Last Night’s TV – Benefit Busters

benefit busters, mark

This week’s episode of this controversial show took us to Hull where A4E – the company the government pay to get people off the dole queue and into work – were tackling the problem of the long-term unemployed.

And how do they do it? Well, the government hands A4E £100 per head, per week, to get the jobless into their offices for 30 hours a week to take part in a course designed to get them “job ready.” All very admirable, but as we saw last night, for much of that time, the attendees are building cardboard models, reading the papers or looking at stuff on eBay. Way to go government. Not only does taxpayers money go to paying benefits, we’re also paying for those in receipt of them to do what five years old do in school.

We saw that A4E basically had nothing much for these people to actually do, beyond a job search each day that took a few minutes, so instead of actively engaging them in, oh I don’t know, basic literacy or numeracy or something helpful like that, they were given felt tips, glue, cardboard and paints. Great.

We heard primarily from one man last night, Mark Pilkington, ex-soldier, ex-jailbird and long-term unemployed bloke who vented his frustration at being asked to sit in A4E’s offices and draw pretty pictures or ogle page 3 girls by voting with his feet and walking out. He got a telling off for that and was told that if he did it again, he’d be off the program. That meant he’d lose some of his benefits, so he apologised and promised it wouldn’t happen again.

When interviewed at home, Mark told the filmmaker that if he was spoken to like that again, the person brave/stupid enough to have told him off would “get the top of me ‘ead.” Charming.

However, despite Mark and his girlfriend having that look that just lets you know they’re unemployed and living on benefits – it’s hard to describe, but we all know it when we see it – he became infinitely more likeable as the show wore on. He, unlike some of those featured last night, did genuinely want to work and when he was offered a job with a landscape gardening company, he jumped at the chance.

It appeared that he was doing well in his job and he took pride in it, however, after a woefully short time, he received a letter that notified him he was being made redundant. Not unreasonably, he was pretty p’d off about it and he and Debbie, his girlfriend, had a couple of rather entertaining but certainly touching rows about it.

Mark was taking his frustration at “the system” out on Debbie, and her patience with it was wearing thin. They were rather like a less pretty Royle Family, and specifically, Jim and Barbara. As Mark railed about how he’d been treated and issued expletive after expletive, Debbie tried to berate him for it while trying to calm him down and point out that others – such as those with kids or mortgages – were in a boat far more unstable than their own. They really were actually a charming couple.

And I really did feel bad for them both. Mark clearly enjoyed his job but I’m still a bit in the dark as to why he was laid off. Was it genuinely lack of available work or was there something else behind it? I guess we’ll never know, but Mark was now looking at being A4E’s bread and butter again.

In the meantime, we saw one of A4E’s staff trying to fill temporary agency vacancies at various factories, and not meeting with much success. Some of the people she approached to take up some of these agency posts clearly viewed work as a four letter word and wouldn’t touch it with someone else’s, but others, keen to get on the work ladder, took up the jobs. The trouble was, the jobs weren’t guaranteed and no set hours were given.

This then meant that people were being asked to sign off the dole without knowing from day to day when/if they’d be working. And given that we saw that it took three weeks for Mark’s benefits to be reinstated, is obviously something that’s a very serious issue. Nobody wants to live without any money for several weeks, especially not if you have kids and rent to pay.

The filmmaker tackled A4E’s Chairman, Emma Harrison, on the contentious subject of coaxing the long-term unemployed into taking “zero hours” contracts and temporary jobs, and it was something that clearly flummoxed her. And I suspect, it was something of which she had no knowledge. She got a bit naffed off with being pressed over it too and snapped, “What do you think I am? A genius or something?”

Well, given you’re being paid £100 per week, per person, plus bonuses for getting people into jobs, yes Emma, you should be a genius and you should be aware that taxpayers are paying you and therefore, you are accountable to them for your company’s actions.

And I for one think it’s a scandal that we’re being asked to fork out huge amounts of money to a company who get people to play with paints all day or has them reading the papers because there’s nothing else for them to do.

Next week, we visit the Oldham offices of A4E where they’re trying to get the long-term sick back into work. That should be another episode to get the blood boiling!

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.