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Let's Change Benefits Britain for the Better

18/02/2014 14:56 GMT | Updated 20/04/2014 10:59 BST

The one thing that wasn't at issue last night was that it certainly was a lively discussion on Benefits Britain: The Live Debate. Such was the passion however, that I'm not sure too many arguments were articulated particularly well, in what rapidly developed into a three ringed circus with Richard Bacon as ringmaster.

I am not going to argue for the dismantling of the benefits system, but I will say that in a world where it didn't exist many more people, who have become completely dependent on it, would be going to work. Some genuinely can't look after themselves, some only partially, and they should be the genuine recipients of state aid. The rest should be cajoled, assisted and in some cases pushed back in the direction of the world of paid work.

I was born into what you might call a no-hope part of society. Brought up in a council flat on the Rockingham Estate on the Elephant & Castle in South London, I dropped out of school at 15 with no qualifications, in much the same situation as the residents of James Turner Street on Channel 4's Benefits Street. But thanks to a plumbing apprenticeship, hard work and an old box of tools I bought at an auction, I now own London's biggest independent plumbing firm, which I built myself from the ground up.

I was lucky though, because I had the chance to learn skills and earn money (it wasn't very much, but it was something) through doing a plumbing apprenticeship. At one stage, last night's debate threatened to shift to looking into solutions. It never really did and that was a shame because I believe there is one very simple answer to benefit streets all over the country.

If we want to change 'benefits Britain' for the better, business owners and employees need to address the skills gap and offer apprenticeship schemes in deprived areas. The government needs to incentivise employers to take on apprentices by cutting the millions spent on JSA and giving it to businesses to fulfil an apprentice quota. And when I say apprenticeships, I'm talking about a serious, mutual commitment between a young person and a company, where the end product is a skilled and capable work-ready adult.

The problem is, there just aren't enough apprenticeship places in the UK for all the young people who need them. According to the National Apprenticeship Service, more than 1.4 million applicants competed for the 129,000 vacancies posted in the last year. It's easier to get into Oxford or Cambridge University than it is to get an apprenticeship these days. In 2012, someone seeking a place at Oxford had to compete with an average of five others, while in the same year Rolls Royce reported 4000 applicants for just 200 apprenticeship places.

At the moment I have around 20 apprentices learning and working at my company, Pimlico Plumbers, in everything from plumbing and engineering to mechanics and administration. Some stay on and work for me, some don't. I do it because it helps me find quality staff and good people. I also do it because I believe it's my responsibility as a successful business owner to give back to society, and give young people the same chance I had to work their way to a better life.

When I say a 'better life', I don't just mean more money. The people on James Turner Street were very proud of their community spirit and sense of belonging. What they don't realise is that you can find all of this in the workplace and more; security, a purpose, personal development and a sense of pride and achievement at the end of every day. No amount of benefits can make up for that. For me the reason they don't go to work is for the most part because 'not working for a living' has become a viable life choice. But like many things in this world all that shines is not gold.

Many of the characters on Benefits Street displayed first class business skills, including White Dee, Smoggy and Titch, the '50p man'. Imagine what they could have achieved if they had been offered training instead of benefits? All of this potential has been suffocated by the benefits system, which gives claimants a hand-out but doesn't give them a hand up. That's why I believe that Benefits Street served an important public service. It showed what living on benefits is like, and it showed what an overly generous benefits system does to people. I think perhaps the only thing all those involved last night might agree on is that living on James Turner Street is no picnic.

If anything good came out of the debate last night, it was that everyone present agreed that the benefits system needs urgent reform. We've been banging on about it for years. Now it's time for some action.