The tabloid headlines surrounding benefits claimants are little more than fiction, write RUTH HUNT and NICK DILWORTH
WHEN Ken Loach, director of the award-winning and compelling film I, Daniel Blake, appeared on BBC Question Time last month, it provoked outrage and derision among rightwingers, who are on the defensive, aware of the real-life stories that inspired the film.
Minutes into the programme, one such case was brought up by the Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras Keir Starmer QC, who revealed the harrowing story of one of his former constituents, the late Michael O’Sullivan.
Michael, 60, was discovered by his family after taking his own life on September 24 2013.
The following day he had been due to begin work at a building site at 7.30am. This would’ve been the first time O’Sullivan, who was socially isolated, had worked in over 13 years.
It was the Department for Work and Pensions which had itself classified O’Sullivan as unfit for work for such a long period, in recognition of his severe mental health problems, including a history of suicide attempts.
It was a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which then decided he was “fit for work” — much like the story of Daniel Blake.
What sets Michael apart from Daniel is that Michael wasn’t an actor, he was for real.
In both cases the common factor was the cruel and callous WCA. The link between death and assessment couldn’t have been more clearly expressed than it was when a senior London coroner recorded a groundbreaking and chilling “narrative verdict” at O’Sullivan’s inquest.
“The anxiety and depression were long-term problems, but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions (benefits agency) as being fit for work, and his view of the likely consequences of that.” No coroner has put it as succinctly as this.
It wouldn’t be the first time that deaths connected with these assessments have been aired on Question Time.
On a previous occasion, when questioned over the deaths of two other victims, former secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith angrily retorted to the accusations by proclaiming how “proud he was to be getting 2.5 million people off benefits and into work.” These comments received rapturous applause from the audience.
In direct contrast to the realism of Loach’s film, right-wing journalist Toby Young chose to demonstrate his appalling lack of empathy and unbelievable lack of factual awareness when penning an article for the Mail.
He attempted to critique I, Daniel Blake in an article entitled “Why only lefties could go misty-eyed at a movie that romanticises Benefits Britain.”
This isn’t about right versus left, nor is it about hard workers versus shirkers. Instead, this is about the difference between right and wrong.
This is what the Tories loathe — a film which has the potential to open the eyes of even the most ardent Conservative voters.
The fact that it could spark change has the government in a turmoil — hence the efforts to dismiss the film as leftism rather than realism.
There is something fundamentally wrong when journalists like Young are wheeled out to defend the Tory line.
We see it time and time again as people the length and breadth of Britain have their minds poisoned by the politically driven journalist.
The Tories have sold their wretched welfare reforms hook, line and sinker by pumping out filthy and highly inaccurate propaganda.
It’s brainwashed the electorate into believing, just as Young does, that “the vast majority [on sickness benefits] should never have been receiving disability benefit.” Dangerous perceptions such as these that are sadly driving hundreds, if not thousands of real-life Daniel Blakes to their early deaths. And yet Young calls this a “romantic comedy”?
Between October 2008 and November 2015 out of 6,125,990 Employment and Support Allowance claims — which were followed by gruelling assessments sometimes conducted by inadequately trained assessors in as little as 12 minutes — 1,377,600 people (22 per cent) have in actual fact been declared “fit for work” at initial assessments.
The 22 per cent becomes significantly less when you factor in appeals and re-claims. Hardly “a vast majority.”
The evidence is poles apart from the rubbish that is churned out by Young and journalists like him, who intentionally demonise the sick and disabled, with no end of absurd and wildly inaccurate claims.
The headlines are pure fiction, aimed simply to increase and incite hatred towards those unfortunate enough to have to claim from the state.
The Tories are now in crisis when it comes to the working-age benefits spend. And uncertainty around Brexit will undoubtedly bring about a further raid on benefits for the sick and disabled.
What makes this all the more callous is that the Conservatives are putting on a sickening show of compassion as they prepare to cut the numbers found eligible to 300,000 a year.
It’s something they’ll try to do by stealth. The cuts are by and large already enshrined in policy. All it takes is for a minister to say the word and far more people will find themselves on the receiving end of a letter telling them how sorry the DWP is to have to tell them that they have been found fit for work.
What follows will put paid to any prospect of justice as proper appeal tribunals give way to online appeals.
Dangerous watering down of the risk criteria has led to large numbers of claimants being placed into the “support group” following their WCA.
Further decimation of essential advice and support services along with job cuts will leave only inexperienced decision-makers in a top-down target-driven regime, aimed at saying No to even more people trying to negotiate the faceless mandatory reconsideration obstacle course.
Young calls Loach’s film a romantic comedy — that’s precisely what it’s become to the heartless Tories who dare to find this funny.
How has the electorate come to think of this as the good work of a compassionate government? One can only presume that Young’s nauseating notion of comedy comes about out of his love of kicking the sick.
Surely it’s time for everyone to come together on this and show the media it’s not right to play political football with the sick and disabled?
Despite what Toby Young and members of this government say, we are all only a step away from becoming Daniel Blake or Michael Sullivan.
We now have a rare opportunity to accept the mantle from Loach — so let’s take it, and work constructively towards positive change.
Ruth F Hunt is the author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press). Nick Dilworth is a welfare rights specialist, consultant and campaigner (www.ilegal.org.uk).