Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford investigate the benefit system

Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford investigate benefits system: We found no scroungers and no-one living comfortably

11 Jul 2013 00:00

Nick, host of Countdown, is hoping that people will come away with a “more balanced” understanding of the benefits system



Double act: Margaret and Nick

Double act: Margaret and Nick

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.


Sir Alan Sugar and his two aids (left) Margaret Mountford (right) Nick Hewer

Eyes and ears: Nick and Margaret with Lord Sugar on The Apprentice


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.”


Benefits: How much is Enough?

Probe: The duo in Ipswich for the BBC programme


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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Hold the DWP and associated MPs accountable

It’s high time the DWP were held accountable for the suffering they have caused please read and spread this e petition

: To Investigate the DWP and connected MPs for corporate manslaughter.  In relation to the WCA


ATOS Costing the Taxpayer £1.6bn

Atos Protests4Atos, the private firm responsible for carrying out Work Capability Assessments on benefit claimants on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), will cost the UK taxpayer nearly *£1.6bn in private contracts.

The staggering figure consists of a number of different contracts ranging from disability assessments for benefit claimants to IT services for the governments enGage Gateway; IT infrastructure which allows for secure identity management and payment transactions for things like tax returns and registrations to government websites.

Atos has come under a great deal of criticism from disability campaigners, healthcare professionals and politicians, who argue that assessments to deem whether a person is capable of some form of work are ‘fundamentally flawed’ and should be scrapped.

DWP figures show that Atos recommendations have been wrong in as many as 1 in 5 assessments and successful appeals at Social Security Tribunals have been as high as 38%. The government claim that they are continuing to make improvements following reviews of the assessments and that successful appeals are now closer to 1 in 4 (25%).

This will not satisfy critics of Atos who say that the contract between the private contractor and the DWP should be revoked and that their poor performance in carrying out disability assessments for the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance, should mean that they should not be awarded a contract for carrying out assessments for the new disability benefit Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which is replacing Disability Living Allowance for disabled people. Both PIP and DLA are available to those both in work and out-of-work whilst ESA is only for those who are incapable of working – both can be claimed at the same time.

The medical services contract awarded to Atos to assess unemployed sick and disabled persons readiness for work will cost a total of £983 million from 1st September 2005 to 31st August 2015. The Atos contract for the new Personal Independence Payment will cost taxpayers close to £390 million, whilst their Occupational Health contract, which includes jobcentre employees, costs £12 million. Their IT contract with the DWP is worth £200 million whilst Atos involvement in back-to-work schemes (aka workfare) costs the taxpayer over £3.1 million. In total the full cost to the UK taxpayer of Atos contracts is close to £1.6 BILLION! Some believe that the total cost of these contracts could be much higher.

Atos are not alone in the windfall. Capita, which is another private firm, have held 16 contracts with the DWP worth over £586.4 million.

*Data Source: Disability Rights UK


was first published by the Welfare News


Most people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) will at some point have to undergo an assessment which will be carried ou by the French company ATOS. It is my belief that this assessment should be carried out by a Doctor, also before you attend they should contact your GP at present they don’t the reason for this is cost. They have to pay for a medical report. In my opinion this I should happen Especialy when 40% of appeals are being won at a cost to the taxpayer

Stop Atos using non doctors for medical assessments – e-petitions

Most people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) will