Wednesday, 2 May 2012

What Is Wrong With The Future State Of Welfare (Part 1)

Tomorrow or the day after I am expecting to be informed of the BBC Trust's ratified decision regarding my on-going complaint about factual rigour in the BBC documentary The Future State Of Welfare With John Humphrys, broadcast last October. I have progressed extremely slowly on the planned full-rebuttal of the programme and this highlights the problem for anyone concerned about factual accuracy: it is a lot faster to make speculative or false claims than it is to research them and provide accurate information. I did not submit a list of speculative complaints to the BBC because that would have been unethical and if even a few of them had been wrong I suspect it would have been grounds to discontinue my complaint entirely. Yet the Complaints Director insisted that this is what I should have done by applying the time-limit rule the way he did; no single person can investigate every problem with the programme thoroughly within the time-limit given.

I'm hoping this post will give me the additional focus needed to get the full rebuttal of the programme out faster. What follows is a list of all the speculative problems I could think of whilst watching the programme and writing a transcript of it. I'm going through that transcript and typing down the problems in order. These will be a mix of statements out of context, omissions, distortions, opinions given as facts then not corrected, appeals to authority where the authority is not an expert on what they are commenting on, claims of certainty where the bigger picture is more complex and unfortunately there are a couple of outright fabrications with no basis in fact. This is speculative, I have not finished researching most of these, which is why I did not include them in my correspondence with the BBC save for those infamous eleven examples.

Due to the size of this piece, I will be writing and posting it in parts. 


1. Almost immediately at the start the presenter tells the audience that the benefits bill has risen by almost £60 billion in the last ten years. This is a flat statement without qualification which omits to mention much of this is down to inflation, not a real terms increase. Given as the programme does not look at pension aged benefits at all, they also omit how much of the rise was in that category. Failing to inform the audience of these meant the statement was misleading.

2. An edited vox-pop clip is then shown of a GP interviewed later in the programme who says "Two and a half million people who are on incapacity benefits in the UK, unbelievable". I will come back to this interview when the transcript does but for now the problem that comes to mind is the unqualified expression that this figure is inexplicable. The programme omits to mention that Incapacity Benefit has not risen in the period since it was introduced. It rose slightly between 1995-2004 and then began dropping again even before the phasing to Employment Support Allowance began. The programme never makes it clear that when it is talking about 'incapacity benefits' this includes ESA too. The programme makes no effort to explore the figures for IB-ESA.

3. Another edited vox-pop is shown from a later interview with a single mother. She makes blunt states of fact which are in reality more complicated but are not explored.
"Some people haven't worked in their life, they don't know what a job is." "Would you work for the minimum wage?" "No, I wouldn't. I'd be working for nothing."
 The programme omits to actually show what she would be entitled for if she did work. The audience is misled by its absence.

4. The presenter describes his childhood experience, asserting that it illustrates the difference between then and now in how the welfare state has changed. He talks entirely about employment, not disability, single parenthood or full-time caring but then when describing the area now he tells the audience that one in four people of working-age are now on some kind of benefit. He does not specify if this is an unemployment benefit, nor does he specify the unemployment rate. A general audience will assume from his use of words that it's one in four on 'the dole' or Jobseeker's Allowance. It appears it doesn't: it throws in IB-ESA and Income Support claimants like single mothers, disabled, sick, carers etc; people not expected to work. That's what you need to do to get the presenter's 'one in four' figure. If you look at just unemployed and expected to work claimants it's 6.7%.

5. The presenter introduces the audience to single mother Pat Dale and her daughter. It is announced that they say it doesn't pay them to work, repeating the unqualified and unexplored blunt claim of fact from earlier.

6 and 7. Pat Dale is shown stating that if she worked she would 'lose all her rent benefits'. The figures are not explored so the audience is left with the impression that this is true. Statistically she is unlikely to be worse off working. The programme does nothing to point any of this out and the presenter does not converse with her about the figures. She also miss-states what the minimum wage is and the programme does not mention what it actually is.

8. Pat Dale is then shown making fact-based statements. She points out that Child Benefit is £20 a week for the first child and £13 a week for any child after that, expressing dismay that what is already a very small amount to raise a child on gets cut for further children. Pat Dale expresses her opinions based on the information she has, both accurate and inaccurate but the presenter then berates her off-camera where she can't respond. After getting some facts right and accurately identifying her statutory entitlements, the presenter distorts this into being an attitude of entitlement belonging to a 'benefits culture'.

9. The presenter begs the question, asserting that there can be no other answer for why so many in the area are out of work, emphasising that Splott is a district of Cardiff and not one of the mining villages of the Welsh valleys where unemployment would be explainable. The presenter omits the effect of demographic distribution and that Splott is in fact one of only a handful of places where this applies, it does not reflect the national picture.

10. The presenter goes to a Jobcentre and uses one of the terminals. He flicks through the screens, speaking as if he is finding lots of legitimate vacancies located in Cardiff. A closer look at the screen reveals that whilst they are being advertised in Cardiff, many are much further away. Some are in eastern Europe. The presenter misrepresents what is on the screen, which is not clearly shown but I paused the programme and looked carefully. This is what I saw:

Selected today's local jobs.
75 jobs were found.
First 8 in Cardiff.
2 were minimum wage.
3 'met or exceeded' national minimum wage.
remainders were manager, engineer and director and not generally accessible to the unemployed.
Humphrys checks none of them, just zips through the pages reading titles out.
By the fourth page, more than half of those displayed are not specifically Cardiff but 'Wales, various, London and nationwide'.
This further expanded to 'Europe, Austria, Paisley and others on the next page.
About a third that are actually displayed in the programme are not in Cardiff.
Those that were in Cardiff required experience or specialist skills.
Humphrys makes no distinction or effort to check how many were full-time and permanent.

11. The presenter asserts that 1,600 jobs were advertised in Cardiff. This misleads the audience into thinking that there were 1,600 vacancies located in Cardiff. First, the total number of advertised vacancies is misleading because many can be out of date even though in theory they are supposed to be taken off the system as soon as the vacancy is filled. Many job-seekers will point out that this often doesn't happen and they find themselves applying for advertised vacancies that have long since passed. A significant number of vacancies advertised in one region are also repeatedly advertised nationwide and the job itself is not located in the region it is advertised in. Had the presenter actually used the terminal properly and read out what was there rather than follow a pre-set script to say regardless of what actually appeared on-screen, the audience would be made aware of the irregularities. This does not even begin to cover the extent of illegal 'fishing' vacancies put out by firms to simply farm CVs and sell the details on. No one policies the jobs market for this, so the law isn't enforced. The programme just assumes that all the vacancies are genuine.

12. The presenter has a conversation with a staff member. The staff member emphasises the benefits of work but does not elaborate, nor are they asked to talk about how financially almost anyone is better off in work. The opportunity is ignored.

13. The presenter turns the subject towards the pet fixation of the 'benefits culture', bringing up the issue of there being a supposed 'lack of stigma' to not working. No evidence is presented that this is in absence, the masses of evidence such as every tabloid, commentator and even many of those interviewed in the programme carry a sense to stigma towards the idea of not working is ignored.

14. The staff member is then shown agreeing, with the assertion that it is 'too easy' to claim benefits. The process for claiming benefits is not actually gone through, nor what benefits specified. The evidence available; that long-term Jobseekers Allowance claimants dropped over the period which the presenter earlier said the benefits bill went up by £60 billion, that Incapacity Benefit claims never rose and that single parents on Income Support are the fastest falling group of claimants- all are ignored, apparently because they do not fit the 'benefits culture' 'lack of stigma' and 'sense of entitlement' the presenter insists has become a problem since he was a child.

15. The presenter sits in on a meeting with Owen Oakley, an Incapacity Benefit claimant  trying to get back to work and being migrated onto Employment Support Allowance. The presenter asks Owen if he can have a word. The presenter asks a distorting and leading question: "How do people react to you being out of work? Do they think 'he's a lazy so and so, can't get out of bed in a morning'?" Owen is on an 'out of work' benefit but he is not out of work. He has been on Incapacity Benefit for ten years because a Personal Capability Assessment, the most stringent of it's kind in the whole of the OECD, found it was unreasonable because of his condition to expect him to look for work. Owen seems to know exactly what the presenter wants and understandably makes the comments needed to reinforce the 'benefits culture' narrative without taking any flak himself on or off camera. The ESA system has moved the goalposts and obviously under the new criteria Own is not eligible for the Support Group. 

Part 2 will be up later tonight.


  1. Following with interest.

  2. I could not "face" watching the programme but heard snippets on the Today programme and the fact that my mum reacted in the "expected" way (despite her son being the target for the disdain)-revealed to me the sense (to preserve mental health) of relying on people such as your good self in outlaying the programme.