Interview · Newcastle and North East · UK Politics

I, Daniel Blake Q&A at Tyneside Cinema: featuring Ken Loach, Paul Laverty, Dave Johns and Hayley Squires

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From Left to Right: Tony Dowling (North East People’s Assembly Against Austerity), actress Hayley Squires, actor Dave Johns, director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty. 

Tony Dowling: I saw the film last night and I’m still recovering so I know how you’re probably feeling right now. We have about half an hour to have a discussion about the film. We would like to hear how you feel about the film, what it means to you and those sort of things. So if people have got something that they would like to say or contribute, please indicate so. We will take two or three people at a time and then let the panel come back and answer those questions.

Audience Member: Hi, my name’s Chris, nice to meet everyone. Would a peaceful protest end this sort of thing?

TD: A good question to start, anybody else?

AM: It was very interesting to see the international funding for the film. Do our European partners know what the hell is going on here?

AM: Hi, thank you so much for making it, I think it’s brilliant and needed to be said and people need to know what is going on. I just wondered, combined with all the campaigning with DPAC [Disabled People Against Cuts] and people, has this had an impact on the Government’s decision to not retest people with serious medical conditions?

Dave Johns: I’ve been doing film festivals in Europe with the film and people have been coming up to me after the screenings and saying ‘this is happening in our country as well’. France, San Sebastian in Spain, even Locarno in Switzerland, people came up and said it’s not only England, it’s happening everywhere. Austerity that has been rammed down everyone’s throats. So yeah, people are angry in Europe.

Hayley Squires: Paul and I were in New York, not Europe but a little bit further afield at the weekend. We were unsure about what the reaction was going to be in terms of how people were going to find some reflection in what was happening in their country. And it didn’t take us long before we did the first screening. Paul and I were walking round and speaking to people to find out that exactly the same way, the level of poverty, homelessness and the gap between the haves and have nots is huge there. And again, the fear of their own government with a particular lunatic running for President – to the point where their interest in Brexit surprised myself and Paul because it was so huge – and one of the reasons why was because of that gap widening between the super-rich and those who have nothing. So there is reflection in a lot of countries.

Ken Loach: [on the peaceful protest] I think that it’s a struggle for understanding, a struggle for consciousness. Yes, peaceful protest is fine but I think they can stand any amount of peaceful protests. Just think of the 1-2 million people who marched against the war, it didn’t stop the war. We have to do much more than that. I think they only understand what we mean when they have no alternative. I think it means the campaigns have to increase – and there are many campaigns against austerity, the People’s Assembly for Disabled People. Disabled people, as many people here will know, suffered six times as much as other people. And people with mental health problems…

Paul Laverty: They’ve noticed over the previous four years that the sanctions against people with mental health problems has increased by over 600%.

KL: It is extraordinary. The cruelty, the conscious cruelty with which this government and to some extent the previous, New Labour Blairite government; the war they have waged against the people of this country, the most vulnerable, the people that need our support. The war they have waged has been cruel and criminal and I think that we can defeat it. Only political action will defeat it. We’ve gotta build a movement. Tony is part of that, other people here will be part of that, the campaigns will be part of it. But we’ve gotta have what was meant to have happened a hundred years and that is political representation in Parliament. To think of what Blair and co. did in the name of the Labour movement absolutely destroyed its power to defend people and I think that there is a sliver of opportunity now with the new leadership that we can change things. We know would scrap the assessments all together, we know that they would re-examine again the sanctions – I think the sanctions need to go as they are now. But that’s a real possibility. For me I think that we have to take political action to make certain that the Corbyn leadership gathers strength, will do what it says it will do and has a movement that will support it. Because if they somehow get into power and are isolated, without a broad movement behind it, it won’t work. A mass movement, yes and then we can really change things. But it’s a big change, a really big change.

PL: I would like to say thank you to the person who asked the question and raised the international dimension. I think that it is very interesting as you travel round Europe. I know Spain better than other countries, you will probably have heard that there is a big mass eviction campaign because so many people have been kicked out of their houses after the crisis. And so there is a really powerful strong movement that supported these people. And all round the whole of Europe when you speak to people, the Welfare system is under great pressure. And that’s a political decision. Just look how they treat multinationals, the tax regime, tax avoiders. This dwarfs fraud in the benefit system. I think the political case of Ireland against the coolest company in the world, Apple, is really important. It is revealing for many reasons. I don’t know if everybody has followed this or not but the European Commission has said that Apple who put two thirds of the profit of the entire of Europe through County Cork – unbelievable! In 2014, they paid less than one percent. And then it gets more absurd because the Irish government has attacked this [the Commission’s] decision, saying how dare you attack our fiscal autonomy! Ken, myself and Rebecca [Rebecca O’Brien, producer] made a film in Ireland a couple of years ago and I remember speaking to an old lady, who showed me her appointment card for a specialist appointment for her eyesight. It said do not turn up more than 15 minutes early and the appointment was two years hence because of the cuts. So it is a political decision to let them get away with it. And it’s a political decision to go after them and make them pay their fair share. And the same thing is happening in the States, if you saw that as well. Trump has been saying he’s a genius for avoiding tax in the last 20 years. We have to make them pay.

AM: One of the things that I’m concerned about is that we have bought into the American definition of social security and we call it welfare. And I think it would be really useful if all of us just abandoned the word ‘welfare’. Because ‘welfare’ suggests that it is some form of handout. And the left keeps buying into this, using these words such as welfare. I think we should scrap them all together and say what it is. It is social security.

AM: This film could be made in quite a few communities around Britain. Why in particular did you choose Newcastle?

KL: Well we went to six or seven towns in cities. You’re right it could have been made anywhere. One of the key things about Dan is that he is a man of strength and self-respect. And Newcastle – I don’t need to tell people here – has a very rich culture, it is built on struggle, the old ship-building industries, the mining industries. There is a long history of struggle. I think it has given the area strength and we felt that this place, this town, these voices would embody that sense of self-respect and standing tall, and so that’s why we chose it really.

AM: You used the term consciousness. I’m from a working-class background myself and I’m sick and tired of hearing my fellow working-class people call each other lazy. It is ugly ideology that goes back 400 years. I think, I might be wrong, but it is reproduced by the mass media. 5 billionaires own our national newspapers, the BBC has become a complete waste of time. My question is why since the ill-fated News on Sunday which some of you might have seen, why have the combined forces of the real left – if we can call it that – not been able to fund a mass media outlet, a newspaper or television station just to counter this filth coming from the national press. How have we not been able to do that?

TD: Can we take a few more questions before we respond?

AM: My brother of 67 years of age, was drawing his state pension and had treatment for throat cancer and then received a note saying all his benefits were stopped. The tests were done and he was told that he was eligible for work. The system is a nonsense, quite clearly. It is lovely for you to have picked that up. Can I thank you for subjecting us to yet another emotional rollercoaster. Two things I would like to ask you really. One is this going to change things? You’ve done this before to us, and the message rings so loud and so clear that is seems impossible that it can’t be received and understood by people. But somehow it isn’t received an understood by people. So the notion of the media reaching the people who might rise up and do something about it is a really difficult question. And I’m impressed by the performances you were able to get from people, not just the very talented people sitting next to you, but all kinds of people who appeared in the film. And it does reveal the kind of talent in society that is unused and wasted and overlooked. My final question is that… I see in the bottom corner you have won the Palme D’or at Cannes again and I just wondered if the new Prime Minister has called to congratulate you?

DJ: Well it is quite interesting there was a campaign where a lot of the comedians were following David Cameron and they were tweeting him saying ‘when is the Prime Minister going to congratulate British film director Ken Loach on his Palme D’or win?’ The Prime Minister seems very silent on this. If Sam Mendes had made it, he would have been ‘oh it was fantastic!’. The stuff that Ken does is getting to them, slowly but surely catchy monkey.

TD: Could I encourage women to maybe make a contribution. 86% of the cuts are affecting women more than men.

AM: You’ve done a wonderful portrayal of a system of punishment through the benefit system. It is very divided, people are not unionised, they are not able to take it on as a function. Have we got a case now for a basic guaranteed income that everybody gets?

AM: Thank you, and can I thank Ken Loach for showing off our city but also the people in it and their warmth. But contrasted to that, we have characters who seem to take an awful lot of pleasure in punishing people on benefits and this ‘Decision Maker’ that we never ever see, I just wondered how deliberate was this and whether or not there is a role for the trade unions here?

AM: Hi, first of all I wanted to say ‘hey’ to Ken Loach on behalf of my family and my mother in particular. What I really wanted to contribute is that, I went through this for three years. I was sanctioned multiple times. Before that, I was told I wasn’t sick enough by the New Labour system which doesn’t get enough publicity for how horrible that was. I escaped and went to Uni but I wasn’t well enough to continue. I managed to get back to Uni and I’ve been able to see at least within University how things have changed. It feels as if the culture has changed entirely. In 2009/10, every single meeting ended with me being asked ‘what help do I want?’ ‘how can we help you?’ And now I’m told that they have to balance not giving me an unfair advantage over other students. I just wanted to offer that. I have friends whose fathers’ died during cancer treatment, not getting their benefits. My mum went through it, both of my parents are too ill to work and they have given up on the benefit system entirely. And that’s why I really wanted to come and see the film, and at least see you from afar.

TD: Do you want to say something about the whole food bank situation?

HS: I just going to work out a way to answer all of those questions, there was a lot of them! I mentioned earlier on that we did a Q&A and people were asking what they can do. And it goes from the big to the little, I think. The idea of joining the union, the community. And the gentleman at the back has shared his story with us; he used the word escape quite a lot, and the idea of isolation is very prominent in this film, and the people that Ken and Paul met with, and I would urge anyone that is in this sort of situation to join some sort of community, or an organisation, organised protest or anything of that kind. Just on the food bank, in terms of what people can do. I come from a working class background, I have conversations with my parents, grandparents, my boyfriend and everybody and it drives me just as mad. And I have to explain to my boyfriend what happens at the food bank. It is terrible that we have food banks in Britain, it is absolutely disgusting that we have them and we need them. But at the same time they are there. And there are some people in the working class who believe other working-class people are going for a handout. So they can just turn up and beg for food, as if anyone would ever want to lose their dignity to do that. And I think, education on the food bank is something that could be done by word of mouth, from one person to the next, to really start getting an understanding of the situation that some people are in. You have to have a referral from a social worker or a GP to go to a food bank. Initially they give you a three-day emergency supply. In 2015, the food from that emergency supply went to 416,000 children who would have otherwise gone hungry. 416,000 children whose parents or guardians had to go along to a food bank with a referral from the GP because their children were sick or close to starvation to get bags of food for three days. And then the media and the government have turned members of the working class against each other, pointing fingers, saying they’re begging, they’re scroungers, they’re lazy, they should go and get a job if they want to feed their children. Education about food banks is vital because they’re not going anywhere any time soon. You can donate in your local supermarket. All it takes is for you to buy the 3 for 2 offer and you put that can of soup in and it goes to people who need it. People who have lost their dignity in a major way and trust me nobody wants to be there. But to the gentleman there, I’m with you, I’m just as angry about it. And the media is disgusting in what they do to segregate the working class.

DJ: As the lady said, the terms welfare and benefits are deliberately used to suggest that people are trying to get things for nothing. It is the same with the National Health Service. It has been set up to fail. And we should all be proud of our National Health Service, we should all be proud of social security and if you’re making you way in the world and you won’t ever need it, that’s fantastic. I think it’s a moral duty if you’re doing well to help others. Round Europe the National Health Service is held up as something fantastic. Here it’s been demonised. Dan could be your father or grandfather. Katie could be your daughter or sister, it’s ordinary people who are going through this. And I think that’s something that we should change.

KL: I think when you talk about the press and ask why hasn’t the left had a paper. I think the reason is that they are big commercial enterprises and the big companies don’t want to advertise in a paper that is going to sabotage them. The Guardian, we thought, it trades on being a kind of leftish paper. But we’ve seen over the last few months that when you have the possibility of a Labour Party that will make serious inroads in the power of capital they turn. And they have done their best to undermine Corbyn. And in a way, it is quite revealing because you see that The Guardian is left, provided that nobody gets hurt. They want to make the omelette but they don’t want to break the eggs. It is the classic case of people who talk the talk but when it comes to it, when they get the opportunity for real change, they’re on the other side. And of course, the BBC is the same. There was research done by the Media Reform Coalition, who are academics at London University, they monitored the BBC the first ten days after Corbyn was elected. There were twice as many opposing Corbyn as there were supporting him. And they’re supposed to be balanced. And the questions were always ‘is he electable?’ ‘is he a throwback?’ ‘is he serious?’ ‘do his MPs like him?’ Never about what’s his policies on the Health Service, housing or jobs. Because that’s the key point. I think, very quickly as there is so much to say, the key thing underlying a lot of this is work. If there was work, proper jobs with dignity, proper jobs that won’t disappear, proper jobs that weren’t on zero hour contracts or through agencies, proper work where you could look forward to an income, where you could sustain a family or bring up your kids or have security. And that’s where we need a policy of investment in the regions where the work has gone, where the old industries have gone, and there has been no planned replacement. Work that is genuinely productive, which genuinely makes things that we need. My god we need stuff, that other people will want. And then the welfare budget goes down because there is proper work, people have dignity and people have self-respect. They have a trade, they contribute to the world that they’re in. And it’s that sense of being part, not having to be carried, of being part, essential to our dignity, our self-respect, our sense of creating the world we want to be in. And that’s what they fear most because it won’t be down to market, it’ll be down to what we choose to do with our Common Wealth. And Corbyn has a policy on that.

AM: It’s just an observation really. When I told some people that I was coming to see this film tonight they said that it is an exaggeration. I volunteered in charity shops and we’ve noticed an increased threat in charity shops but not things that people don’t really need. Things like underwear. I brought my friend tonight and she was actually awarded an MBE for services to people in Scotswood, Newcastle. I met her at University 20 years ago and she took herself back to educate herself and get a job at the University. And most recently she’s found herself in the circle that Daniel Blake found himself in. Being sanctioned, having her benefits removed and being sent on courses on how to do her CV when she has a PhD. So yeah if anybody thinks that these things are exaggerated, it can actually happen to anyone in this room. It doesn’t have to be to someone who is a scaffolder or somebody who does manual work.

AM: I was wondering about the issue of the people that Daniel Blake faces across the table. You could call them the jobsworths. But in a sense they’re in the same position, they’re trapped. They must do their jobs or else they’re in Daniel Blake’s position. I think you did a fine job of walking the line and not demonising these people.

AM: I’m the lass she was talking about before. What really got me was that the film was so close to home. But I remember when I was going down the social security route, I was told that my first class honours degree from Newcastle University, my PhD, my 20 years of activism that I earned an MBE for were not worth the paper they were written on. I had to go to Newcastle College to learn how to write a CV. And when I broke down and said that I’m tearing all those pieces of shit up and throwing the MBE in the river, I was whisked away to a private office away from the open-planned office because they have people on suicide watch. 20 years of activism, all those things. Do you know what it is? I wish I’d put them in the Tyne. I’m sick of politicians saying we’re for the working people. Aspiration? Was I not aspirational enough? I’m on a zero hours contract in a non-degree-needed job working as a domestic violence advocate, doing the night shift. I’m on the sick now. I don’t get any sick pay. But you know I’m glad that I’m working with women who have suffered domestic violence because these bastards aren’t going to grind me down.

TD: I think Ken will want you to get the film and show it in community centres and have these discussions that we’ve talked about.

PL: Many many thanks for that last contribution. I think its really important to remember that it’s not an accident. It’s designed to humiliate and we’ve found this out from whistle-blowers inside the DWP. They’re bullied as well, they’re put in something called a PIP, a personal improvement plan, if they don’t sanction enough. We are stuck in a paradigm of punishment. It commits families not just persons to hunger. So I think that question you asked about a universal income is a very important one. We all have contributions, we all have talent and they have to liberate enough capital to make sure everyone has a dignified life. It would support their communities, it would liberate budget for welfare and it would give people’s talent to flourish so that nobody has to go through that.

DJ: I was very lucky – I’m a stand up comic – and I haven’t had to apply for any social security for a lot of years. It was the 70s that was the last time. Ken gave me the 52 page document that you had to fill in when they bring you in for assessment to see if you’re well enough, and after I tried to fill it, I came back and said I can’t do it. And I’m not ill or somebody who is distressed. I think it’s been what people have said, that there has been so much demonising. When I was a kid – I’m from Byker – it was a working class area, it had a community. The film was shown to a lot of people from different works of life. One person who writes for the Evening Standard wrote that ‘ the thing about Katie who moves out of London because she can’t afford to live there, well who can? Even the middle classes can’t live in London’. Yes that’s true but you’re asking that wrong question. Why can’t people find decent accommodation that they can afford to live in? Why can’t people afford to feed their children?

HS: One thing I’d say aside from me as a twenty-eight-year-old woman from a working class background who went and got a degree in acting. Is that it’s been a pleasure to be a part of this film. I’m sorry that it had to be made. It was such an education to work with Ken and Paul and Rebecca our producer.

DJ: And Dave…

HS: I meant politically. What I wanted to say that it is about anger. The women who I met who were having to bring their children up in a room that is probably as big as the smallest room in your house, to eat there, sleep there, educate their children when they come home from school. They live on anger, that’s what they run on, they’re constantly pissed off, it’s the only way they can keep going. Single mothers in Britain are demonised and made invisible. I get angry talking about this film. Anger can do two things. It can be very dangerous or very very powerful. So if you do watch the film and you’re angry about it or you read one of these terrible articles and you’re angry about it and you have a conversation with your friend in the pub. But as I say, I understand that you have to organise and become part of a community one way or another, you have to do something about it and not let go of it.

KL: I’ll be really brief to finish. Some people have made some really great contributions and thanks for that. You’ll have heard the news this week from the Tory Party Conference that they’re going to care about ordinary people, restore the balance. Well Theresa May was part of this government for six years and wallowed in this policy so I don’t believe a word of that, I guess not many people do. There’s a reason why she can’t change things. They can’t change because they are committed to the interests of big business. Because they think big business and big corporations are the way the world is and will always be and has to be. Big business is in competition with other corporations. They keep their power if they can keep their profits high. How do they keep their profits high? By cheap labour, resources and dominating the market. They have to find the cheapest labour they can not necessarily because they’re bad people. But it is the logic of their situation. That’s why they can’t change. They can’t produce full employment. They have to convince people if they’re poor that it’s not a fault of the system but it’s they’re own fault. If you haven’t got a house, it’s you fault. If you haven’t got a job, you haven’t written your CV properly. It’s endemic to their system. And so in a way, they’re bound on a wheel and they have to do this. And our only answer is to pose another way of living where we own and we plan and everyone has a role. Because in their system, half of people don’t have a role, they want them as consumers but they don’t want them as workers or producers. It’s a major challenge of two visions of how we live together. And that lies at the heart of it. And the only way we’ll win is organisation in our communities, unions and politically. And we have got the chance now, we really have to take it. We know the abuse that the Labour Party under Corbyn will get. It will continue. The more successful he gets, the worse the abuse. But let’s stick together because that way we really can change things. Stay strong!

You can read my review of I, Daniel Blake here.

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