Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

'We're on Benefits Street too': Northern Irish people on the dole tell us what they make of controversial Channel 4 show

Signing on: Deirdre Kelly, known as White Dee and her daughter Caitlin (16) from benefits Street

It is a show that has the nation glued to their television screens. Benefits Street portrays the stories of people living on James Turner Street in Birmingham where it is estimated that as many as 90% of its residents claim benefits.

The five part series has been watched by millions and has given Channel 4 its highest viewing figures for any of its content since 2012.

Each week the cameras delve into the lives of those living off the state with most showing no shame in doing so. Viewers have been fascinated and angered in almost equal measure by the lives of characters like White Dee, Black Dee and Fungi. Such has been the level of controversy that death threats have been aimed at some of the residents.

The police, Channel 4 and Ofcom have received hundreds of complaints about the documentary series since it began on January 6.

More than 30,000 people have signed a petition protesting against the programme and it has even been been debated in the Commons.

However, what is life really like for those who are on the dole? We speak to three people from Northern Ireland who, for various reasons, are claiming benefits, and whose lives are a far cry from those depicted on the programme.

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'I just couldn't manage without parents' support'

James Currie (24) from Finaghy, is a self-employed consultant and lives at home with his mother Heather (58) and father Johnston (64). Until last week James was claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA). He says:

After leaving school at Methodist College in 2009 I did a HND in construction at the South Eastern Regional College in Lisburn, before completing a BSc (Hons) Degree in building surveying at the University of Ulster, graduating last July.

Like many young people in Northern Ireland I found it difficult to find a job after leaving university -- statisics show one in five 16-24-year-olds are without work. I'm now on a five-week placement at a quantity and building surveying practice in east Belfast, and am trying to build up as much experience as possible.

I got this placement by writing to companies offering my services. However, the placement finishes at the end of February, and I could well find himself back on benefits. In an effort to stand out from the crowd I've set up JC Consulting, which I run from home, offering free health and safety advice to small businesses, charities and churches. I don't charge as I'm building up my CV.

I chose building surveying as a career when I was deciding what GCSEs to do. We were in the middle of the property boom and surveyors thought they had enough work to last for years. I'd a placement for two days a week with construction firm Farrans during my time at SERC and a placement year from university with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. However, the vast majority of the jobs required some element of postgraduate experience. So I was stuck in the cycle of can't get a job without experience and can't get experience without a job.

If it hadn't been for my parents supporting me I'd have found it difficult to survive on my £113.60 fortnightly benefits. Luckily mum and dad don't want any money from me while living at home otherwise that would be a struggle. Regular expenses include a phone contract (taken out in September 2012 so I'd no option but to keep paying it) and small amounts on socialising, like one coffee a week with friends. It's difficult hearing people say that those on benefits don't want to work. I'd have taken any form of employment. Support from my parents and others really helped -- even having things to do around the house or church made a difference to how I felt.

As far as Benefits Street goes, I believe there are different kinds of people seeking benefits. Don't get me wrong, a lot of people on JSA would love to have a job but the current economic situation is making it difficult. However, overhearing some of the conversations from the Job Centre made me realise that a lot of people seem to be taking whatever they can in terms of benefits -- I even heard someone complain their DLA car was the wrong colour.

We're told the Government wants to change benefits so that it pays to work. However, it is not difficult to get benefits, or certainly JSA, as I discovered. All I had to do to get it was to complete six 'steps to work' every fortnight (looking at recruitment websites or ringing an agency etc), which is really nothing at all."

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'I'm doing a real job for about half minimum wage'

Beth Evans (24) from south Belfast is currently on the government's Youth Employment Scheme and lives at home with her mother Kate (62) and her father Alun (69). Having studied English literature and Italian at the University of Glasgow, Beth found the transition from university to the job market daunting. She says:

I didn't really have a lot of experience. I wanted to get into media and publishing but I didn't have any experience, and every job requires relevant recent experience.

It put me off like it does a lot of people, and you start to feel inadequate and don't want to apply for anything. But eventually I was lucky enough to find a company called Lamb Promotions Ltd, and I started volunteering for them as an intern. It was part-time and I was doing admin and general office work.

To support myself I signed on to Jobseeker's Allowance and instead of looking for other jobs while I was on that I asked my supervisor if I could continue with this somehow, because it was what I really wanted to do. She was very helpful and gave me information about the Youth Employment Scheme. It was all done in about a week. and meant I could go full time there and progress within the company and just do what I wanted instead of applying for something I'm not interested in.

I get the Jobseeker's Allowance of £113.60 a fortnight and also get a supplement of £45 on top of that. It does make a difference but it's still not very much. I knew I would have to work hard for not very much money because I wanted to get into media and it's difficult to get in to and I hadn't got the experience so I was willing to do that.

I use the money for getting to work and for day-to-day living. It isn't very much really -- I think it's just over half the minimum wage, so right now I'm doing a real job for not much money.

While my situation isn't ideal, I am still thankful for the position I now find myself in. This is my way of getting into full-time employment as otherwise it would have been very difficult to find a job. I have a proper job now and a strong portfolio of published work so I can show that to anyone I go to next for a job.

I think that it would be a lot harder and take a lot longer if I wasn't on the scheme, I can't believe I found this straight off the bat. A lot of people won't agree with me but I think Benefit Street is a very good human interest piece of television.

It really shows that many of them are good people and despite what people say about the series I think those people come out of it really well.

Everyone knows the job market is getting harder to get into and granted there will be some people who aren't bothered but there are also people who really want to work but they're not getting the chance to do so."

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'The system seems to be weighted against honesty'

Alec Larkin (61) lives in Newtownards with his wife Mavis (60). He was made redundant from his job with an American company which manufactured clean rooms - an environment free from dust and other contaminants. A later viral infection to the brain left him unable to work. He says:

I went to a trade after school and then into engineering and management. I've been married for 40 years and we've four children, all of whom have left home. I was European director of an American clean room company in Belfast; we looked after sales and the construction of specialist clean rooms throughout Europe and Israel. When the recession hit, the company decided to move its plant to Malaysia and I was made redundant. The only work I could get was to be self-employed.

I sold health insurance for a few years prior to my illness two years ago. I was struck by a viral infection to the brain which left me unable to work and had to go on to benefits for the first time. I'd been suffering from osteoarthritis for several years which also limited my ability to work.

I get Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a contributions-based benefit which works out for me at about £212 a fortnight and I get a DLA benefit of around £20 per week giving me about £84 a month on DLA and £400 or so on ESA.

My wife works 16 hours a week as a community care worker and she has her part-time earnings. We have found that owning our own house actually means we are not eligible for certain benefits that would be available to others. If my benefits were our only income it would be very hard to live. Even as it is, we just make do. When my wife finishes work and just has her pension -- which is due to happen soon -- it will make things a lot tighter.

We budget every month to be able to set aside for heating etc and use direct debits to spread the cost out. We have to cut our cloth to suit what we've got.

Having worked all my life I was surprised that benefits are so meagre, but, in saying that, if you are in the position of having no other income they do at least keep you ticking over. I believe that if there was more effective policing of benefits then the Government would be able to look more practically at how to help those who want to work but can't find a job.

I watched a couple of episodes of Benefits Street and I can see different types of people portrayed in it. There are some sad cases there suffering from alcohol and drug addiction but there are others who're looking for the state to give them £30,000-a-year jobs to make it worth their while to come off benefits, which I find quite disgusting.

I know that to get a better level of benefits, it can come down to how dishonest you want to be when filling out forms. If you're honest, then the system seems weighted against you."

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'Living on benefits is an emotional challenge'

Julieann Spence (40), from Rathcoole, Belfast, is a single mum who has been on benefits for the last three years. She lives at home with her two sons, Luke (11) and Glen (6). She says:

I managed a travel agents' shop for years but in 2010 I became very ill and lost the power in my legs from the waist down. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I would have continued to work some days but eventually I was too unwell and I ended up handing in my notice because it wasn't fair on my employer.

Now, I get income support, child benefit for the children and child tax credit. My youngest son has ADHD so I get disability living allowance for him as well.

Income support is £120 a fortnight, child benefit is about £35 per week, the child tax credits would be £296 a month and the disability living allowance for Glen is about £70 a week. It works out at just short of £1,000 per month.

I'm a real people person so being in the house on benefits is a big change to me. It's also an emotional challenge because I'd always been used to paying my own way and supporting my children. Living on an income you have no control over is very hard.

With fibromyalgia, I have good days and bad days so it's hard to know when I'll be well enough to go back to work. In my head I'd go back tomorrow but my body tells me a different story.

I'm involved with Christians Against Poverty (CAP), an organisation funded by Christians and churches to help people who are on benefits. When I watch Benefits Street I think those people would really benefit from a CAP centre. It gives people a foot up and tries to get them to a place where they're on a level footing. It also helps them to budget or perhaps save. They don't give people money but they hold their hands while they sort out financial difficulties.

Some of those people on the show are lovely, and I do feel especially sad for those who are addicts and are spending all their money on drugs.

If you're a millionaire and you're addicted to drugs you'll spend all your money on it, and if you're on benefits and addicted to drugs you'll spend all your money on it too."

THE SHOW'S STARS

It is claimed that 90% of the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham are on benefits. Among the residents who have gained fame -- or infamy -- from the programme are:

* Deirdre Kelly aka White Dee who claims the title of 'the mother of the street'

* Her friend Samora Roberts (Black Dee), who was one of seven people charged with drugs offences last month

* A man known as Fungi who has an alcohol problem

* Becky Howe and partner Mark Thomas have two children and claim £750 a month in benefits. She says programme makers have stitched them up by portraying them in a bad light

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