The programme in question is Benefit Busters, which starts on Channel 4 tomorrow *checks clock* today. Why am I dreading it? Because I’ve seen the trailer.
Take the first line of the voiceover (all the quotes are from memory – can’t find the trailer online – so might be slightly inaccurate, but the gist is there):
As the recession hits home, unemployment is soaring, and the cost of benefits is ballooning out of control.
So, unemployment soaring? The latest figures show that’s an accurate description.
Cost of benefits ballooning? Well, that’s less clear cut. The latest figures show the UK’s unemployment rate is 7.8%, but the claimant rate for Jobseeker’s Allowance is 4.9%. The number of people claiming JSA rose by 24,900 in July, but prior to that the number of new claims had been falling month-on-month. But still, the number of people claiming benefits is increasing, so I guess we can give them ‘ballooning’.
But ‘ballooning out of control’? What does that even mean? If it means ‘no-one is in control of how high unemployment will rise, so no-one is in control of how many claimants there will be’, then again, it’s accurate. But that’s not the implication. The implication is that the government are spewing out free cash with no interest in who’s getting it, or why. ‘Out of control’ will be translated as meaning ‘there are no controls on who can claim benefits, or in what circumstances they can get them’.
That’s borne out by the brief excerpts we get to see from the programme. ‘Why aren’t you all queuing up outside McDonald’s and KFC?’ we hear a middle-aged lady bully some young women. Implication – people on JSA get to laze around on their arse all day and be picky about the jobs they’ll take, and nobody cares whether they’re looking for a job or not. In fact, to claim JSA you have to prove – repeatedly – that you are actively seeking work, and after 6 months you aren’t allowed to place any restrictions on the kind of work you will take. If the benefits adviser overseeing your claim has the slightest suspicion you’re not doing everything you can to get a job, your benefit is cut or stopped. When people are on JSA long term, it’s either because no-one wants to employ them (and employers will always pick people already in employment in preference to those who are on the dole), or there are no jobs for them to do. But it’s so much easier to just reinforce the stereotype that the unemployed are feckless work-shy bastards, isn’t it?
There’s another little vignette from the programme. A young man tells the camera ‘I’m being treated as if I’m not even poorly’, and then we cut straight to footage of him crying out in pain as he sits down. The cry sounds, for whatever reason, decidedly fake. Implication – there’s nothing wrong with any of these people on Incapacity benefits, they’re just faking it. All you have to do is go and see your GP once and say ‘Ow’, and you’re signed off on thousands of pounds a year. Most of them are out running marathons, haven’t you seen them in the paper? In fact, what your GP says about you has no effect on IB. You have to repeatedly convince a DWP doctor, not that you’re ill – they don’t care about that – but that you are incapable of doing any work at all. The DWP doctors routinely pass as fit for work people who are so badly incapacitated that appeals against the decision are upheld on medical grounds. That’s how difficult it is to get incapacity benefit. But it’s so much easier just to reinforce the stereotype that the sick and disabled are feckless work-shy bastards, isn’t it?
Actually, I expect the programme won’t be entirely terrible. I expect it will find some people who are milking the system, but I expect it will find more who genuinely can’t get a job. I expect it will concentrate on some of the simple, practical things that can be done to help some people find work.
But the truth is it doesn’t matter what the programme is like. The trailer has been on heavy rotation for weeks now, so millions of people who will never see the programme have seen the stereotypes reinforced. By making the documentary look controversial, Channel 4 will have probably coaxed a few hundreds of thousands more people to watch it, but at the expense of turning the screws just a quarter-turn tighter on the most vulnerable people in society. I hope C4 are proud of themselves.
As I was researching this post, I came across this story. A centre-right think tank, Policy Exchange, are predicting that the number of working-age adults claiming benefits will hit 6,000,000 this month. They are also claiming that the cost of these benefits will reach £193,000,000,000 next year.
I did a quick sum, dividing that alleged figure by the 6 million alleged claimants, and you know what? Those figures would mean that every benefit claimant is getting over £32,000 a year, or £618.59 every week. This is utter bullshit. Either Policy Exchange are very bad at arithmetic, or they aren’t comparing like for like. Maybe they’re including every penny spent on benefits, even those that go to children and pensioners, in the cost figures, while only talking about working aged adults in the claimant numbers. Maybe they’re assuming a massive increase in the number of people who will be added to the benefit claimant total over the next year. I don’t know what the source of the confusion is (maybe the mistake is mine), but I do know that there is just no way that every benefit recipient of working age is on £32,0000 a year.
Still, it makes for a nice, dramatic story, doesn’t it? And that’s the main thing. Never mind the misery and heartache the story will cause. So long as people are obsessing over the £2,649.40 a year (£50.95 a week) paid to an unemployed 20-year-old, they’re not thinking about the pay and perks of a City banker. Or a think-tank spokesman.