Tuesday, February 18, 2014

And so the media caravan moves on....

I was at last night's end of series debate in Digbeth for Channel Four's 'Benefits Street.' Sadly, as usual, it was the London media rolling into the provinces to share their wisdom and scatter some star shine around. We had columnists from the national press and the millionaire founder and owner of Pimlico Plumbers, who operate in London. They see an economic recovery around them - property prices bubbling up alarmingly, the financial sector awash with bonuses and new jobs being created (74% of the newly created jobs are in London and the South East). Today, they've all returned to their comfortably cushioned lifestyles in London, shaking their heads at the state of people, until they are able to turn up in the next northern city to treat people like exhibits.

Aside from the "cast" of the programme and a handful of questions from the audience, there were no voices from the city. There were no local business leaders, academics or politicians from any side to talk about the problems that Birmingham faces.

The truth is that those who were the focus of the series are not representative of James Turner Street, still less those on benefits or of Birmingham. The focus of the debate was on unemployment, yet out of work benefits account for just 3% of the DWP spend. If it had been realistic, half of the series would have been devoted to pensioners. We would have seen those struggling in low paid, zero hours contracts or dropping in and out of work and reliant on benefits to fill the gap between their poverty pay and something close to what it costs to live. We might have seen some of those sanctioned by quota-driven advisors in the JobCentres - got to get the "off flows" to use the jargon - for some of the most Kafkaesque reasons. If you turn down an interview to sign on, you get sanctioned, but if you choose the interview and fail to sign on in time (within minutes), then you also get punished.

Yes, there is fraud and abuse of the system - that will always happen. It needs to be tackled, but it amounts to under 1% of the budget, although the DWP assign over 3000 people to investigate it, compared to the 300 assigned by HMRC to investigate the higher costs of tax evasion.

I thought it was interesting that the two rightwing columnists chose to focus on the people in the series - Allison Pearson (who vanished during the first commercial break) gave a clinical opinion on one participant's mental health, suggesting that she wasn't really ill, despite - one assumes - the professional view of a genuine, qualified doctor somewhere along the line. I suppose we were at least saved from having to suffer the opinions of Katy Hopkins, who was off being objectionable about immigrants instead - Owen Jones told me that he wouldn't have been on with her.

On the other hand, the left wingers - Owen Jones and Mehdi Hasan - dealt more with the facts and figures that truly underpin the debate - the fact that employers rely on it to subsidise their wage bill and that billions poured into Housing Benefit is simply being passed on to wealthy buy to let landlords. The private rented sector is now a bigger housing provider in Birmingham than the City Council. If you want to tackle the cost of benefits, then building social housing with managed rental costs is a key solution - it creates jobs and literally puts a roof over families' heads. The private sector has not been able to provide the numbers needed at any point since before WW2 and shows no signs of doing so now - why should it, when scarcity boosts prices?

Chris Bryant made some useful points, but wasn't allowed the freedom to speak given to the Tory Minister for the Disabled, Mike Penning (a man so across his brief that he thinks Disabled Living Allowance is an out of work benefit - it isn't). Chris did make a very key point - alcohol and drug abuse is a societal problem that reaches from our poorest streets to the very wealthiest. Mike is one of those traditional, working-class Thatcherite Tories with a background in the ranks of the army and in the fire service, although he then spent time doing PR for IDS.

Richard Bacon challenged Mehdi Hasan over the numbers using food banks. Mehdi reckoned it was half a million, Richard Bacon was certain it was 300,000 and his figures were indeed right - but they applied for the total in the previous year. Mehdi Hasan was more up to date. Half a million of your neighbours and fellow citizens used emergency food assistance from a Trussell Trust food bank between April and December 2013 alone. Over half of those referred are in need because of benefit delays, cuts and sanctions and many others are the working poor - hardworking families. It should be a source of shame that the sixth richest country on the planet has people so abandoned that they have to ask for food that doesn't need cooking because they can't afford the electricity.

In the meantime, Channel Four will take the nice little boost in advertising income, fold up their caravan and steal away into the night, patting themselves on the back at all the chatter to find another community worthy of exploitation. Some of those featured in the series will probably pop up on reality TV shows for a couple of years and the news for others was positive with jobs on the horizon.

You can't help but feel that Channel Four owes that street something more.

Benefits Street has generated much heat, but little light.

No comments: