The Big Benefits Row: Was it ever going to change anyone's mind?

Perhaps if Channel 5's dramatic “debate” about benefits had given less time to attention-seekers like Edwina Currie and Katie Hopkins, it would have been a better conversation about an important issue.

Upon first glancing the title of last night's The Big Benefits Row, I had thought television’s depiction of benefits had finally succumbed to where it has inevitably been heading: a malnourished Job Seeker's Allowance claimant pitted against a sobbing disabled single mother in a fight to the death.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as humane), this was not it at all. This was the debate sort of row, with words and opinions and Matthew Wright occasionally reading out racist poll results.

It soon became apparent this was going to be a very dramatic debate too, with a zooming compilation of different people saying the word “benefits” over and over again. BENEFITS. They're everywhere! And everyone was talking about it. At least they were about to be because why else would Katie Hopkins and “White Dee” from Benefits Streets be in the same room?

Ken Livingstone kicked things off by introducing the radical idea that people should be able to find jobs and those jobs should pay enough to be able to live on. This was followed by a row of fiction-busting facts, which seemed very inappropriate for a discussion about benefits and I wondered if Channel 5 had become confused.

Peter Stringfellow, doing an impression of a man who didn't know where he was, was soon pointing off-camera to “those people” who actually did deserve benefits. I thought at first he was being clever and pointing to an empty space but then I realised he'd probably spotted some crippled people that had been put in the corner.  

Away from the audience, Channel 5 had decided to do the whole thing without letting a single disabled person on any of the panels. Which was brilliant because it was sort of like an ironic commentary on mainstream society's exclusion and isolation of us. Or was insultingly and tellingly dismissive of swathes of people affected by the issue at hand. As Sue Marsh, a disability campaigner who had originally been asked to be on the show, tweeted last night:

Luckily Edwina Currie was there instead to say things that were in no way true and/or made no sense. “There are loads of jobs”, we don't pay people a living wage “because we can't afford it”, and anyone could wander into food banks and take bags of food, she announced, as if not hiding her belief that the point of being on television was to say anything that may get a person attention.

Not content, Currie took it on herself to challenge austerity food blogger Jack Monroe on whether her grandfather was rich, as if believing if only she could prove someone in a working class woman's family had at one time in history had some money the entire social security system would fall in on itself and poverty itself would be disproven as a left-wing fabrication. “My grandfather's dead,” Monroe said. “I know, I saw the obituary,” retorted Currie, somewhat menacingly.

The microphones muffled out and Matthew Wright turned to camera, with the face of a man grateful he'd soon be back on the civilised sophistication of The Wright Stuff. “Who knows, perhaps some have you have changed your minds after tonight,” he said optimistically. 

Ironically, that would have been more likely to be achieved if the two panelists who needed to change their mind hadn't been there at all. Currie and Hopkins – all fabrications and hysteria – do a good row. But we might get further if producers simultaneously lost attention seekers’ phone numbers and tried for The Big Benefits Conversation instead.


Matthew Wright with Katie Hopkins and White Dee on The Big Benefits Row.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.