Noxious vapours

Good wishes to those troubled bankers, the perils of sniffing damp repelling liquid and how to touch

Oh, those poor, innocent bankers and traders. Especially at Lloyds/TSB –they didn’t in anyway blight 10 years of my life. I’m sending love to them. I think it’s love – something that makes my ears bleed, anyway.

I’ve spent three days distracting myself from their plight by painting my mother’s house (located in what are now the rice paddies of Warwickshire) with a damp-repelling liquid that comes in an extra-large tin to accommodate all the health warnings about noxious vapours and instructions to wear a hazmat suit, goggles and a flannel vest.

Possessing none of the above, I have been – to use a complex medical term - poisoned. I also appear to have finished two new short stories - this leads me to suspect I am trapped in a brain-damage-induced delusion. At least that’s what I deeply and sincerely hope. Otherwise, I’ve assaulted a complete stranger in a shop.

Allow me, for the good of my soul, to explain. There I was in momentarily-sunny Stratford-Upon-Avon, waiting for my mother to finish purchasing a bushel of spring bulbs, or some such, when I turn round, see someone I know and begin the standard manoeuvres associated with Hiyahowareyoudoing. It is only at this point – which is to say, much too late – that I realise I have warmly greeted someone I do not know at all and who does not at all know me – the internal dialogue running roughly as follows…

Hang on , whoa… don’t know him. Shitshitshitshit, just touched the arm of someone I don’t know. That’s assault. I’ve assaulted a stranger.

Oh fuckingshitbolloxnononononono I do know him.

No, you don’t.

We’re not going to get out of this with denial.

We are if I say we are.

That’s-

Shut up.

That’s David Tennant. Right there. Right here, in fact.

I said shut up. Do you think he noticed ?

Is there anything about his performance style that suggests he has one lifeless arm ?

Shitshitshitshit. We’ve just assaulted David Tennant.

We’re sure that’s who it is ?

Oh, gimme a break.

He’s looking at us.

Well, wouldn’t you ? Is he immensely pissed off ?

More like he’s guessing – inaccurately – that we’re not wholly unhinged and is suggesting strongly that we shouldn’t draw a crowd.

I’m rubbish at drawing.

If you can’t say something useful... Look normal, apologetic and reassuring.

You want me to look three things at once ? You are joking. If anybody here can look three things at once it’s not me. I’m nodding, is that reassuring ?

No, that’s our head twitch. But it might help. Can we explain ourselves ?

“Trust me, I’m a novelist.” Yeah, that always works. Especially when we look more like the cover of a colour supplement with a special feature inside on mental health care failures. Anyway, to explain our extremely rude intrusion we’d have to make him stop listening to his personal stereo which is more of an intrusion still.

Hope it’s a nice tune. Bugger. Just mouth something sensible and go away, disappear, attempt never to have been.

VERY GOOD.

Did you just mouth VERY GOOD ? VERY GOOD ? How many awards do you have for word-slinging and all you can come up with is VERY GOOD ? VERY GOOD is what you say to someone who is five and has eaten all his crusts. VERY GOOD is not what you tell a very grown up you have only recently seen take Hamlet, shake it, turn it inside out and use it as a fetching hat. Jeezuz.

If we just run for the Avon… we’re wearing a big coat. It’ll weigh us down. We could be bobbing peacefully against the weir in no time.

As usual, I can only hope to be forgotten as soon as possible and try not to resurrect my last attempt to congratulate an actor I admire: to whit, “Excuse me Mr. Holm, if I could just say how much I’ve enjoyed all your work.” Which isn’t too shit a start and I was in a helpful context and therefore credible. Naturally, Ian Holm then asks what in particular I’ve enjoyed and I suddenly can remember nothing, nothing, nothing except for “From Hell” – an abortion of a movie in which he was, nevertheless, splendid, but even so. Dear God, there are occasions when my levels of self-loathing are shamefully inadequate. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Lord, give me people I’ve made up earlier any day. Amen.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.