I set up Parasite Street to balance the benefits debate

Subsidies to the rich cost us much more than benefit fraud

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Thousands of people have now signed a petition demanding that Channel 4 take Benefits Street off air for ‘creating a skewed image of a section of society and stirring up hatred’.

Yes, the show focuses on relatively minor parts of the benefits system (benefit fraud) whilst ignoring other, more widespread phenomena (in-work poverty).

But the show has started a national conversation, and this is one conversation we needn’t shy away from. You want to talk about systems that allow people to cheat the taxpayer? I say ‘bring it on’.

We can talk about the £1.2bn in benefits overpaid due to fraud in the last year.

Never mind that this figure is smaller than the amount of money underpaid to those entitled to it (£1.3bn), so that if we wiped out benefit fraud tomorrow – but also eliminated the errors that deprive people of money to which they are entitled – the welfare bill would grow, not shrink.

If we really want to talk about cheating the state, we have to talk about the rich and powerful.

We have to talk about too-big-to-fail banks that continued to be subsidised by the state to the tune of £38bn per year. About tax avoidance by corporations and rich individuals that costs us £25bn per year year. About the scandal of landlords renting former council homes back to councils at an average premium of £3,000 per year. And we have to talk about poverty pay by rich companies that leaves millions dependent on in-work benefits and tax credits at a cost of at least £1bn per year.

Sure, benefit fraud is bad news and we should seek to reduce it. But shouldn't our priority be on eliminating subsidies to the rich that cost us over fifty times as much?

This was the message of Parasite Street, a website that a few friends created in our spare time over the past days to bring some balance to the debate on benefits. It clearly struck a nerve, being shared over 25,000 times in the space of 24 hours.

If the facts are so clear, how is it that we hear so much less about how the rich cheat the system? We could start by noticing it’s only the rich that can afford to buy our political parties and media.

How many people on James Turner Street can afford the £50,000 fee to join the Conservative Party’s Leader’s Group (openly advertised on their website), to benefit from the ‘dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches’?

How likely is it that certain newspapers will ever take tax avoidance seriously, given that some owners are engaged in it on an industrial scale?

Recent research shows that people who know more about the facts of the benefits system are less hostile towards it. Parasite Street is an indication that people would be angrier about subsidies to the rich, if only they knew.

Education is the key. The internet and social media are supremely powerful tools in countering the systematic misinformation put out by certain politicians and sections of the media (which may explain why this government is so keen to censor it).

We can’t rely on politicians and media outlets in bed with the rich to present a balanced view of the facts. It’s up us to educate one another on the reality of who and what is really cheating Britain.

Read more: Owen Jones - Benefits Street: Our media targets the poor and voiceless

Paul Vallely - As Benefits Street shows, we are quick to demonise and slow to understand

Benefits Street: The reaction

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