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.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


So welcome to the Voluntary Sector. Here are a few minutes of my life which played out one morning last week. I unlocked, picked the post from the mat and switched on the lights. The air was autumn cold for the first time. I switched on our 8p an hour wall heater. There were three envelopes, all of them brown. Just like always.

I took the envelopes to an ‘in tray’ which was full of a whole heap more brown envelopes. Maybe I should open a few of them up.


Computer on and the ether dialled up. Online banking. Passwords. Go to accounts.

Oh, for Christ’s sake.

The already opened up brown envelopes added up to a whole lot more that eight hundred and thirty three lousy quid.

So welcome to the Voluntary Sector. I sorted the wheat from the chaff and worked the phone and begged a few favours. Twenty minutes later a couple of favours had been granted and a couple of payments had been promised earlier that they were due.

Another week taken care of. And next week? Don’t even go there.

Switch screens to Tesco Online Groceries. 852 items for £156 and it was primed to arrive at the back door for noon the next day.

Another three days worth of emergency food parcels taken care of. Was the wolf kept from the door? No chance. The wolf was merely sitting down in the snow and waiting for his mates to arrive.

It ain’t easy to run a charity on fresh air. We’ve been doing it for ten years and the seat of our pants has many, many hours of flying time. And all that flying time is no guarantee of anything whatsoever. No doubt the last Luftwaffe pilots to fly out of Tempelhof airport whilst the Red Army tanks rumbled into the Berlin suburbs in April 1945 had plenty of flying hours under their belts as well.

Whatever. Put it to the back of the mind. Open up the doors and feed the hungry. Just like every day. Except that these days there are a whole lot more hungry to feed.

During the afternoon I spent some time with a client who we are well and truly pleased with. As ever some of the facts have been changed about a bit to ensure anonymity.

She is a young woman who was a complete and utter lost soul when she first arrived at our reception counter a few months ago. Her story is a familiar story. Well, familiar enough to all of us at First Base. Life wasn’t supposed to be like this. She had come from a good and loving home and for the first twenty something years of her life, all had been pretty rosy in the garden. Things were good at home and good at school and then good in the workplace. A regulation, ordinary and happy life. A clear blue sky in May.

And then the wrong guy walked into her life in within a couple of years everything had crashed and burned. First cocaine, then heroin, then endless abuse. She was put to work. She was told in no uncertain terms that it was on her to feed two habits. She never learnt the art of injecting herself. He always did the honours until her body was well and truly manacled to a daily requirement of opiates that cost north of £100 a day to keep up with. Every morning brought along the same Devil’s option. Rob your family or rob the shops or take a beating and then curl up in a ball and deal with the cold turkey.

By the time she washed up in First Base tearfully presenting a food parcel form, just about everything had gone. Family. Friends. Self respect. Confidence. Almost the ability to speak. And her liberty looked like it would be the next thing to go. A litany of stupid, petty offenses were about to catch up with her and the prospect of prison was on the horizon. She came in and told her dismal tale with her head down as far down as a head can go. Never has the term ‘quiet as a mouse’ been so apt.

The thought of prison terrified her. The thought of prison was a bridge too far. The thought of prison was filling her head with thoughts of just ending it all. Switching off the lights. Checking out.

Thankfully the boyfriend from Hell was also gone. He was away behind bars and would be so for the foreseeable future. Which meant that there was hope.

We focussed on the offenses which turned out to be ridiculous. The only way she could summon up the courage to leave the house was by taking blue valium. But blue valium made her do idiotic things. Blue valium made her feel invisible. Her last offense had been to steal worthless tat from three different shops. The three crimes added up to a princely sum of just over £7. But that lousy £7 looked like being the straw to finally break the camel’s back. Crimes committed whilst out on bail. Crimes committed whilst on probation. Crimes committed after she had faithfully promised the Sheriff that she would definitely behave herself in future.  

We encouraged her to call in again and spend time with Leslie who only a couple of years ago had come into the reception the grip of the very same despair. I promised her that Leslie could take her hand and show her the way out of the dark tunnel and into the light. I promised her that Leslie knew the path because she had walked the path and now she had been out in the sunlight for well over a year.

Then I rang her probation worker and found it hard to feel much optimism. There had been too many idiotic petty offenses. She had missed too many appointments when the terror of the outside world had kept her hiding away behind the locked doors of her flat. She had failed to pay fines and messed up community service and missed appointments with her drug workers. She was all but out of rope.

I said that First Base would do what we could. I said that Leslie would try and make her believe that there really was a path into the light. And the probation worker said OK then, let’s see.

Because First Base is pretty good at persuading people that there is a way out of the dark and into the light. Even if I say it myself.

Well that was 3 months ago. Since then she has kept every appointment and her probation officer is all but certain that the Sheriff will grant her some more slack. Will she manage to follow Leslie and many others all the way into the light and stay there? Who knows? Let’s hope so.

So here’s the thing. If she hadn’t come in that day the odds are that she would now be spending a few months at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Maybe 4 months. And once she had hit that very particular rock bottom of jail time, she would probably have ended going back.

Time and time again.

Most people do.

Over the next five years she would probably have spent at least two of them behind bars. And the poor old beleaguered tax payer would have shelled out about £80,000 to make it happen. What of the other three years? Dole and housing benefit and council tax benefit and legal aid and methadone and A&E? Maybe £15,000 a year? All in all she would have been a rather expensive lost soul. £110,000 in five years.

And she still might be. But at least it looks somewhat less likely that it did three months ago.

Right now, there about 40 individuals getting on with living normal, law abiding lives who might otherwise be banged up in Scotland’s jails had they not come into First Base. Had they failed to turn things around, each and every one of them would have been costing the tax payer at least £20,000 a year.

Do the maths.

£800,000 a year. This is the legacy of ten years of painstaking work. And for every success, there are at least six or seven failures. And the list of those clients who we have worked with who are now overdosed and dead and gone is sadly much higher than 40.

But this is an area of work where there are no miracle cures. No magic buttons. No wonder pills.

All you can do is treat people with respect and never, ever judge them. Listen and find the person who once was. Help them to rediscover their lost souls. And their self belief. And of course hope. And once there is self belief and hope, it is amazing what people can achieve.

It would be nice if the fact that the decade long efforts of everyone at First Base means the tax payer is almost a million a year better off was in any way recognised.

But it isn’t.

Not even nearly.

That is why on a cold morning last week we had £833 in the bank and a whole lot of mouths to feed.

Despite all the frantic media coverage the issue of Welfare now attracts, it is very rare to see any journalist shining a much needed light on the really expensive people. Our twenty grand a year guys are in fact way off the top of the league in this regard. Here are a couple of examples of where the public purse takes a real hammering.

A couple of years ago I heard that Dumfries and Galloway had 13 teenagers who were so out of control that they needed the very top bracket of residential care. Take a deep breath and read on. It costs £1000 a day. £30,000 a month. A third of a million a year. Those 13 kids were hitting the local council coffers to the tune of over £4 million a year. 13 kids! You can pay for well over a hundred teachers and coppers with that kind of cash.

Here’s a case from London. A thirty something year old crack addicted woman gave birth to her thirteenth child which was duly removed from her care by the social work. Just like the previous 12 kids had been removed. The bill for achieving this was £3.5 million and counting. The woman told the reporters that she would keep on having kids until they let her keep one. And no doubt we will keep on paying all the court costs and lawyers to make sure that such an outcome never happens. And no doubt in a few years time her tab will have glided through the five million mark.

Look at it this way.

If a City banker earns a million a year and doesn’t succumb to the temptation to evade his tax, he will send about half of his income to HM Treasury. And half a million is an awful lot of money. But half a million isn’t enough to pick up the tab for two wild, wild kids who need a £1000 a day’s worth of residential care.

It would be nice to think that there is someone, somewhere who checks out the places which have a track record of helping some of these ultra expensive citizens to turn corners and stop being such a spectacular drain on the public purse. And it would be nice to think that they would make sure that such organisations had the wherewithal to pay the rent and keep the lights on.

But they don’t.

It never crosses their minds.

And when you have a pile of brown envelopes and £833 in the bank this can be pretty bloody frustrating.

So welcome to the Voluntary Sector.       

1 comment:

  1. I am curious as to whether there are any 12 step programs in your area and if so whether you are working together in salvaging these poor souls?