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.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

'IF YOU TOO......'

There was something a little surreal about our January in The First Base Agency. Ten years of experience suggested that there would be a lull in people coming through the door and once again this proved to be the case. Why? I haven’t the faintest idea. This seasonal lull has never made any remote sense to me. Outside the endless rain cascaded down and all the ‘For Sale’ signs on Buccleuch St looked forlorn. The town was grey and deserted. The buses were still never more than a third full. Advertising billboards showing places bathed in sunshine looked as out of place and ridiculous as ever.

And instead of our usual 450 emergency food parcels we doled out just under 400. The evening news carried breathless tales of Britain’s GDP growing by a miraculously high 1.9%. Ministers with faces glowing from breaks in destinations offering winter sun told us that the good times were starting to roll again.


Was an unexpected 1.9% GDP spike really the reason for the first easing back in the demand for emergency food in many months? There seemed to be almost no logic in such a conclusion. After all, the experts seemed pretty well united in the conclusion that most of the much trumpeted 1.9% growth was down to Russian oligarchs hoovering up over priced houses in the South East. Could the influx of a few billion dodgy roubles really put food on the table for the struggling of Dumfries?

Well maybe it could. I don’t pretend to have the faintest understanding of economics.

A better clue seemed to be found in the fact that there didn’t seem to be so many people coming in with sanction letters from the Job Centre. This certainly made more sense than any ripple down effect that might have been caused by the owner of an Aluminium factory in Novosibirsk shelling out for an over priced Georgian pile in Belgravia.

So what was the deal?

Had the high and mighty in Whitehall discovered some unexpected compassion whilst hurtling down the crystalline slopes of St Moritz? Or had the spin doctors decided that the glorious tidings of a 1.9% growth in GDP meant that it was no longer necessary to beat the poor to win votes?

People do not need emergency food parcels in Britain as a result of some natural disaster like the typhoon in the Philippines. Ours is very much a man made crisis. People on six figure salaries in London offices take the decision to take away the incomes of people getting by on £60 a week in places where aluminium magnates from Novosibirsk wouldn’t dream of buying themselves a town house.

The taps get turned on the taps get turned off. For whatever reason, the word from Whitehall in January was that the taps could be turned back on. People were able to go along to Job Centre to sign on and duly receive their benefits a few days later. All of a sudden being 5 minutes late was no longer deemed to be a crime punishable by abject poverty.

Maybe this was where 1.9% GDP growth actually could have an effect on rain drenched Dumfries. Maybe the bean counters had suddenly found some light at the end of the fiscal tunnel and the need the bash the poor didn’t so desperate any more…

But night follows day and January becomes February and all of a sudden business as usual was very much resumed. The first Monday of the month saw nearly 30 people come in through the door looking for something to eat.

Two thirds of them had been newly sanctioned.

The taps had been switched back off.

Why? I guess there must have been a degree of fear in those Whitehall corridors that a few pesky elements of media might have been warming up for a batch of ‘Foodbank Britain’ stories over the Christmas break. Hungry kids during the festive season can soon become politically poisonous. Urging people to hate the poor at Christmas wouldn’t seem, well, Christian.

Well would it?

Better instead to send the word down the chain to leave them be for a month and pay them their benefits. Let things ride for a while. Get January out of the way and then start cracking the whip again. Come February, all of those ‘hard working families’ we hear so much about will be ready for some good old fashioned ‘hate the poor’ stories in the Redtops. In February all of those ‘hard working families’ will have bills landing on the mat from their credit card providers listing the sobering truth of all that money they borrowed to make Christmas the way the tele tells us it should be.

So last week over a hundred parcels headed out of the door and normal service was resumed.

And the cracks just get wider.

Here’s one to chew on. Two young lasses pushed a drenched pram through the door. The older of the pair was in her early twenties. The younger must have been fifteen or so and she held the hand of a toddler. She hung back and as the water dripped from her coat, she had the look of a refugee from a Balkan war. The toddler was still and mute. The pusher of the pram came to counter and presented a soggy letter from the Job Centre. Brief details. A family of three. A mother and two children. One four and one four months. No money.

No mention of the Balkan refugee with the hollow stare and pale cheeks.



How long? A month.

And the problems ran deeper than food. No baby milk. No nappies. Oh. And a mere 66p in the meter.

Had she applied for emergency money from the Scottish Welfare Fund?

Yes, but no joy. The Scottish Welfare Fund has replaced Crisis Loans as the place of last resort. It represents the last strands of the safety net of the State. Beyond the Scottish Welfare Fund there is nothing. Beyond the Scottish Welfare Fund is the Third World.

She told me that she had applied, but there would be no more money because she had already received three payments in the calendar year. And these are indeed the rules to be found in the small print. You are allowed to reach crisis point three times in any calendar year and after that you are on your own.

Does having a four month old baby with neither nappies nor milk make any difference? No a jot. The computer says no, and that is conclusively that.

We did what we could. We handed over bags of food and some packs of nappies that had been donated by one of the churches. We had no baby milk, but we dug out three jars of baby food. We suggested a fellow charity which might have been able to help out with £20 for the meter. And then they headed back out into the cascading rain leaving a memory of stretched translucent skin and the lost eyes of a refugee.

Decision time.

Like all charities we have policies to stick to. The welfare of children supercedes everything else. If we are worried that a child might be at risk, we are obligated to make the call no matter what. These policies are of course designed to guide us when we work with families where addiction rages. And from time to time we have had to make the call.

So what about a four month old with neither nappies nor milk and only 66p in the meter? Does that constitute at risk? Especially when the family has reached the point of three strikes and you’re out in the eyes of the Scottish Welfare Fund?

How ill can a four month old get in an unheated house in the freezing damp of a Scottish night in February?

Pretty ill I guess.

So I made the call.

I was passed around the houses for half an hour or so and experienced the joys of all manner of canned music care of the Council. In the end a duty social worker took the call and took the details. I could tell she didn’t want to. I couldn’t blame her. She obviously knew only too well that her department no longer has a budget to provide heat, light, nappies and milk. They have only one string left in their bow: remove the child and find a foster home.

A hundred years ago a young British Officer called Wilfred Owen penned a poem in which he strove to force the generals to take a glimpse of the hell and carnage they were causing with the orders they sent to the front from their luxurious Chateaus far away from the mud of the trenches. He described following a cart filled with the corpses of victims from a gas attack.

‘If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.’

Dulce et decorum est…

It is sweet and right to die for your country 

I put the phone down on the table and thought it would be a good thing if one of those Whitehall types could maybe have joined me at the counter to take a glimpse into those refugee eyes. I would have liked to have passed them the phone and watched them make the call and check out the anodyne canned music. Maybe hating the poor might not have seemed like such an easy thing to do.

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