The Channel 4 series, Benefit Street, has concluded with a debate shown last night. Those taking part as critics of welfare dependency included DWP Minister Mike Penning, Big Issue founder John Bird and Charlie Mullins, who set up Pimlico Plumbers. It was difficult to portray them as toffs.

There was a clear message that the system was to blame rather than the individuals. It was said that it was important for those able to work to be required to do so, and for work to be more rewarding than welfare.

This is a tough message. However, Deidre Kelly, who featured in the series as White Dee, wrote in The Spectator this week:

“More should be done for people who work. I’m not working at the moment, so I don’t have to pay rent or council tax. I’d say my income averages about £200 a week. Now I know quite a few working people that haven’t got £200 a week — and they’re working hard all day. That’s not right. I’ve read about teachers who have to use food banks. That’s not right.

“But I’m not the one who set up the system. I can see why some people are angry. But I didn’t ask for those people who keep coming to my door, offering loft insulation or a boiler for free because I’m on benefits. Why can’t people who are working, and struggling be entitled to free loft insulation as well? It’s not as if people go to the government and say: ‘I don’t want to look for a job, but I want to receive this amount of money.’ It’s the system. The benefits system does make people comfortable, and certainly makes some people not want to go and look for a job. But that is an issue for the government to tackle.”

James Clarke, known as Fungi, said of being on benefits: “you get used to it. Your are getting your money every two weeks while supposedly looking for a job.” Becky Howe adds: “The problem needs addressing.”

Those on the Left included in the debate, such as Owen Jones of The Independent, or Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post, insisted that all the unemployed are desperate to work. Yes – of course some of them are. But they can hardly be blamed for resisting taking jobs that would leave them earning the same or less.

We heard it repeatedly stated as “fact” that benefit fraud is only 0.7 per cent (the official DWP estimate) rather than the much higher figure that most people estimate. But can we really be sure that the public is wrong? That fewer than one per cent of the unemployed are working in the black economy? That fewer than one per cent of those claiming to be disabled are actually capable of work?

Those on the Left would also try to change the subject – attack the bankers and so on. Another diversionary tactic was to attack Channel 4 for making the programme.

The Shadow Welfare Minister, Chris Bryant, said:

When we left power there were half a million fewer people unemployed than when we came to power.

Really? According to the ONS the number of unemployed in May 1997 was 1.6 million (and falling); in May 2010 it was 1.5 million. I don’t know where Mr Bryant gets his figure of half a million from.

I’ve been reading the interesting memoirs of Malcolm Wicks, the Labour MP for Croydon North West until his untimely death in 2012. Mr Wicks said:

“Some on the Left seek to belittle the size and significance of benefit abuse or, by comparing it was tax avoidance, speak of its relative insignificance. They doubtless assume that raising the question undermines public confidence, yet the reverse is the case. We avoid this issue at our peril. Abuse is clear, certainly to many people on our estates and in our poorer communities. Side-stepping benefit abuse is a grave disservice to legitimate public anger about the failure of some to comply with the duties that must accompany rights, if the system is to be perceived as fair.

Mr Wicks added that even if the official estimate of fraud is accurate that would still cost £1.32 billion – hardly a trivial sum. He adds:

“The scale of the abuse was clear to me when I had Ministerial Responsibility for tackling the problem at the Department for Work and Pensions. Regularly our anti-fraud officers would detect single parents who live with boyfriends, the “incapacitated” out jogging or working on roofs, although the woman claiming benefit, because of an apparent inability to dress herself, who worked as a striptease artist was no doubt atypical.”

Iain Duncan Smith is bringing in reforms that are already starting to work. My own criticism of the Channel 4 series is that some of this progress should have been acknowledged. The difficulty for the Labour Party in considering how to fix the welfare system is that they can’t even agree that there is a problem – prefering to blaming the media or the rich. Labour has opposed the welfare reforms.

In dodging the welfare issue, Labour have shown themselves “not to be on the side of hard working people”.  But the debate last night also showed how they are not on the side of White Dee or Fungi or Becky. Keeping people trapped on welfare is a false brand of compassion.


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