Fraser Nelson Fraser Nelson

In defence of Channel 4’s Benefits Street

Few subjects are more unfashionable than British poverty. And judging by the reaction to Channel 4’s brilliant documentary Benefits Street, it seems as if the left believe that it ought not to be discussed at all. This five-part series focuses on the inhabitants of James Turner Street in Birmingham, which has 99 houses, the majority of whose inhabitants are dependent on welfare. For two years, a TV crew let the camera roll and Ch4 now tells the story – giving a complex, uncomfortable view of what life is like at the bottom in Britain.

The left’s charge is that the wicked media is ‘demonising’ those on benefits, portraying them as scroungers – then claiming this represents everyone on welfare. This claim is impossible to reconcile with Benefits Street. I can only assume that the show’s critics (or the minority of them who actually watched it) see demons when they look at these people. I didn’t. I was struck by the strength of community spirit and amazed how they managed to stay so optimistic in a street that seems to have been cut off (by the welfare state) from the rest of the economy. These are the people who have been abandoned for years.

White Dee, who describes herself as the mother of the street, is thoughtful, funny and warm-hearted. Next Monday’s episode shows how 14 Romanians come to live in a house built for four people, then find out they’ve been trafficked and having to work all day for £10. They run out of food and their Pakistani neighbour, also on benefits, comes to bring them some. Smoggy, another resident, goes door-to-door offers little sachets of washing powder for 50p. If his neighbours are too poor to afford it, he gives it away. Rather than “demonising” the residents, Benefits Street shows remarkable acts of kindness, neighbourliness and tolerance.

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