Friday, 28 October 2011

TV Review - The Future State Of Welfare - BBC2 9pm

Dole scroungers are a contentious issue these days now the recession has forced everyone to buy value beans from Aldi and wrap themselves in kitchen foil instead of turning the heating on. The Government is seeking to slash its spending on the welfare system and those on benefits are rapidly discovering we are not all in this together.

From the outset it was clear that John Humphreys, despite his best attempts at neutrality, was struggling to hide his distaste for career claimants behind a fixed smile and a slightly patronizing tone of questioning.

First of all Humphreys takes a trip down memory lane to his old stomping ground of Splott, Cardiff, and appropriate onomatopoeic description of a shit-hole if every I heard one. He chats to old neighbour about the good old days where the guy on the corner was treated "like a pariah" because he never held a job. He wistfully laments that the stigma of unemployment has been relegated to the dustbin of history and benefits are a viable alternative for today's generation.

Next stop Middlesborough where 1 in 8 people are unemployed, Humphreys scours the streets looking for layabouts to interview like some latter day SS commander. Understandably the people milling about with their shirts off by the corner shop are reluctant to chat about how much they sponge off the system but Humphreys finally gets the scoop from a couple with three kids who get £1600 a month in benefits.

Back at their tastefully decorated residence he tells Humphreys that it doesn't pay to work 40 hours a week for a few quid more then the state offer and that he'd prefer to stay at home so he could see more of the kids. Let's just say he likes his work-life balance as 100% to 0%. I have to say I can't fault the guy's logic but it is a wake-up call to those foolish enough to still think the current system encourages people to work. It seems to do the exact opposite.

We have come a long way since economist William Beveridge introduced his Social Insurance and Allied Services report in a ravaged post WWII Britain with the aim of banishing the five evils of Want, Ignorance, Squalor, Disease and Idleness. Purely as a safety net the Welfare State is a great concept for a civilized society. You pay into a pot and when you lose your job you are given a helping hand. Problem is that the idleness the bill was supposed to eradicate is now a driving force behind many of the claimants it sought to protect. You can forget about paying in as well as there are many examples of two or even three generations of a single family who spend their entire lives on benefits and never pay in a penny.

Despite its flaws the public still has an appetite for the welfare state and in a specially commissioned Ipsos/Mori poll 92% of those asked believed in the safety net but only 23% thought it was working properly.

But what are the alternatives? Humphreys takes a trip to New York to see the Workfare system which makes a mockery of our laissez fare approach to finding work. Claimants have to work, either in the community or in entry level jobs before they are eligible for "top up" benefits. It is supposed to break the cycle of poverty and the "something for nothing" culture building confidence and skills for people to work their way up the ladder. It sounds great in principle and initially reaped rewards but the recession has meant that the amount of jobs has dried up and the top up isn't enough to live on. Humphreys documents the proliferation of soup kitchens and food banks that even the ranks of middle class unemployed have been forced to use. Workfare is not the "magic bullet".

Back in the posh London suburb of Islington, Humphreys visits an Ecuadorian family who has migrated here via Spain and is claiming £2300 housing benefit a month to live in millionaires’ row. We are told there is a lack of sustainable housing means unscrupulous landlords are charging the going rate to council tenants and tax-payers are footing the bill. They greet Humphreys dressed for the opera and are undoubtedly hard workers but the patriarch’s lack of English means he can only perform menial jobs and relies on a subsidy. Should the tax-payer fund these extortionate rents or should those on benefits live in cheaper areas? It's a tough call. Who will clean the banker's luxury apartments if all the plebs leave for Sunderland?

Surely we have to be looking at a system that rewards work rather then encouraging the status quo. I think it has to be a combination of carrot and stick. Perhaps we could have a free childcare for all single mothers willing to go back to work? How about increasing the minimum wage and decreasing benefits so works starts to pay? How about limiting unemployment benefit to 2 years?

We need change and we need it quick as there is a growing resentment from the working population forced to fund a ballooning £5.5 billion welfare bill for a section of society which has no intention of working and prefers a life of no obligations and an ingrained sense of entitlement. This has dovetailed neatly into the Coalitions need to cut expenditure and means that times are about to change for those on benefits.

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