Channel 4's series Benefits Street is the most searching bit of reality TV for a long time. Here in James Turner Street in Birmingham, 95% of the residents are unemployed. They live on state benefits and some of them even resort to Food Banks. We are reminded that last year, 350,000 people in this country had to do this. People begging for food is nothing unusual in the EU. All over the disaster-hit eurozone, high unemployment and poverty are spreading. In Spain, Ireland, Italy and even in France the number of people on the dole is soaring and the only solution the EU leaders offer is to tell them to come to England to look for a job here.
The people in James Turner Street are not all "unemployable" - some of them may have had drug problems in the past but without a doubt some of them could be doing a job, if they had the skills and if someone could afford to employ them. They have got abilities that are being wasted. Mark, the out-of-work Dad who goes to the Food Bank because he can't feed his two children on his Job-Seeker's Allowance, looks healthy, clean and polite. I wonder if he has got any skills.
The woman called, oddly enough, White Dee (not Dee White as you might imagine), has abilities as a carer. She keeps an eye on Fungi, the ex-junkie, whose hopes of seeing his child, long ago adopted by another family, are dashed when the adoptive parents change their minds. The sight of him and the place on a street, behind a rubbish skip, where he used to sleep for ten years in a blanket, while he was on heroine, is one of the best deterrents against taking drugs you could show any child. What I noticed was that White Dee instinctively looks after Fungi. She is aware of his problems and those of other people in the street. And she is not stupid either, although she is clearly uneducated and can't speak five words without swearing. Her sense of humour shows she is not stupid, and so does the fact that she helped Fungi get his electricity re-connected. He may be helpless but she isn't. She is a good mother, because she not only feeds her children and cleans for them, she is bringing them up to aim at a career and take positive steps to find one. I ask myself why she did not do the same herself, as she is the sort of person who could have become a nurse, a midwife, or a hospital orderly, or a carer. She has a vocation for that kind of role and this country is crying out for people to do those jobs.
We are importing nurses from around the world, and while I have nothing against any of them - they may be lovely people - I ask why women like White Dee have to live on the dole when they are so badly needed? If we want to change this situation, we need to make training and job apprenticeships FREE to all British citizens. Training was free until the squeeze of the 1980s. Then Colleges of Further Education started to charge fees, and those seeking apprenticeship were treated in the same way. The fees have crept up higher and higher, and the only help comes in the form of loans, not a grant. The loans do not cover the full cost and you get nothing towards your living costs. The loans are available equally to anyone who has been here for three years, regardless of whether their parents lived here and paid tax. Of course - because that is EU law! This makes less money available for White Dee and Mark. No wonder we have so many people on the dole, and need to rely on the skills of migrants. What a mess!
One thing is for sure, the children living in this environment are disadvantaged and the methods used by the Labour party to help them did not work and were a colossal waste of public money. Under the Blair government, between 2005 and 2010, Labour spent millions, £100,000 per child to help children defined as living in "poverty" - and yet by 2010 there were still just as many as before. Child poverty is inseparable from grown-up poverty. It is the result of family breakdown and unemployment. In James Turner Street, there seem to be no children living with their mother and father in a stable marital home. Lacking a mother or a father is definitely a form of poverty. How to remedy that? Why not teach family values in school. Sex education should place all its emphasis on love, commitment, marriage and family responsibility. Then provide free training for all young adults to get work skills. And if we left the EU, we could start to afford it.