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Laurie Penny on the human cost of welfare reform

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

The scandal is that no one is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision.

Who will stand up for the welfare state? Not the Conservative Party, whose mantra - "Making work pay" - has turned out to be a cruel euphemism for slashing already meagre welfare payments and steering the long-term sick into the magical land of jobs. Not Labour, which declined a second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill; after all, its attacks on disability and sickness benefits when in power laid the groundwork for the coalition's planned destruction of the Attlee settlement. And it won't be the press.

With most official statistics indicating that gutting welfare on the brink of a second recession will leave millions in penury, the government has resorted to stoking tabloid hysteria, feeding the weekend papers a ready-boxed scare story tied with a thick ribbon of prejudice. Details of the most ersatz claims used by fraudulent welfare claimants have been distributed to build the growing consensus that the poor are simply not worth looking after. This is a consensus that nobody in opposition seems to have the guts to challenge.

In reality, benefit fraud rates remain stubbornly low, at 1 per cent. For every person who claims that a fear of ladders prevents them from cleaning windows, there are 99 others for whom incapacity or unemployment benefits are a vital lifeline. So vital that staff at jobcentres have been issued a six-point plan for how to deal with rejected claimants at risk of suicide. The government appears relaxed about the human cost of welfare reform.

The headline figure is that benefit fraud costs taxpayers £1.6bn each year. That figure is a fabrication. According to statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, this includes over £600m in "official" and customer errors. Factoring out pension scams, the figure is just £250m. To put that number in its proper context, the most conservative estimates hold that corporate tax avoidance costs the Treasury £25bn per year: 100 times the cost of benefit fraud.

Moral case

Threatening the workless with destitution may make good headlines but it is no way to increase employment when there are no jobs to go to. Unemployment in Britain stands at 2.5 million, including almost a million under-25s. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, wants us to believe that the private sector will provide jobs for these people, as well as another million public-sector workers and welfare recipients who will soon be joining the dole queue. Unfortunately, private-sector employment has flatlined, there are six dole claimants for every vacancy and Father Christmas is just your dad faffing about in a nylon suit.

There used to be a liberal consensus that it was the government's responsibility to provide employment and ensure that those unable to work were entitled to a minimum standard of living. As the Welfare Reform Bill oozes unchallenged through the Commons, the real scandal is not that the government is lying through its teeth in order to justify its evisceration of the welfare state. The scandal is that no one in Westminster is prepared to make a moral case for welfare provision as the honest heart of social democracy.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.