Just who benefits most from our welfare state?

Picture this scene: for the very first time, you find yourself in a magistrate’s court—a rectangular, wood-panelled room with a stand-fan whirring in one corner. Around you, on the carpeted floor, you can spot brand-new briefcases, small piles of plastic folders and six pairs of well-polished leather shoes—one of which tap-tap-taps to a silent tune. Your iPhone says it’s 11:46am. Beside you, your colleague shifts from left to right in his seat. ‘Second case should have started now,’ he mumbles. Looking down, he then glances at the small clump of A4 paper before him, a five-page list of the morning’s proceedings. Before you can say anything, though, the heavy door to your right swings open. Wearing a tight-fitting tracksuit, a young woman walks into the courtroom. Above her silver lip-piercing, her brown-blonde hair is scraped back into a greasy ponytail. In each tattoo-covered hand, she carries a rustling bunch of Aldi and Iceland shopping bags. She drops them beside the entrance. ‘The absolute scrounger,’ you think as you try to peer inside the bags. ‘Just look at her: appearing in court, and she’s gone shopping—yes, shopping—beforehand.’

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ALDI: where I presumed the young woman had been shopping before coming to magistrate’s court.

 
Earlier this year, whilst reporting in Barnstaple Magistrate’s Court, I witnessed that very scene—except that, in reality, Josie Dawson had not been on any sort of benefit-funded shopping spree. (Her shiny-white Nike trainers, though, suggested she might have been on one recently.) Instead, as my colleague said to me, she had brought along her main possessions—clothes, toiletries, a black-spotted white duvet—because she knew she was going straight to prison, having violated the terms of her suspended sentence. In Josie’s defence, contesting two caught-in-the-act counts of Class A drug-possession, her solicitor said that Josie was ‘very realistic’ about the hearing’s outcome. So that Josie could ‘sort herself out,’ the solicitor then said: “My client is asking to go to prison.” Upon hearing this request, my colleague looked straight up from his notepad. Cupping a hand around his mouth, he leant across and whispered, “Never heard someone ask that before.” As he spoke, I watched Josie. Sat in the far corner, she was absently scratching at a star-shaped tattoo on her hand. Ten minutes later, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for her as she lifted both hands and the silent court heard the sharp click of handcuffs being fastened. Aged 29, a crack-cocaine addict and going to prison: what a sad, mis-led, messed-up start to her adult life.

Heroin: another of the drugs that Josie Dawson had been caught with by Devon and Cornwall Police.

 
I held this opinion of Josie until I met two other North Devon locals: Catherine Yates and Shana Little. Aged 42 and 44, respectively, both women have physical disabilities, both are mothers to autistic children, and both—whilst Josie received free rehab treatment in prison—have been made to suffer from Devon County Council’s £100m budget cuts. Since 2011, from 10:00am to 4:00pm, Catherine and Shana attended Oasis Day Centre without fail three times a week. For Catherine, who has a permeated spine and walks with a crutch, the day-centre is a ‘lifeline,’ a form of ‘respite.’ For wheelchair-bound Shana, disabled several years ago by a neurological condition, Oasis is ‘a happy family.’ “It’s a happy family,” she explains, “because we’ve got high amounts of stress in our own families…and, before this, Catherine and me didn’t really have any sort of life.”

Rosebank Day Centre: the location for Oasis Day Centre after its previous site was closed by the Council.

 
Now, however, after the Council announced the closure of 17 day-care centres across Devon, the future of Oasis remains in doubt. “For Oasis to be closed down,” says Catherine, a mother to four children, “that’s going to affect a lot of people’s mental health—not just those that come here, but also the families that need that time to have a breather, and for us to feel like normal humans.” Shana, meanwhile, spent five-and-a-half years at her West Devon home before discovering Oasis, where she struggled to adapt to her disability and battled with depression. In search of a ‘better quality of life,’ she then moved to North Devon—only to have ‘a small taste of it’ before the Council announced the day-centre closures. “I was housebound for pretty much two years before Oasis,” she says. “I was quite introverted when I first came here, and I was very dubious of everything. But, through Oasis, I’ve learned to cope better with what I’ve got and how to handle things better.”

Catherine (above) and Shana (below) posing outside Oasis Day Centre with letters from the Council.

 
Between Josie, Catherine and Shana, then, we have two types of people found today in British society: the scrounger and the hapless disabled, persecuted by governmental policy. When I spoke to them, Catherine and Shana repeatedly outlined the County Council’s apparent ‘betrayal.’ “All along,” Catherine said, who worked at Pall Europe in Ilfracombe for six years, “[local councillor] Stuart Barker always said that, if we wanted to stay as a group at Oasis, we at the County Council will keep you as a group.” Like the coalition government’s bedroom tax, which has slashed the benefits of thousands of disabled people in the UK, Devon County Council has left some of the county’s most vulnerable citizens even more so, despite what councillors might try to argue. “We feel almost victimised,” says Shana, a former healthcare assistant in Oakehampton Community Hospital. “I cried when I saw Stuart Barker [explaining the Council’s decision] on the television.”

Barnstaple's Civic Centre: the headquarters for Devon County Council.

Barnstaple’s Civic Centre: the head offices for Devon County Council.

 
Evidently, the contrast between Catherine and Shana and Josie Dawson—an unemployed, benefit-claiming addict, who previously declared in court that she never wanted to give up drugs—is stark.* While Catherine and Shana now have to fret about ‘a future of isolation,’ taxpayer-funded help is readily available to Josie in prison. Of course, whilst right-wing commentators would probably argue otherwise, the issue of Josie spongeing off the state does not ultimately lie with her. Instead, it lies with our welfare state, as does the victimisation of Catherine and Shana. By closing day-centres, Devon County Council is persecuting some of the people that need its help most. In prison, meanwhile, Josie can receive far better—and free—help for her personal needs than both Catherine and Shana. Regrettably, if the father of our 69-year-old welfare state William Beveridge was still alive, I don’t think he would like what he could see for himself in North Devon.

Barnstaple’s Clock Tower (North Devon), a location close to the town’s only magistrate’s court.

 
*Source: My colleague, who attended Josie Dawson’s previous hearing in May 2014. For North Devon Gazette’s article, click here.

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