Screenwriter Paul Laverty phoned to tell me his idea for the film ’I, Daniel Blake’. He wanted a GP’s view of the stories he had already heard. I told him about a patient of mine whose experience mirrored what Paul described.
Let’s not spoil the film for anybody who has not yet seen it, so I will tell you about my patient. A heart attack in his late 50s came as a complete shock to a man who had always worked. His employer gave no sick pay, forcing him to claim benefits. Eight weeks into cardiac rehab he was assessed by the Benefits Agency as ‘fit for work’ and his sickness benefit was stopped. His work could not take him back as he had not yet been deemed fit by the cardiac rehab team, so he had no income whatsoever.
He was distraught, his family furious, as were his physios and consultant. As his GP, I could not believe it. He appealed but by the time the decision was overturned he had been completely demoralised, was in debt and his recovery was significantly compromised. Those who have seen the film will recognise that ‘I, Daniel Blake’, the latest film of Paul Laverty, directed by Ken Loach, tells just such a story.
Paul is an old friend and had come across my involvement with ‘GPs at the Deep End’, a group of GPs serving the most socio-economically deprived communities in Scotland. Our 2012 Austerity Report and follow-up of 2013 found that the welfare reform acts of 2007 and 2012 are detrimental to the lives and well-being of the poorest in society.
The entire benefit application process is too lengthy and confusing, and completely inappropriate for many people. The reports set out a number of recommendations to make the welfare system fairer, simpler, and easier to navigate. Central to this is the need for a radical overhaul of the Work Capability Assessment, which is not fit for purpose.
In our consulting rooms, we share the range of feelings experienced by many patients who are struggling with this system – first outrage, soon followed by cynicism then finally resignation and defeat. Ken Loach and Paul Laverty stick with the outrage, explore it and show all of us our responsibility. We are left disturbed, with the need to work out what we can do to fight this iniquitous system.
This brilliant and upsetting film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ demonstrates clearly the impact of removing the minimum benefits that should be provided in a just society. That safety net was the founding vision of the welfare state, echoing Mahatma Gandhi’s assertion that ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable’.
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