A few days after the one and only Tory MP in Scotland told a Parliamentary committee that anything said by yours truly should be taken with a pinch of salt I received a surprise call from the Department of Work and Pensions. They wanted my e mail address. And was it OK for them to send me an e mail? An invitation, you see. Someone coming up from London. As in over the border. A fact finding mission. An opportunity to reach out and be all embracing. It took me a while. It quite often takes me a while to find my way to right page when I am addressed in government speak. But I got there in the end.
A few minutes later my computer made the clicking noise it makes when an inbound e mail hits the buffers and I duly opened up the missive from the minions of Ian Duncan Smith.
An invitation indeed. An invitation to indulge in some information sharing. And some fact finding. I did my best to read between the lines and kind of figured that the gist of the proposed meeting was to get under the skin of the whole 'Welfare Reforms = A Whole Bunch of Food Parcels' debate.
Nice to be asked and all that.
So I hit the reply button and RSVP’d.
The meeting was on Monday.
My SatNav has given up the ghost recently so I set off early armed with a print out from Google Maps. Silvan House looked an easy enough place to find in theory. But places always look easy to find in theory. And we all know what a dire fate awaits any citizen of our green and pleasant land should they be late for an appointment with the DWP.
It turned out that Silvan House was as easy to find in practice as in theory. It was a great multi-storey crescent shaped place that screamed out ‘Government’ at the top of its voice. I parked up and loaded up on a last hit of nicotine.
It occurred to me that this was the first time I had entered a huge multi-story crescent shaped building in thirty years. Back in 1984 the circumstances were somewhat different. A much younger me was a resident of Moss Side, Manchester and from time to time I would travel two miles across town to venture into the badlands of Hulme’s notorious Crescents. These particular crescents were a 1972 built high rise monstrosity designed to house 13000 Mancunians in accommodation better than the festering two up and two downs that had escaped the Luffwaffe. It didn’t work out as planned. By 1984 the Crescents had become a no go area to end all no go areas and less than a couple of thousand of the flats were occupied. Nobody in their right mind wanted to live in Hulme in 1984 and when the cops made their occasional forays into the concrete jungle they went in paramilitary style. I used to take my life in my hands to visit a huge Rastafarian called Rufus to score dope. It was like being on a Mancunian stage set from the cult epic, ‘The Warriors’.
Anyway. I digress.
Silvan House Edinburgh is a very different place to 1980’s Hulme. I have no doubt that the cops can visit any time they like. On their own. Without stab vests.
I did the signing in thing and was directed to a waiting room where the posters on the wall warned of the immigrant beetles which are threatening our indigenous trees. The main tenant of Silvan House is the Forestry Commission and they have kindly put their mission statement on the waiting room wall at eye level to ensure anyone waiting can bring themselves up to speed with the core values of the guardians of our nation’s trees.
There was another guy waiting and he introduced himself as a fellow foodbank guy. We shook hands and soon there were two more foodbank guys in the room.
So four of us.
Did anyone have any clue as to what the meeting was about?
None of us had.
After five minutes our escort to the second floor arrived and escorted us to the second floor. It was very open plan and home to an extraordinary array of brightly coloured filing cabinets. And I mean BRIGHTLY coloured filing cabinets. As in garish orange and yellow and red and purple. It gave the place the feel of a primary school classroom. I guess there must have been fifty or so people working open plan, each and every one of them with their eyes spot welded to computer screens. Was this the very room where so many thousands of lives have been turned upside down over the last few years? Crashed and burned at the left click of a mouse in a room filled with rainbow bright filing cabinets?
Meeting rooms were labelled with the names of the kind indigenous trees that are threatened by aggressive immigrant beetles. I cannot recall the name of our designated room. Spruce maybe.
Coffee was ordered and delivered with enthusiastic smiles and the DWP delegation joined us around the oval table. They did introductions. We did introductions. They told us what they did and we told them what we did. It was all friendly and polite and at no stage did it become remotely clear why we were actually there. Subtle messages were delivered loud and clear. On two separate occasions we were told with absolute authority that there were no central targets for sanctions. There had never been central targets for sanctions. Ever.
Ah the land of smoke and mirrors. Three years worth of investigative journalism undertaken by the Guardian newspaper strongly suggests such targets exist. And as yet these allegations have not prompted the DWP to take the newspaper to court. But now were being told an entirely different truth.
To what end?
My blog in the wake of being described as a person whose words should be taken with a pinch of salt by North Britain’s one and only Tory had been read many thousands of times. An Ewan from the Trussell Trust now writes regularly for the Herald. Foodbank guys are suddenly front and centre of the news cycle. Jim Murphy says we are about to be abolished. Was our voice getting a little too loud? Had the truth we were peddling become a little too inconvenient? Was this a charm offensive?
A couple of hours passed and lady from London needed to chase a plane back down south. Handshakes all round. We really must do this again. Absolutely we must. Communication is king.
On the way out I discovered one last oddity. I walked into the gleaming Gents toilet only to turn on my heels and walk straight back out.
And when you enter a public toilet with no urinals it can only mean one thing. It means you are in the wrong place and you need to get out quick before anyone gets the wrong end of the stick. I got out. Quickly. I checked the door and was surprised to find that the silhouette figure was absolutely not wearing a dress. The silhouette figure on the door was most definitely wearing trousers.
So. A Gents with no urinals. Another first to go with all those happy clappy filing cabinets.
We handed in our visitors passes and stepped out into a freezing rain that was more January than April.
Anyone have any idea what that was all about?
None of us had.
Not a clue.
But that is how it tends to be when you journey into the heart of the Establishment. You never quite know if you have been patted on the head or if you have had your pocket picked.
So I got into my car and drove home through snow covered forests.
And none the wiser.
It was all a very far cry from going to see Rufus back in the day.