The controversial Channel 4 series Benefits Street has been attacked by a senior MP, who described it as a ‘misrepresentation’ of life for people on social security.
The documentary, which premiered on January 6 and depicted the lives of residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, sparked hundreds of complaints to broadcasting watchdog Ofcom and Channel 4 about the way it portrayed people on benefits. Some residents claimed they were tricked by filmmakers into taking part.
But Channel 4 insists it was ‘very clear and transparent’ with those taking part about the nature of the programme it envisaged.
Dame Anne Begg, the chairwoman of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said that the introduction to the show said it would portray life on a street where three-quarters of residents were on benefits, but then focused almost exclusively on people receiving unemployment benefits, which make up only a small proportion of the overall social security bill.
“What struck me is that it was called Benefits Street and then three-quarters or more of the programme actually followed one storyline which was about a petty criminal and shoplifter and how he lived on the proceeds of his crime, rather than the reality of what people face when they live on benefits,” Dame Anne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Part of the problem of projecting the extreme cases is that people then extrapolate that and say that applies to everybody who is on benefits. There wasn’t anybody who was a typical benefit claimant featured on the programme at all. There was a huge imbalance.
“Through the programme, there were occasional glimpses of the community and the kindliness and help they all give to one another, but that was very, very marginal in the programme. It concentrated on one storyline that wasn’t really about benefits.
“It said that three-quarters of the street are on benefits, and then in the next breath talked about unemployment, but of course half of people who are on benefits are actually in work. Benefits and social security payments don’t just go to people who are out of work.”
The Labour MP, a wheelchair user, said: “I can sympathise very much with the community, particularly disabled people who have perhaps worked all their lives and have had no choice but to fall out of work because of an accident or ill health, who have paid their National Insurance payments and therefore are entitled to the benefits. Pensioners are entitled to the payment that they get because they have paid into it and it is quite right that they do get those payments.
“To concentrate on the unemployed, when less than three per cent of the benefits budget goes to people who are unemployed, and even within that on a very narrow type of person – the one who was the petty criminal… The title of the programme, I think was wrong. There was a misrepresentation there.”
Following criticisms of the programme, Channel 4’s head of factual programmes Ralph Lee defended Benefits Street, telling BBC Two’s Newsnight: “The producers have been working with the residents of James Turner Street for nearly two years now. There has been a consultation with them long before we started filming. We were there filming for a year.
“They were very clear and transparent with everyone on the street about what the nature of the programme was, why they were there and what the nature of the end product was.”