Kenny MacAskill: Scotland can end conscious cruelty but not austerity

The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake dealt with the potential for cruel treatment of those in the British welfare system.
The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake dealt with the potential for cruel treatment of those in the British welfare system.
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‘Conscious cruelty’ is the term coined by the filmmaker Ken Loach for the UK social security system.

He exposed some of its harshest aspects in the outstanding movie “I, Daniel Blake” which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2016.

It’s considered as evocative about benefits and foodbanks in the second decade of the 21st century as his earlier film “Cathy Come Home” had been about homelessness decades before.

It shocked many as it detailed the brutality of the benefits system in Britain. Sadly, the initial effect has worn off and despite tinkering by the Tories, the systemic abuse of the poor and vulnerable remains. That’s why a Scottish Social Security System, as debated in Holyrood this week, is to be welcomed.

It only deals with some benefits and it can’t mitigate every hardship but it’s a start.

Covering 11 benefits from disability living allowance through to winter fuel payments, some 15 per cent of the social security budget is being devolved, as agreed by the Smith Commission.

The Scottish Government, though, cannot plug every gap caused by Westminster cuts. The demands by some to fill every hole and uprate every benefit cannot be done and neither can the demand of the Tories that if Westminster cuts are objected to, then Holyrood can backfill them.

This is the age of austerity and there are so many challenging needs and demands. Health and homelessness are currently the highest profile but there are many more, and modest tax rises only go so far. There’s hardly an area that’s not facing pressures.

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Moreover, the benefits system has changed immeasurably since the Beveridge Report and the launch of a welfare state, which the UK still likes to pride itself on. Then it all seemed so simple with National Insurance contributions covering most and a supplementary benefit system there as a safety net to catch those that fell through gaps.

It’s not just the complexity of the system that has changed but our society. There are many more benefits to reflect more diverse needs. Moreover, Beveridge never anticipated increased longevity and mass unemployment or issues that followed in the latter’s wake like drug abuse. The cost has mounted and bureaucracy increased exponentially. A review was rightly in order.

However, visits by the former Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith to the likes of Easterhouse were a charade and, far from improving the system, the Tories have made it worse. Privatisation in the system and imposed targets are hurting some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities. The roles in Loach’s film were played by actors and the story lines were fictional. However, they were based on extensive research. The precise details didn’t happen but similar issues arose not just occasionally but with regularity.

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I know as I’m a long-time friend of the script writer Paul Laverty. He and I meet often and he tells me about his investigations and writings. I often feel I know the movie before I see it, as he tells about what he’s found and what’s been filmed. That said, the movies never fail to impress and go far beyond anything I ever imagined.

But, I also recall tales he told that didn’t appear in the movie but just as easily could have. Like the pregnant women in Glasgow heading to sign on at the DWP with another young child. Miscarrying, she missed her appointment and left hospital not to recover, but to try and live as the benefit sanctions hit home. The kindness of her family, poor though they were themselves, and food banks saw her through, at a time when she should have been recuperating, not scrambling to survive.

Or the young man eager to attend the birth of his first child but worried about missing his DWP appointment. Both he and his sister made enquiries with the DWP and were assured it would be acceptable. But, it wasn’t and what should have been a time to nurture an innocent newborn and a blessing for the parents became one of enforced austerity. Those were neither isolated cases nor errors or oversights but deliberate policy. As the staff and trade unions in the DWP have explained, they face disciplinary action themselves if they fail to deliver the policy and meet its targets. That’s not a welfare system but conscious cruelty.

It’s not just in the sanctions but in other aspects of the system where absurdities lie. I recall when I was an MSP, a constituent in a wheelchair was sent for a medical assessment for a disability benefit, to a town outwith the city. That required a bus journey on a far-from-frequent service. Similar abuses – these are not just absurdities – took place with people who were found fit for work when it was evident there were mental health problems or they were unable to even climb a kerb never mind a stair. Every MP or MSP can tell of such tales.

The Scottish Government cannot change or alleviate all of those hardships but they’ve made a start.

It seems to me that the Scottish Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman has done a remarkably good job to date. These systems are complicated and getting it right is better than doing it quickly.

But, progress is being made. Changes are coming. Language, for example, does matter. Just as we’re all God’s children, claimants are all citizens of our land. Labelling them in pejorative terms is wrong and addressing that is right. Although universal credit isn’t devolved, moving its payment from monthly to fortnightly is and will be brought in. That’s a good thing, as budgeting on a low income is hard enough on a daily, nevermind a monthly basis.

For sure, there are improvements that can be made and future steps that must be taken. But demands to alleviate every hardship or backfill every Westminster cut must be eschewed. This is a start, showing that there’s a better way to run not just a benefits system but our society. It can be built on and can begin to script the end of conscious cruelty.