Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford investigate benefits system: We found no scroungers and no-one living comfortably
Nick, host of Countdown, is hoping that people will come away with a “more balanced” understanding of the benefits system
As Lord Alan Sugar’s original eyes and ears, Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford made a formidable team.
Amid chaos created by the wannabe Apprentices, they were forever on hand to tell it like it really was.
Now the pair have been reunited for a TV series in which they examine Britain’s complicated benefits system.
Former PR man Nick and ex-City solicitor Margaret set out to explode the myth that benefit claimants are all cheating, lazy scroungers trying to exploit the system, by putting together four claimants and four taxpayers to examine each other’s lives.
Margaret,61, says: “The image we get from some of the media is rather distorted – that everyone on benefits has 27 children and lives in a mansion.
“Actually, very few people defraud the system and most struggle to make ends meet.
“I wasn’t aware how much money you needed in order to have a very basic – and fairly grim actually – lifestyle.
“I wasn’t aware how few jobs there are compared to the number of people who are unemployed.”
Both agreed the benefits system is over-complicated – but there is a very real need to support people.
Nick, 69, explains: “The pendulum has swung.
“Not that long ago, people were far more sympathetic and compassionate towards benefits claimants. Not any more.
“When everybody’s a bit hard up, suddenly the claimants swing into clearer focus labelled as ‘B******s, living on the state’.”
Benefits claimants take about 10% of the national £200billion welfare budget, with about 50 per cent going on pensions – which many people believe should not even be included in the figures.
Ipswich was chosen for the investigation because it has an average number of unemployed people and average number of jobs available
Margaret, after visiting many individuals for the programme, found that a grand total of zero were “living comfortably” on benefits, adding: “We didn’t see any of that at all.”
Nick, host of Channel 4 quiz Countdown, is hoping that viewers will come away with a “more balanced” understanding of the benefits system.
“Fraud is like this,” he says as he pinches his finger and thumb together. “One per cent.
“But that’s what we read about and it makes us think that everyone’s at it. Living off the state, on the fiddle.
“If this helps people to know the truth behind some of those Daily Mail headlines, I’ll be very pleased.
“I don’t think we saw any out-and-out scroungers. Not everybody is living in a bloody mansion in Holland Park.
“If you saw the way that some people were living . . .” he trails off, thinking of some people he met who are reliant on food parcels to feed their families.
One man they encountered had gone from being a home-owning coach driver to the breadline in a matter of a few months.
After leaving his job because of illness, he found that the benefits were not enough to pay the mortgage and feed his family, so they had become reliant on charity food parcels.
Nick says: “He was desperately worried he’d lose his house because they wouldn’t be able to keep up mortgage payments.
“It showed how fragile it all is. We’re all just one step away from the gutter really.”
But he did not have sympathy for every claimant who took part in the show. Media studies graduate Liam brought out Nick’s sterner side.
He declares: “In Ipswich, media jobs aren’t exactly thick on the ground, and he wouldn’t contemplate anything else. Silly boy.
“He’s just got to get off his a**e and go and get a job and that will lead to something else.”
Nick also takes a hard line with one father called Chris, suggesting he needs to buck up his ideas and make a few more sacrifices.
“One chap wouldn’t work away during the week and return at weekends because, being a modern father, he said, ‘I want to see my children’.
“Fathers are busy changing nappies now, which is something I never did. In my day, quite a lot of people worked away.
“I did it. I worked in London and the family were in the country.”
But Margaret is quick to shoot him down over this, saying: “It’s much easier to make those sort of sacrifices if you are high-earning.
“Chris couldn’t afford to work for less than he was getting on benefits.”
She is critical of City women who say, ‘Of course it’s OK to have eight children and a job’, explaining: “Not everyone is a doctor or lawyer who can do lucrative part-time work and earn enough to pay for childcare.
“Some people can afford to pay for six nannies but most people are different.”
The duo discovered that many people were too scared to take on a job they weren’t sure about in case it went wrong and they were then “out” of the benefits system with nothing to live on.
And they are unanimous in their belief that the system needs a thorough overhaul to make it far less complicated.
Nick says: “It’s time for simplification. People say things like, ‘They’re terribly clever, they know how to work the system’.
“Well, you need to be to be able to work the bloody system.”
The pair found joining forces in front of the cameras without Lord Sugar looming over them was rather pleasant.
Nick admits: “It’s nice not to have Alan. When we were with him, we were support actors and he was the boss.
“But we don’t have a boss now – and that is great. No pressure.
“Alan’s a great guy, but nonetheless we were there just as advisers, to make sure the show ran on straight rails and the candidates didn’t lie.”
Having left the show four years ago to become an Egyptology student at the age of 57, Margaret says she doesn’t miss The Apprentice.
“Would I ever go back? In a word, ‘No’,” she says.
“I’ve finished the doctorate but I’m still doing research and I enjoy that very much. It’s more me than television.”
She does not even watch the BBC1 series, now in its ninth run.
But Margaret explains: “I don’t just not watch The Apprentice, I don’t watch anything. I’d rather be in the library.”
The pair’s easy banter is one of the reasons why they are such a popular double act with viewers.
Often ying to the other’s yang, they can usually weigh up arguments and offer some sort of solution in their typically no-nonsense manner.
Nick finds normally that he is the softer of the two, but when it came to the benefits investigation, it was he who took the harder line while Margaret was more sympathetic towards people’s plights.
He laughs: “I always thought Margaret was tougher than me but this programme showed she wasn’t.
“I was more critical of people, a bit harder-edged, which surprised me. I thought Margaret was normally marching alongside Gengis Khan.”
Margaret quips: “I must be mellowing in my old age.”
Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits, tonight, BBC1, 9pm.
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