We are all Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, is a hard-hitting illustration of the cruel chaos our social security system has been reduced to. If you’ve had to deal with this system in the last few years, or if you’ve simply been paying attention to the voices of disabled activists over that time, you won’t be surprised by the events of the film. But Loach’s presentation of them through the fresh eyes of Daniel, a skilled carpenter rendered unable to work by a heart attack, deliberately highlights the shocking fact that our safety net is truly in tatters.

I’ve been volunteering in the computer room at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project for a couple of months now. I’ve met several real-life Daniels. One thing the film doesn’t show is the soul-destroying effect of the grotesque merry-go-round of ESA rejection/JSA application/appeal tribunal when it is followed almost immediately by another assessment and another rejection, starting the whole ridiculous business again. I met a man recently who reckoned he could easily end up living on the streets because of this kind of instability. He didn’t think he’d survive it again.

It also didn’t show the knock-on effect of sanctions on people’s housing. Both Daniel and his friend Katie were sanctioned in the film, leaving them without income for four weeks. We weren’t shown whether they contacted the local council to ensure their housing benefit was not automatically stopped – despite belated DWP guidance to the contrary, many people in real life have gone into rent arrears because of this delightful bureaucratic hiccup.

Some of the most upsetting sequences in the film showed single parent Katie struggling to keep her head above water, alone in an unfamiliar town, dependent on the kindness of strangers and the charity of the foodbank. The latest survey of foodbanks in Brighton & Hove was published just this month by Brighton & Hove Food Partnership. As you might expect, the city’s 15 foodbanks are dealing with increasing demand, due to benefit changes and delays, and high housing and transport costs. In 2016, local foodbanks are supplying 298 food parcels in an average week.

But real-life Katie is unlikely to be able to stay in Brighton for much longer, even with the help of her local foodbank. Right now, the weekly benefit entitlement for a single parent with two children of opposite sexes is a total of £455.18. That’s £73.10 in JSA, £117.40 in Child Tax Credits, £34.40 in Child Benefit and £230.28 in local housing allowance.

Brighton & Hove Council reports that there are currently no 3-bedroom properties available in the city that are affordable for a family on this level of housing benefit. If Katie were living in Brighton & Hove, she would already be paying at least £100 of her weekly rent out of her remaining income, as well as around £4 a week in council tax, leaving her and her children with less than £120 a week to live on. No wonder she needs the foodbank.

But next month – from 7th November 2016 – the new benefit cap will come into force. That will reduce Katie’s housing benefit to £159 a week, and her remaining income – after rent and council tax – to £50 a week.

£50 a week to feed and clothe a family, and pay the bills? It’s clearly impossible.

Some of my fellow students at the welfare benefits training course I attended earlier this month were council staff from the Housing Options team. Their job is to advise people about what to do if they are in danger of homelessness. Based on these facts, they are making it clear to people now that if you have children, your only options are to get a job or leave town.

To put it another way, there is no longer a safety net in our city for people with children.

I’m not telling you anything you haven’t been told before. Groups like Boycott Workfare, Disabled People against Cuts and Black Triangle have been campaigning about this stuff for years. Bloggers like Joe Halewood, Johnny Void, and Kate Belgrave have been valiantly trying to get the word out.

They’ve had to fight a battle to be heard, because benefit claimants were being relentlessly demonised by the press and broadcast media. Even the Labour Party’s former shadow secretary of state for work & pensions ended up joining in.

Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few politicians who was listening all along. Debbie Abrahams’ announcement at this year’s party conference that Labour would abolish the Work Capability Assessment has already made a difference, with the government immediately announcing that people with chronic disabilities and terminal illnesses would not have to be endlessly reassessed for ESA. Why they are still insisting on the same people being regularly reassessed for Personal Independence Payment remains a mystery.

If you haven’t yet raised your voice to support those who are campaigning on these issues, please take some action, however small. Write to your MP, pledge a ticket on this Facebook group to enable someone else to see I, Daniel Blake – or find someone who has pledged one so you can afford to see it, organise a community screening in January, when the DVD comes out, start a discussion in your own social network about the film, or how the benefit cap is forcing families out of our local communities, volunteer at a food bank or join a political party. I don’t think there’s one right thing to do – we need to build a diverse and broad social movement that changes the public mood, not just swap one lot of managerial politicians for another.

After all, if there’s no safety net for some of us, there’ll soon be no safety net for any of us.


Go, Move, Shift

I’m a very lucky woman. Despite the occasional unorthodox lifestyle choice (no marriage, no car, no school), I’m generally treated respectfully by people I meet. My right to exist is not usually questioned or challenged.

I’ve never had to cope with moving into a new area, to be greeted by something like this:

I’ve never been homeless, never come up against the myriad architectural features that exist to make urban spaces unwelcoming for people with nowhere else to go.

anti-homeless spikes in London

It’s much more than spikes – click the picture for an article about the whole range of hostile architecture.

As I say, I’m lucky. What I don’t understand is why other people, also blessed with stable homes in a country not currently riven by war, feel the need to drive the unlucky ones so far out of sight.

Is this happening more? Maybe it’s always been like this and I’ve just noticed it more this year. In the last five weeks alone, 28% of voters supported a party whose main policy was opposition to immigration, refugees have had their makeshift shelters bulldozed in Calais, there’s been an outcry about spikes to prevent rough sleepers bedding down in the ‘wrong’ places, and the annual round of traveller evictions has begun again in Brighton.

Here are the lyrics, for those who prefer or need to read, rather than listen.

Despite my luckiness in life, I do have some small insight into being one of the unwanted ones, thanks to my obstinate choice to get around by bike. Like gypsies and travellers, “cyclists” are an acceptable target for violently expressed hatred.

I’ve often wondered if, in both cases, this is born of envy. Watching someone whizz past the traffic jam on a bike must be a bit galling, I suppose. A travelling life doesn’t appeal to me, but I guess it might look like an easy option for people who work in jobs they don’t enjoy to pay sky-high rents, while the travellers seem to come and go as they please. There’s a feeling that the outsider group is somehow getting away with something and should be made to knuckle under like the rest of us.

Even though it would make so much more sense to design cities, as they do in the Netherlands, in order to encourage and welcome cycling by people of all ages, for all kinds of journeys, riding a bike in the UK at the moment means negotiating an environment so hostile it might as well have been designed by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Last week, I went to a consultation workshop on the proposed new road layout in North Street. A large part of the conversation focused on concerns (expressed mainly by the police and representatives of the Chapel Royal) that additional seating in North Street might inadvertently provide a refuge for the rough sleepers and street drinkers who are apparently soon to be driven out of New Road and Pavilion Gardens. The developers did their best to be reassuring, explaining that the new development will flatten the building fronts on North Street, removing all those enticing doorways.

When I said the street drinkers didn’t prevent me from enjoying New Road and Pavilion Gardens, I was told I must be very unusual. Am I? I don’t think so. Both areas are always busy and bustling when I go there. The street drinkers don’t dominate, because the space has been made welcoming for everyone.

It seems to me that these problems are not caused by the existence or presence of those unwanted people, but by our inability to share nicely. If we can make our cities and continents into places where there’s a bit of space for all kinds of people, then we might have a chance of working out how to actually help those among us who are down on their luck, instead of spending all our energy trying to sweep them away.

After all, as we are rapidly finding out to our cost, there is no “away” on a finite planet. There is no bottomless pit for our rubbish, no sink big enough for our carbon and no safe storage for our nuclear waste. And there is no “someplace else” for the refugees, the travellers, the street people and the cyclists to put themselves.

This Saturday, at the People’s Assembly Against Austerity demonstration in London, I heard a young woman speak simply and powerfully about the campaign by a group of young single mothers to be housed in London, after Newham council evicted them from their hostel.

The Focus E15 mums are an inspiration as they continue to fight for decent housing for everyone, not just themselves. Here in Brighton, housing is also a major issue. With 28% of local households living in private rented accommodation and house prices continuing to rise, tenants are facing increasing demands to pay more rent and higher agency fees or find “somewhere else” to live.

Brighton People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the new Living Rent Campaign have called a public meeting on July 10th, to talk about how we can begin to turn things around. I’ll be there and I hope it can be the start of a more hopeful conversation.