KEN LOACH’s hard-hitting film I, Daniel Blake lifted the lid on some of the cruellest consequences of the modern benefits system (Comment, 11 November 2016). This autumn, he has returned to Newcastle’s west end for Sorry We Missed You (Arts, 8 November), which exposes the desperate struggles of a couple working as part of the so-called gig economy.
I worked as a parish priest for 11 years in Benwell, where the film is set. I would like to reflect on the film in the light of my experience, offer some examples of what the Church is doing to support people affected by these issues, and ask what more individuals and the Church can do to address this growing source of injustice and exploitation in society.
RICKY and Abbie are good at what they do. Abbie is an excellent care worker, compassionate and insightful. Ricky is an effective and skilful delivery driver. They are loving parents to their two children, Seb (16), and Lisa Jane (11).
Despite both working 14-hour days, Ricky and Abbie cannot between them earn enough for the family to survive. They are trapped in work that does not pay enough to live on by companies which exploit them through the use of pseudo self-employment arrangements and zero-hours contracts.
Abbie does “tuck-ins” for the people she cares for, and is never home to tuck in her own children. Ricky’s long hours mean that he is increasingly absent. Seb and Lisa Jane, in different ways, start to go off the rails. It does not end well.
I recognise all of these four characters from my time in Benwell. The one who is most familiar is Seb. Intelligent, observant, disaffected, and angry, there are plenty of young people like him in Newcastle’s west end. It is very perceptive of the film’s writers to make him a graffiti artist. As in many inner-city areas, one of the features of living in Benwell is being surrounded by enormous billboards advertising luxury products to people who are driving through your community. Seb sees his parents disappearing into a system that makes them invisible. By defacing the billboards, he makes sure that he is seen.
Within walking distance of Colston Street, where the fictional Turner family live, there are three real ways in which the Church helps people like them every day. First is the North Benwell Youth Project. Margaret and the team there would have provided Seb with the learning support that he needed when he was excluded from school, and given both children something to do in the evenings when their parents were still at work. Second, Abbie could have had a free lunch and a place to rest between appointments at St James’s. Third, if Ricky could face it, the volunteers at Venerable Bede church hall would have provided food from the foodbank.
BUT, as the Trussell Trust says, this is only a partial solution. Ricky and Abbie should be able to make enough money to feed and care for their family without foodbanks and free lunches. Besides providing support for people in areas where it is most needed, the Church must also continue to be involved in challenging the structures which put people in these situations in the first place.
The first thing I would suggest is to make sure that our own house is in order. Are churches paying those who work for us enough to live on? For example, last month, the Newcastle Diocesan Board of Finance (NDBF) became an accredited Living Wage employer. If Ricky or Abbie were working for the NDBF, they would receive at least a living wage of £9 per hour.
Second, we can use the voice we have as the Church of England to challenge the structures which allow situations such as Ricky and Abbie’s to continue. Several of our bishops have already spoken out in the press and the House of Lords about the scandal of zero-hours contracts, and this is a door that we should continue to push.
Finally, the film confronts us with the ways in which we ourselves are contributing to the situation that people like Ricky and Abbie find themselves in. In a deeply uncomfortable scene between Ricky and his supervisor, Maloney, the self-proclaimed “patron saint of nasty bastards”, Maloney argues that the person calling the shots is not him, but the customer.
With the increasing expectation that we can get what we want when we want it, delivered to our door for almost nothing, comes the creation of the nightmare that is Ricky’s working life as a delivery driver. I, Daniel Blake left the blame for Daniel’s death squarely at the feet of the Government. Sorry We Missed You is more ambiguous. Who is at the top of this particularly nasty food chain? Depending how you look at it, it could be you and me.
The Revd Catherine Pickford is Continuing Ministerial Development Officer for the diocese of Newcastle, and Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Stannington. She spent 11 years as Team Vicar and then as Team Rector of the Benwell Team in Newcastle upon Tyne.