My name is Ozzy Stylez and I am one of Birmingham’s many, many “benefits scroungers”, the likes of which you have no doubt seen or heard about on Channel 4’s hot new documentary Benefits Street.
I had hoped to appear on the documentary myself, as I have always harboured ambitions of fame and notoriety. Unfortunately I didn’t quite match the criteria that the documentary makers behind the controversial new series were looking for.
For starters my teeth are in pretty good condition (according to a dental nurse I know) and my skin has yet to take on a pallid, leathery appearance. This is most likely down to my infrequent drink and drug use. I also don’t own a tracksuit, and the clothes that I do wear – usually a pair of smart fitted jeans and a warm jumper (or flattering shirts in the summer months) – are frequently washed and occasionally ironed.
Perhaps I could change my ways a little to be considered for the second series, but I can’t afford a new sport themed wardrobe, nor can I afford to start smoking or drinking frequently. It is a shame, but that is the reality of life on £71.50 a week. I actually used to live in the Winson Green area of Birmingham where Benefits Street is set, but unfortunately for my hopes of appearing on the show, I was gainfully employed at the time.
I suppose that I do live an enviable existence though, one that would make many of this nation’s employed green with jealousy. I wake up when I want and usually start the day by casually sliding my laptop across the duvet and searching the job market at my leisure, applying for anything that I am suited to. Unfortunately there are about 51,105 others in my position chasing only 6,949 jobs in the Birmingham area (according to last February’s TUC figures) so I frequently come up against dead ends and rejections.
This can be a fairly demoralising way to begin a day, so after a few hours I get up, wash and dress, feed myself and then begin to think about the evening meal that I will cook for my partner when she returns from her job. Because she is in work and living with me, I am not entitled to housing benefit. This puts extra strain on our relationship as she can’t afford to pay my half of the rent on her meagre salary, despite what the government might expect her to do. When money is tight couples argue more, no matter how much they love each other.
At one point during the opening program in this new documentary series, a rather menacing sounding weed farmer dressed up like Heisenberg from Breaking Bad claims that “Basically everyone does something on the side when they’re on benefits, it can be from selling tobacco [to] going shoplifting.” He has a point; my sideline is creative writing and playing music in a band. I suppose that I always saw myself as an entertainer, and I use some of the long hours in my frequently tedious unemployed days to pursue artistic endeavours that I didn’t always have time for when I was at work. Rather than waste time being bored I try as best as I can to realise the dreams I have always held in my heart.
However, my attempts to entertain, document and explore the world I live in through artistic means of expression have been somewhat trivialised by the current government, and the cuts to arts funding announced by Chancellor George Osbourne last July were a kick in the teeth to me and others like me. The chances of me being able to earn a living doing the things I am good at and enjoy are getting slimmer.
Instead I am expected to fight against 7 ½ other people for each of the jobs on the market in my area. There is no guarantee that I will actually enjoy any of these roles either. But it is my duty to slave away at whatever scraps are thrown at my feet, ignoring the dreams that I have had since I was a boy, to join this grim rat race so that I can bare my teeth to the legions of Daily Mail readers looking down at me with disgust and seethe, “I have worth, I contribute to society.”
I found myself in this situation because I was made redundant. I was not fired for gross misconduct, I wasn’t sniffing aerosols at work and I wasn’t slacking off. I didn’t get bored of going to work, but rather enjoyed my job and had made good friends with many of my colleagues. I tried to do my job to the best of my ability, but the company that I worked for was a small business that was struggling to stay afloat in an extremely difficult economic climate.
It is my opinion that our nation is not being bankrupted by a culture of ‘benefit scroungers’ despite what the government and incendiary documentary makers might have us believe. If Channel 4 really wanted to make a documentary that got to the heart of this country’s financial woes, then they should have considered the activities of the heads of some of the UK’s biggest grossing corporations, namely those who use off-shore bank accounts to avoid losing a few of their many millions to pesky taxation. After all, only 0.7% of social security payments are lost to fraudulent claimants (and yes, two of these claimants live on James Turner Street and appeared on Benefits Street). However, whilst this accounts for about £1.2 billion, this shortfall is made up for in the £16 billion of benefits that go unclaimed each year.
These figures are in turn dwarfed by the £25 billion lost to wealthy tax dodgers who choose not to bare their teeth to the nation and say “I contribute to society” and keep all the money they should pay in tax for themselves. Channel 4 might need some convincing to make a documentary about these people, who seem like normal God-fearing folk on the surface. It would certainly be less of a freak show and make for less invigorating TV. It was telling that Benefits Street (itself a tasteless play on the phrase ‘benefits cheat’) was immediately followed by another jaw dropping, eyeball popping documentary about men who like to dress up as dolls and take pictures of themselves.
I am pretty sure that if the Inland Revenue were to be given guns, black SAS style uniforms and sunglasses, and a documentary team followed them around the country as they kicked in the doors to the offices of wealthy business owners banking off shore to avoid paying tax, then they would see a similar reaction to the one they got in the first episode of Benefits Street when they followed petty shoplifter Danny as he tried to break his ASBO and push past police to return to the Bullring for a ‘meeting’.
They would no doubt capture on film a reaction of initial self righteousness, followed by anger as the situation escalated in seriousness, followed by full on gnashing of teeth and spitting as the highly motivated and violent Inland Revenue SWAT team smashed his face into his solid oak desk with the butt of their semi-automatic weapons, bent him over double to put the handcuffs on him and read him his rights.
The truth of the matter is that when an animal is cornered it will fight for its life, no matter how much money it’s earning. And I know a lot of people that would happily pay the price of a TV licence to watch that program alone.
Little is known about Ozzy Stylez.
Those that have tried to find out more about him have met with a series of increasingly more mysterious accidents. What we do know is that he resides in the middle bit of England and could be at your next event, quietly judging you over a White Russian with two different coloured straws and an umbrella in it.
Questions and comments can be sent, at the individual’s own risk, to firstname.lastname@example.org