I’m dreading this programme

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.

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12 Responses to I’m dreading this programme

  1. Lucy McGough says:

    There was a full page advert for this programme on the back cover of the Spectator. The picture was of an obese young man lying back on the sofa holding a television remote. The caption was ‘Nice work if you can get it’.

    On the wall behind the man was a still life of some fruit, in a gold frame, hung crooked. Maybe the implication is that people on benefits can afford to fill their homes with fancy paintings.

  2. Katherine says:

    What bothers me is that those who object to benefits programmes are generally also on the side of neo-classical capitalism. If they had an understanding of the tenets of neo-classical capitalism, then they would realise that underemployment has a negative effect on the GDP in both the short and the long term. Therefore, it is not only cheaper for the nation state to modestly support unemployed members of the workforce until they can find jobs that will allow them to use their skills to the utmost, but this will also have the effect of significantly boosting the GDP more quickly once the recession begins to disappear. To ask – and of course I don’t know whether this is the case with the young woman you mentioned earlier – anyone who has higher level qualifications to work a low skill job is to waste any money invested in her education and to waste the reasonable expectations for her to make a greater contribution to the national economy.

    Anyhow, it always seems to me that we ought to have capitalism or not have capitalism and that in consequence, foolish and fallacious understandings of the nature of the free market, particularly with respect to the role of the state, the essentially unpredictable nature of the market in the short term and immigration, out to be banished for the vacuous propaganda that they are. Not that I have an opinion, or anything…

  3. Katherine says:

    That should say “ought to be banished”, not out.

  4. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Lucy – Thanks for the info. :o) It’s interesting that the channel should have chosen to advertise on the back cover of a right-wing magazine. I wonder if there’s a full page ad in New Statesman as well? Also interesting to compare the cost of the advert – £6,222.30 according to http://www.spectator.co.uk/corporate/advertising/advertising-rates/ – with the amount of money someone on benefits receives.

    I don’t know, maybe the programme will end up doing some good if it’s watched mainly be people who believe the anti-benefit propaganda and challenges their beliefs. But i still think the way it’s being promoted is doing enormous damage.

    Katherine – i have to be honest, my familliarity with neo-capitalist doctrine is not all that it could be… ;o) But you make what seems to be a compelling case to me. I guess the problem may be that these people are so wedded to their anti-tax, anti-government ideology that they can’t recognise when their beliefs actually cut against their own interests.

  5. I’m dreading it too.

    It is only likely to increase discrimination towards the disabled and those on benefits.

    I’m sure it will be aimed squarely at the daily mail reading public.

  6. Lucy McGough says:

    Wow, Aethelread, you sure do your homework.

  7. J.Wibble says:

    My response to this ended up being far too long, so I’ve written my own post on the matter, with reference to yours. I will also be watching Benefit Busters later, and hoping Channel 4 have played a common trick of theirs in promoting what is actually quite a fair and balanced documentary with attention-grabbing, torch-and-pitchforks-esque adverts in order to boost rating figures, because in-depth discussions and balanced arguments don’t get bums on sofas.

  8. New Deal says:

    Very good article: so I have decided to comment!

    “Ballooning out of control” is the wrong phrase to use here. I would have said it was better if they had used “snowballed out of control” as theoretically a snowball that rolls will keep getting larger whereas a balloon won’t. After a while the gases inside gets too much for a balloon and it will pop.

    The hatred against Jobseekers (as you mention) is a very interesting one. Let’s ignore the common benefit such as Jobseekers, Housing Allowance and ESA etc. for a moment. Tax Credits, Child Benefit and State Pensions are all benefits too. I would go to the extent to state that almost everyone in the country who is a British Citizen has claimed benefit of some description at least once in their lives.

    I personally think the “documentary” was poorly made. It seemed to be very strongly produced at the beginning and towards the end it got more loose and it seemed the cameraman (or woman) gave up. At the start you couldn’t see Ms Taylor without her proud A4e badge on while towards the end especially in the A4e interview room this was left out of the camera view.

    I found it funny where Ms Taylor was upset when Emma came in for feedback on her when only one person gave feedback of how she is – with another person chipping in with just one short statement. Where did the others feedback go? This was clearly removed from the programme and didn’t give a fairly balanced view of the group’s opinion which really took the purpose of it away I think.

    You mention about a 20 year old costing the taxpayer £2,649.40 per year in JSA benefit which isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, theoretically in one year that is the maximum someone of that age can claim for.

    Previous Jobcentre Plus figures mention that most Jobseekers stop claiming before they are eligible for New Deal (either because they have found a job or had enough of signing on). Then there is the sanctions (from 1 day to 6 months) and the “If you want a rapid reclaim where your payment will continue in one week you will not be able to backdate your claim. If you want to backdate your claim you will have to wait around a month to get your money”. This means most people lose their backdated benefit too.

  9. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the extra comments. In the end i decided not to watch the programme – i decided it wouldn’t be good for me – so everything i say is still only in the light of the trailer.

    intothesystem – i agree about it increasing the discrimination, or at best confirming the discriminatory beliefs of lots of people.

    Lucy McGough – having a life as empty as mine gives me the scope to do all kinds of research… ;o)

    J Wibble – i expect C4 will have been playing their usual trick, but the problem is that many more people will have seen the trailers (and the ads on the backs of magazines) than will have watched the programme. I really don’t think the word ‘irresponsible’ is wrong, especially as there was no effort to provide ‘balancing’ trailers. Off to read your post now!

    New Deal – thanks for the review of the programme – it doesn’t sound like i misssed too much.

    You’re absolutely right, of course, that people are rarely on JSA for as long as a year. I should have made that point. All i really wanted to do was provide a snapshot figure for the amount of money a benefit claimant actually gets when compared with the amount that was being claimed, and i happenned to stumble across the JSA figures first.

    I didn’t know about the backdating rules on reclaiming JSA. That’s scandalous.

  10. New Deal says:

    So many scandals… so little time!!

    I have personally experienced this on two occasions in different years. It might be the case legally that you could do a rapid reclaim then make a separate case of getting it backdated (without the JCP staff help) such as making a complaint, getting legal advice then paying for a letter to be sent from a solicitor or getting your MP involved.

  11. Katherine says:

    Whatever your knowledge of the specifics of modern macro-economics is, you know propaganda for what it is! That makes all the difference. You are also adept at the analytical reasoning, so I can’t imagine you shouting contradictory nonsense at the world. You would, quite sensibly, fact check first.

  12. Katherine says:

    And, I should have added, recognise the limits of your knowledge and avoid informal fallacies.

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