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