Skint Britain: Friends Without Benefits

Skint Britain
David and Benson. Picture Publicist: Jamie Fry. Photographer: Richard Ansett.

The Teesside town of Hartlepool was one of the first to test out the system of Universal Credit, and this documentary looks at the impact it has had. Safe to say, it’s not good.

In this programme we follow various individuals who have been moved onto this benefit, often having to wait up to five weeks for payments to arrive. Those seeking work have to look for jobs 35 hours a week and failure to do so can result in people being penalised. This is hard for a town where there is seemingly little in the way of employment opportunities.

Among those who appear in tonight’s episode include Nathan, who because he has to wait so long for his money to arrive has to go out with his dog and hunt the local wildlife to find food; Terri, a woman trying to find work while also being a single mother; and David, who despite being partially sighted has been declared fit for work.

Along the way there are stories of hope for some people, such as Tamsyn, whose talent for drumming may be her way of avoiding Universal Credit. However, for me the overriding feeling when watching this programme is of an anger that I can relate to. I recently had an interview in Hartlepool over my disability benefit. I’m waiting to hear a reply, but given they have declared those who are visually impaired fit for work and I only have a mild form of Asperger’s, I’m not holding my hopes up.

The part of the show that got to me the most was when David had to make a phone call regarding his benefit. Every time David was put on hold, they played the same piece of music: an annoyingly tinny version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. I’ve been forced to listen to that god awful tune myself when making phone calls about my benefit, calls that last over 10 minutes, and that tune is so fucking infuriating. It is the tune that oppresses so many people. There is a place reserved in the lowest circle of Hell for whoever created that tune and stuck it on every phone call that every claimant has to make.

But the worst thing about this, is that those in power who created this system continue to defend it, and those in power who oppose it are seemingly in no position to do anything about it any time soon. To quote Tamsyn’s mother Tracey: “Someone needs to stick a bomb up Theresa May’s arse.”

You fear for those made to suffer because of Universal Credit. You fear for those who appear in this programme. You fear that it might happen to you.

Skint Britain: Friends Without Benefits is on Channel 4 at 21.00 on Wednesdays.