Aye, Daniel Blake? The social security challenge to the SNP

In October 2013 my first blog on this site was about the politics behind the opening of the PCS Scotland solidarity foodbank collection point. The point being not replacing state responsibility with charity, but for public sector trade unionists to show practical solidarity to those for whom the state had abandoned as a result if both New Labour and Tory welfare reform policies, reminiscent of how trade unions collected food and monies for the miners in the 1980s.

A few weeks later, film maker Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Lafferty came to our office to meet with DWP reps as part of their research on sanctions and benefits for the film “I, Daniel Blake”, and were photographed with me at the Foodbank Collection Point.

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The result is that the Palme de Or Award winning film is now waking people across the country up to demand a real alternative to welfare reform, sanctions and foodbank destitution. A young Scottish trade union activist on seeing the film tweeted. “It is my belief that when the Scot Gov has welfare powers, staff training should be to watch I, Daniel Blake and just do the exact opposite”. This is precisely what  PCS wishes to address.

It is our view that in receiving the devolved powers to create a social security system, the SNP  Government needs to be ambitious in its aim, not just to reduce poverty but remove its shackles from our citizens and ultimately commit to its abolition.

Our union represents thousands of staff in Scotland working on benefits, tax credit, welfare, pensions and employability delivery amongst many other civil and public services on which we all depend as citizens at some point in our lives. The collective experience of those workers inside the existing system, drives our commitment to seek a radical alternative to social security as a fundamental human and democratic right for every citizen.

PCS members in DWP fundamentally oppose sanctions, conditionality, benefit cuts and scapegoating of claimants, and we therefore welcome Scottish Social Security Minister, Jeanne Freeman’s statement on these principles and her offer to work with our union in co-production to provide a worker’s voice alongside a claimants voice in creating the infrastructure and architecture of a Scottish welfare state.

PCS seeks high level principles to be enshrined in legislation:

🔴  Freedom from hunger and want

🔴 Decent and adequate housing

🔴 Access to free healthcare at the point of need

🔴 Provision of fair and equitable benefits in event of unemployment, sickness or disability

🔴 Access to free education at all levels

With such principles enshrined in legislation Scotland can become a beacon of progress, security and protection for our people when they need it from cradle to grave.

There are two important collective voices in this endeavour that the Scottish Government require to listen to – the claimants voice and the workers voice.

” I, Daniel Blake” provides familiar narrative to the claimant experience.  Too many people in our own families,  in our communities, amongst my neighbours recount their terrible experience in the welfare system. As if it isn’t hard enough to be poor, to be old, to be disabled, to be unable to work and to be dependent on society for assistance, then to be mistrusted as not genuinely poor, sick or in need. Then scapegoated because you are. Then to be forced to live in squalor below the poverty line, depending on foodbanks and have your benefit cut for no real reason other than Tory sanction targets have to be met. There are too many Daniel Blakes in our society, and at some point in our lives, we are all Daniel Blake.

If the claimants voice is advocated through the anti poverty movement, the welfare workers voice can be found in PCS trade union. The DWP workforce didn’t join the civil service to police, patronise or penalise the poor – they joined because they believe in public service ethos, in helping people find work, get help with dignity and support to continue to play a full part in society.

Our members want to deliver universal provision and the welfare safety net in which we all pay in when we can so we can have support when we cannot. Such ideals held by DWP staff have been denigrated over time and brutalised because of: Successive UK government policies capping, sanctioning and slashing welfare budgets; mass media manipulation  decrying the poor as Benefit scroungers, shirkers and charlatans; structural changes in delivery from a face to face service where individual workers support and advise claimants, to one of anonymised benefit processing, online forms and call centre handling.

Let us not forget the mass DWP job cull that began with Gordon Brown, and massively advanced by the Tories, driving down of wages, terms and conditions, pensions, redundancy terms and trade union rights. And worse, outsourcing, commissioning, privatisation of welfare and employability provision Atos, A4E, Work Programme – all putting profit before people, and scandalously failing.

PCS therefore is pressing the Scottish Government to make fresh start in terms of the initiating a different ethos, culture in which theclaimants experience and that of the staff is at the heart of the service.

What we do not need is a new layer of bureaucrats. To quote, Glasgow poet Tom Leonard, in his highly ironic poem ” Liaison Co-ordinator”

…jist whit this erria needs
whut wi aw thi unemploymint
inaw thi bevvyin
nthi boayz runnin amock
nthi hoossys fawnty bits
nthi wummin n tranquilisers
it last thiv sent uz
a liaison co-ordinator

PCS is not seeking more liaison co-ordinators, but a fundamental transformation of society.We have a chance to make the Scottish system one which is ambitious enough: to tackle the scourge of poverty, put the security back into the social with a valued, engaged and encouraged workforce to support all of us when we are in need. I don’t think that is too much too ask.

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