Do We All Need a Stint at the Tower Block of Commons?

Have you been watching the new show on Channel Four – Tower Block of Commons? If you haven’t seen it, four MPs are sent to live on tough council estates in Barking, Birmingham, Hull and Acton and experience life on benefits by living with real families. Well, all apart from Austin Mitchell and his wife who insisted on having their own council flat in Hull instead of sharing. When I heard about the show I was sceptical. Would this be another gimmicky reality show where the really interesting issues get swept under the carpet? But after the first ten minutes of last week’s show, I was hooked.

Watching the MPs cope with life on the estates and interacting with their angry electorate is compulsive viewing and sensitively handled. At last somebody has been able to put these politicians on the spot and ask, why, Mark Oaten, for example, did you claim £70 for an iron? The timing of this show couldn’t be better now that we’ve seen half our MPs told to pay back taxpayers’ money and three charged with expenses fraud. It’s much more effective too that, rather than a journalist or another politician questioning them, it’s – for example in last night’s show – a guy struggling on Jobseeker’s Allowance asking Austin Mitchell in disbelief, “But somebody filled out your expenses form, didn’t they? Somebody put those figures down there. And you’re on £60,000 a year basic pay.” It was just a mistake, insists Mitchell. Of course it was.

It’s not all bad publicity for the MPs, though. True, Mitchell balked at the challenge in last night’s show to live on Jobseeker’s Allowance (see my own JSA challenge last year) and instead threw a dinner party for his friends and people from the estate, while Nadine Dorries angered her hosts by producing £50 from her bra which she claimed was “to spend on the kids”. “When you’re really on benefits, you can’t pull £50 from your bra,” complained her disgusted host. But Tim Loughton and Mark Oaten have mucked in, with Loughton looking after the kids and sensitively engaging with one of the residents about his cannabis use, while last week Oaten started a petition. And while Oaten might need lessons on how to source a cheap iron, he won some frugal points for his shopping trip to Asda.

But it’s clear from the endemic abuse of expenses by politicians and their refusal to accept that they have done anything wrong, that many have a huge problem engaging with ordinary folk. I found myself cheering on the guy outside the shop in last week’s episode who berated Loughton about MP’s expenses. Loughton, while shrugging off the incident, seemed surprisingly taken aback by the man’s fury. Why should it have been such a shock to him that people are so angry?

I agree with one of the hosts last night who suggested that all MPs should have to live on a council estate before standing for election. In fact, I think they should have to go back every year to council estates and other communities to refresh their memories and stay in touch with their voters. The longer people are in politics and bustling about Westminster, the more they seem to forget about what is going on outside, so they need to be reminded.

But maybe the experience shouldn’t be restricted to MPs, either. Perhaps the rest of us need to learn about what life is like for vulnerable people in our communities too. A recent government report showed that the divide between the rich and poor in the UK is bigger now than at any time since World War Two. While that is shocking, what’s just as worrying is how attitudes have hardened. While people in the UK are becoming more liberal towards cohabitation and gay rights, according to a recent survey, we are now less tolerant of people with less money than us. Charity LinksUK has done an interesting series of blog posts on this.

The UK Coalition Against Poverty recently invited a group of student journalists to a workshop as part of a poverty education programme. While the students engaged with the subject, the workshop presenters were shocked at how little they knew about poverty in the UK and the benefits system. Similarly, browsing a thrift forum the other day, I read a message from someone asking for suggestions of low cost ways to occupy himself while searching for a job – a simple enough request. Instead of offering constructive ideas, another forum member left a cruel message telling him that it would be better to let people like him starve than pay them benefits. Where is the tolerance in that? Perish the thought, but perhaps we all have something to learn from Oaten, Loughton, Dorries and even Mitchell’s example – me included.

What do you make of the Tower Block of Commons Show? Should all MPs spend time on a council estate before they are elected? Do you think our attitudes towards people in poverty have become less tolerant? Leave a message and let me know your thoughts.

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11 Responses to Do We All Need a Stint at the Tower Block of Commons?

  1. Flo says:

    Go and read about Keir Hardie who got himself elected to Parliament at the 1890s and 1900s and try to imagine how many people would work their way up from poverty as he did at the start of this century. You see, not many people who live on benefits now have the aspirations to get on in the same way that he did. Schooling was not general and was highly valued then, now that it’s universal it’s something to live through. Nowadays, if you come from a community where many households live on benefits then there is neither stigma nor reason nor encouragement to go get a job to better yourself. Those who have some ambition will do so. But they will still have a problem in making friends and having a different social life. And therein lies the problem. It takes a generation or three to change things. Many first generation graduates from families where the background is mining, shipyards, factory, building sites can do well but then have no idea as to where to go and work now that they are so well qualified and outside the experience of their family. They often feel that they would be quite happy doing the same sort of things that their parents did for employment. MPs come from a background where they have grown up with education and aspirations. They mix with people who are go getters. The people on the estates these MPs visited are exactly the opposite. The only way out of poverty is providing plenty of employment and not just at minimum wage levels, facilitating the ability to start and run a small business and to set about changing expectations of those who are living on benefits. Talking of which – I’m only 64, living on pension and pension credit and would love a job so that I could be better off. But in the present economic climate, it’s cheaper to take on a youngster and train them up rather than take on experience.

  2. caroline says:

    I think all MPs should experience a variety of situations so that they are more able to relate to the people who they are representing. Council housing is a good start. There are also lots of single parent families living in private rented houses struggling to make ends meet on low part time wages that are often no more than benefits. There are hard working families whose combined wage is only a third of an MPs wage before they get us to pay for all their expenses. We need more jobs better pay and more flexible childcare. I am a single mum and I really want to work but with no family living nearby many jobs are simply out of bounds as I am unable to work at weekends or early or late shift patterns. I am educated to degree level but that doesn\’t really make it any easier. I am either told I am over qualified or under experienced. If the company find out I am a parent then I can forget any chance of getting the job.I think that the gap between the rich and poor has excelled rapidly over the last decade or so. Also the attitude of people in general has become very selfish, they are too busy chasing the latest must have item and as long as they have what they need then they don\’t care much for those less fortunate. I think they blame those out of work for the taxes that they have to pay but don\’t consider that most of the goods that they are buying are manufactured abroard reducing the price but also reducing the jobs in this country. Companies are only interested in profits and not in caring for their workforce. Polititions are corrupted by payouts from companies. They also appear to be fairly financially icompetent, bailing banks out without agreeing any restriction of bonus payouts etc. They also think that you can have a sustainable economy in a country that no longer produces anything, personally I have my doubts about how we can sustain this.

  3. thomas connor says:

    I think we should follow the French revolution example and guillotine all the MP\’s

  4. neil says:

    Yes the MP\’s are a bunch of overpaid crooks who know or care little about life at the other end of the scale. However one thing that was evident in the program was that these families all had kids and they expect us the tax payer to pay for their upbringing. The mum who skimps on the weekly shop in order to spend £40 plus on fags and then complains of not having enough money is a prime example of the mentality of some of these "less fortunate" people. Question is if she was given another £20 a week would it go on her family or more fags ??

  5. Ian says:

    I wouldn’t say that all MP’s are crooks but what I would say is that the longer they are in the Palace of Westminster the further removed they become from reality. To me this has been demonstrated by Austin Mitchell and Nadine Dorries. All the MP’s taking part in the programme know that they are getting out and don’t have to face a dreary existence day after day. I would be in favour of MP’s having regular ‘sabbatical’ of at least a month and they could take it out of their very generous holiday entitlement.Many years ago Austin Mitchell used to be in regional television as a reporter where he used to report on the ‘wrongs’ and ineptitude of Councils and various local issues. Presumably this ignited a sense of community spirit and he decided to stand for Parliament. Unfortunately he has since ‘lost the plot’ and without his wife would probably be in a home for bewildered chauvinists.He showed himself to be ignorant of the ‘real world’ and the situations that many of his constituents face on a daily basis. Austin stated that he didn’t need to know the price of groceries only that the costs of things were going up. What planet is he on? How can MP’s decide on what is an appropriate increase for Pensions and Benefits without knowing the increase in staple items. A general percentage increase figure does not represent the real world to those least well off where literally the cost of a loaf of bread or the price of potatoes is something that has to be budgeted for. We already know that the increase in fuel costs for heating means extreme hardship for many particularly those people with prepayment meters who are charged more per unit than people who have a quarterly bill even though they are paying in advance for something they have yet to receive!Nadine Dorries said that she was raised on a Council Estate and a Single Parent as if this qualified her to be a ‘Champion of the People’. Her comment that Council Estates had improved since she was raised on one on the basis that people have mobile phones, laptops etc shows a remarkable naivety. Firstly the laptop has probably been provided by the school so that children of poorer families are not disadvantaged and getting a Pay As You Go mobile phone from the Supermarket is a far easier and cheaper option than a BT landline where if the Estate has a reputation a Deposit and a heavy connection fee is levied up front. I would be extremely surprised if Ms Dorries was abandoned and left with her children without any financial support or a home or the means to buy one.What the Politicians fail to realise is that for the majority of people in the UK the priorities are feeding the family and paying the bills not fighting wars thousands of miles away, funding corrupt Governments to ‘crack down’ on Terrorism or growing Drugs, or providing housing and Benefits to immigrants before looking after our own. This is a very selfish view and in my opinion has become ingrained in the majority because of the ‘Thatcher Era’ and her assertion that ‘there is no Society’.The North / South divide has become wider with the exception of certain ‘pockets’ in the North and if you live in the South East there are work opportunities that literally don’t exist elsewhere.MP’s receive an above average salary, some very nice benefits which if you or I were to receive the Taxman would be on our backs for ‘Benefits in Kind’! They also benefit from a very nice ‘Golden Handshake’ and Pension even if they have never spoken in the House and the electorate votes them out at the first opportunity.Unfortunately we are now represented by Career Politicians who manipulate (and are manipulated) to feather their own nest and their Parties position and cynically I believe the majority of Politicians view it as a stepping stone to a Non Executive Board position in the City or as a job where your performance is only reviewed every 4 years and if ‘found out’ you still cop for a chunky payout and pension.

  6. russell says:

    anyone deluded enough to think that all mps are goody, goody and represent what we the people want should look back at history, anything thats corrupt, and against the morals of society that we adhere to to the letter, can be found in politics, study the illuminati protocols and you will see what i mean, after all their deity moloch does demand sacrifice for absolute power, money is, has been, and always will be the root of all evil, and look how they\’re turning us against ourselves trying to aquire basic needs, as rothschild once said "give me the control of a countrys money i will control the people" familiar bell ringing some where, this government has raped this countries assets, for their own betterment and their banking best buddies, and intend to bankrupt this country while our money sits in their bank accounts in the cayman islands, a little tax haven in paradise. happy days.

  7. Miriam says:

    I think MPs should try to get DLA allowance, disabled people are meant to fight the system when they have difficulty even standing up the farce that you have to go through is incredible..I agree with the comment about single mums, we are at the bottom of the pile of being able to work, they forget that when the school closes for training days I would have no one for the kids.I\’m sick of this country and all the double standards that go with it.

  8. George says:

    It\’s blatantly obvious that the majority of MPs have lost touch with reality. I do not know of any organisation that would allow their employees to claim the sort of expenses that MPs have done a) without a receipt and b) checking on the validity of the claim. Those MPs who have been to repay money should pay up and shut up. Similarly those MPs who have been charged should NOT be allowed to get away with claiming Parliamentary Privilege thus making them above the Law. The ordinary person would have been in court charged with fraud a long time ago so why should a bunch of thieving MPs be allowed to escape. The sooner there is a General Election to get rid of this corrupt bunch of MPS the better.

  9. pat says:

    seance there is a tv link up to the theather of dreams? on the floor of the commons;.. maybe? while all the members are in the commons;. make them all watch it on a big screen! and if they start like they do at PM\’s Questions? making childish tantrims! Then who cares about who? or maybe the bbc media is not up for it as thy cover PM,s Q,s.

  10. Bill says:

    You have all done this one ter death, not much left fer me to say. I agree with yer all, wholeheartedly.George C., . . . these politicians are OUR employees. whatever tax we pay, we are NOT their lackeys.If we were ter "borrow an apple, or even a banana, from our gaffir, we would posibbly get the sack. If we were to "misapropiate" a heavy truck, or bus, @ twixt £100,000 – £150,000, we would be inside, with no hope of bail, & we would never be allowed any hope, or form of employment, ever again.All these high flying politians should be forced ter live on full Income Support, full tme. It is extremely possible that they would all simply quit, & migrate ter warmer climes. Good shut, but they could also go out & learn a Trade, in order ter ear their groats by means of honest toil. No, I did not expect \’em ter take that option!

  11. piper says:

    Thanks for these really thought-provoking comments. I hadn\’t realised that Austin Mitchell used to be a regional reporter.

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