British director Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake has seen the impact of benefit sanctions thrust back into the headlines. Loach’s tale of two characters from the North-East of England shows the human cost of austerity, the real life impact of cruel benefit cuts and the misery heaped upon the working class by the ideological drive to ‘make work pay’ and transform the nation into a ‘higher wage, lower welfare economy’.
But these aren’t just characters on a screen, these aren’t simply actors playing fictional roles, this is the real life misery facing millions in our so called civilised society.
This is the story of David Clapson who was found dead after his benefits were stopped on the grounds that he wasn’t taking the search for work seriously. He had an empty stomach, and just £3.44 to his name.
This is the story of Lee and Katrina Parker who were left unable to afford the rent on their four-bedroom house and feed their seven children because of the bedroom tax. They were forcibly evicted by bailiffs after choosing to prioritise their hungry children over the mounting rent arrears.
This is the story of Rob Tomlinson, a man who has cerebral palsy. His parents have to now bathe him in a paddling pool on their living room floor after new benefit rules forced him out of a home converted for his care.
This is the story of Paul Reekie, an acclaimed Scottish writer who took his own life. When his body was found there were two letters on his table. One was notifying him that his housing benefit had been stopped. The other was notifying him that his incapacity benefit had been stopped.
This is the story of Richard Sanderson, an unemployed father of a nine-year old son and husband to an adoring wife. Richard stabbed himself twice through the heart when his family faced losing their home to housing benefit cuts; the family receiving a letter stating their housing benefit would be cut by £30 a month, leaving them with ‘nowhere to go’.
This is the story of Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihull in the West Midlands. She died in the early hours of the 4th of May after being hit by a lorry on the M6 near her home. In her suicide note she wrote “It’s my life, the only people to blame are the government”. Her family said she had been worried about how she would afford an extra £20 a week as a result of changes to her housing benefit.
These people, and countless others like them, are not simply characters on a movie screen or the ‘feckless scroungers’ you read of in the papers, they are your fellow human beings; people being forced into acts of desperation and indignity for the sake of twenty or thirty pounds a week.
Your old school friend who is out of work because of a heart attack.
The mother on your street who is forced out of her home due to domestic violence.
Your neighbour whose son died and doesn’t want to leave the council home they’ve lived in for twenty years.
The young people in your area who are left without direction because the local youth club shut down and the gangs moved in to claim them.
All victims of an ideological drive to cut back the welfare state and force people to work by fear, not aspiration.
There is no winner in this ruthless drive to ‘make work pay’. No victory to be had in the fact the welfare budget has ever so slightly shrunk. No real glory in introducing a Universal Credit system.
How can there be a winner when the cost of this is hundreds and thousands of vulnerable people committing suicide? What victory can you have in forcing a family with young children out of their home? Where is the glory in making people with disabilities suffer the opprobrium of going through gruelling tests to prove just how disabled they really are?
Our society is becoming increasingly cruel, callous and cold-hearted.
Still there is no victory to be had. No glory in the deaths of disabled people.
So as you read about I, Daniel Blake or watch the film, think about whether this is the world you want to live in. Ask yourself whether you feel connected to a society that legislates to allow such pain to be inflicted on its citizens. Consider if this is a nation you can be proud of. Reflect on whether you can sleep easy at night when the cost of your tax cut has been misery heaped upon millions.
Your vote counts. Your voice can be heard. You can make a difference.