The workhouse is this way

 Above and opening image, scenes from Panorama's Don't Cap My Benefits

A scene from Panorama’s Don’t Cap My Benefits

What a horrible lot we’ve become. The more people struggle under the government’s austerity programme, the less sympathy we have for its victims. They are to blame for their misfortune, not the uncaring, inefficient system imposed upon us by millionaire politicians.

This was brought home to me while watching two programmes in April on the housing crisis, Don’t Cap My Benefits by the BBC’s Panorama and the C4 series, How to Get a Council House. Both were prompted by the government benefit changes that has left many people no longer able to afford to live in their privately rented homes. Faced with eviction, they present themselves to the council, which already has thousands on their housing waiting list…

While it would be unfair to say the programmes were indifferent to people’s plight as they trailed behind forlorn families close to breaking point, there was a terrible air of resignation about their predicament. That’s just the way it is for people at the bottom of the pile.

That much was clear from the town hall housing officials ensconced in the gleaming corporate-style offices so beloved of councils nowadays. Faced with bedraggled queues of people in search of a roof over their heads, they had to make hard decisions about who to house and how to do it.

They became increasingly exasperated – not with the government for putting them in such an unenviable position but with the ‘clients’ themselves who kept objecting to being uprooted to the likes of Birmingham and Luton where rents were cheaper. There was a harsh take it or leave attitude – you’re lucky we’re offering you this, and security men could be seen looming in the background.

The London borough of Brent was the focus of the Panorama programme, or to be precise its welfare reform unit – this was a whole department dedicated to enforcing the governments cuts in so far as housing is concerned. Officers were filmed visiting or phoning those affected, often advising them to find work to make up the shortfall in their rent, which was often as much as £250 a week.

In the east London borough Tower Hamlets, where How to Get a Council House was filmed, a housing official says bluntly to the camera that there is no way you can live in the borough if you don’t contribute to the economy. What he didn’t say is that even if you have a job you may not be able to live there, given the reality of high rents and low wages.

Yes there was a housing crisis, where it would end he had no idea, the head of housing admitted. He put it down to Tower Hamlets being on the edge of the City and also including Canary Wharf, London’s other financial district. As a result, too many people wanted to live there.

The fact that the government no longer builds any council housing and encourages what little of it remains to be sold off did not appear to enter his head, or, for that matter, the programme makers’. No mention was made either of the government’s punitive welfare reforms creating further demand.

The former St Pancras workhouse in London, which in the 19th century housed the jobless and homeless. It is now a hospital

The former St Pancras workhouse in London for the jobless and homeless in the 19th century. It is now a hospital

Instead, the focus was on the homeless or soon-to-be homeless themselves, mostly unemployed, black or immigrant, single parents or very big families. Miracles do happen and some were offered council accommodation. But to make sure that we could see how fortunate they were, an annoyingly jaunty voiceover told us that on the private market this place would cost £450 a week but they got it at the subsidised rent of £160 a week.

It was left to the victims of the housing squeeze to express outrage at a system that cannot fulfil the basic human right of providing shelter to everyone. But these are the little people living at the tax payer’s expense, so their views don’t count.

Those on the other side of the desk were probably decent folk but they had a job to do. If they didn’t do it properly, or they campaigned within their union against the injustice of what they were being asked to do, as might have happened in the not too distant past, they’d be out of a job too. So they render themselves immune to sob stories, apparent histrionics and effing and blinding and just get on with it.

In this dog eat dog society, there is little room for humanity. How long will it be before the Victorian workhouse returns for a modern make-over?

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