There's a nuanced debate on welfare waiting to happen, and Benefits Britain 1949 isn't it

Channel 4's Benefits Britain 1949 asked modern benefits claimants to live under conditions from 1949 - the reason being, what exactly?

When it comes to the welfare state, it’s clear there’s a conversation to be had. There needs to be an unpicking of the false dichotomy between "workers" and people on benefits. There needs to be a shift away from the focus on capping benefits to providing a living wage. There’s a nuanced debate waiting about how disabled people can be given the right support to work. That’s why, last night, Channel 4 decided to dedicate an hour of prime time television to asking an unemployed, sick woman to lift a potato and to making an old man cry.

For anyone who didn’t see Benefits Britain 1949 – and as it happens, chose not to enter the televisual equivalent of beating themselves around the head with a blunt object – the programme charged itself with seeing how present day benefit claimants would cope with the welfare system as it was when it was first introduced. “Does it point a way out of this current crisis?” the narrator asked. Well no, of course not, but don’t let that stop you.

It was as if Channel 4 had been hired by the Department for Work and Pensions to summarise government rhetoric for anyone who hadn’t been paying attention the past year or so. In sum, people on benefits should not only be pitted against "workers", but each other.

There was "Good Claimant": a visibly disabled man who wanted to work. Craig used a wheelchair due to spina bifida and although in the past few years he’d applied for hundreds of jobs, he’d been given none. There was "Harmless Claimant": an old man called Mervyn who lives on a state pension. There was "Bad Claimant": a long-term sick woman with an overtly working class accent. Karen had a range of conditions (like arthritis and heart problems) that are hidden and therefore "don’t count", and she had been on sick benefits for seven years.

Karen had styled hair, acrylic nails, and Egyptian style figurines in her house. This was, apparently, evidence that her benefits were too high and that, probably, she was faking her illnesses. I should mention at this point that Karen was fat. There was a moment, about when the camera brushed past Karen’s stomach to focus on her brightly polished nails. It felt as though, rather than a 1940s test, we were supposed to be craving a Daily Mail-led dystopian future – where benefits are awarded proportionate to a claimant's weight and how neat their appearance is. ("Had your hair done in the last six weeks?" "She's fat too! Fatty! She's a fatty!")

Karen was soon told to do a series of "1949 tests" like lifting a potato or using scissors in order to show she was fit for some kind of employment. Like working in a potato origami factory, perhaps. She’d already been assessed by Atos, and seemed to be in considerable pain, but the jaunty music and camera angles told me putting her through a series of humiliating tests was the right thing to do.  

Mervyn, meanwhile, was struggling to get by on a 1949 pension. In one inspiring scene, he was forced to pawn his grandfather’s watch and then move into a nursing home. He then started talking about his dead wife and we watched as he ran into his bedroom and sobbed. “Pensioners barely had enough to live from week to week,” trilled Mrs Townsend, the work officer stalking him. “The stigma was so great for the elderly receiving help in 1949 that many didn’t apply,” added the narrator. I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be a good thing but I was distracted thinking about how much I hated Karen.

While Craig was happily sent off for work experience at a call centre, Karen was told to sew for her benefits. If you weren’t sure yet if you hated Karen, the producers helpfully orchestrated a scene in which she was put to work next to a seamstress with one arm. The camera paused subtly on the woman’s stump as Karen sat motionless next to her, and at least one Channel 4 producer looked at themselves in the mirror and cried.

Ah well, all’s well that ends well. Good Claimant got a job. Harmless Claimant was given his grandfather’s watch back. Bad Claimant, although annoying legalities meant she had to have her benefits reinstated after the show, had been humiliated.

In a nifty ending, all three were brought together and asked to decide which of them they thought was most worthy of benefits. I was hoping the fat woman would have to fight the crippled boy for a scrap of food, but sadly they all just left. Next week? We can only hope.

Karen, from Benefits Britain 1949. Photograph: Channel 4.

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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt