Updated: Wednesday, 15 January 2014 12:01 | By Agence France-Presse

Reality TV show sparks row over welfare dependency

The welfare system was the pride of post-war Britain, but the reaction to the incendiary reality television programme "Benefits Street" is showing how much times have changed.

Reality TV show sparks row over welfare dependency

File photo shows people protesting about job losses in Birmingham, which has an unemployment rate at 16.5% -- double the national average

The show revolves around a real residential road in Birmingham, which has an unemployment rate at 16.5 percent -- double the national average.

Viewed by five million people each week, the Channel 4 series has inflamed an already febrile national debate about welfare culture and the lifestyles of those living on state handouts.

The five, hour-long episodes, screened on Monday nights, revolve around James Turner Street, which the producers say is one of the most welfare-dependent in Britain.

The portrayal is unflattering.

A petty thief reveals how to get away with stealing clothes from shops; a couple merrily confess to being caught cheating the benefits system; and one woman who had not paid the rent shows aggression to the man delivering her eviction notice.

Residents in filthy, trash-strewn houses constantly come and go and if anyone in the street does have a job, there is no news of them.

Some residents feel betrayed by the programme.

"They told us that they wanted to capture the community spirit of James Turner Street and show the positive of that but all they have done is show the negative," Dean Oakes told the BBC.

'Get a job you dogs'

Each episode sparks a huge reaction on social networks. Those defending the welfare system see a cruel caricature, while critics see all their objections made manifest.

"Just watched benefits street what a bunch of lowlife scum a bullet costs about 30p so we could sort the street out and have change from £20," wrote Twitter user @garryturner4.

User @sasharabella wrote: "Watching the scum on this Benefits Street programme infuriates me. Get a job you dogs."

On the other extreme, more than 30,000 people have signed an e-petition calling for the show to be taken off air.

"It is creating a skewed image of a section of society and stirring up hatred," it reads.

The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom says it has received hundreds of complaints.

Channel 4, a private channel with a long history of controversial programming, has insisted "Benefits Street" is exactly the sort of documentary it should be making.

"No programme on this subject will satisfy everyone, but the furore surrounding it reinforces my view that we should absolutely be making programmes in this territory," said head of documentaries Nick Mirsky.

"To avoid or sanitise the day-to-day realities would be a dereliction of our remit."

'Projecting the extreme cases'

The furore has even reached parliament.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told lawmakers on Monday that viewers were rightly "shocked", and therefore backed reforms "to end these abuses".

His department is slashing state hand-outs and going after fraudulent claimants with a campaign warning: "Benefit thieves: it's not if we catch you, it's when".

Latest figures show Britain spent 7,641 euros ($10,430) per person on social protection in 2011, according to Eurostat, the European Union's statistics hub.

That is slightly above the EU average of 7,290 euros but far behind front-runners Luxembourg with 18,136 euros, Denmark with 14,785 euros and the 10,300 euros spent by France, a country of similar size to Britain.

Finance minister George Osborne is trying to reduce Britain's huge deficit and last week said a further £12 billion ($20 billion, 24 billion euros) of welfare cuts were needed between 2015 and 2017.

"Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?" he asked, in his Conservative Party conference speech in October.

"Benefits Street" has given the debate focus by personalising the issue.

Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Anne Begg, who chairs parliament's work and pensions scrutiny committee, said there was a "huge imbalance" in the show.

"Part of the problem of projecting the extreme cases is that people then extrapolate that and say that applies to everybody who is on benefits," she told the BBC.

"There wasn't anybody who was a typical benefit claimant featured on the programme at all."

She added: "Half of people who are on benefits are actually in work. Benefits and social security payments don't just go to people who are out of work."

John Bird, who founded The Big Issue homelessness magazine, said it was time to face up to the reality of "Benefits Street" -- that the welfare system traps people in poverty.

"The portrayal of claimants is not an uplifting one, but that's because life on benefits is soul-destroying," he wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper.

"It actually provides perverse incentives towards idleness."

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