Like most well-meaning people, I've always believed that policy can really change the lives of people that have been left behind. The under-educated. The poor. Disabled people. Single-parents. The long-term unemployed. This isn't a surprise. After all, I founded a company that provides welfare advice to low income and vulnerable families.
My day job is to help people claim benefits. Over the last 20 years I've helped thousands of households to claim the benefits they are missing out on. It amounts to millions of pounds of government cash. I'm immensely proud of this, because good welfare advice changes lives. It helps put money in the pockets of people that are really struggling financially. If you believe that benefits affords you a cushy life, I can assure you that isn't the case in 99% of cases. Odd then that I was asked to become the welfare expert on Channel 5's Great British Benefits Handout programme.
An experiment which takes away the benefits lifeline of the families that take part, in return for £26,000. A years worth of benefits for most families until last November, when the government cut the benefit cap further. So we're back for Series Two, after an amazing first year where the programme changed the lives of three long-term unemployed families. We proved the critics wrong, but now the pressure is on. Six families are taking part this time around and we've got to try and prove that our success wasn't a fluke. It's been a bumpy ride. And it's uncovered some uncomfortable issues we all need to address.
Issues that have been magnified tenfold under the spotlight of the cameras. Issues that need to be talked about, discussed and debated, because they are national issues, and they are going on all around us. Issues that are being experienced by thousands of people. It could be you. Which is interesting, because let me state categorically that the money the families receive on the programme feels nothing like a lottery win. The £26,000 needs to cover bills, groceries and debts. It also needs to fund the families into work, which is no mean feat. Starting a business is difficult for anyone, let alone a single parent who has never worked, or a Dad with serious mental health issues where the slightest set-back can derail them.
It's the biggest challenge of our families lives and it has been a roller-coaster ride. The issues that have come up in the programme are serious and often hard to overcome. It is just so tough for single parents. Shattered confidence and mounting debts are evident. The housing crisis strikes as one of our single parents with 4 kids is threatened with eviction. How do you start a business with nowhere to live? Not being able to drive holds them back. Skills have been forgotten. Gaps in the basics start to show up. It's near impossible to manage your business without a grasp of maths. You can't possibly survive in this day and age without computer skills. One of our participants is severely dyslexic. Two have severe mental health issues. One has beaten cancer. Overcoming serious mental illness isn't easy. Beating cancer takes courage and strength. But you also need the right support and treatment.
We all know that mental health services are buckling under the strain. £26,000 won't automatically make your mental health good. Despite these issues, our families give it their best shot, as you will see. All of our families take full advantage of the experience. Is it any surprise that some of the best outcomes are achieved by our couples taking part? Because one of the things that is proved in the experiment, without a doubt, is that love goes a long way. Love for each other if you are a couple. Love from your kids. Support from your friends. A little bit of mentoring from your friendly welfare expert (that's me!) and the camera crew, a lot of aftercare from the TV production company, and more than anything now, love from the general public that tune in. Because looking down at people on benefits is unhelpful. It's counterproductive, mean and unnecessary. What families on benefits need right now, in this changing world is love, support and a chance.
If you really want to help our families succeed please support them. Get down to Romford Market and buy something cool for your kids from Lorraine. Get a lovely haircut from Donna. Buy a terrific burger from Fran & Danny's catering van. Get a garden makeover by Leanne and Adam. Get a spray tan from Kim. Buy a beautiful gift from Sophie. This is what will help our families succeed. I really hope that The Great British Benefits Handout will once again warm the hearts of the nation and thaw the attitudes of the general public to anyone that is reliant on benefits. Love really is all they need.
The Great British Benefits Handout, Thursday 16th February 9pm, Channel 5.