Last Night’s TV – Benefit Busters

by Lynn Connolly

benefit busters - kieran

This episode was every bit as controversial and entertaining as its two predecessors. In it, we saw the work of the Shaw Trust in Oldham whose remit is to get thousands of people who are on sickness benefits back into work.

The main protagonist in the show was Sherrie, a Shaw Trust employee who clearly has a will of steel. The one thing that’s become apparent in this series is that women like Sherrie and Hayley – from the first episode – are perfect for their jobs. They’re hard women who don’t necessarily have a great deal of sympathy for their ‘customers’.

They’re the sort of women you dread being your boss; they’re focussed, they’re goal orientated, they’re officious and demanding, and you don’t want to cross them. They have steely gazes and their tenacity and unwillingness to put up with BS is writ large on their faces and in their stern expressions.

Sherrie is one of Shaw Trust’s best in that she often “smashes” her target of getting 12 people per month off sickness benefits and into work, which, to be fair, is no mean feat at a time when jobs for the masses are as rare as rocking horse poo, and even more elusive for the afflicted masses.

Last night, we met 20 year old Kieran who was being “re-evaluated” in order to establish whether his claim for long-term sickness benefits was justified. Kieran fell from a balcony while on holiday aged 18 and suffered broken bones and a crushed vertebrae for which he had an operation to strengthen his spine.

He hadn’t worked since and claimed that he had to take painkillers throughout the day and night to make his back pain tolerable. I was rather torn over what to think of Kieran; in the first few moments of the programme, we saw him rather deftly and seemingly painlessly rising from a chair and then apparently recalling that the camera was on him when he dropped something and almost bent down to pick it up.

That said though, it’s nigh on impossible to know the extent of someone else’s pain – maybe Kieran was just full of painkillers at that moment of filming – and that’s arguably the most contentious issue when debating the government’s decision to employ outside agencies to decide who’s swinging the lead and who’s not. And even for those who are clearly not – such as a painter and decorator with osteoarthritis who was featured – is it right that he’s effectively being guilt-tripped, after a lifetime in work and paying taxes and NI, into getting a job?

I guess that’s a subjective thing, but I personally don’t think it’s right. However, for people who are in the ‘grey’ areas of the long-term sick, such as those with depression, migraines, addictions or impossible to prove back pain, it’s always going to be a judgement call. But in the case of the Shaw Trust, bonuses are issued to those operatives who, like Sherrie, get more than 12 people per month into work and off benefits. Therefore, they have a vested interest – which is almost an imperative if they want to keep their own jobs – to err on the side of assuming everyone’s exaggerating their illness to some extent.

But even some of the people who are in the aforementioned grey areas in the ranks of the long-term sick are clearly not going to be employable. One such person who we saw in the programme was Mandy who has depression, anxiety problems and who battles with alcohol addiction. Her Shaw Trust advisor suggested she try some volunteer work before launching herself on the jobs market, but frankly, I suspect she’d struggle to even be taken on as a volunteer worker.

I think the best thing about Benefit Busters is that it does make clear arguments for both sides of the equation and hears testimony from the same, all of which leads to much thought provoking material. However, for me anyway, the main message to have come out of Benefit Busters as a whole is that it’s increasingly a dog eat dog culture that we’re living in…

Those charged with getting people off benefits have targets to achieve if they want to keep their own jobs, and there’s the added incentive of a hefty bonus if those targets are reached. Therefore, they are far less likely to judge individuals on merit and more inclined to see them just as numbers on a spreadsheet and notches on the bonus bedpost.

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.