When we first meet Karen, star of a new Channel 4 documentary, she is driving a huge, silver Nissan people-carrier. The 54-year-old grandmother is smartly dressed in fashionable clothes, jewellery and sports an immaculate manicure.
But neither her car nor her clothes are paid for by her wages. Instead, Karen is among the 20 million people claiming benefits in Britain.
In Karen’s case, her lifestyle is funded by her incapacity benefit, which she says she receives because she has diabetes, irregular heart rhythm, arthritis, backache and high blood pressure. ‘Because people can’t see the pain I’m suffering, [they] look and think: “There’s nothing wrong with her”,’ she explains. ‘I feel like I’m being targeted, but I’m not out to scrounge. I’m genuine, you know.’
Karen was a care assistant for 22 years, but has been out of work for seven years, during which time she has claimed £155-a-week disability living allowance. Her car, too, is paid for by the state. Karen feels benefits are her right, that she has done her bit by working in the past. Now, she says, it’s the state’s turn to support her. ‘I’ve done my f***ing share for Britain,’ is the way she puts it, in her blunt Midlands accent. ‘I’ve worked for me money, I want me money.’
Far from thinking them generous, Karen doesn’t think her benefits nearly bounteous enough. But the fact is benefits are more generous today than they’ve ever been, or indeed were ever intended to be by the founding fathers of the welfare state.
The level of welfare payments is now higher, in relation to earnings, than ever before. The average amount claimants receive has more than doubled in real terms over the past 50 years, according to recent statistics.
Projected costs suggest benefits will cost taxpayers £348 billion this year. Left-wingers may call me callous, but I have often wondered what the result would be if the only benefits doled out today were the subsistence-level payments William Beveridge originally devised when he created the welfare state in the 1940s.
Now, a Channel 4 series, Benefits Britain 1949, explores exactly that question by challenging claimants — including Karen — to live on what they would have received when the welfare state was born.
The three-part series is not just compelling television, it’s a revelation.
The programme uses experienced former benefits officers to staff a dole office recreated to look exactly like one from the 1940s.
They give out payments, adjusted for today’s prices, that people would have received in 1949, the first year of the welfare state’s operation. The handouts are subject to the tough requirements of that time.
The results are both depressing and heartening. In episode one, Karen, Melvyn, a cheery 71-year-old widower, and Craig, a 24-year-old in a wheelchair, have their 2013-level benefits taken away for a week and are put through the 1940s system.
All three are from Nottingham, where half the population is on some kind of benefit.
Yes, half. Even though we have become inured to the dependency culture, that single figure tells a terrible story. For benefits were originally conceived as a temporary helping hand in times of trouble, not a lifestyle choice. Joblessness allowances, pensions and the NHS were meant to provide a safety net, but were something the individual should aspire well beyond.
Beveridge described welfare payments as ‘an attack upon want’. But want was only one of five giants he was trying to slay. He described the others as ‘disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness’. Yes, idleness.
How unwilling we are nowadays to talk in those bald, almost biblical terms. Indeed, we seem to avoid applying any kind of moral principle to state handouts today.
But the early welfare state did just that. And it did so partly to keep the welfare bill down, but also because its founders believed we benefited from having a purpose. Work was seen as therapeutic; even those who could only do a little were encouraged to try.
Things certainly have changed. Today, people believe they have a right to give up work and live off the state, as if they were taking early retirement. They want benefits that are not just good enough to live on, but generous enough to fund luxuries like alcohol, cigarettes and modern status symbols such as huge widescreen televisions.
This might make their life comfortable, but moral considerations aside, can it be good for those who receive such generous payouts? Surely if you sit around all day doing nothing — even if you are sick or physically compromised — you’ll rapidly sink into a terrible mire?
The documentary shows that this is precisely what has happened to Karen. She lives in a modern terrace house with one of her children, son Aaron, who is in his early 30s but has serious learning difficulties and is also supported by disability benefits.
There are photos everywhere of her children and grandchildren, although we never learn how many she has. There is no mention of who her husband or ex-partner might be. As she sits at home on her leather sofa, surrounded by figurines and nick-nacks and a large gold statue of an Egyptian mummy, you can’t help but feel hers is not a fulfilling life.
When a welfare officer visits Karen and remarks that her house is clean, and her lawn mown, she reveals that this has been done by her son.
Strikingly, Karen, who is very overweight, has long acrylic nails, immaculately painted with a different shade of polish on each finger. Her hair is freshly braided and her manicured hands glitter with enormous rings.
There’s no doubting she suffers from pain and discomfort, but it’s also obvious that the demoralisation caused by her various ailments — which she refers to officiously as ‘my health issues’ — is exacerbated by lack of purpose.
She is a stark contrast to her fellow claimant, wheelchair-bound Craig, who has spina bifida, a genetic abnormality of the spine which causes leg weakness and paralysis. Clearly unable to move unaided, he explains he desperately wants to work but has been struggling in vain to get a job.
To be assessed for benefits in the documentary, Craig and Karen, with pensioner Melvyn, have to visit a 1940s-style Labour and Welfare Office, a forbidding stone building where two po-faced welfare officers interview them.
These officers use the original rules of the welfare state — which were some 8,000 paragraphs long — to assess their payments. Karen’s ‘new’ 1940s weekly handout is deemed to be £38.48 — compared to the £155.34 she currently receives. The car she has courtesy of today’s mobility allowance is also taken away.
She is furious. Expletives rain down on the welfare officers as she insists: ‘I can’t live off that.’
But this is not the worst news. If she wants to keep even this small payment, she will have to be assessed for work.
Her response is a tirade: ‘I’m not well, I’ve got a list of illnesses what are wrong with me. Go to the younger people, what are they doing? Leave me alone, I’ve done my fing share for Britain, I’m doing no more. They can f off.’
Her pleas fall on deaf ears. Conditions recognised now as disqualifying someone for work were simply not recognised when the system was established.
Despite Karen’s protests that she’s ‘in pain every single day 24/7’, she is forced to complete a 1940s-style medical assessment. It is toe-curlingly fascinating to watch.
‘Would you be able to climb ladders?’ asks the doctor.
‘Oh no,’ said Karen.
Karen laughs at the sheer idiocy of the idea.
‘Pull an object?’
‘I would find that a struggle.’
The doctor puts a 12lb bag of potatoes at her feet and asks her to lift it.
‘No, struggling with that,’ she says, not even getting it off the floor.
The doctor then places one potato on the desk in front of her and asks her to pick it up. She pauses, unsure what to do.
Call me sceptical, but I could almost see the cogs turning in her brain, as if she was thinking: ‘If I pick up this potato, I might lose my benefit, but if I don’t pick up this potato, that will look ridiculous.’
She reaches forward tentatively and picks it up, saying ‘there’s pain in here’ while rubbing her arm ostentatiously.
Karen’s medical isn’t finished yet, however. The assessor then gives her a piece of paper and pen, before getting her to draw a star and cut it out. This she does without complaint until he tells her the test will show if she could do tailoring work.
Her response is then instant: ‘This is actually hurting my thumb.’
Of course, I’m not in a position to dispute her, but it does seem unlikely that holding a pair of scissors for a few seconds would exacerbate arthritic joint discomfort. The doctor then presents Karen with a typewriter and asks her to type. After hovering her manicured hands over it for a split second, she decides she can’t. Of course she can’t. Never mind any medical conditions, her acrylic nails are getting in the way.
Such an interview in 2013, one suspects, would end with her being sent on her way with her full benefits cheque. But under 1949 rules, despite her professed inability to pick up a potato, Karen is deemed fit for light work and is packed off to a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities. As such a facility no longer exists, Karen is sent to work in a modern-day factory where disabled people work.
Once here, I fancy I see a panicky look in her eyes. Because when Karen sees disabled people working machines she must wrestle with another dilemma: she doesn’t want to be labelled a ‘cripple’, to use the 1940s pejorative, but then again she wouldn’t want to say she wasn’t a cripple, in case it impacts on her benefits.
Although these scenarios are staged for the purposes of the documentary, Karen will surely have feared there were real-life implications for her benefits if she showed herself able to work on national television. In the end, struggling with her dilemma, she sits and watches as a woman with one hand worked a sewing machine.
‘What time do you have to be up?’ Karen asks her. ‘Early,’ explains the woman. Karen raises her eyebrows.
By a twist of fate the pair had been at school together.
‘I remember you as a strong woman,’ says the lady, working the sewing machine with her good hand as her stump holds the garment steady. ‘Do you want to have a go?’ she asks cheerfully.
‘Honestly, I’m knackered,’ said Karen miserably, shaking her head before saying: ‘I don’t like showing vulnerability . . . All you will see is a brave smile, but deep down I’m suffering. I just want people to stop judging me.’
And we will, love, we will, I thought. Just as soon as you stop pretending you can’t pick up a potato.
Meanwhile, wheelchair-bound Craig is making great progress, despite losing all his £171.25 a week disability benefit.
Under 1949 rules, he is not eligible for handouts because he has never worked, and thus has never paid National Insurance.
Instead, Craig is given an ‘Emergency Payment’ of just £7.40 to stop him starving, and is offered a 1949-style training course that allocates £100 a week so he can be trained in the workplace.
Craig is delighted. Indeed, he’s desperate to work, and has applied for hundreds of jobs in real life, but only had five job interviews. He becomes emotional when he reveals that if he mentions in his CV that he is in a wheelchair, he never gets called to an interview. When he doesn’t mention his wheelchair, he gets called in, but never gets past the first interview.
Under 1949 rules, he would have been offered training in all sorts of areas, including manual labour or a job in an office or factory.
In the documentary, he attempts a day of gardening at a nursery, which today some would no doubt denounce as demeaning. But bending over the side of his wheelchair to tend plants, Craig declares himself happy because it’s nice to get out and do something.
Craig is a tonic. He understands that human beings need a reason to wake up in the morning.
‘I want to prove to the world I can do a job as well as anyone else,’ he says with passion in his voice.
Melvyn, too, faces a whole new world when he is forced to live under 1949 rules. A former railway engineer whose wife died five years ago, Melvyn loses his home, a spick-and-span little bungalow.
He can’t run it on a 1940s pension — £38.48 a week if adjusted to today’s prices, compared to the £134.27 a week he gets now.
He loses his dignity, too, momentarily, as he is packed off to a state-funded old people’s home. But although he’s tearful, he accedes to the demands of the system, and leaves his home behind.
But when he gets there, he cheers up considerably and professes that there are advantages to being institutionalised because here he has cooked meals laid on, company and even entertainment.
How unlike the fate of many elderly people today, who are effectively left to struggle alone.
The central message from the experiment, to me, is the contrast between the attitudes of Craig, who refuses to be held back by his disability, and Karen, who declares she just wants to ‘chill and relax’. She is seemingly determined that her physical limitations will prevent her doing anything.
After the assessor at Craig’s 1949-style training course decides he is not fit for any kind of physical labour after seeing him at the garden centre, he is given work experience in a call centre, handling theatre ticket sales. In the 1940s, the state would compel companies to take on disabled people and prosecute those who refused.
It is genuinely heart-warming to see him bristle with pride and then burst into tears of joy when he is offered a real-life job there afterwards. ‘I feel like a capable human again,’ he sobbed. ‘It’s my first ever job offer.’
While he will lose a large part of his benefits, he is overjoyed just to be working. Shamingly, just 46 per cent of disabled people of working age are employed today. In 1949, 94 per cent were.
Today, Craig rises at 6am to get to his new job some 30 miles away. He travels in his wheelchair on public transport.
Karen still insists she is still too unwell to do any form of work. When the programme finishes, she goes back to claiming her £155 per week, and makes sure she gets back her mobility allowance car.
Melvyn returns home. Stoical, and of a different generation and mind-set to Karen, he isn’t self-pitying. Indeed, he is adamant that the most deserving person among them is Craig.
And the underlying message from the experiment? The 1949 system worked best for those who wanted to work. The system now works best for those who don’t. Until we turn that basic premise around, we will never transform the dependency culture of Benefits Britain 2013.
- Benefits Britain 1949 is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm