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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Every day, Theresa May's mask slips a little further

First the Human Rights Act, now Dfid. What's next, asks Jon Ashworth.

The news that the new International Development Secretary is about to slash development spending and channel Britain's aid budget into defence spending is yet another major slip of the new government's centrist mask.

Theresa May has tried to pitch her policy agenda as prioritising social justice and a “Britain that works for everyone” but the reality is that this announcement is the true right-wing colours of her government shining through.

The appointment of the most right-wing Cabinet for decades was a major warning sign, with figures such as David Davis, who said he was “very worried” about sexual discrimination legislation, and Liam Fox, who said equal marriage was “social engineering”, now at the highest level in government.

Those of us passionate about development were horrified when Priti Patel, who has previously called for the Department for International Development to be scrapped, was appointed as the department's new Secretary of State, but few of us would have imagined such a dramatic break with Britain's strong development legacy so soon.

Not only is what is reported very dubious in terms of the strict regulations placed on development spending- and Priti Patel has already come dangerously close to crossing that line by saying we could use the aid budget to leverage trade deals - it also betrays some of the very poorest in the world at a time when many regions are facing acute humanitarian crises.

It was Gordon Brown who put international development at the heart of 13 years of Labour government, massively increasing aid spending and focusing minds in Britain and abroad on the plight of those suffering from poverty, famine and the ravages of war. David Cameron followed Gordon’s lead, enshrining the 0.7 per cent aid budget in law, making Britain the first G7 country to do so. In light of these new revelations Theresa May must now restate her commitment to the target.

Sadly, it now seems that Theresa May and Priti Patel want to turn the clock back on all that progress, diminishing Britain's role in international development and subverting the original mission of the department by turning it into a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence, focused on self-interest and security. Not only will this create the opposite of the "outward-looking and globally-minded country" Theresa May said just weeks ago she wanted Britain to be, it’s also a betrayal of some of the poorest people across the planet.

Other examples of the right-wing traits of this Government surfaced earlier this week too. On Friday it emerged that Gerard Lopez, a tax-haven based businessman with links to Russian State banks that have been sanctioned in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict, donated £400,000 to the Tory party just months ago. Theresa May needs to tell us what meetings and interactions she has had with Lopez.

Earlier in the week Liz Truss, the new Justice Secretary, brazenly insisted that the Government would proceed with scrapping the Human Rights Act, despite fierce opposition from politicians of all parties and the public.

With so many right-wing announcements trickling though when the government has hardly had time to change the name plaques above the doors you've got to wonder and worry about what else is set to come.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.