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4th February 2014

Does the UK need to change its “Benefits Culture”?

After the controversy surrounding Channel 4’s ‘Benefits Street’, Alice Rigby and Emily Thomas debate the attitude towards benefits claimants in the UK


Emily Thomas

The subject of Government allocated financial benefits is never far from the media spotlight. The debate has rumbled on over the years as to the efficiency and fairness of the system. The series Benefits Street currently airing on Channel 4 documents the lives of residents on James Turner Street in Birmingham where it is estimated 90% of people on the street are unemployed. After its first showing, Benefits Street was the most talked about television show in the UK. Viewers flocked to social media to express their opinion and there weren’t many positive comments. Is the anger felt by the British public justified, or are we just demonising the poor?

In theory, welfare money is given to people who need extra support to get by on a day-to-day basis, making sure that everyone in the UK can survive if their situation means they cannot get a job. Ranging from heating and housing benefits to Jobseekers allowance, there are a variety of reasons that one could claim benefits. Currently in the UK, 64% of families are receiving some form of benefits to help them through the difficult financial climate. Certainly, no-one would argue that in valid circumstances, benefits are the only option. Some illnesses prevent people from being able to work and being a single parent can hinder one’s availability but the cases shown on Benefits Street did little to convince people of any genuine situations that validated the jobless lifestyle that was flaunted.

The financial climate in the UK has been difficult since the recession, people lost their jobs bringing income to a grinding halt at the same time the cost of living was sky-rocketing. For some, the only option was to grudgingly sign on for benefits.

People took any job they could get their hands on in a desperate attempt to get back into work and get the money coming in again.

These are not the people shown on Benefits Street where most admit they have never worked and aren’t looking for a job. Why? In short, they are better off living on government and taxpayers’ money than getting a job, which would see a significant decrease in the money they could claim.

The anger felt by the public is justified. To be a hard-working citizen and manage to scrape by without claiming off the government, seeing how those who don’t work can live comfortably smoking and drinking away taxpayers’ money is the ultimate kick in the teeth.

The system has become flawed, allowing claimants to take as much as they can for as little effort as they can give. Benefits are being directed to the wrong people and used in the wrong way.

A balance is needed between helping people in the right way and reducing the abuse of the system. Living on benefits does not entitle one to the latest smart phone and computer. The situation will continue to divide opinion for the foreseeable future.



Alice Rigby

Picture the scene: an aerial camera descends onto a terraced street in an ordinary midlands town. As the houses and their occupants become clearer the show’s title pops into view. Immigrant Street views the plight of those who have been granted the right to live in the UK permanently, having been born overseas. Ninety per cent of the people who live on the street conform to this status and we’re going to get to see what they’re up to. After all, it’s our country; we’ve let them in so we’ve got a right to see what they’re doing right?

Obviously you can’t picture this scene. Of course, even the prospect of such an ‘entertainment’ programme leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. The idea of singling people out simply because of their national origin? Unthinkable. Yet, Benefits Street does the very same thing, only with those asking for assistance from the government. In this country, poverty makes people fair game. Defenders of shows like Benefits Street suggest that we have a right to scrutinise the actions of the people claiming money from the government.

It’s because it’s ‘our’ money, we pay taxes and they don’t – or at least they don’t at the moment. This is just another case of treating those in need as subjects of those who aren’t.We don’t ask to scrutinise every patient coming through the NHS. We’d never dream of suggesting that the education provision needs to be cut, so that parents are motivated to work harder and send their children to private schools.

Even though many of us may end up needing to claim some form of benefit in our lives, it’s still assumed that those people who’ve been forced to do so by economic circumstance or a myriad of other reasons could somehow be doing things differently. Our society’s duty of care concerns the elderly, the young and the disabled but for some reason seems not to extend to the poor.

This is a problem precisely because benefits aren’t one in this country. The estimated extent of benefits fraud? £1.2 billion. The estimated amount of benefits unclaimed? £16 billion. Tax avoided or evaded? Anywhere between £30 billion and £120 billion, depending on who you ask. No one in his or her right mind would focus on the first figure. Yet, this is what our politicians and our popular media repeatedly tell us to do.

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