Paul Hamilton has been on the dole for two years and says Ken Loach’s portrait of life in the benefits jungle is spot-on
Ken Loach’s searing film of the benefits system was, for me, facing a mirror of what I’ve been through these past two years.
After being sacked from my job at Sainsbury’s for the sin of momentarily forgetting the deputy manager’s name and referring to him as “Baldie”, I signed on as unemployed at a Jobcentre. Following an investigation into my dismissal, I was adjudged to be ineligible for Job Seeker’s Allowance, due to the severity of calling a bald man bald. However, I was informed, if I were to empty out my bank account (which I did and paid two weeks’ rent with), I could apply for Hardship Allowance. Returning to the Jobcentre with the evidence that my bank balance stood at £2, I was given the Hardship Allowance claim form to complete and submit. “Of course,” I was then told, “this is not a foregone conclusion: You might not get it…”
As it turned out, they judged in my favour and for six months I got a weekly hand-out of £50 (£25 less than JSA). But, because I was not in receipt of JSA, housing benefit was not immediately forthcoming. When I did eventually receive it, the sum was nearly £30 short of the actual amount of rent due, because my flat has a spare room which could be used as a secondary bedroom. Getting a lodger in would be sub-letting, thereby putting me in breach of my tenancy agreement, and the penalty for that is eviction. So I learned to live on £20 a week – which is achievable, until a bill arrives.
Living on just about nothing plays strange, sad tricks. You are not a part of the rest of the world. You see people walking around, carefree and secure, laughing into their phones, planning their weekend benders. Or they’re jumping into cabs or rolling out of pubs. They are living – fully. What I, and hundreds of thousands like me, are doing is subsisting – barely.
I undertook a computer course where a fellow student warned me to increase my job searches (I was averaging one a week; the goal was at least three a day) or they’ll penalise me like they did her: “They said, if I were to continue my claim for JSA, I had to pick up litter in a park for five days a week. You don’t get paid extra for it. I was doing this for two weeks but, when I signed on, I was asked, ‘Why haven’t you looked for work?’ I explained how long it took to get there and back and that it was usually seven o’clock by the time I got home and I was exhausted. They said, ‘Oh, and the internet clocks off at half-five, does it?’”
To Ken Loach’s credit, he doesn’t paint all DWP employees with a villainous hue. Just as Daniel Blake has Ann, an empathetic helper at the Jobcentre, the woman handling my case was sensitive and caring (“I could just as easily be on your side of this table”). She warned me that I was due to be assigned litter duties in some park. This spurred me into action…
For the past few years, I had been recording songs with a variety of musicians. A few tunes had been used by film students as soundtrack material and one was in a shortlist of two for use in a car ad. Since there was a remote commercial potential, why not try and make a serious go of it? And so I went from JSA to the New Enterprise Allowance scheme, a government body that was supposed to help people set up their own business. The first three months finds you with a weekly stipend of £65, decreasing to £32 a week for the next three months – because, by then, the business should be up and running and money would be rolling in. However, the NEA provided none of the expert guidance that was promised. Where were the business-savvy mentors, the string-pullers and door-openers?
Now self-employed, the housing benefit was halted. How could I try and get a business off the ground on £32 a week and the fear of being made homeless, with the rent going unpaid? For two months I lived on little else than biscuits – you can get a packet of Ginger Nuts from Lidl for 25p, and my daily allowance for food was less than a quid.
The scenes where Daniel Blake tries to complete his online claim for JSA are too familiar, especially when the system ‘times out’ because you haven’t completed the questions in a specified time period. It is torture by the most tedious means. I found that, in order to apply for JSA, I first had to complete a claim for Universal Credit – which I wasn’t eligible for, because I am a ‘company director’ (having formed one when trying to set up my little music-making business empire). The Universal Credit application rigmarole had to be gone through five times, online and over the phone, before I could be allowed to fill in the JSA claim. There, I encountered such questions as, “Have you undertaken any training or vocational courses?” Yes. “What were the exact dates of starting and completing the courses?” Er… “What is the serial code for the type of grant or allowance you received for studying?” Huh? And then there was the question of what particular type of JSA I was applying for – contributions-based or not.
And during all this, there was the ongoing struggle to have my housing benefit paid. Like Daniel Blake, you spend days on the phone with the fembot passively stating, “All of our customer service agents are busy at the moment. Please continue to hold”, before that relentlessly jolly classical music resumes again, those violin bows drilling through your brain. And then there’s the endless emails you fire off to the council which are never answered. And the letters that tell you that “you have not provided the right information” (without ever giving a clue as to what this “right information” might be) and to complete the claim form (which isn’t included in the envelope).
The benefits system is supposed to be geared towards helping the unfortunate, the helpless, people in urgent need. But it’s not. The system is designed to make people give up in despair. No-one knows what benefits they may be entitled to because it’s not the system’s responsibility to inform anyone. One is forever told, “It is for you to find out”. But how can you find out what aid you are entitled to when you don’t know you are entitled to it? It’s like being stuck inside the blackest sitcom, authored by Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller, and running twenty-four hours a day. You’re constantly terrified that the next letter contains your eviction notice or that your allowance has been sanctioned for failure to complete a form you had never received.
I, Daniel Blake will seem like some lefty soapboxing whinge-mongering, but only to those fortunate enough not to be caught up in the system’s web. Thousands more know all too well the cost of being trapped. I’m still stuck in it and you can take it from me – being unemployed is the toughest job in the world.
A longer version of this piece appears in Idler 51: Terry Gilliam, out now. Subscribe at idler.co.uk/join