Ken Loach’s award winning film should open everyone’s eyes to what is happening in Britain’s jobcentres. It also demonstrates how things can get even worse when there is no advice on how best to deal with the situation. The film begins with Daniel being declared fit for work after his Work Capability Assessment and refused Employment and Support Allowance (ESA, the benefit for people unable to earn money through work). In order to get any money he has to sign up for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), despite clear advice from his doctor that he should be given time off to recover from his heart condition.
We meet people in a similar predicament all the time, and we can expect to see many more Daniel Blakes: there has been a significant cracking down on the Work Capability Assessment and the Westminster Government is demonstrating a rigid determination to push the sick and disabled into work – any work.
So, if we had been able to meet Daniel coming out of the jobcentre what advice could we have given him? Often people need persuading that it is worth appealing the assessment decision and that this won’t be affected by their signing onto JSA, but Daniel was already preparing to go through the appeal process and had signed on. However, no-one had told him that once he was signed onto JSA he could ask his doctor for a note to say he was unable to work due to ill health for ‘an extended period of sickness’ of up to thirteen weeks. This would have stopped the Jobcentre pressurising him to apply for jobs. We would also have given him details of local welfare rights advisors who could give him professional help with his appeal application.
Although it would probably not have been applicable in Daniel’s case, we often also ask people if they have thought of applying for PIP too. Many people are not aware of the difference between ESA, which is the benefit for people unable to earn money through work, and PIP, which is the benefit that is meant to cover the extra costs of being sick or disabled and is not means-tested. Although PIP is meant to be an extra benefit to cover extra costs, people are increasingly having to rely on it for basic survival if they have been refused ESA and missed the deadline for appealing, or if they have lost their ESA appeal.
If Daniel had had a sick note he should not have been in a position to get sanctioned in the first place, but if we had only met him after his sanction, we would have done our best to make sure he applied for hardship payments and we would have encouraged him to appeal the sanction. (Like for the ESA appeal this would be a two stage process – internal Mandatory Reconsideration and, when that failed, external tribunal.) We would also have advised him to make sure he was still receiving housing benefit and – if the area he lived in paid this – council tax reduction. He would be entitled to these because of low income, but sometimes they are stopped when people stop getting benefits as it is assumed they are no longer needed.
Paul Laverty, the script writer, resisted our request that he set the film in Scotland, but had he done so Daniel could also have applied for help over the gaps from the Scottish Welfare fund, administered through his local council.
With a bit of advice, Daniel’s situation could have been very different; but most people, like Daniel, do not get that advice.
We hope that a great many people will go and see this powerful film and get angry about what is happening; and we hope that as well as campaigning for a major change in the rules and approach, some will become actively involved in assisting people to find their way through the new punitive ‘welfare’ system.