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, October 16, 2014


Yesterday afternoon I logged onto Twitter to discover a whole bunch of people in full on outrage mode. Some Tory Minister I had never heard of had said that disabled people should have to work for £2 an hour. Bloody hell! Most extraordinary was the fact that he went by the name of Freud. Let’s face it, being a politician and having a name like that is a bit like walking a tightrope. Surely he must have dreaded the moment when he said something seriously stupid and thereby gave licence to the rat pack of hacks to have hours of fun spinning witticisms around ‘Freudian Slip’.

So I checked it out and lo and behold, it was entirely true. So I checked it out some more and lo and behold, the way it was being painted on Twitter bore no reality to the actual context of his words.

But what the hell. Who gives a damn about context? He’s a Tory. He’s a Lord. He looks like a smug public school type. Fair game, right? Screw him.

In reality, nobody gives a stuff about the rights and wrongs. Already his ill chosen words are headed into folklore and they will still be gloatingly quoted long after the unfortunate Lord Freud has disappeared from our memory banks. Picture it. Question Time 2016. An artificially angry Labour MP is looking to get the audience to cheer by wagging a finger at the Tory at the table and saying "How dare you say that! Your’s is the party that thinks disabled people should work for £2 an hour!!!”

And those in the audience who hate the Tories will duly cheer. And the Labour guy will wear a smug ‘Gotcha’ look for a couple of minutes. And the Tory will be forced to sit and fume because when all is said and done, Lord Freud DID say it, even though it was clearly not what he really meant.

The whole tawdry business is sad and sickening on so many levels. I have absolutely no idea if Lord Freud is a good minister or not. Like I said, before yesterday I had never heard of him. Now he will be duly fired and that will be the end of him. Nobody will give a damn whether he is treated fairly or not. Nobody will be remotely interested in the context of his words.

Any regular readers of this blog of mine will know full well that I am not generally the biggest fan of our Tory Government in Westminster. However, on this particular issue the posh boy probably has a point. Those who are disabled by very severe learning difficulties are probably the greatest victims of the minimum wage. Let’s check out a factory floor of forty or so years ago. There would be lads who were a bit slow who would do all the sweeping up and empty the bins. They would have a mental age of about nine and all the guys on the shop floor would make a fuss of them. When everyone went to the match on a Saturday afternoon, they would go along with the rest of the crowd. When everyone went down the pub after work, the lads who were ‘a bit slow’ would be with them. Fair enough, they would be earning a third of what everyone else was earning, but at least they had something to fill their time with and lots of mates.

What has happened as we have evolved over the last forty years? Well, nothing much that is good for lads with a mental age of nine. Part of having a mental age of nine means that you are not really able to manage the demands of a forty hour week. Three hours a day is about the limit. So a boss with a heart used to have two options. He could create one full time job which involved sweeping the floors and emptying the bins and fetching a carrying and pay the same rate as the other guys on the shop floor. Or on the other hand he could hire in four or five lads with severe learning difficulties and split the money several ways. Fair enough, they would not be earning nearly as much as everyone else, but at least they had somewhere to go: something to get them out of the house: a community to become a part of.

Then came the minimum wage and the option was removed from the table. Now all of these tasks are carried out by one person who flogs his/her guts out for fifty hours a week and earns the same as everyone else.

So what has become of those with ultra severe learning difficulties? Nothing much that has been good. Over the years, the amount of benefits they receive has gone up dramatically. Now it is not all that unusual for someone in that particular boat to be getting £200 a week on top of a rent free house. Stop and think about that. How well do you think a lonely nine year old would deal with £200 a week in their hands? Not well, right? Of course they will try to use the £200 to buy themselves some friends. It’s what lots of lonely, excluded kids do. The problem is that when you try to buy friends you almost always wind up with the worst or the worst of mates. We see this all the time at First Base and we have seen it for years.
When someone with severe learning difficulties is due to have £200 available to pull from the cash machine on a Thursday morning, the worst of the local pondlife are all over them like a rash. The pondlife will ply their easy mark with cider and blue valium pills and lo and behold they will have stripped their account bare by lunchtime. The £200 will all go to yet more bags of smack whilst the poor sod who has been ripped off will wind up in our place the next day needing a food parcel.

So where would they be better off? Working in a factory surrounded by regular folk who would look out for them and treat them as part of the crew? Or all on their own in some flat paid for by Housing Benefit hoping to buy themselves a few mates with their £200 a week?

There are lots and lots of people with severe learning difficulties who are working. How much to they earn? Not a penny. They are volunteers and they work in charity shops and community gardens. We have a constant stream of lonely people who are ‘mentally challenged’ who want to volunteer to work at First Base for no pay whatsoever. Sadly we don’t have any slots. And we’re not on our own. The Voluntary Sector is awash with potential volunteers right now. Some of our food parcel clients are volunteering at the British Heart Foundation furniture project. The charity are doing their very best to be fair and so they make a point of offering something to everyone who volunteers their time. Basically means that people get a couple of hours every three weeks or so. Not enough to get them out of the house. Not enough to get them out of the clutches of the pondlife who are so adept at promising to be their best mate and then getting them completely off their faces and robbing them blind.

It is impossible for the Voluntary Sector to find a place for all of these desperately unfortunate souls. It would be great if the private sector was allowed to do something. But just imagine the shit storm that would break out if a supermarket accepted volunteers with learning difficulties to come into the store to sweep the floor for nothing. Wow! Twitter would explode with outrage.

So instead we leave these sad souls to live achingly lonely lives where their only friends tend to be the most amoral, manipulative and revolting members of Club Heroin. But the people who fill them with cheap pills and cider before robbing them blind don’t tend to be Tory Lords from public schools.

So that’s OK then.

In my experience at First Base, most of the poor buggers with severe mental disabilities would happily PAY £2 an hour for the chance to belong somewhere. To have some friends who aren’t hell bent of stealing their money. It is tragic, but it is the reality.

But as per usual nobody is remotely interested in the bleak nuts and bolts of grass roots reality. All anyone wants to do is to score points. Some bright eyed ambitious intern from Oxford obviously thought it a good idea to get Ed Milliband to harangue Cameron on the Freudian slip.

They were clearly so obsessed with Westminster’s playground games that they completely failed to see the wood from the trees. Basic human decency demands that you don’t accuse someone of being heartless and cruel to disabled people who has recently lost a young disabled son. Fair enough, the Red Tories were always going to make hay with their secret recording. Obviously they were. But anyone with a shred of decency would have found a different place to do it. Needling a father who has lost a young child is beyond disgusting and they should be ashamed of themselves. But they won’t be, for all that matters to these appalling people are their nasty little party political games.

I guess at this point I should own up to having done some of this stuff myself. In the summer I represented the ‘Yes’ side in an Indy debate against a couple of local Labour politicians. I was given a question to deal with about what kind of defense forces were planned for an Indpendent Scotland. Russell Brown, our local Labour MP and member of the Red Tory shadow defense team, had already told the audience that the only way for all of us to be safe in our beds was to remain under the umbrella of the British Armed Forces, nukes and all. I was making the point that the White Paper suggested that there should be more investment in defending us from future cyber attacks when Russell jumped in feet first and interrupted my flow. He became suddenly animated and said that was there to be a serious cyber attack which threatened to shut down the power grid, then it was vital that we had the ability to respond with the full might of the British Military. This pissed me off. It pissed me off because I was getting fed up with his endlessly rude interruptions. It pissed me off because it was just so plain stupid.

So I pointed out that there had already been examples of small countries being cyber attacked. Only a few years ago Estonia all but ground to halt on the back of a massive cyber attack which was launched from within Russia. I pointed out that were Scotland to be subjected to an attack like this, the most obvious candidates to launch such an attack would be China and Russia. I asked what were his military plans to deal with such an eventuality? Would he stick 1 Scots on a boat and get them to invade China? Drop 3 Para into Red Square? In reality, what he was suggesting was to threaten the likes of China and Russia with a pre-emptive nuclear strike from one of our Trident subs.

Russell went as ballistic as the aforesaid missiles and he raged for a while. He was adamant that he hadn’t said any such thing and most of the audience laughed and told him that he had.

Well, of course he hadn’t said it. Instead he said something which was crass and stupid and ill thought out. He had boxed himself into a very uncomfortable corner. Logically, his words could only mean one thing – the only weapon at our disposal to threaten the might of either Russia and China is Trident. That much is obvious to anyone with half a brain.

The words have stayed with Russell. Ever since I have seen comments about him on Twitter where he is branded as the warmonger who would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on any country who launch a cyber attack on Britain. This is pure nonsense of course and it demonstrates the childish way that politics seems to work. I feel a little guilty about it because I guess I started it. I was fully engaged in the cut and thrust of the debate and when he presented me with such an open goal I couldn’t resist the chance of knocking the ball into the back of the net.

In the coming months and years we will hear time and again that the evil Tories are the party who think disabled people should work for £2 an hour. It will go on and on long after Lord Freud has disappeared from our memory banks. Nobody will remember the context of the words and nobody will care. The words will become just another part of the endless Punch and Judy show that our rulers enjoy playing so much. And all the while the poor sods who are the real victims will turn up at First Base looking for something eat. And we will talk with them and try and help them to come up with ways of keeping their money safe from the pondlife who swarm all over them like voracious flies on the day their money hits their account. It won’t work. It never does. The pondlife will continue to rob them down to the last penny. And then we will feed them for the next thirteen, penniless days. Would they be better working in Tesco for £2 an hour? You bet they would. But nobody really cares about the dismal reality of their lives.

All anyone seems to care about is the usual political point scoring.  

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, as usual. I only half caught this, so it's good to have some background. One point though, your definition of 'severe' learning difficulties seems a bit astray in my experience. I worked with adults with 'moderate' learning disabilities and none of them would be allowed to get their own money out of a cash point. And none of them had jobs. maybe some on the mild side of moderate would get volunteer work, but none of them would be considered for paid work. And when one gets to 'severe' learning disabilities, I found it hard to get such people 'released' from activity/resource centres to participate in our activities at all - risk assessments blah de blah... 'such people' are pretty much institutionalised or as you say, stuck at home but as they (from moderate onwards) are usually considered 'with mental incapacity' that basically means that someone else IS in charge of their money. And what that money can be spent on is very tightly controlled. Yes, they are subject to the most incredible levels of risk (from those supposedly responsible for taking care of them as much as anyone else - the scope to abuse them financially seems to be almost endemic and will only get worse with personal payments, since these moderate/severe learning disabled adults will NOT get any real say over how their money is spent.) But there is so much more that could be done - I spent 10 years trying to provide an 'alternative' to work which could have become a 'work' environment for them in advocacy and drama, and guess what, it was made virtually impossible to achieve. So they lose out every way. All the examples you give are of people I've come across 'labelled' as 'mild' learning disabilities - their lot is ,as you say, bloody appalling, but I have to say that for those with the label moderate/severe never mind profound and multiple learning disabilities, the system doesn't even begin to look to their needs - and the thought of a job? Forget it. Yet lots of these people have skills that COULD be utilised and if so, of course they should be paid something for their work. Though, in a way, I think that a route which offsets benefits against work would be good, if it could be properly administered and was truly person centred rather than to do with balancing books. All the adults I knew had a sense of pride when they thought that their drama was their 'work' and their benefits were what they got instead of wages in their hand for doing this 'work.' There are many ways round this problem, but the difficulty is that people with learning disabilities (even more so than those with physical disabilities) are not viewed by most 'normal' people as valuable members of society - or even people. and their worth is about a lot more than how many £££ per hour they should get one way or the other. Conclusion? The whole social policy idea needs a bloody good shake up. We need a whole new approach to social justice. Independence anyone? Oh no, that options out the window... so what hope is there for the vulnerable in society now, fighting against a system which is not only not fit for purpose but doesn't view them as 'part' of society, just part of a problem for society! Rant over