18th February 2014
As the debate on welfare, #benefitsbritain and #benefitsstreet has raged on around me, I decided a few months ago to have a self-enforced period of reflection. No email mail outs. Not too many tweets. No media interviews.
Odd I suppose, considering that if ever there was a time for a friendly, ahem, 'welfare expert' to have a voice then it was probably now.
The thing is, after many years of being in a geek minority by talking about benefits, helping people understand the welfare system and creating IncomeMAX, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there were thousands of benefit experts among us!
Columnists, MP's, celebs, the media and Dave on the bus suddenly knew everything there was to know about the welfare system (my job was done, hoorah!) and I was actually quite enthused that the subject had taken on a new life and that people were actually, genuinely interested about... BENEFITS!
As the debate began to grow, an odd thing happened. I was contacted by the producers from a Channel 4 programme looking at the benefits system. I met with them (very nice they were) on several occasions and helped them to make sense of the welfare system as I do for everyone that contacts me. There was talk of appearing on the programme, but to be honest, the role as described wasn't for me and I already knew that I wouldn't be suitable. The producers were kind enough to let me know I wasn't needed and I wished them well.
The thing is, this wasn't a first. I've been very lucky over the years that the BBC have used me hundreds of times for factual news programmes about welfare, but when it comes to programmes or documentaries looking at 'claimants' I'm not really controversial enough - because lets be honest, the facts are, well, a bit boring really.
So I knew what was coming... the overall debate on welfare had moved away from factual information (why claim, how to claim, important deadlines, seeking advice, who to contact, useful info etc) to a story... a story about welfare and benefit claimants, the very people welfare is supposed to help (much more interesting of course).
This isn't totally new. Newspapers have for years had a field day with benefits, especially crazy stories of fraud, skivers etc. But now TV was really getting in the act, fueled somewhat by welfare reform and the language being used by the Coalition Government e.g. 'doing the right thing', 'benefit claimants with their curtains drawn' etc.
I'll pause slightly here and say if you want a snapshot of the view from the right search Katie Hopkins, for the left Owen Jones and there are plenty of commentators in between. To be honest, I find nearly everyone engaged in the debate on TV a bit shouty, some good points are sometimes made, but all in all, the right looks down down on those with nothing and the left hates the bankers and big business... but hate is hate right? Everyone is sooo judgemental - they don't even realise it! #scary
As the welfare debate kicked off, I realised that I didn't need to get dragged into the argument. I had effectively put my money where my mouth was and created IncomeMAX to help people to make sense of the benefits system, based on law, based on fact, based on the fact I had put together an amazing team of advisors that help thousands of clients every year use the welfare system correctly and responsibly.
I have spent three very enjoyable months monitoring the effect my team are having every day on low income and vulnerable customers as they work to get their benefits right, helping them with their water bills, with their energy bills...
IncomeMAX clients are treated with respect, with compassion, and with a fantastic level of customer service, and each household we support has gained access to real welfare expertise BASED ON LAW, the FACTS and GOVERNMENT SET CONDITIONALITY.
IncomeMAX are not alone here; every day, Citizens Advice, Advice UK and Law Centres support clients to the best of their ability, with limited resources, helping them to unravel the complexities of the welfare system.
Advice services are DOERS. Because when the TV goes off, there are real lives to contend with; jobseekers treated harshly by Jobcentre Plus, disabled people having a nightmare with ESA or PIP assessments, pensioners missing out on thousands in Pension Credit and frightened to heat their homes, carers struggling on Income Support. These are not stories but real people, struggling along as best they can. They are always pleased to get some help and advice at last.
On every TV debate about welfare so far, there has been no real representation from those that really understand the welfare system; from advisors, DWP decision makers, benefit claimants with real and genuine reasons for accessing the system. That would be way too boring of course!
The welfare story will rage on.
BUT... in the meantime solutions to the REAL problems in life will not be found. Instead, we just get TALK, TALK and even more TALK.
Problems like long-term unemployment, addiction, mental health, support for disabled people and those with long term health issues, housing, low pay, areas of deprivation, high energy and water costs, high rents, health, education, access to training, youth unemployment, debt, immigration, our money system...
We need radical, clever well thought out strategies for the long-term, yet all we seem to get is hot air, talk, ill-thought out policy proposals and even worse political point scoring.
So the question I have for all our new found benefit experts. What can we all DO to improve the welfare system and the long long list of underlying problems which are at the root of why welfare doesn't really work in the way that we want it to? Because just tinkering with the welfare system (and talking about it) won't change a thing.
It is time for solutions on welfare; not talk.
IncomeMAX Managing Director
The issues affecting real people
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