The Yorkshire Jobcentre: Meet the stars of new Channel 4 show set in Leeds Southern House aiming to be the opposite of Benefits Streets

As coronavirus makes tens of thousands unemployed, a timely new Channel 4 series is exploring the reality of life in a Yorkshire job centre for claimants and staff. Chris Burn reports.
Jan Baxter, a work coach at Leeds Southern House Job Centre,York Road, Harehills, Leeds, is one of the stars of new six-part Channel 4 documentary series The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Picture: James HardistyJan Baxter, a work coach at Leeds Southern House Job Centre,York Road, Harehills, Leeds, is one of the stars of new six-part Channel 4 documentary series The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Picture: James Hardisty
Jan Baxter, a work coach at Leeds Southern House Job Centre,York Road, Harehills, Leeds, is one of the stars of new six-part Channel 4 documentary series The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Picture: James Hardisty

Producers behind new Channel 4 documentary series The Yorkshire Jobcentre spent more than five years talking to the Department for Work and Pensions to secure behind-the-scenes access at Southern House in the heart of Leeds – now their show has taken an unfortunately timely relevance with fears that unemployment could hit 10 per cent by the end of this year as a result of coronavirus.

Six years ago, Benefits Street – another Channel 4 show about the lives of the unemployed – caused great controversy, with one of its subjects claiming they had been “tricked” into appearing in a negative portrayal of her community in Birmingham, dozens of complaints made to Ofcom and the programme being labelled “poverty porn” by many commentators.

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The Yorkshire Jobcentre instead aims to be the antithesis of Benefits Street as it casts a sympathetic eye over the staff at Southern House and people who seek their help, often in very difficult personal circumstances.

Jan's caseload has doubled as a result of coronavirus.Jan's caseload has doubled as a result of coronavirus.
Jan's caseload has doubled as a result of coronavirus.

When filming on the show was first announced last September, Channel 4 commissioning editor Rita Daniels explained: “Lots of series have been made about benefits, mostly focussing on the extreme end of the spectrum and the long-term unemployed.

“This will be the first series placing equal emphasis on the human stories on both sides of the desk – challenging preconceptions about staff and claimants. And, as the last government agency on the high street, there couldn’t be a more pertinent precinct to speak to life in the UK today.”

Among the stars of the new show is work coach Jan Baxter, who has worked for the DWP since 1998.

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“I got a temporary job at the department because I was signing on,” she says. “A lot of us get recruited that way - I always say, be really careful if you walk into a job centre as I never got out!

Olivia Thompson, founder of Akila Dolls, has come up with a range of diverse and disability dolls after giving up work following her daughter's diagnosis last year.  Picture: Bruce RollinsonOlivia Thompson, founder of Akila Dolls, has come up with a range of diverse and disability dolls after giving up work following her daughter's diagnosis last year.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Olivia Thompson, founder of Akila Dolls, has come up with a range of diverse and disability dolls after giving up work following her daughter's diagnosis last year. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

“In all honesty, I understand the stigma of coming into the job centre. I have had periods of unemployment in the past and the last time really felt awful, I felt as thought I had really failed.

“I had huge reservations about getting involved with the show. The reason I did get involved was because I don’t think people actually know what it is we do and how hard we work with our customers and the fact we are humans. It is easy to think of us as a faceless Government department, but we are invested in the people who come through our doors and want to see them succeed.

“I always say it is one of the best jobs in the world. When people come in and say, ‘I have got that job’ or ‘I have got that qualification’, the burst of excitement you get is like you have got the job yourself.”

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The programme shows how work coaches do much more than administer welfare – acting as counsellors, financial advisors and even friends on occasion. As part of their role, they can even help claimants buy outfits for job interviews.

Jan says that part of her aim in getting involved is to help change public perceptions following shows like Benefits Street. “There have been some pretty awful shows really. We want to show the truth about how we work with customers.”

She says the filming crew shared the same ambitions.

“It really felt like a joint project to really explain something important. After a while you get used to putting on your mic and the crew being there. Obviously things are a bit different but we have really busy diaries and you didn’t really have time to fret about it, you have to get on with it.”

Filming took place between September and March and since then, life has been changed beyond recognition by coronavirus.

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With the Government’s furlough scheme, which is being used for almost 10 million workers, due to end in October – there are growing fears a period of mass unemployment is on the horizon.

Jan says her own workload has already doubled as redundancies across different industries start to take effect. “My existing caseload is over 300 people and that is the same for all of my colleagues. There are more customers coming in every day.

“We are in a fairly unique situation and we are having to do the new client interviews by telephone. We have had big waves of unemployment in the past like the big crash in 2008. You get a lot of people coming in who have never seen themselves claiming benefits.”

The show also examines that challenges of the much-criticised Universal Credit system, which has been introduced by the Government to replace six means-tested benefits for working-age households; Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

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Universal Credit has faced particular criticism over the five-week wait before claimants receive their first payment. Last week, a study by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee warned the system was “failing millions of people” and leading to soaring rent arrears and growing use of food banks.

In a scathing assessment of how UC is working, the committee stated: “The Government is using Universal Credit to recover debt, mostly £6 billion of historic tax credit debt.

“Deductions of up to 30 per cent of the standard allowance, and in some cases more, can be taken from claimants. This has left many households with less money than they are entitled, often at no fault of their own.

“The five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment is the main cause of insecurity. This wait entrenches debt, increases extreme poverty and harms vulnerable groups disproportionately.”

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Speaking before that report was published, Jan offers a more nuanced view. “I think in fairness there are pros and cons to everything. The benefit system is absolutely huge and any changes you make take years to embed – it is like turning an ocean liner around. Universal Credit is still so new in that respect. It does enable us to do quite a bit we would not have been able to do five years ago if coronavirus had happened then.

“People are always worried about the long wait for the initial payment. It is true but you can get an advance in it. It is the same as starting a job where you might be waiting for your first pay for a month.”

She says she hopes the programme will show that staff on the frontline are doing their best with the system. “I’m really hoping that people will see our staff actually do try to help - it is not about bullying people into work.”

Among those shown on the programme getting help from Jan and her colleagues is 29-year-old single mum Olivia Thompson. Olivia is new to unemployment when she is first seen on the show, having recently left her job as a receptionist at a law firm after the stress of working full-time while caring for her autistic daughter Amira became too much.

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“Being a single parent, working full-time and having to juggle Amira’s needs, I was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety and stress. The doctor said you need to stop working or you are going to end up dead - that put everything into perspective.”

She says entering a job centre was an alien experience for her, having worked been in continual employment from a young age.

“I have worked from being 12 or 13 and doing a paper round. As soon as I got my National Insurance card at 16, I was working in a clothes shop in my spare time while I was still studying at school. Nobody in my family has ever really been on benefits.

“For me it was an unusual and completely different environment to be going into. Everyone has their stereotypes of what people on benefits are like. When you go to the job centre, you feel people are judging you because they don’t know your story.”

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The programme shows how work coach Jan encourages Olivia to pursue her business idea of producing ethnically-diverse dolls and helping to put her in touch with organisations like the Prince’s Trust to turn it into a reality.

After spending seven months working with professionals on the design of her first doll, Olivia recently managed to raise £6,000 through a crowd-funder to manufacture the first prototype. “Jan was a Godsend, she was so lovely and so understanding,” she says. “She opened the door for me and put me in touch with people. She was also really encouraging about my idea.

“I hope that viewers take away that anything is possible as long as you work hard. There were so many times I was down on the floor and I have picked myself up again.”

She adds: “When the programme makers approached me I was a bit hesitant as I am a very private person. Discussing my situation with anyone was tough, let alone having it broadcast on national television. But when they said it is about breaking the stereotypes, it made me more relaxed that it wasn’t going to be like Benefits Street.

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“I wanted to share my story because there are so many people out there who are going through what I went through every day.”

Career highlight for Jan

Jan Baxter says she has many moments she looks back on with pride from her career – but one in particular stands out.
“There was one guy who used to come in and he was quite aggressive to the point where I thought I wouldn’t be able to deal with him anymore. It turned out it was because he couldn’t read and he didn’t want to admit this.

“I had good contacts with a local employer who needed somebody who could drive a mini-bus for people with disabilities. He got the work and opened a bank account for the first time in his life. He used to come in for appointments with his partner and six kids. His life was improved but it was also the lives of the people around him. His partner then felt confident she could go and get a job.”

The Yorkshire Jobcentre starts on Monday, August 10 at 9pm on Channel 4

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