I don’t know whether you know this but one of the scenes in the Ken Loach hit blockbuster film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ was filmed at the sawmill on Church Bank in Jarrow.
The famous award-winning film director’s film paints the ruthlessness of the benefits system and how it deals with men and women – young and old, healthy, sick and disabled – as they struggle through unemployment and grinding poverty.
The eponymous Daniel or Dan, played by Geordie actor Dave Johns, goes into the sawmill looking for a job and leaves empty handed.
Employed his entire life, he’s ill but not sick enough after a heart attack to qualify for Employment and Support Allowance, a benefit for people who are unable to work due to illness or disability.
And the widower would only qualify for the unemployment benefit Jobseeker’s Allowance if he’s able to prove he’s actively looking for work which doesn’t exist and he isn’t fit enough anyway to do.
I see too many Daniel Blake’s in my advice surgeries as the Labour MP for the Jarrow parliamentary constituency and I can tell you they include toilers who had good skilled and professional jobs before they fell on bad times, struggling middle as well as working class families.
The bitter truth is the Conservatives don’t care who they hurt in a wicked ideological war on employees, self-employed and small businesses as they cut, cut and cut again.
The victims aren’t just grafters denied assistance when they need it, no matter how much National Insurance and Income Tax they’ve paid, but their families too when bills go unpaid and they can’t afford new shoes for kids going back to school.
I’m haunted by the story this year of a middle-aged man in the North East found dead on a beach shortly after being told his sickness benefits were being withdrawn.
He’d suffered anxiety, stress and panic attacks yet inexplicably was still deemed fit for work by a DWP assessment system resembling a forced labour camp.
We know the Tory system isn’t working well when more than 2,000 people have passed away soon after being deemed fit for work.
There have been cases where people have been plunged into financial crisis for often trivial breaches of benefit conditions, such as visiting a seriously ill parent in hospital or attending a job interview.
The way the sanctions process is applied to claimants can be barbaric and it’s typical Tory fare of demonising the poor, low earners, disabled and anybody who depends on benefits and the welfare state.
A much better Britain isn’t just possibility for a moral crusade when we know grafters with two or three jobs who still can’t make ends meet because wages are so low.
The Tories add insult to injury when they dare to call the £7.50 an hour minimum wage a “living wage” when nobody can easily survive on that without support including the tax credits the same Conservatives are slashing.
Independent experts calculate you’d need to earn at least £8.45 an hour to afford a basic subsistence or £9.75 in London.
People who put in a fair day’s work deserve a fair day’s wage.
And that’s why I’m proud Labour’s platinum promise is at least £10 an hour, including younger workers aged 18-to-24 who don’t get even that measly £7.50.
Sadly, real-life Daniel Blake stories are becoming more and more frequent in this area, not just across South Tyneside and Gateshead but up and down the country.
It’s not fair and we’ll fight the Tories tooth and nail to right this wrong every step of the way!