I GOT my first “proper” job working in Britain’s benefit industry for the job centre. In a giant call-centre building, where benefits were “processed”, I was barely in the door before they told me I was a “keyholder of the public purse” and that every time I gave someone a “handout” I was “throwing away my own money as a taxpayer.” It was drilled into us, from day one.

When I logged on to the computer every morning, an internal web page for DWP staff would pop up. It ran stories giving glowing reviews to the worst of poverty-shaming television, from Saints versus Scroungers to Benefit Street. It promoted featured articles that adopted all the standard tabloid vulgarisms: “skivers and strivers”, “junkies”, “layabouts”. From on high, the bosses imposed an “us and them” attitude and taught us to criminalise the communities we were meant to serve. It was like Orwell’s 1984, with the telescreens and the Thought Police, except here Big Brother was simply Iain Duncan Smith: a bigoted, hateful moron with a serious case of contempt for the vulnerable.

Using software and outsourcing, they found ever more subtle ways to dehumanise people and to separate benefit staff from our actions. Just as many American soldiers no longer see violence up close, and instead direct drone bombs from above the clouds like a computer game, so technology allowed us to hit a computer key and deprive a human being of the money they need for food and bills.

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Having seen the British benefit industry from the inside, I know what evil looks like. I have heard the worst of manipulation and propaganda turned against the poorest people in society. Let’s be honest, it’s little consolation to the poorest to know that job centre staff can be some of the most decent and caring people you’ll ever meet. In a humane system, these people could be performing a valuable social service, based on solidarity and respect. Instead, good people are being asked to run a poverty gulag, whilst being paid poverty wages themselves, in order to save a few measly quid for the Treasury and to appease the howling billionaires who run tabloid newspapers. Somehow, it would be easier if the workers were really evil, but they’re not.

Having seen it all from one angle, I spent last Saturday evening at Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake. It was a harrowing experience. Daniel, the protagonist, is a Geordie in his fifties and a carpenter by trade until he suffers a heart attack. Doctors tell him he needs strict rest, so he’s truly unable to work. But this is Cameron’s Britain (and its aftermath), so he’s thrust into the world of “work capability assessments”. In this absurd universe, he can walk 50 metres and raise his arms, ergo he’s fit for work. Never mind that he’s risking a heart attack. So Daniel must claim Jobseeker's Allowance, forcing him to plod about pretending to apply for jobs he can’t possibly do under the ever watchful gaze of the state poverty apparatus.

On his regular trips to the job centre he befriends a young single mother. She’s suffering from benefit sanctions, and he tries his best to help her. It’s not enough, though, and she’s forced into prostitution so her kids can have food in their mouths and shoes on their feet.

I’ll spare you the ending to this glorious film so you can see it yourself. If you have friends, relatives or colleagues who believe what the tabloids say – and, let’s face it, you do – make sure you take them with you. I guarantee, nobody will leave the film unchanged: your soul will be crushed, in the best possible way, and you’ll leave in tears and raging about injustice.

I must emphasise one point. I, Daniel Blake is not a “poverty flick”, nor even a film about poverty. It’s about dignity, about society recognising you as a human being and not as a number. It’s about the relationships we create with one another to save us dying from state-imposed loneliness. The way we treat people on benefits becomes a metaphor for our society’s radical failure to recognise the humanity in others.

I keep in touch with many job centre staff, and they all agree that the film offers a pretty accurate portrait of what they’re faced with. Indeed, they say, things are often far worse. If Daniel Blake was Danielle Blake, she might be fleeing a violent relationship, forced to look after sick relatives or pushed into the criminal underworld. Job centre workers face these stories every day. That’s why Department for Work and Pensions chiefs work overtime to dehumanise their clients – because it’s far easier to shit on a stereotype than on a real person.

I, Daniel Blake is a damning indictment of a welfare system that’s undergoing an empathy bypass operation.

Britain once led the world in universal welfare insurance. Today, the country is a penny-pinching laughing stock where governments outsource care to multinational firms who treat citizens like cattle.

Soon, Scotland will get to design its own welfare system. My advice is simple: take everything Britain does, and do the opposite.


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