I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Who says that men can’t multi-task? This missive is two things at once. First up, it is the sixty third blog to be thrown out into the ether from this site. Second up, it is an open letter to my local Member of the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ – Russell Brown. Does this make me one of those much vaunted modern men? Maybe.
OK. On to the issue at hand.
Every day at First Base we see individuals who have been suspended from their benefits for a variety of offences, most of them petty in the extreme. For a while this new phenomenon had us scratching our heads. In ten years of issuing emergency food parcels, we had never seen people tipped off their benefits for weeks on end for being ten minutes late for an appointment or making an error with their paperwork.
Last April all became clear thanks to a whistleblower who revealed a JobCentrePlus ‘Brave New World’ to the Guardian. If you want to check out the dismal nastiness of the story, you can find it here.
Over the last few months there is no doubt that the number of suspensions has increased dramatically. Obviously this hits an outfit like First Base pretty hard. Our food parcel service was originally designed to help someone to get over a bump in the road – grub for three days until they get their next payment. This is a wholly different situation. Now we get calls from support workers saying that Client X has been suspended for two months and will need three parcels a week until things are put back in place. For us that means 25 food parcels or so which doesn’t leave a whole lot of change out of a hundred quid.
I am sure you can imagine how annoying this is. When these new measures were planned out in some wood panelled Whitehall office, I have little doubt that the beaurocrats who decided to target every Job Centre worker to get a minimum of three people a week off benefits took the decision in the secure knowledge that the individuals in question would not starve to death. People starving to death on the streets of Britain wouldn’t be very good for the image now would it? Not the thing at all. Imagine how embarrassing it would be at drinks parties in Washington? Imagine how the Germans would shake their heads and make tut tut noises at European Union jollies? And God forbid, imagine the fun the French would have making snide comments and generally taking the piss?
So. I think it is fairly clear that mass starvation would not be deemed a particularly good thing.
But if a person has no money whatsoever for anything up to two years and they cannot find a job, then how do they actually manage NOT to starve to death? Easy. It is generally assumed that the good old Voluntary Sector will step up to the plate and keep bodies and souls together. And guess what? That is exactly what we do. If someone needs 25 food parcels to survive through a two month suspension, then that is what we will give them. I am sure you can guess at the amount of ducking and diving this involves, but we do it. The main reason that we are able to step up to the plate is that the local community is stepping up to the plate at the same time. Every day people call in with carrier bags full of food. Local churches gather up provisions every Sunday morning. It is very much a ‘hook or by crook’ affair, but so far we have never turned anyone away.
The maths are enough to make you want to get hold of a hammer and smash up a telephone box. Eight weeks of non paid dole comes in at about £480. However there is bound to be a whole bunch of paperwork involved in actually suspending someone and that will carry a cost. I also expect that artificially rendering people penniless for weeks on end must be a pretty trying way for the JobCentrePlus staff to spend their days. Let’s not forget the staff at the Job Centre are all completely normal people who are worried sick at the prospect of paying the mortgage, filling up the car and paying the next electric bill just like the rest of us. I for one would hate the thought of being targeted to completely mess up the lives of a minimum of three people every week of my working life. It must be desperately depressing and the clients will seldom take it lying down. Days must be a made up of hour after hour of getting abused and threatened. Stressful? Oh yeah. Bloody stressful. I wonder how many JobCentrePlus staff are signed off sick with stress on any given day? Loads I expect. And all that sick pay will add up and take a great big bite out of the nominal public purse saving of £480 generating by kicking someone off benefits for two months.
When we add up the added admin costs and the signed off sick costs I very doubt if there will be any saving at all to speak of. But there is a very definite extra cost lumped on to the Voluntary Sector who are expected to keep the show on the road.
Thanks for that.
For the sake of argument let’s assume that a two month benefit suspension does indeed save the tax payer £200. If 10,000 people a month are suspended this would generate a saving of £65000 a day which sounds one hell of a lot. It isn’t actually. It is about 0.05% of our daily deficit. Which of course kind of shows just how bloody big the deficit actually is.
I wonder if there is something else going on here? One of the prime pieces of evidence that the Government is using to convince the Chinese and the Arabs that lending us a hundred and twenty million quid a day at 2% is a sound and sensible idea is the fact that our unemployment register is miles lower than the likes of France and Greece and Spain. We can’t be all that bad if there are so few people on the dole when compared to there countries. Or so the story goes.
It seems to me that there might just be more than one way to kill this particular cat. Of course it is great if you can create an economic climate where there are loads of new jobs on offer every month. It sure doesn’t feel that way. Alternatively you can make sure that you suspend lots of people for tiny technicalities and thereby get them off the big list. As a conjuring trick it has a lot going for it. It gives us a story to tell to the men from Beijing and Riyadh. And it also gives us a chance to take the Mick out of the French in Brussels.
Is it true?
Well here is where you come in Russell. I think it would be a really good idea if you were to put in a Freedom of Information request to the Dumfries JobCentrePlus. A simple question. Get them to tell you exactly how many are suspended from benefits on any given day. Once we have the answer to that question, then we can do some simple maths.
Population of Dumfries? About 50,000. In very rough figures that is 0.1% of the population of Britain. So if we find that there are 250 people suspended in Dumfries it would be fair enough to multiply this by 1000 and assume that a quarter of a million are suspended in the UK as a whole. And that would make the unemployment figures look a little less rosy.
Should that be the case, some basic questions of morality probably need to be asked. Basically, is it morally justifiable to screw a quarter of a million people to keep the interest rate down on the £120 million we borrow each and every day? Let’s not forget that we would have to close down a whole lot of hospitals and schools if the rate went up to the same as the Spanish, Greeks and Italians are paying. I think a bit of honesty would be nice if this is indeed the reason behind what is going down. As far as we are concerned at First Base, we would appreciate a bit of honesty. It doesn’t seem much to ask, especially when we are expected to find a way to pick up all the pieces.
So it’s over to you Russell.
Best of British and all that! 

1 comment:

  1. Some good points there Mark and once again the possible consequences of certain changes to the benefits system aren't thought through. I don't think it is any secret that the Government toughed the sanctions regime in October 2012 and I have no doubt that there will have been an increase in the number of people suspended from benefits. I don't need an FOI to find out however and I have asked the Department of Work and Pensions for the local figures. I will let you and your readers know the answers when I receive them.

    Russell Brown