‘People don’t just want to watch Jeremy Kyle’

A WORLDbytes film crew found Londoners in a supposed far-right stronghold took an intelligent approach to welfare.

Ceri Dingle

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Topics Politics

Armed with cameras and a crew of volunteers learning to shoot, we were slightly wary about hitting the centre of Barking to film interviews for Citizen TV channel WORLDbytes’ The View on the Streets programme on the government’s welfare reforms. In the eyes of some politicians and media-types, Barking has quite a stigma attached to it.

In this East London borough, 30 per cent of residents are looking for work and 22 per cent are on long-term sick leave. Given these figures, we were hardly expecting interviewees to shower the Lib-Con coalition with praise for its policies. Barking has also been demonised as a stronghold of the far-right British National Party (BNP). But we found the people we spoke to be neither a feckless mass of lazy unemployed people, nor bigoted white racists blaming immigrants for employment problems.

Disgust at the state of the economy, unemployment and welfare provision, however, was more than evident. There was widespread support for the idea that the welfare system needs, in the words of one person we spoke to, ‘re-jigging’. But the government’s welfare reforms were not what most people had in mind. While welfare dependency was definitely recognised as a problem, it’s clear that the government’s tinkering with the system so far has not won them many allies.

One man with his own start-up company, who was pushing a pram, explained: ‘It’s a double-edged sword really. I think a lot of the cuts are appalling, but something does need to be done about benefits because there is a culture of dependency on benefits in this country. I think a lot of people are in an unemployment trap where it would actually cost them to get out of unemployment and go into work.’ He continued, arguing that, ‘you have generations of families where nobody’s worked for years… The effect on young people is that they don’t see any way out of that. How can this country move forward if people can’t create work and do work and move forward in life, make things better for themselves and their families?’

To many, both the government and the opposition’s approach to welfare reform has little to do with genuinely encouraging people to be less dependent on the state. Rather it is seen to be motivated by a penny-pinching, regulatory impulse. As one young ex-benefit recipient told us: ‘I think they’re pulling the rug from underneath the poorest people in society. I feel that in these austere times, it’s perhaps not the best way to move forward to make the country more prosperous. A lot of the people who are on these unemployment benefits don’t necessarily want to be sitting around watching Jeremy Kyle, they want to be out there working.’

In reality, this commonplace desire to get working actually means that very few young people on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) remain on it for a long period. Out of 7,545 claimants in Barking, only 260 are young people who have claimed for over a year. It tends to be the older age groups that get ‘stuck’. The national figures reveal much the same trend.

It’s not like JSA gives you enough cash to live a comfortable existence, though, as one young woman attested, ‘I was on jobseeker’s allowance and it wasn’t really enough to live off and to make me not want to work. If anything, it motivated me and made me want to find work. It’s £51 a week and I have dreams and aspirations and want to better my life, I didn’t want to be on benefits.’

Speaking to some, there was worrying tendency to look to the state to give you the support you need to find work and cope independently. As one Irish woman told us: ‘I think people need to be encouraged by the state to think in the long term that they can become something and that they can contribute to their family and their community and their society.’

But not everyone was so downbeat about people being capable of making their own way in life. One young resident strongly criticised the idea that people should ‘write-off’ disabled people: ‘Look at the Paralympians, for example, and what great respect we’ll have for them. They’re disabled, sure, but they’re going out and they’re achieving things.’

Others point to a deep unfairness regarding the government’s frugal attitude. An older gentleman explained to us that he had been paying money through National Insurance for years and then, ‘when you actually hit a point where you become unhealthy, suddenly all the money you’ve paid in over the years means nothing. Basically they’re not on your side. They just need the money, they’re not looking after people. It’s take, take, take and then, “sod you, you’re too old”. There’s no such thing as reform as far as the people at the sharp end are concerned, it’s just cuts.’

One man felt, however, thought that the government hadn’t gone far enough. He echoed the Lib-Con coalition’s claim that we must all ‘share the pain’, arguing ‘I think the end product of all these global changes we are going through is that at some point, we, as the citizens of the United Kingdom, might have to expect a lot less. We might have to reduce our standard of living.’

But a lot of people we interviewed were clear that ‘sharing the pain’ never meant really sharing it, as those at the bottom are always hit hardest. One middle-aged man was unforgiving: ‘It’s always about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. They take nothing into account about the people at the bottom of the ladder. The rent’s going up, council tax is going up and they just don’t seem to think it affects us. It affects us more. Their taxes are minuscule compared to what we pay and that’s what it’s all about, it’s always about that.’

Did he think that cutting peoples’ benefits would encourage people back into work? ‘No, if that was true, we’d have a problem with everybody doing it. I know thousands of people who live round here, I’ve lived round here most of my life and, workshy? No, that’s rare. I don’t know many people who don’t want to work, it’s not true.’

An interviewee put his finger on one of the broader issues that should not be overlooked when discussing welfare reform. When it was put to him that in February 2012 there were 889 unfilled jobcentre vacancies in Barking with an average of 8.9 claimants chasing each one, he responded ‘I think there’s a lack of industry, full stop. A lot of that is to do with previous government moves towards the service sector which essentially is just making money off other people’s work.’

For most people on the streets in Barking, the welfare-benefits system clearly isn’t working. But it’s equally clear to them that focusing solely on making cuts in order to balance the government’s accounts really isn’t the way forward either. A more intelligent debate needs to be had about the future of welfare reform and, given the chance, it’s one the public are evidently willing and able to engage in.

Ceri Dingle is the director of the education charity WORLDwrite. All of the WORLDbytes The View On The Streets series are available to watch here.

Watch the WORLDbytes film The View On The Streets: Welfare Reform here:

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