For truly shocking reality TV, tune into the Parliament channel

kerenThere’s been a bit of a feeding frenzy over social security recipients in our media of late. Of course, no one’s calling them ‘social security recipients’ because that kind of honesty has long gone in the rush to transfer to the rest of us how this government really feels about the unemployed and disabled. We’ve become used to tropes like ‘skivers’, ‘on welfare’, ‘on handouts’ (used with growing frequency in TV news and newspapers), ‘something for nothing culture’,  ‘scrounging’, ‘languishing on the state’, and ‘living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the taxpayer’ (big telly = lavish lifestyle).  Pick your own misconception to suit.

It’s been stirred up by Channel 4’s Benefit Street, the only thing I found shocking about which was the lack of scenes about living on benefits. Some episodes spent a few minutes on letters from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) telling people their benefit has been cut, but we saw no one signing on, filling in 54-page forms then being refused benefit because of a missed box, being sanctioned for four weeks loss of jobseeker’s allowance for being five minutes late to an appointment, then being sanctioned for eight weeks missing an appointment no letter had been sent for, having to produce evidence of 70 jobs a week being applied for, being sent on mandatory workfare for six months, the desperate futility of Universal Jobmatch, alternately being ignored or miraculously cured by Atos, or angrily smashing fingers through automated options then being put on hold and then cut off  while ringing the DWP on a premium rate number.

The programme seemed to be a bit of a soap opera about a perfectly nice bunch of people doing their best to help each other in difficult circumstances. Yes, they all smoke – and oh how that gives the self-righteous the justification to berate them – but that was about the extent of their heinousness.

So juicy was the uproar that the old pornographer Richard Desmond saw fit for Channel 5 to scramble aboard the bandwagon and  broadcast the Big Benefits Row; the title alone offering hacks of all political persuasions a salivating opportunity for more shocking snippets over which taxpayers might get into an indignant huff.  The result was an embarrassment, with Matthew Wright valiantly trying to get people to be reasonable in the face of preposterous provocation from a woman who would end up slapping her own face if left alone in a room and a politician whose reputation rests on failure and indiscretion repeatedly screaming ‘get a job’ at a lone parent. All in all it usefully illustrated the current level of debate over social security: it was nasty, cheap, loud, ill-informed, hysterical propaganda.

During the same week the BBC broadcast a programme called ‘These Four Walls’ (originally a series of shorts broadcast by the Guardian) with no forward publicity and no shrieking hooha to follow.  It was a moving and dignified depiction of people’s struggles and aspirations while surviving on social security.   If you watched this and were not moved to want to give every scrap of help needed, then you must be dead inside. Unsurprisingly no one paid any attention to it and no politician has referred to it in an effort to justify the austerity agenda.

If you want really shocking reality television about social security then I suggest you tune in to Parliament TV. Watch Lord Freud in front of the all-party Work and Pensions Committee refusing to exempt disabled people from the spare room subsidy even if they need the room for specialist equipment or a carer.  Despite prolonged pressure and repeated refutations of his arguments from the committee, he insisted that discretionary housing payments (DHP) should cover disabled people, but in the same breath said DHP should not to be regarded as a long-term solution. The result being eventually they’ll either have to find the extra money from their reduced benefits or be evicted. He also clarified that disability living allowance can be calculated as income, which could then exclude them from DHP. He admitted that rent being met by DHP cancelled any savings but saw that as no reason to offer exemptions, possibly because two thirds of those affected by it are disabled and to exempt them would practically make the policy redundant.

Kris Hopkins, Tory under secretary of state for housing tried to help out by stating that some disabled people won’t move into smaller accommodation because they are set in their ways and need to change. As if being bloody-minded is keeping them disabled. He simply ignored the reality that most properties for disabled people have been individually adapted and that councils do not have any smaller (let alone accessible) properties to move people into.

If that’s not gritty enough for you, go watch Iain Duncan Smith defend the benefit cap to the work and pensions committee. When the chair, Anne Begg, pointed out to him that in her Aberdeen constituency nearly 100% of those subject to the benefit cap were living in temporary accommodation which was causing their very high benefits and that this was common across the country, he replied, ‘I don’t recognise those figures’, as if that just makes the truth go away.  She put it to him that ‘to follow through the logic of the benefit cap they are made homeless but they then become the statutory responsibility of local government who have to then make up the shortfall from the benefits system to what they need for the temporary accommodation.  So there’s no saving.’ He replied, ‘By no means, when you look at the amounts of money we’re saving, was the benefits cap meant to save staggering sums of money…I have to say that I think the cap is a massive success story; people understand what it does.’

I assume he regards it a ‘massive success story’ because it’s popular. But the truth is that people don’t ‘understand what it does’. If people’s benefits are high because of the cost of temporary housing, then the claimant is not receiving the money, a private landlord is. The debt, poverty, worries and upheaval forced on families being moved around the country as a result of the cap appears to be no matter for concern.

When asked why the savings forecast has been revised down Smith replied, ‘The cap itself is hugely about cultural change to the people that are likely to be capped, so they start making choices about the direction of travel for their lives.’  When Anne Begg asked him, ‘how is living in temporary accommodation supposed to change their lives?’, Smith smiled, shrugged and said, ‘Well’.  And she ended the meeting and let him get away with it.

The two senior ministers responsible for social security admit that two of the major strands of the government’s welfare reform, the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, are not designed to save money. So what are these punitive interventions targeted at the most vulnerable designed to do? Perhaps to free the poor from slavery, as in the story Smith currently tells himself to justify his ideology.

If all that reality TV gets you down then treat yourself to a couple of hours watching politicians laughing, jeering and political point-scoring in a debate over the rise in the use of food banks. You can witness what Gerald Kaufman called ‘the most hateful speech’ he’s ever heard in his time in the House of Commons from Esther McVey. After which you can watch McVey and her boss Iain Duncan Smith slink out of the chamber and not answer a single question. Perhaps they grew bored with the tales of poverty and hardship from both sides of the house.

Although it may not come with a friendly northern voiceover or a soundtrack to tell us when to feel sad, Parliament TV presents the hard cold reality behind ‘welfare’ reform, despite the obfuscation, smoke and mirrors of those tasked with delivering it.


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