A Channel 4 programme, Benefits Street, has brought the issues facing city claimants to millions of viewers. Graeme Brown looks at the numbers behind the story

There can be few political issues that polarise the country more than benefits – a fact that became abundantly clear this week.

For those who didn’t see it, Benefits Street was Channel 4’s latest “shock-umentary” – airing the dirty linen of a group of benefits claimants on James Turner Street in Winson Green.

It was Marketing Birmingham’s worst nightmare packed into an hour – shoplifters, drug addicts on incapacity benefit, families complaining their benefits scams have been found out.

Further bad news – there are four more hours to come.

It immediately brought about 100 complaints to Ofcom, due to the swearing and criminality, and tens of thousands of Tweets, half bemoaning the behaviour and half suggesting Channel 4 was making entertainment from poverty and inciting hatred of the country’s poorest.

So does Birmingham have a benefits problem? Raw Jobseeker’s Allowance data would suggest so. Latest statistics show six per cent of 16 to 64-year-olds in Birmingham claim the benefit.

That is almost double the 3.1 per cent in London, and higher than other major cities such as Liverpool (5.3 per cent), London (3.1 per cent) and Manchester (4.6 per cent).

MP Steve McCabe (Lab Selly Oak) said the figures reflected high unemployment levels.

However, he said a focus on scrounging would be more understandable if there were jobs available for people in areas of high unemployment, but that is not the case.

He said: “You have got to make it possible for all the other people – those who are out looking for work – to have a chance of getting a job.

“You can afford to get tough on benefits when there are jobs about – but if you are not in that position then it is much tougher.



 

“I would concentrate on getting this generation of young people into work.”

Jobseeker’s Allowance claims are falling in Birmingham – but not as fast as elsewhere in the UK.

In the UK, 3.1 per cent of working-age people claimed the benefit in November last year, down from 3.8 per cent in November 2012. In Birmingham, it went down from 7.2 per cent to six per cent in the same period.

That means that in the UK it declined by 21.1 per cent, while in Birmingham the claimant rate went down by 16.7 per cent. The trend, unsurprisingly, follows unemployment, which is 9.1 per cent in Birmingham – more than any other major city. The core cities average 6.3 per cent joblessness.

The city suffers from pockets of joblessness and high levels of benefits claims – while there are only 2.9 per cent of people out of work in Sutton Coldfield, it is 10.2 per cent in Erdington, 12.6 per cent in Hodge Hill and 20 per cent in Ladywood.

In terms of Disability Living Allowance, there are 1,935 claimants in the Soho ward, where the so-called “Benefits Street” in Winson Green is located, which accounts for 6.2 per cent of the population. The UK average is 4.3 per cent.

Mr McCabe said a renewed focus is called for in these pockets of unemployment, with the Government, schools and parents all needing to do more to build a brighter future.

“There are wards in the city that have had high levels of unemployment for long periods of time, irrespective of economic conditions, and that suggests problems with skills, and maybe aspiration, and school achievement,” he said.

“I don’t think enough is being done. There are not enough apprenticeships for young people.

“The Government talks about growth in apprenticeships but the growth is coming from people over the age of 24 – not enough is being done for the 16 to 24-year-olds. We have got to strive to do much better in and out of schools. Schools must get more out of kids and show them they are entitled to achieve and parents need to do the same. But also there needs to be work out there.”

Coun John Cotton, cabinet member for social cohesion and equalities, said: “There are widely acknowledged problems in this city and far too many people are sadly still held back by poverty and inequality.

"That’s why from day-one the Labour administration made it our aim to build a fairer city – through things like driving through the living wage to push up the rate of pay that people across the city receive. It’s also why we’ve put resources into the Birmingham Jobs Fund – to support the 3,000 18 to 24 year olds who’ve been unemployed for more than a year.”