I’m a little late writing about this, but I watched John Humphries’ programme on BBC2, The Future State of Welfare, a few days after it was broadcast (I was working a night shift the actual night), and last week the BBC broadcast a Panorama programme, Britain on the Fiddle, which exposed people claiming benefits while driving Bentleys, owning yachts and houses in France, and running pubs. In between the “damning exposé” of the wealthy benefit cheats, they also showed people being caught using blue (disability parking) badges illegally (in one case, when the disabled person was not present). This was obviously done to make it look like the programme was defending the interests of “the little people” against the cheats, but it was entirely irrelevant to the rest of the programme.
Humphries’ programme started by interviewing various people who were claiming benefits and giving some recollections about “his day” when he was growing up in Splott in Cardiff. Apparently back then, not working carried some degree of stigma, and there was one man in the neighbourhood who did not work, for some unspecified reason, and he was shunned by the community for that. The reason could, of course, have been quite genuine — he may well have had a disability or some health problem that he did not feel comfortable discussing with all and sundry. He interviewed various benefit claimants, including a family of several children with a single mother, a long-term unemployed family in an ex-industrial northern town where the father had calculated that working would not make him much better off than staying on benefits, a family from Spain who were on housing benefit so they could live in Islington, and a woman with ME who had been failed by her ATOS assessment (although she easily won on appeal).
The whole thrust of Humphries’ argument was the need to cut the benefits bill, ignoring the issue of whether what the bill pays for is worth paying for or necessary. The reason why a modest flat in a district close to central London, where the work is, costs so much was conveniently glossed over (it was nothing like that expensive twenty years ago, before prices and rents became inflated by the sale of council properties and buy-to-let mortgages). Why a man in a northern town regards the work that is available as not worth doing was not asked (the fact is that there were serious jobs in the north until the factories and mines were closed down, and a large town like Middlesbrough cannot survive with just supermarkets and council jobs). The history of unemployment and benefits in the UK is a history of political decisions — unemployment figures (derived from numbers of dole claimants) used to threaten workers not to go on strike or demand rights, incapacity benefits later used to artificially reduce unemployment numbers, and so on. None of this is of the current claimants’ making, so we saw someone who had never had to worry about finding a job, not for a good few decades at least, making someone from a community which had been deliberately impoverished look like a scrounger. If you have ever had the notion to tell someone, “I’ve worked hard all my life”, you should consider yourself lucky that you had the opportunity to do that. Some people do not.
Humphries also travels to New York to interview officials and charity workers involved with the “workfare” scheme there, and those dealing with its fallout. Early on, he presents it as a system whereby benefits are delivered only to those who prove that they are looking for work — the same is true of Jobseekers’ Allowance in the UK, in which claimants are required to keep a diary of their ongoing search for work, and are given jobs to apply for. Towards the end, he showed some of the soup kitchens and charity food outlets that have appeared in New York to serve people who are unable to receive welfare as their two-year allowance has run out with no work in sight. He also interviewed two women who had been in white-collar jobs and made redundant, and were afraid for the future as they had found themselves unable to get any more work. This provided some counter-balancing to the sermons from middle-class men in suits about personal responsibility (one of them claimed that people went back on welfare because they lacked the personal organisation to keep a job. But it did not seriously examine why people lost jobs and could not find anything else: people will not employ them, often because they are “overqualified”, and it might be assumed that they will not stay if employed, or they do not have experience, or the social skills the human resources department decrees that the job requires.
Last week’s Panorama really did bring the programme to a new low — the 30-minute format is something I have criticised again and again (such as here) as it lends itself to sensationalism rather than to serious investigation, but this just was not Panorama — it was more like a cheap prime-time infotainment piece, a bit like Saints and Scroungers without the “saints” (who were often people who helped the poor and disabled find benefits they were entitled to). The aim was obviously to show that the benefit bill was as high as it was because of fraud, and that “fraud costs all of us”, but the over-investigation of fraud can sometimes detract from the purpose of the benefit and make life very difficult for real claimants, so as to satisfy the mid-market tabloids. Nobody would object to someone who had been found out claiming benefits when they are not living in the country, or were perfectly well-off in their own right, or not as disabled as they claim to be, being punished or having their benefits cut, but some benefits are in fact not means-tested and the programme did not make that clear. It also did not mention that the rate of disability benefit fraud is extremely low, and therefore the cost of welfare is not being significantly inflated by fraud; it is just high because there is a lot of disability, and some people’s needs are severe and complex.
What makes this all the more disgusting is that excuses are being manufactured to “cut the benefits bill” at a time of scarcity when many people are falling into poverty. The same cannot be said of the introduction of Jobseekers’ Allowance under John Major — that happened in 1996, after the early 1990s recession had ended, although with much the same media baiting of the “workshy”. This time round, it is benefits as a whole that are being attacked, with the media — not just the newspapers which support the Tories because their wealthy owners tell them to, but the BBC which is paid for by public subscription — joining in the chorus. We have a welfare system partly to make sure people do not fall into destitution, partly to make sure that people with disabilities and other complex needs can live dignified and productive lives, and partly to pay for the costs of ideological trends (such as globalisation) and political decisions. If we wish to cut the benefits bill, we need to get people working, and that means reducing our reliance on imported manufactured goods, for a start. People who can work, and are offered a serious job (that is, one with prospects), will do so. Those who cannot, because of their own or a dependent’s disability (or because of prejudice, or some other genuine reason), must be supported. The alternative is to lose our status as a civilised country.
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