“Hand on heart, don’t worry about it…I had one of those and I ignored it and they paid my landlord anyway.”
Star of Benefits Street White Dee is advising Fungi, who has received a letter from the DWP. Fungi, who is on Incapacity Benefit, can’t read and write. Dee continues:
“…to discuss the support available to you through the Work Programme…”
“What f**king Work Programme? I’ve never worked in my life,” he shoots back.
“You and your personal adviser will discuss the possibility of going into paid work, training for work or looking for work.” she says.
“But I’m too ill for that.”
Later we watch Fungi paid for handyman jobs and, with a friend, catch a bus to the city centre to sell fake Big Issue magazines and steal coats from a shopping centre.
There, in one conversation between two friends, decades of failed social policy was characterised perfectly. Millions of people like Fungi have been managed rather than mobilised by our political classes. They have been housed on the margins of society; kept quiet in a second Britain. And nobody knows it better than motherly White Dee. Her advice to ignore this inconvenient disruption is entirely rational, based on years of indifference from those supposed to help.
But the political debate about Benefits Street is being hijacked by a group of people who fear this truth is getting out.
‘The majority of people on benefits are in work’ and the show is ‘unrepresentative’ the critics say. And they are right. Actually nobody is claiming otherwise. Yet if we were to write it off merely because it is ‘unrepresentative’, many other social problems would have to be dismissed too. We know, for example, that children in care are not representative. We know that the overwhelming majority of adults aren’t in prison. Thankfully very few people end up in slavery. Most teenagers aren’t in a gang. But excellent documentaries are rightly made about these groups of people, their causes are championed and their difficulties debated.
In fact for years charities and campaigns have emerged in order to speak for minority groups. This has been right because minority issues matter greatly, which makes the attack on Benefits Street for being ‘extreme’, especially from the Left, strange.
Unrepresentative it may be, but extreme it is not. Recent work by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has revealed shocking levels of deprivation in pockets all over the UK. In some parts of Liverpool as many as four in ten working-age adults claim out of work benefits. In London the working age welfare bill is bigger than the UK’s defence budget – £36 billion. In one part of Glasgow, Calton, life expectancy is 54. In Blackpool one in every 66 children is in care. In Clacton 40 per cent of adults have no qualifications. One in 40 adults in Middlesbrough is an opiate or crack user. The list goes on.
So rather than dismiss the show as unrepresentative or dwell on the problems, we need to find agreement about how we can help. That begins with the duty of government.
Last week at the CSJ Iain Duncan Smith argued that welfare reform would have been necessary even without a deficit. He is right. For too long the system has penalised people who choose to work so harshly that many make the rational decision not to. With what are effectively tax rates of 94%, I would do the same. Changes like Universal Credit are important in breaking that purposelessness. For years, as White Dee illustrated so poignantly, the system has left millions of people to rot.
But this goes much deeper than the welfare system, which at the hard end simply takes the baton from our schools and families.
We have sent too many into adulthood failed and unprepared. 225,000 pupils leave school without basic GCSEs, the equivalent of 56,000 pupils play truant every day and permanent exclusions are on the rise. There is serious work to do at the tail of our education system.
Even earlier, family breakdown is stifling life chances. One million children are fatherless and 67,000 children are in care. Family breakdown can be unavoidable, but far too often more can be done to rescue relationships and equip parents as the strains of life hit hard.
Welfare, education, families. Not to mention jobs, skills and housing. There’s so much to change for the people of James Turner Street and beyond.
Far from a one-off, clusters of social breakdown blight thousands of similar streets across Britain. The injustice is real and the costs to our country are high. When Benefits Street is over we can’t just sit back and wait for a second series. We have seen and we must act.
This article first appeared in the Huffington Post