No scandal has been more successfully covered up than the appalling truth about what happens to Britain’s poorest people. We have, as a country, grown used to pretending they don’t exist; we shovel them off to edge-of-town housing estates and pay them to stay there in economic exile. We give them welfare for the foreseeable future, and wish them luck in their drug-addled welfare ghettos. This is our country’s dirty little secret, which has just been exposed by a devastating Channel 4 documentary. And the left are furious.
The outrage over Benefits Street has been quite extraordinary, comparable only with the furore over phone hacking. Labour politicians have lined up to denounce the programme and 31,000 have signed a petition of protest. Channel 4 stands accused of ‘demonising’ working-class people, and cynically hawking ‘poverty porn’. A letter signed by 100 charities demands that Channel 4 ‘review how this damaging and grossly unbalanced programme came to be broadcast’. The subtext is clear: this is Britain — we don’t talk about poverty. Or if we do, we never show its full, sickening extent.
All this fuss, of course, made Benefits Street the most watched show on British television on Monday, with five million viewers — more than anything else that Channel 4 broadcast in the whole of last year.
Those expecting ‘poverty porn’ would be baffled: it is a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot in James Turner Street in Birmingham, where most occupants of the 99 houses are on welfare. Its characters speak for themselves. As quickly becomes clear, they are overwhelmingly kind, neighbourly and surprisingly upbeat, given that they are, in effect, inmates in a social prison.
Life in this prison is pretty shocking. We see 14 Romanian workers crammed into one house expecting to be paid decent salaries, only to find they have been conned and the gangmaster will pay them each only £10 a day. (The immigrants seem routinely appalled by the other residents of James Turner Street, stunned that the British could be asked to live in such a way). We see a young woman visiting the bank machine at the stroke of midnight, when her welfare payment is processed, then immediately buying booze. We see a small boy, Gerard, hanging out with drug addicts as they drink on the street. ‘He knows way too much for a five-year-old,’ says ‘White Dee’, his mother. ‘What is there for him? Destined to grow up and be part of a gang? Because that’s society, isn’t it?’ Around there, it is.
The biggest scandal of Benefits Street, which Channel 4 is unlikely to reveal, is that White Dee is behaving rationally in deciding not to work. This is not something ministers like to divulge, but Policy in Practice, a welfare and employment consultancy, has run the figures for The Spectator. Dee is a single mother with two young children. Were she to earn, say, £90 a week as a cleaner, then the system would reduce her benefits by £70 — an effective tax rate of 78 per cent on that £90 she’s earned. She’d thus be slaving away all week for £20 — far less than the minimum wage.
It doesn’t get too much better higher up the scale. If she landed a £23,000-a-year job, her effective tax rate would still be 74 per cent – so she’d end up just £5,975 a year better-off than if she’d spent the year sitting on the sofa watching daytime TV and chatting to her pals on the street. If she then worked extra hours, or earned a pay rise, she’d keep a pitiful 9p in every extra pound paid. This is nothing to do with indolence. Which of us would work at a 91 per cent tax rate?
So the tabloid critics are wrong — these people aren’t scroungers, they’re reacting in a way that any of us would in the same situation. And they’re not idle either: ‘Everybody does something on the side when they’re on benefits,’ says one resident (through a mask, tending the marijuana growing in his spare room). An exaggeration, but Benefits Street does show the entrepreneurialism of the supposedly workshy. One man sells sachets of washing powder for 50p (but gives it away to those who can’t afford it). A former drug addict picks up free magazines from a hotel foyer and sells them on the street. Someone else finds discarded metal to sell for scrap. These people are working — but outside the system. And in a way that will never pull them (or their children) out of poverty.
These 91 per cent tax rates ought to be a national scandal, raised regularly in Parliament. This is why the people of Benefits Street don’t work — and MPs who talk about ‘scroungers’ should ask what they’d do in the same situation. Well-meaning campaigners call for higher minimum wages without realising how much of the extra cash would go straight to the government. For single mothers like White Dee, work has been robbed of its economic function — so why do it?
All this is precisely what Iain Duncan Smith is trying to change. His welfare reform is intended to repair the damage and make work pay again. We see one example of it in Benefits Street: a fit man, claiming incapacity benefit, is told he’ll be examined for what work he can do. He’s offered a personal work adviser. It’s an expensive process, with (so far) a low success rate. But it’s better than the alternative: leaving such people to die on welfare.
More importantly, the Work and Pensions Secretary is aiming to abolish the tangled web of benefits and put in its place a Universal Credit which would lower the top effective tax rate to 65 per cent. Still outrageously high, but it can be lowered when the system is up and running. It’s an ambitious project, laden with difficulties — like any massive computer project run by civil servants. But again, the alternative is to give up on these people, leave them to rot — and direct your anger at television companies that focus on their plight.
It is strange that it has fallen to the Conservative party to confront poverty while Labour MPs are busy trying to shoot the messenger. Once, it was Tony Blair’s ministers who pioneered welfare reform. Now Ed Miliband’s priorities are more closely aligned with the trade unions, who seem to loathe any focus on the plight of the jobless. The Unite trade union went so far as to stage a protest outside the office of Love Productions, the company that makes Benefits Street, accusing it of the ‘gross misrepresentation of working-class communities’. But the show depicts the workless class, which is its point. These people are people who otherwise don’t have a voice. They don’t vote, so for many years they have just not mattered.
Anyway, to the unions’ fury, Love Productions is not run by a Tory but by a friend of Ed Miliband, Richard McKerrow, who says he’s a ‘big fan’ of the Labour leader. Nor did his Benefits Street single out the worst ward in Britain. There are scores of areas where deprivation is higher — like Everton in Liverpool, Byker in Newcastle, Harpurhey in Manchester or Calton in Glasgow (where, I discovered, male life expectancy at birth is just 54 — on a par with Uganda).
Make a documentary about poverty in Uganda and you could win an award. Look at problems in Britain and you’re reported for thought crime — sometimes successfully: BBC1 ran an excellent documentary two years ago in which John Humphrys returned to the neighbourhood outside Cardiff in which he grew up and found a quarter of its residents on benefits. How had this ‘age of entitlement’ come about, he asked? The BBC Trust was barraged into finding him guilty of presenting ‘a personal view on a controversial subject’. Ever since, BBC journalists have shied away from exposing the nature of British poverty — perhaps why they have given such ample coverage to the furious reaction to Benefits Street.
Humphrys is 70 years old, brought up at a time when it was easier for a working-class child to get to the very top in Britain. A welfare state designed to bring us closer together has ended up creating such social segregation that the average Brit barely recognises the life lived by those at the bottom. This perhaps explains why Benefits Street has been such a hit: it offers a glimpse into what has now become, to most British people, another country.
In the next episode of the show we hear a dialogue that sums up why fixing this broken system is — for all its challenges — perhaps the single most important task facing the government. ‘You really just want to get a job?’ the mother asks. ‘Yes,’ says the daughter. ‘And be completely different from the rest of the world?’ ‘Yes,’ comes the indignant reply. For the girl’s sake, the Conservatives need to finish the job.