One of the stars of hit TV documentary Benefits Street has dubbed Universal Credit ‘the worst thing in the world’ after his monthly payments were cut by more than half.
James Clarke – known by the nickname Fungi – said the phased introduction of the all-in-one benefit was causing ‘hell’ for him and others experiencing hard times.
He had been claiming £500 a month to spend on food and sundries but this was slashed to £229 for reasons which he said have not been explained to him.
Mr Clarke, whose rent is paid in a separate taxpayer-funded payment, said his drinking habit means he cannot work and said people giving him a ‘couple of quid’ from time to time now helps him survive.
But he admitted his and his partner spend more than £160 a month on extra-strength cider.
The show, which aired in 2014, followed the lives of benefits claimants living on James Turner Street in Winson Green, Birmingham.
James Clarke – Fungi – pictured in his home on James Turner Street during the filming of Benefits Street
Fungi, pictured here with White Dee who became the star of the show which aired in 2014
Mr Clarke, 50, said: ‘It’s causing me a hell of a lot of stress. I have to top up the gas and electric and buy food and there’s nothing left after that.
‘If it wasn’t for who I am and people recognising me and giving me a few quid to get by, I would be back in jail now. I’d be stealing to survive.
‘I know people in Moseley and if I get really hungry I go down there and they give me a free meal.
‘If I went there starving to one of the shops they would give me food straight away.
‘Because people know me they give me a couple of quid here and there, it’s not much, but it helps me survive.
‘What am I meant to do with £230 a month? I know I’d be back in jail without it.
‘I live in a shared house and a couple of people I live with are in exactly the same situation.’
Mr Clarke said: ‘I’ve been offered work on building sites and that. I can’t do that.. If I fell down and had an accident they’d be responsible. My doctor has signed me off as unfit to work’
Mr Clarke, who lives with his girlfriend of eight months, Kerrie Tarbuck, 40, admits he has a drink problem for which he is receiving support from his GP.
The couple drink three one-litre bottles of Frosty Jacks cider between them a day, having cut down since they met by chance when they passed each other in Moseley.
At 7.5 per cent alcohol by volume, the drink is nearly as powerful as a weak bottle of wine and twice as strong as many beers.
They live in sheltered accommodation in Kings Heath where the rent is paid for them through a separate state payment to James’s Universal Credit, which he claims through Selly Oak Jobcentre Plus after attending an hour-long assessment.
The unlikely celebrity admits to having a chronic drink problem, but has been clean of hard drugs for more than four years.
James said: ‘I’m an alcoholic, all I’ve done is swap one for another, but I’d rather have the drink than that stuff.
‘I can’t work because I drink every day, as soon as I wake up I start drinking.
‘I’ve been offered work on building sites and that. I can’t do that.. If I fell down and had an accident they’d be responsible. My doctor has signed me off as unfit to work.
‘We drink three one-litre bottles between us a day, which is £1.79 a bottle.
‘We’ve cut down on eight months ago, before I was drinking so much it was unreal.
‘I can’t take medication but my doctor has told me to cut down, which I have.
‘I don’t get drunk; I can’t. I wish I could get drunk.’
WHAT IS UNIVERSAL CREDIT?
What is Universal Credit?
A radical change to the benefits system which combines six payments – including tax credits, housing benefit and income support – into a single, means-tested payment.
How does it work?
A claimant’s benefits should be adjusted automatically if their wages change.
Benefits will gradually ‘taper’ off if a claimant finds work or earns more.
What is the timetable?
After teething troubles with the computer systems implementation has been hit by delays.
There are currently around 610,000 on UC and this will go up by anther 12 million over the next five years.
Why a five-week delay on payments?
Controversially the benefit is paid five weeks in arrears – this is because it is based on your previous month’s earnings.
Critics say this delay pushed people into debt.
The father-of-one, who has grown a beard since his time on the show, described Kerrie as a stabilising influence who suffers from epilepsy and also claims benefits.
James said: ‘She’s very pretty, very nice. We are stable. When she puts her foot down and says do something I do it.
‘The only thing that’s a nightmare is the Universal Credit, it’s the worst thing in the world.
‘There will be people in jail and people homeless because of it.
‘I know people who have got kids and they’re struggling, they are having to go to foodbanks.
‘They are going through hell.
‘One family I know they were getting £1,200 now they’re down to £500.
‘A family with four kids is having to go to foodbanks. I have to say respect to the foodbanks for that.’
Dividing opinion among viewers and critics, Benefits Street was dubbed ‘poverty porn’ after it first aired on Channel 4.
Mr Clarke failed to profit from his fame, however, with one of his lowest ebbs coming in October 2016, when he was sleeping rough under Birmingham’s Chinese Pagoda and drinking 10 cans of super-strength cider and lager a day.
After the show aired in 2014, he was seen in Cardiff begging passers-by for change, and claiming he had been ‘exploited’ by the makers of the documentary series, who ‘made their money out of me’.
Fungi said that he had family but did not want to stay with them as it would be ‘disrespectful’. But his 23-year-old daughter Kirsty said he was banned even from seeing his three grandchildren.
She said: ‘It might sound horrible but my dad has ruined his own life, my mum’s life and mine.
‘He deserves to be living on the streets. He blames everyone but himself for his problems. He has used up all his chances but he’s still blaming people for his situation.
‘Maybe being homeless will teach him, once and for all, to pull himself together and stop taking drugs and drinking his life away.’
He quit drugs after a stranger who saw him on television paid £11,500 to put him through rehab.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: ‘We are sorry to hear Mr Clarke is experiencing difficulties.
‘If he contacts his Jobcentre, staff can explain his payments and check he is receiving the correct amounts.
‘Universal Credit is a force for good for many, and over 1.4 million people are successfully receiving the benefit.’