Thursday, 16 January 2014

Benefits Street

Channel 4's Benefits Street programme embarked on a change of direction the other night by focusing on some newcomers to James Turner Street: two groups of Romanians - one a typical Roma family, the other a mixed group of young men who had come to the UK looking for work.  

The Roma family was not interested in claiming benefits at all, but wanted to run their own business re-cycling and re-selling people's rubbish which unfortunately put them at odds with new their neighbours since this involved splitting open other people's black refuse collection bags, spewing the contents into the street, in the search for small items of value.

Now I know something about this as the same thing happens in Glasgow, though not with black bags, when small groups of local Roma people come raiding people's bins stores and scatter the contents willy nilly, leaving a huge mess, in their efforts to find something to sell on.

And it results in the same problem with the refuse collectors in Glasgow as in Birmingham - they say it's not their job to clear up the rubbish scattered all over the place, but this isn't down to the residents who use the bin store either. 

So while I can understand the desperate struggle of the Roma family in Benefits Street to scratch a living, the way they are going about it simply cannot succeed because in a wider community sense their behaviour is ant-social and unacceptable.

The real problem for the Roma family featured in Benefits Street, and elsewhere, is that they live on the margins of society and in Eastern Europe (Slovakia for example where I worked for a period) the Roma population is often physically separated from the rest of society - and this isolation means that Roma children frequently drop out of the education system at the end of primary school, so many cannot read or write properly which means that lots of jobs are inaccessible. 

The Roma family in Benefits Street were not remotely interested in claiming welfare benefits - they wanted to work and earn a living, but I suspect they lacked the skills to enable them to achieve that aim and I couldn't help wondering if their son, who was being forced into dealing with adult problems because of his command of English, was being kept away from school.

All in all a desperate situation, but the group of Romanian men fared no better with 14 of them sharing a small house in James Turner Street - having been lured to the UK at the prospect of earning £5 an hour for a 40 hour week (well bellow the UK minimum wage of course), but when they arrived their 'gangmaster' boss broke the news about the hidden deductions which meant they were paid only £10 for a 17 hour day.

Now that really is akin to slave labour and these 'gangmasters' are supposed to be regulated, but when the Romanian workers complained to the Police no one seemed able or willing to help them which was very depressing - apart from a kindly Pakistani neighbour who made them some food, albeit not greatly to their taste as it was a bit too spicy. 

Yet the thought was wonderful - a man with nothing to speak of himself cooking and sharing his food with people who had even less, and whom he didn't really know.

The most striking thing about the group of Romanian men is how keen they were to work - like the Roma family they were not interested in claiming or living on benefits, they wanted jobs and remained unfailingly optimistic about making a go of things in the UK, presumably because things back home in Romania are much worse.

So I came away thinking that Benefits Street is an important programme - not an exploitative one because it's raising very real issues which policy makers and successive government have been unable to tackle in a positive way. 

Slovakia (6 November 2013)

I know a bit about the Republic of Slovakia having worked there - mainly in the capital Bratislava - for an extended period 10 years or so ago.

I was involved in a big social inclusion project funded by the European Commission and World Bank - aimed mainly, but not exclusively, at the country's Roma population who, by and large, live in desperate poverty at the margins of society - as they do across the rest of Europe.  

Here's an article I wrote at the time for one of the Scottish newspapers and if you ever get the chance to visit Slovakia, I would jump at it - because it's a great place, a newly independent country and full of hard-working, friendly people. 

Letter from Slovakia

Slovakia is a small landlocked country at the heart of central Europe, surrounded by bigger or more powerful neighbours: Poland, Ukraine, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Glasgow Celtic fans will be familiar with its two most famous exports, so far at least, in local footballing heroes Stanislav Varga and Lubomir Moravcik.

But this is a nation in a hurry necause today, May 1st 2004, Slovakia becomes one of ten new member states to join the European Union. How enlargement will impact long-term is difficult to predict though these ‘new kids on the block’ will clearly play an increasingly important role in the future direction of Europe.          

In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, 5 million Slovakians decided that a civilised divorce from their Czech neighbours was for the best, and without an angry word, never mind loss of life, a new democracy was born. Early coalition governments had a distinctly nationalist tinge and were unsure whether Slovakia should face east or west - in the best political traditions they tried to keep a foot in both camps.

Slovakia’s recent presidential elections rang a few alarm bells with the return of some old ghosts from the past, but a stable centre-right coalition government has held power since 1998 and has a strong mandate for introducing an enterprise-based economy and far-reaching social reforms. All the major public utilities have been privatised and state-run industries opened up to competition.

Great sacrifices have been made to restructure Slovak society: real wages and living standards have remained frozen for the past five years. Big hopes now rest on an ambitious and enterprise driven strategy to grow the economy at 4 to 5% per annum over the next decade.

Likewise in the field of social policy where the new mantra is that the benefits system should reward and actively encourage work. So, a huge effort is being made to tackle long-term unemployment, which is partly a hangover from the socialist era and partly the result of changes needed to introduce a modern market economy.

In practice, this means that welfare benefits are being reduced and replaced with government initiatives that promote employment, labour mobility, re-training and acquiring new skills. Slovakia’s policy echoes the famous ‘hand up, not a hand out’ approach inspired by Bill Clinton and American Democrats in the 1990’s, and cheerfully copied by New Labour.

Some groups face enormous challenges, especially the Roma people who have been at the margins of Slovak society for years, often living in desperate poverty and in segregated settlements. As minority group maybe, but according to some estimates there are 500,000 Roma - 10% or so of the entire population. For most Roma, unemployment and discrimination has become institutionalised, a way of life and if this vicious circle is to be broken, some new thinking is needed.

So, Slovakia has established a social development fund to target resources on the most excluded groups. Just as Scotland has enjoyed financial support from Europe since the mid 1980’s - 2.665 billion (EUR) in European structural funds is being committed to Slovakia between 2004 and 2006. The budget will help tackle the deep-rooted problems in Roma communities, which have great infrastructure needs and often lack the most basic social services.

Instead of the old ‘top down’ ways of working, the new Slovakia is creating active community based partnerships as the best way to deliver sustainable change. Partnerships operating across the public, private and ‘not for profit’ sectors’, eschewing party politics and old ideologies, empowering local communities to share responsibility for doing things differently in future. 

Time will tell whether this bold strategy pays off. Countries with fewer, less intractable problems than Slovakia find new ways of working notoriously difficult to achieve, but having made a strategic choice - by nailing their colours to the democratic, plural, inclusive and multi-ethnic values of the west - Slovakia is quietly determined to succeed.  

Mark Irvine

April 2004

Fungi's Finances (13 January 2014)

Fungi is one of the real life characters in the controversial Channel 4 TV programme 'Benefits Street' - and Fungi is a cheery, cheeky, little choppy but also a broken down alcoholic and petty thief who is rarely seen with a cigarette and drink in his hand.

I bear Fungi no particular ill will, but it seems to me he is a symptom of the UK welfare state gone mad because he is an absent father (of not one but two children if I recall correctly) and receives incapacity benefit - which means he has been deemed 'unable' to work and therefore receives a higher level of state benefit.

Now I'm pretty sure that Fungi spends most of this 'additional' income on alcohol, fags and whatever else he can lay his hands on, perhaps treats for his dog, but I'm also pretty sure he does not support his children in any way - preferring instead to leave that responsibility to the mother of his two children and, of course, the state.

But what I don't understand is how a father like Fungi can be awarded extra money to spend what he likes on himself - that seems completely mad, if you ask me.

So why not deduct the difference between basic state benefits and incapacity benefit and give the extra 'dosh' to the mother of his two children?

Because then at least it might be money well spent.      

Benefits Street (8 January 2014) 

I watched the Channel 4 programme 'Benefits Street' last night which portrays the lives of a group of residents who live in a particular part of Birmingham (James Turner St) and who all appear to exist on welfare benefits.

Now there will be an understandable tendency to demonise the people concerned for being feckless and lazy with no hope or ambition - beyond a lifetime of state handouts which pay for people's housing costs but otherwise provide a meagre existence, supplemented by some with petty crime and thievery.

But that would be a mistake because many of the people portrayed in the programme seems bright, intelligent and well capable of holding down a job of some kind - so what is the real story of why they have ended up in such dire straits?

The situation facing the hopeless alcoholic is bleak, but without some tough love and stark choices how is a man in that situation ever likely to run his life around - and why does the state waste money in paying him more in 'incapacity benefits' when his inability to work is entirely self-inflicted, with the extra money all going on drink and fags anyway?

The young couple whose benefits had been stopped were outraged at the action taken against them, but they had been found guilty of benefits fraud according to the programme, so what do the authorities do when people cheat the system - and what hope is there for the children in such a family without more forceful intervention?

The career criminal chap was just unpleasant and out of control while pretending to be a good (absent) father, but the short sentencing policy of the criminal justice system clearly holds no fears for people such as he - who claimed to have good qualifications which would in other circumstances allow him to hold down a decent job, if he had a somewhat better attitude to life. 

A young black woman in the street was threatened with eviction for being in housing arrears but was articulate and intelligent over the phone in dealing with the housing authorities - yet somehow she has ended hop in a desperate situation as well.

The 'matriarch' of the street ('White D') took a benign interest other people's lives even to the point of effectively condoning their criminal behaviour, and so I was unconvinced that a sympathetic, unchallenging ear is what some of the residents required to turn their lives around or improve their circumstances.

The most inspiring character in the whole programme was a young man who tried to make a living by selling household goods door-to-door (in very small quantities), but he seemed strangely vulnerable to me and while his work ethic was only too obvious for all to see, his 'back story' was never told.  

In some ways Benefits Street could not come at a better time for those who want simply to clamp down and cut back on welfare spending because it did not paint a pretty picture of life on James Turner Street, but the Channel 4 programme did raise important issues which public policy in the UK has failed to get to grips with for years.