No-one should excuse the behaviour of those on ‘Benefits Street’

One of the residents of James Turner Street.

One of the residents of James Turner Street.

I have always been uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘benefits’ being applied in relation to people receiving state aid.

I think to term this benefits is something of a misnomer because it makes it sound like a perk which it clearly isn’t.

People who receive benefits need them and are generally struggling – more often than not through no fault of their own.

It isn’t a benefit to receive money to put food on your table, buy a pair of shoes for your child or pay the bills to keep a roof over your head.

These payments aren’t a benefit – they are a necessity in a civilised society when people fall on hard times or when they’re ill or because they have disabilities.

The problem is that in recent years there has undoubtedly been an attempt by some politicians and some parts of the media to label everyone on benefits as a scrounger in order to justify, in part, massive public sector cutbacks and a reduction in the welfare budget.

There is no denying this bashing of those on ‘benefits’ goes on.

The truth is that most people who rely on the welfare state genuinely need it.

Many are households where people work and therefore they do not fit the stereotype of lazy scroungers peddled by certain sections of the press.

This attempt to smear poor, disadvantaged and vulnerable people is particularly distasteful and angers many because so little is said and done to tackle tax evasion by the enormously wealthy and tax avoidance by large corporations.

The subject of benefits is one which tends to polarise opinion.

Perhaps, like me, you were one of the 4.3 million people who watched Benefits Street on Channel Four on Monday night.

If you didn’t I highly recommend you catch the next episode.

The first in a five-part documentary series, it focused on families living in James Turner Street, Birmingham.

The street was chosen because, out of the 99 households, only a handful of people are in work and the vast majority of residents rely on state aid.

It was a sad, shocking and at times frustrating insight into the lives of some of the people who rely entirely on taxpayers to live.

Some have derided the programme as vile and poisonous and claim it is yet another attempt to demonise people on benefits.

I can’t agree with that assessment because those featured on Benefits Street were extreme examples of people who rely on state aid. They were the exceptions rather than the norm.

Some of my best friends are on benefits and they are thoroughly decent people who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in difficult circumstances at present.

This doesn’t, however, prevent them from being good parents and active members of their community or from helping others while trying to help improve their own situation.

Suggesting that by showing the people on James Turner Street defrauding the benefits system to the tune of thousands of pounds, shoplifting and wasting their money on cigarettes, booze and drugs is somehow tarring all those receiving state aid as wastrels is a nonsense.

The fact is, just as it is wrong that the Government doesn’t do more to spread the burden of tax cuts to involve those who can afford to pay more, it would be wrong to deny or make apologies for the actions of those featured on the Benefits Street programme.

I’d like to think that the majority of people who receive benefits and who watched Monday night’s opening episode would have been as amazed and angry as I was.

It’s them I have sympathy for.

You see, it is possible to want more to be done to tackle tax avoidance and evasion by the rich and still be appalled at the actions of the people featured on Benefits Street.

It’s not an either/or situation.

What did strike me as I sat and watched what was a compelling piece of television was that it seemed most of the people featured had no intention of trying to better themselves. This is unforgivable.

Getting a job or volunteering or doing something vaguely useful wasn’t even on the radar for most of them who were simply waiting for next week’s giro or money from their latest criminal exploits.

They honestly believe it’s the responsibility of other people to pay their bills.

As I watched serial criminal ‘Danny’ demonstrate to the cameraman how to line a large bag with tin foil so as not to set off the alarms when he went shoplifting I wanted to see him locked up and the key thrown away.

At least that way he couldn’t use the money he’d gained from stealing clothes to buy more drugs.

As I looked at the disgraceful state of some of the houses and gardens in James Turner Street, littered with dirty clothes and defunct electrical items and bits of furniture, I wondered why being on benefits would prevent someone from lifting a finger to tidy up.

As I listened to people on the programme bemoaning the fact their benefits were being reduced while watching enormous plasma screen TVs, using smartphones and smoking like a chimney, I wondered if perhaps they had their spending priorities right.

Those featured on Benefits Street may indeed be a tiny minority but to excuse or ignore what they do or apologise for their actions is just plain wrong.

In fact, I’d like to know what those who were so critical of the programme-makers think should be done about the way some of the people on James Turner Street live their lives.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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We must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now

The injuries suffered by Staffordshire Moorlands soldier Anthony Lownds are a grim reminder that, on a daily basis, somewhere in a foreign field there is generally a British serviceman or woman risking life and limb for Queen and country.

The 24-year-old Grenadier Guard was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban.

He is currently receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has so far had four operations for injuries to his right hand and legs.

My thoughts are with Anthony and his family and friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.

While most of us have been enjoying the patriotic fervour generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, to a lesser extent, the Olympic Torch Relay, Anthony and his comrades have been unable to relax and join in the celebrations.

As we settle down to watch England’s exploits in Euro 2012, spare a thought for the almost 10,000 members of the British Armed Forces who are demonstrating incredible bravery and commitment day-in, day-out in Afghanistan.

To date, since 2001, 417 British personnel have been killed in operations in the place they called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

It is a total that, heart-breakingly, is as sure to rise as the sun over that troubled land.

There are, of course, some who would argue that we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place – in the same way that we should have kept our noses out of Iraq’s business.

But Britain’s Services personnel don’t have that luxury and always deploy and do their duty, regardless of any personal misgivings they may have, which is what makes them such remarkable people.

That is exactly what they are doing right now in Afghanistan and we should be immensely proud of their efforts in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I wonder how Anthony Lownds and his mates felt when they learned a few days ago of more proposed cutbacks to the regular Army?

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of ‘difficult decisions’ ahead as the standing Army is reduced from 102,000 personnel to just 82,000.

If you know your military history then you will know that this is significant because an Army used to be defined as being 100,000 strong. Anything less than that figure wasn’t considered an Army.

While the regimental system will not be abolished, Mr Hammond said it was inevitable that some units would be lost or forced to merge.

If the national papers are to believed, one of those units could be our own 3 Mercian – or the Staffordshire Regiment in old money – along with such prestigious names as The Coldstream Guards.

I have to say that, for me, enough really is enough.

For years now I have watched Defence Secretaries slash and burn as they have wittered on about making our Armed Forces more ‘mobile’ and ‘adaptable’.

Always the end result is the same: Fewer boots on the ground; Less hardware; More reliance on reservists or other nations; And, ultimately, less ability to react to crises around the world.

Britannia once ruled the waves. Now we will have to hope we don’t need an aircraft carrier until 2020.

The RAF was once the only thing preventing the whole of Europe from falling under Nazi occupation.

But in Afghanistan it was a chronic shortage of helicopters which actually added to the number of UK casualties.

I could go on. The bottom line is that penny-pinching at the MoD over the last two decades, at the behest of various administrations, has significantly undermined the ability of the UK’s Armed Forces to do its job.

This has happened at a time when the actual number of global conflicts involving British Services personnel has risen.

Where is the logic in that?

Whatever we think of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, there is no denying the world is becoming a more dangerous place – with revolutions and the rise of extremism fanning the flames of conflict.

Add to this the ever-increasing economic uncertainty and inevitable shortage of natural resources such as fuel, food and water in the coming years, and you have a recipe for decades of instability.

So what does Whitehall do? Continue to reduce the number of Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

This is madness.

I believe caution should be the watch-word with regard to the future of our military. We only have to look to history for guidance.

Infantry battalions that were mothballed after the end of the Cold War had to be reconstituted for service in Northern Ireland.

Having scrapped Harrier Jump Jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal we realised both would actually have been quite handy for the Libyan crisis.

Yes, times are tough and each Government department has to make savings and each will plead it deserves protection.

But the MoD really is a special case involving tens of thousands of special people who do a very special and specialised job.

The UK’s Armed Forces personnel are our ‘go-to’ guys and gals at home and overseas for everything from industrial unrest and disaster relief to frontline warfare and their importance simply cannot be over-stated.

I firmly believe that for Britain to remain safe and secure and for our country to retain its position as an effective, relevant and respected player on the global stage then we must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now.

There’s echoes of the Eighties recession in these austere times

Mention the Eighties and most people think of a ‘me, me, me’ society and a spend, spend, spend mentality. A time of big egos, big hair and big budgets.

However, the truth is the decade of decadence showed no indication of its propensity for largesse when it staggered into being amid a severe recession.

Indeed, looking back you can’t fail to notice that the first three or four years of the 1980s bear striking similarities to today’s austere economic climate.

The UK actually entered recession ahead of the rest of the world in 1979. It coincided with the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ during which there were widespread strikes by trade unions demanding larger pay rises for their members as Jim Callaghan’s Labour government attempted to maintain a pay freeze to control inflation.

Industrial action included an unofficial strike by gravediggers which left bodies unburied for weeks and strikes by refuse collectors which led to rubbish piling up on the streets.

Elsewhere, NHS ancillary workers formed picket lines to blockade hospital entrances – forcing many to admit emergency patients only.

These events prompted The Sun to publish its now infamous ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ headline – off the back off an ill-advised quip by Callaghan – and it was against this backdrop that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government swept to power in May 1979.

The political change heralded a cataclysmic shift in policy.

Maggie and her Chancellor Geoffrey Howe inherited an economy with inflation up at around 27 per cent.

This led them to combat the recession in a thoroughly uncompromising fashion.

They sparked outrage by raising taxes and cutting public spending – all of which will sound awfully familiar for anyone who has been listening to the Coalition government over the last 12 months or more.

At the beginning of 1981 the recession held the UK firmly in its grip: Unemployment was approaching three million and manufacturing capacity fell by a fifth. At the same time genuine household incomes (what people have left, after taxes, to spend or save) fell – as they did in 2010.

Thirty years ago the average house price was £24,188, petrol was 35p per litre, a packet of cigarettes cost 80p, a pint of beer 53p, a loaf of bread 39p and a pint of milk just 20p.

Millions were forced to tighten their belts and the battle to bring down inflation raged on.

Discontent was rife, and culminated in urban riots during the summer – with the main trouble flaring in the Brixton area of London, Handsworth in Birmingham, the Chapeltown area of Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool.

There was, of course, no internet or social media to fan the flames of civil unrest back then. The riots of 1981 were more about inner-city deprivation and rising racial tensions than the naked desire for the latest designer trainers or plasma screen TVs.

In early 1983, Britain became a net importer of goods for the first time – mainly due to the loss of heavy industry and manufacturing.

Areas such as the West Midlands, Tyneside, Yorkshire, Merseyside and South Wales were particularly badly hit and saw soaring unemployment rates.

It wasn’t until the mid-Eighties that the recession eventually petered out but by then the damage was done and the landscape had changed.

Britain’s trade unions had been neutered, its mining industry had been dismantled, hundreds of factories had been closed and gone was its proud reputation as the ‘workshop of the world’.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Eighties recession I reckon that it is probably that things will probably get a lot worse before they get better.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Do your bit to save the Staffordshire Hoard

Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at The British Museum, examining Hoard items.

Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme at The British Museum, examining Hoard items.

The huge, wood-panelled doors opened and we were led down a long corridor flanked with hundreds of books in glass cases.

Our footsteps echoed off the marble floor as we walked.

We halted at a set of electronically-locked doors. Phone calls were made and, after several minutes, they eventually buzzed open.

The room was what you would expect from the bowels of the British Museum.

It was like the library of some stately home in an Agatha Christie novel, or the setting for some vital plot line in a Dan Brown page-turner.

There were wall-to-wall books on two levels and the feng shui of a room devoted to scholarly pursuits was only disrupted by a large, beige, metal cupboard with a chunky electronic lock.

Out of it were carried half a dozen plastic boxes full of smaller plastic boxes. Each one was numbered with a raffle ticket – strange, but completely logical given the number and variety of objects they contained.

The treasure keeper, Ian, took the lid off the first box – and that’s when I got my first glimpse of the Staffordshire Hoard.

It is genuinely breathtaking to be up close and personal to something so old, so valuable and so very rare.

It didn’t matter that some of the objects were tiny or broken.

I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest by the fact that many were still crusted with the earth from which they had been plundered.

In a way, that clinging dirt was symbolic of Staffordshire not wanting to give up one of the most remarkable archaeological treasures ever found in this country.

One by one I viewed the items – some no bigger than your little finger – from every angle.

There were sword pyramids, pommel pieces, tiny golden snake clasps and eye-piece adornments believed to have come from a warrior’s helmet.

None of it has yet been viewed by the public, that is until these items arrive at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley later this week.

All this stuff, the booty of battle or a king’s treasury, was buried about 1,300 years ago by people who took its location to their graves.

History doesn’t come much more raw than this.

As one archaeologist put it: “You know the warriors from Beowulf, or the Riders of Rohan in Lord of the Rings? Those are the kind of people we are talking about when we refer to the Staffordshire Hoard.”

She had me at Beowulf…

“They placed in the barrow that precious booty,
the rounds and the rings they had reft erewhile,
hardy heroes, from hoard in cave,
trusting the ground with treasure of earls,
gold in the earth, where ever it lies…”

Although these 1,600 gold and silver items were found in the most remarkable circumstances in a field just south of Lichfield, they are as important to the people of Stoke-on-Trent as they are to our friends in Tamworth, Lichfield, Stafford and Birmingham.

For, not only is The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery the recognised repository for all archaeology found in Staffordshire, but we are also at the heart of the ancient kingdom of Mercia from where these precious artifacts come.

So what can you expect?

Well, for starters, prepare to be surprised. The wonders of modern photography show up the shiny brilliance of each golden fragment in wondrous detail.

These images are used large in the media and on posters and display boards to enhance the experience for viewers and visitors.

In reality, most of the pieces are tiny – no bigger than a couple of centimetres – fragile and still caked in soil.

Even so, together with the larger mangled cross, helmet cheek piece, and a chunk of gold bearing a latin inscription from the Bible, they are all, in their own way, magnificent.

The craftsmanship is truly astonishing.

However, in order to ensure these windows to our past remain in the West Midlands, £3.3 million must be raised to purchase the Staffordshire Hoard.

But, as well as putting your hand in your pocket, it is equally important that we support the campaign by voting with our feet – as the people of Birmingham did.

Archaeologists, historians, politicians and celebrities all want the bid to succeed.

Now it is up to the people of the Potteries to demonstrate just how much our history means to us.

Please play your part.

Panto star Wilkesy has had his day? Oh no he hasn’t…

It’s A straightforward question: Do you want Jonathan Wilkes back again this Christmas at the Regent Theatre?

‘Oh no we don’t!’ cry a vocal minority. ‘Oh yes we do’, answer his legion of fans.

And so the debate rumbles on in The Sentinel’s letters pages.

As we struggle to get to grips with the worst recession since the ’30s, I suppose who stars in this year’s premier Potteries pantomime is hardly a pressing issue.

Then again, you’d be surprised how exercised people can become when threatened with the Chuckle Brothers or Joe Pasquale.

This will be Wilkesy’s fifth year taking the starring role at the Hanley venue.

Critics say they’ve had enough of Baddeley Green’s finest and they want, nay deserve, a change.

They claim his local-boy ‘Ay up, me ducks’ is wearing thin and point to other cities where the cast is fresh every year and a new headliner attracts first-time theatregoers.

Well, even if I didn’t know the bloke, people would have a hard time convincing me that his star is waning just yet.

We could go round in circles debating the quality of the pantos. (I think last year’s was Wilkesy’s best to date.)

However, the facts speak for themselves. The 2008 production of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs broke box office records for a Regent panto for the fourth year running.

And isn’t that, ultimately, what it’s all about? Yep… bums on seats.

If the Ambassador Theatre Group which runs the Regent thought for a second that Wilkesy couldn’t bring home the bacon, don’t you think he’d be looking for work elsewhere over the festive season?

Of course, the Regent isn’t alone in having a star return year after year.

Other examples include Gerard Kelly in Glasgow, Billy Pearce in Wolverhampton and John Barrowman in Birmingham.

It is also interesting to note that when the Regent surveyed 100 random pantomime ticket buyers this year, none of them said they wanted rid of Wilkesy.

It seems that here in the Potteries, the punters keep on coming because they love the star turn and are happy with the parochial nature of much of the comedy.

I think they have learned to appreciate the huge amount of work and the incredible attention to detail which gears each production to the local audience.

Presumably they also love the use of upcoming talent in the form of local youngsters who take on the roles of dancers, etc.

Certainly, the warm reception afforded to the winner of the inaugural Stoke’s Top Talent competition (Daniel Hewitt), who went on to star alongside Wilkesy for three months, underlined the appetite for home-grown performers.

Indeed, I think the unique selling point of the Regent’s panto is that it is, perhaps more than any other festive theatre show in the UK, tailored to its audience and brimming with talent from North Staffordshire.

Sure, you still get the fantastic costumes, the slapstick humour and the singalongs, but we also get video messages from the likes of Robbie Williams (the genie of the lamp), or a magic mirror voiced by Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.

If we didn’t have Wilkesy, we could, of course, have a big name from soap land to head the cast.

But, hang on a minute… we had Corrie’s Shobna Gulati in 2007 and the lovely Claire Sweeney last year.

So, for my money, we are getting the best of both worlds.

In short, I’m not really sure what the detractors are bleating on about.

More to the point, they can boo and hiss all they like – Wilkesy will still be compering Stoke’s Top Talent in September and stepping into Dick Whittington’s well-worn boots this Christmas.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no bad thing.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel