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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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.