People of Benefits Street feel they were tricked into looking like 'scroungers'

The documentary series shows residents of a Birmingham street in what they consider an unfair light - and now the internet wants them punished.

Channel 4 aired welfare documentary Benefits Street last night. According to the blurb:

[A]s austerity continues to bite, jobs remain hard to come by and benefits are squeezed, this observational documentary series reveals the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain's most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community.

That community consists of the people living in the 99 houses on James Turner Street in Winson Green Birmingham, of which some are unemployed, and some are in work. “This is a place where people look out for each other and where small acts of kindness can go a long way,” Channel 4’s blurb says, which makes it sound like the show was sympathetic to the reality of life under austerity.

Instead, here’s the Mirror today:

In the show, residents of James Turner Street struggle to cope with cuts to their benefits. There's a man who goes around, door-to-door, selling small quantities of essentials like sugar and washing powder for 50p, and many residents can't even afford that. While looking for jobs many of the residents have nothing to do with their time other than smoke, drink, or (in a couple of cases) take drugs. There's a lot of focus on one man, who gets out of jail and heads off into the city centre to shoplift some designer jeans on the very same day. James Turner Street comes across as bleak.

However, several of the participants are furious at how their lives were depicted. Here’s Dee Roberts:

She said: “They have shown me pointing at houses shouting ‘unemployed, on benefits’, but they haven’t shown me pointing at the houses where I knew people were working and in jobs.

"I’m really worried about how my neighbours will react if they see it.

“They have edited everything to suit their own needs – taken a positive and turned it into a negative.”

Dee, who is unemployed and on benefits, was approached to appear on the show at a jobseeker event in Birmingham.

Another particpant, Becky Howe, has said “half of my family and friends have already disowned” her because of how the show was edited to make their home look like “slums”.

Judging from Twitter, people responded angrily to the show's decision to focus on benefits fraud, petty crime, and financial insecurity. Mark McGowan, an artist who tweets under the name @chunkymark, gathered dozens upon dozens of tweets from those watching the show:

That’s just a sample. You can understand why the participants might feel they have to protect themselves from this hatred.

Several of those featured in the show - a five-part series, the next part airing next Monday - now have jobs. Here's Channel 4's response to the complaints from the participants:

“This is a fair and balanced observational documentary series.

“It is a fair reflection of the reality of life on a street where the majority of households receive benefits.

“The contributors were briefed extensively before any filming took place. If any residents requested not to be filmed they were not.

“The main contributors have been offered the opportunity to view the programmes they feature in before transmission to make any comments about their contributions.

“As far as we are aware we have appropriate consent for any private phone calls that appear in the series.”

We hope that further episodes of the series improve in depicting the lives of the poor in a way that doesn't confirm the worst prejudices of the right's ridiculous 'scrounger vs striver' rhetoric. Judging from the comments underneath the Mirror's article, there's a long way to go in correcting those misbeliefs.

One of the families featured in the show. (Photo: Channel 4)

I'm a mole, innit.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.