called Employment and Support Allowance.

This week, a retired teacher, Michael Lambert, who is totally blind, wrote a chilling account of his real-life encounter with the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that entraps the char­acters in the film.

Mr Lambert was subjected a “medical” by a functionary who was not a doctor or a nurse.
He wrote: “I was asked to perform a few physical activities, such as raising my arms above my head, which had nothing to do with my actual disabilities.” (He also has hearing difficulties and digits missing from one hand.) The hearing test consisted of the assessor standing behind him and saying a single word. Tests on his manual disability were equally as banal. There was no place on the assessor’s computer-generated script for any consideration of how his visual, aural, and manual disabilities interacted with one another.

He concluded: “What I see, and what Loach depicts in his film, is a system that is designed to frustrate, thwart, and discriminate against the 11.6 million disabled Britons it’s supposed to support.” Ken Loach goes further: the system, he says, is designed to humiliate the poor, tell them their poverty is their own fault, and impose sanctions that cut their benefits if they step out of line in the tiniest way.

Cathy Come Home, the TV play he made in 1966, created a public outcry over homelessness, and brought into being charities such as Shelter and Crisis. I, Daniel Blake is a similar call to action. “We must give a message of hope,” Mr Loach says. “We must say another world is possible.” It’s hard to disagree with that.


Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester.


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