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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Alamy Stock Photo
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'Vile': Leo Varadkar 'Benefits Street' comments condemned in Dáil

The controversial UK documentary received hundreds of complaints when it aired for its offensive portrayal of benefits claimants.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 28th 2023, 4:12 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has been criticised for referencing the TV programme Benefits Street during a discussion on disability payments in the Dáil yesterday when he appeared to imply that some social welfare recipients are not genuine.

The Taoiseach made the comments in the Dáil yesterday in response to a question from People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy.

Murphy raised the issue of the Government’s proposals in relation to the disability and domiciliary care allowance and the introduction of a medical assessment to assess a person’s ability to work. 

Murphy said the idea of putting people into tiered categories based on how much they can work is rooted in a “fundamentally Victorian view of the deserving and undeserving poor”.

Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he has seen the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ which tells the story of a middle aged man in the UK who is denied social welfare despite being declared unfit to work by his doctor. 

“The reason I ask is that it seems the Government is out to make this film happen in real life in Ireland by copying the Tory policy of the work capability assessment,” Murphy said. 

In response, the Taoiseach said he did see the film while he was Minister for Social Protection but added that it was “one sided”. 

“It is a very good film, by the way, and I would recommend it to anyone. It is, of course, one-sided. All of the characters in the film, or at least all of the people in receipt of benefits in the film, are very genuine and honest people who need help and have done as much as they can for themselves.

“There are other programmes, like ‘Benefits Street’ and so on which show a very different picture. Of course, as is always the case, the truth lies somewhere in between,” the Taoiseach said.

At the time Benefits Street aired in 2014, the controversial Channel 4 documentary received hundreds of complaints for its “unfair, misleading and offensive” portrayal of benefits claimants.

The Taoiseach added that the Irish disability payments model is not going to follow the UK model which he said is “all about knocking people off benefits”.

“Our model, which is still under development, is about recognising that all disabilities are not the same and that some people need more support than others,” the Taoiseach said. 

His comments received widespread criticism. 

‘Pure prejudice’

Speaking in the Dáil today, Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan asked the Tánaiste Micheál Martin if he agreed with “the Taoiseach’s view that Benefits Street is relevant to the rationale for [disability payments] reform” but Martin avoided answering the question.

O’Callaghan condemned the Taoiseach’s comments and noted that Benefits Street “vilified working class people” and “demonised welfare recipients”.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael’s Equality spokesperson Emer Higgins told The Journal that Varadkar’s comments were being “spun” by some politicians.

“Leo Varadkar was asked did he see a particular programme, he said yes and listed a number of programmes that he had watched. The wider question that was being asked was in relation to proposed reform of disability payments.

“I sit on the disability matters committee and this comes up again and again and again. I do believe we need to reform the system,” Higgins said. 

She added: “It needs to be made easier for people, we have a situation where people who may have long term disabilities are being written to and asked if they still have that disability in order to stay on the payment. That is inhumane and unacceptable and I think we can do better as a country.”

Elsewhere, Maynooth University lecturer Dr Katriona O’Sullivan described the Taoiseach’s comments as “vile”. 

O’Sullivan, who has written about her own experience of poverty, said it was comments like this that led her to write her book. 

“This is the pure prejudice people face in poor communities every day,” O’Sullivan wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

She referred to the assumption that poor people or people on benefits are “shameless, talentless yobs” who act like “caricatures” shown on TV programmes like Benefits Street.

O’Sullivan said the Taoiseach’s comments were “vile” and added “the smirk is sickening”. 

Des Kenny, the chairperson of Independent Living Movement Ireland (which aims to help disabled people achieved independent living) told The Journal that he was pleased to see the Taoiseach confirm in the Dáil that no disabled person would lose their benefits under proposed reforms.

“From when the green paper was launched, disabled people have been anxious that this proposed reform of disability payments would lead to loss of supports,” Kenny said.

He added that ILMI have voiced concerns that the proposed scheme appeared to be similar to the UK system which he said pushes disabled people into work with “huge human costs and suffering”.

Kenny pointed out that the Department of Social Protections’ own research shows that disabled people face significant costs because their impairments, ranging from between €8,700 to €12,300.

He said in other European countries this has been recognised through non-means tested payments for disabled people who incur these costs, whether they are employed or not.

He added that system reform is needed to ensure greater employment of disabled people in mainstream workplaces but said that this needs to be led by disabled people through disabled persons organisations (DPOs).

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