Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 22/12/08

"So, Before They Come To Break Down The Door..."

James Mark Dakin Purnell, Secretary Of Stoat for the DWP (Doing Wrong to the Poor), has been at it again. This time, his people have floated the idea (that's 'floated' as in 'smelly one that no-one will own up to') that recipients of loans from the Department's Social Fund should be required to pay interest on the loan.

A brief summary for those who don't know: the 'Social Fund' was introduced by the Thatcher-being in the 1980s to replace the grants which had previously been available to enable people on very low incomes to buy emergency items, e.g. a new cooker to replace the one which had been condemned as liable to poison the whole household to death, a new coat for your five-year-old to wear in bed at night because your flat's heating system didn't work due to the Council not having the money to repair it (or losing the job-card behind the clock), etc. The replacement of grants with loans which had to be repaid (from the same benefit payments which had left you unable to pay for the item in the first place) was, of course, touted as encouraging 'thrift', 'self-reliance', and all the other clichés of that régime's vicious economic Darwinism. The loans were from a total 'pot' for your area the size of which was set at the beginning of the financial year, so that if you needed a loan from the Social Fund anytime after mid-November you had no chance because the year's funding had already run out.

Funnily enough, rail against the Social Fund as the Labour Party did whilst in opposition, they have never reversed the policy and reinstituted grants instead. Which is why we had the sight of a man who has never known poverty in his life coming out with the idea that the loans should now attract interest and should be administered by credit unions (whose typical APRs range from about 12% upwards).

When the sewage farm hit the windmill (as it did in very short order), Purnell shoved his disconcertingly androgynous-looking gofer Kitty Ussher out to deny everything. It was, the Depratment claimed, the result of a 'misunderstanding' whereby a 'consultation document' had been signed by Purnell without him having read it first.

Which raises two questions: firstly, is that true? It could be, and would explain a lot about how this government operates. Secondly, if it is true, what else has the prick signed without having read? The slow extermination of anyone whose annual income is less than £10000 a year, perhaps?

Actually, I don't think it's true. I think that this is another exercise in kite-flying, because say what you like about the current régime's incompetence when it comes to, say, sending young men to illegal wars without adequate equipment, stamping on the freedom to dissent or squelching attempts to uncover the criminality of arms-dealing companies and Saudi autocrats, one thing they are clever at is spin. We have seen it before from them: an idea gets 'leaked' that is so extreme that everyone (including the less comatose Labour backbenchers) raises a stink over it, and then the executive claim that they had no intention of ever doing such a dastardly thing before implementing a policy which is basically similar to the one they denied having but not quite so appalling - which, of course, is what they were going to do all along. It's known in committee circles as the '3-By-4 Ploy': say you want something called '3', but the majority of the committee wants something called '4'. You hold your fire until the vote is about to be taken, and then say that you can see the merits of '4', but at the same time something called '2' (which has hitherto scarcely been mentioned) has its attractions too, and that - in the spirit of compromise - you'd like to suggest '3' as a good solution. You'd be surprised how often this works.

So I don't actually think that Purnell's Panzers ever intended to do precisely what the report said. What I think they will try to do is to make the destitute pay back the loans but at a lower rate of interest than that charged by credit unions. It won't make any difference to the poor saps who end up having to pay it back out of benefits they can't survive on anyway, but it makes it look as if you are moderate and have listened to public concern. And as we know to our cost, looks are everything nowadays.

But what happens when those who default on the debt - or indeed any other debt, be it to banks, other creditors or to the courts - simply cannot pay? Ah, that's when you send in the bailiffs and the debt collection agencies. And this is where it turns sinister again. Because the government is proposing to give extensive new powers to bailiffs and similar thugs. For the first time, the operatives of private bailiff and debt collection companies would be given the legislative go-ahead to force their way into people's homes and use what is euphemistically described as 'reasonable force' to subdue the occupants. So with personal debt at record levels, unemployment rising back towards 1980s levels and the cost of basic services and utilities going through the roof, the régime's answer is to sanction psychopathic yobs to smash your door down and put you in a chokehold?

Never fear, however! Although a workable definition of 'reasonable force' is something the courts have been wrestling with for decades, we are assured that the new powers would be overseen by some mythical creature called 'a robust industry watchdog'. So, let me see, the people who would in effect define the extent of the use of 'reasonable force' would be the representatives of the companies which employ the people who will be allowed to use 'reasonable force'? Ah, that cure for all ills, self-regulation! We all know how well that has worked in the financial services industry, don't we? Apart from the fact that the debt-collection biz is populated almost entirely from the ranks of those who are unemployable in any civilised capacity due to their penchant for unrestrained violence and is owned and controlled by crooks and chancers.

We know that the current unmandated régime is obsessed with giving itself and its agencies the power to interfere and intrude in every aspect of our lives. Now we won't just have to worry about actual criminals smashing down our door, it'll be state and commerical organisations which can do it as well. But don't worry, they'll be subject to 'guidelines' (translation: something which can't be enforced by law and when not adhered to will not result in anyone being held responsible) which will include the advice that "...it might be reasonable to break open the door, but probably not to smash a hole in the wall.", and that 'reasonable grounds' include "movement of a curtain" or someone being seen inside the property who "may be the offender".

How long will it be before there is a fatality under these new powers? Because there sure as hell will be one. And it might not necessarily be some welfare claimant whose death would count for nothing in the eyes of our corporate media: so many nice, white, middle-class people have now fallen into unsustainable debt that it could be one of them instead. One can imagine the shock-horror coverage in the Daily Mail or the Express; the pictures of the grieving widow and the photogenic kids, the screaming headlines that "Something Must Be Done!!!"

If Something Must Be Done, then it Must Be Done Now. I therefore state that any attempt to enter my home under the auspices of these regulations will be met with 'reasonable force' (under my definition of same) which may involve - amongst other things - my late father's cricket bat (1930s vintage, but still with a few lusty cover drives left in it). You Have Been Warned. And that's not a 'guideline'...