Last night I watched the Glasgow episode of Ross Kemp’s series Extreme Lives on Sky1. The premise of the series is that Kemp travels the world to experience people whose lives are affected by extreme poverty and crime. In a previous episode, for example, Kemp was in Venezuela where he was investigating the high levels of crime and kidnapping, which took him and his crew into one of the country’s most notorious prisons.
Back to the Glasgow episode. The first thing to say is that it was extremely well made. The viewer feels a connection with the people Kemp interviews. Their heart-breaking stories of terrible poverty and their histories of abuse, crime, and homelessness were not forced or over-dramatised. Kemp’s laid back interview style is not to everyone’s taste. For example, he often uses leading questions to draw-out titbits of information from his subjects. But for me, it was just right.
In response to last night’s episode, Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce issued a strong defence of the city in which he lives and works, even going as far as accusing Kemp of “lazy journalism”. On the one hand this is understandable but such a reaction suggests that he has misunderstood the premise of the show. Of course Glasgow has many wonderful traits but this is a show about poverty, of which, sadly, Glasgow also has much.
Of all the people and stories presented in the episode, there was one that stuck out for me. And in a few short seconds it highlighted exactly why the welfare system in this country needs fixing. Kemp interviewed a homeless man who has previously served time in prison and who is now signed up with the Job Centre. This man – who was articulate and bright – told Kemp that when the Job Centre sends him jobs, he deliberately sabotages his own applications (by stating that he has served time in prison) because he knows that he is financially better off claiming benefits than in work.
To be honest, I can’t blame him. When your life consists of living hand to mouth and not knowing if you will have a roof over your head, it’s a basic matter of survival to want to get the largest amount of money you can.
Coincidentally, it was after witnessing extreme poverty in Glasgow that the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith became inspired to begin his crusade against the destructive cycle of poverty. Iain Duncan Smith is profiled on ConservativeHome today where he is described as a man on a mission, willing, if necessary, to resign over a disagreement on policy. I hope it doesn’t come to that. There is much work yet to be done.
If yesterday’s episode of Extreme Lives taught anything, it is that our welfare system needs fixing. What was designed to be a safety net for those most in need has become a trap for the most vulnerable. It’s time to take the politics out of welfare and unite behind a system that helps people off benefits and back into work.