Benefit to whom?

The welfare state isn't working

1950's Ladywood, posh cars then as now!1950's Ladywood, posh cars then as now!

After this post in which we see that Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for Edgbaston wants local government, to be self financing, we have an upsurge of interest in the lives of inner city people with the Channel-4 programme, Benefits Street. Now it's a funny thing that James Turner Street, the location for the documentary, is a short walk from the Northern edge of Stuart's constituency, which would have a small number of streets in a similar state. However, Edgbaston also has huge numbers of large houses in sought after locations plus a business community. And, of course, it's from these that the money would come to make Edgbaston viable. In this respect Edgbaston is typical not only of Birmingham but most large cities too. By contrast Winson Green has little chance of being viable as it now stands. We would imagine this is why C4 selected it for their programme. In that respect it's ideal; crack that nut if you can! This general distribution of a small number of problem streets across a city means that the pressure for change like financial independence would work.

This brings us to the Department of Work and Pensions and their Universal Credit scheme. This is an attempt to streamline the benefits system. At the moment we have a messy benefits system and and a benefits dependency culture. It remains to be proven if this initiative will work. Then again how do you define success here? Improving what for whom? So far the IT companies and civil service have done well out of it, but will it help the residents of James Turner Street? Probably not. Streamlining alone is not enough. The origin of Universal Credit can be found at the 2010 Conservative Party conference when Iain Duncan Smith set out the idea. And this it what is wrong with it. It is a 'government must do something' response. It was served up more for the party than anything else and we have seen HERE political parties are no longer valid.

The irony being that the 2010 Conservative conference was held in Birmingham city centre. So not much more than a mile apart but that was as close as Duncan Smith was get to the problem in James Turner Street! Also it would unfair to see this only as a benefits cheats and scroungers problem. What chance do the low skilled, products of inner city sink schools, have in the jobs market? Statistics abound, we are told there is one job vacancy per four benefit claimants. So perhaps it is fortunate that the promised influx of Romanians and Bulgarians was just a scare story!

And so to the reaction to Benefits Street. The MSM has been bedazzled by this story and some reporters have been totally fooled. The people involved have been chosen by C4 as they present well, they suit the programme. They might not even be typical claimants. But the silliest reaction of the lot is the petition to have the programme stopped. The reaction from Birmingham residents has been variable too. People working long hours in small businesses in similar districts are a mixture of amused and annoyed. They are amused at the shock-horror reaction from of the media; did they not know this was happening? But also annoyed that it has taken so long to become known to a wider audience.

So what can be done about James Turner Street and the many other examples of this problem all across the UK? Winson Green is in the parliamentary constituency of Ladywood and from 1918 to 1929 Neville Chamberlain held the seat for the Conservatives. In over 90 years for all but 12 of them the Labour party has been in power. In 2008 unemployment reached a UK record of 10% so no wonder past, Claire Short, and present MP, Shabana Mahmood, are as yet to join the 'debate'. So it looks like 'conventional' politics does not seem to be the answer hence the disquiet from the left and attempts at diverting attention.

So full credit to Gisela Stuart for daring to suggest a localist approach for the inner city. For the fact is the dependency culture is easier to manage, not cheaper just easier so Stuart will be unpopular with other Birmingham Labour MPs as they would prefer things left as they are.