One Street, the State Welfare, a Nation in Uproar

One of the questions on BBC Question Time was: Is Benefits Street an example of “Broken Britain” and what can be done to stop people living off of the state. Channel 4’s Benefits Street has created national uproar after giving viewers an insight into the lives of those who claim benefits. Residents of James Turner Street, Birmingham, one of the most deprived streets in the UK, has split the nation between those directing their anger at the claim-seekers and those directing it at Channel 4.

The first episode of Benefits Street induced sympathy for the vulnerable who discussed their dependence on benefits with anguishing honesty, and also anger at the shoplifting sprees, cannabis cultivation and fraud. To the delight of Channel 4, almost 7 million people tuned in.

But immediately after, residents who featured in the programme told the Birmingham Mail that they had been misrepresented and misled by Channel 4 who had told them that the programme was about community spirit. The truth is, even if the residents had been told that the programme was about community spirit, many of them openly spoke about their situation and are therefore accountable for the information they provided. Quite simply, if they didn’t want something to be aired on national television, they shouldn’t have spoken about it.

Factual programmes and documentaries can be controversial because they focus on a very specific topic. The programme is not dishonest journalism, but selective. It isn’t a representation of Britain or even the entire street as a working couple were not featured in the programme.

But the programme has been branded as a generalisation of people on benefits whereas I believe that it is the viewers that are generalising. With the knowledge that this is a representation of a small group of people, viewers are directing their anger at all benefits claimers.

As a member of the BBC Question Time audience stated, graduates who are desperate for jobs are forced to claim benefits while job-hunting which is clearly no fault of their own. Another audience member said that nobody wants a pointless existence and that everyone wants to work – which is questionable. And another member claimed that rising out of poverty is extremely difficult, which seems utterly unacceptable in a country such as England.

Rather than directing our anger at the vulnerable, who are clearly dependent on benefits and cannot break out of poverty, we should be angry at the system. Directing our anger at the system is an opinion that radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer stated as a member of the panel on BBC Question Time.

And indeed Brewer is right. The welfare state is supposed to be, the Archbishop of York on the panel stated, something for something not something for nothing. Also, BBC Question Time revealed the astonishing and irritating information that benefits give people more money than if they worked and earned the minimum wage. Therefore, it is quite simple that the minimum wage needs to be raised in order for people to stop claiming benefits.

The other aspect of poverty is the lack of jobs which brings us to a short discussion on immigration which was also discussed on Question Time. As we are part of the EU, the fact is that we do have freedom of movement. Thus, anybody who enters the country to work legally and integrate should be allowed to do so. But the issues remain that there are not enough jobs for the people already here and there is not enough space on such a small island for the numbers of immigrants entering the UK.

Also, if immigrants are entering the country to work, the exploitation of immigrants should be addressed. For example, Benefits Street showed a group of immigrants working for 17 hours for £10. Their employer is clearly undercutting the minimum wage which causes more problems regarding benefits being more beneficial than wages.

Since coming into power, the Conservative party have claimed to have made the reigns tighter on the welfare state, have made public cuts and increased university fees as a method of rising up from the recession. Their policy that immigrants will only be able to benefit from the welfare system three years after entering the country is agreeable. But, the next political party gravely need to consider raising the minimum wage so that people become dependent on finding a job rather than dependent on benefits.

Let us not direct our anger at those who are most vulnerable but rather question why they have ended up so vulnerable and whether the system is actually accountable for this vulnerability.