Sunday, 17 November 2013

Can we Afford to lose our Compassion?

I was bent nearly double as I tried to make my body fit the small opening made for me by a police colleague in the broken down door of a derelict pub. The stench of human detritus slammed into me like a wall as I inched forward into the blackness beyond. All of a sudden, a wave of nausea swept over me as I reacted to first the smells and, then the sight of the evidence of human degradation all around me.

“Breathe through your mouth” my colleague advised me and soon I became accustomed to my surroundings.

We were looking for a vulnerable young man, one of my ‘cases’. We were concerned for his welfare. He was a proficient petty thief, heroin user and someone many considered to be on the human scrapheap at the age of nineteen. We didn’t find him, in that den, one of his favourite hangouts, just soiled mattresses, empty junk food wrappers and the tell-tale signs of recent drug use.

We moved in silence wandering from one darkened room to another. Then, as my colleague and I scrambled our way back out into the winter’s gloom, the daylight hit me like the brightest noonday sun. Such darkness and filth as it would have been difficult to imagine. Yet Matt and countless others inhabit this netherworld in every one of our towns and cities. It has become all that they know and all that they think they are worth.

On the way back to the office I pondered what had been lost from his young life. He had been a promising footballer at the age of 11, and among the foul mouthed cynicism of prisons and drug dens he maintained an air of respect for others. He was devoted to his mother, who, at the age of 40, had met the ‘wrong man’ who introduced Heroin to their home. First he introduced her, then he introduced her son, to the great emotional blanket that enveloped both their lives – stole all that they had, and then left. Nice.

If I were to meet Matt in the street with his ‘chav’ uniform of joggers, hoody and battered hi-tops, what would I feel – would it be compassion or contempt? Would I be prepared to scratch beneath the surface?
He remains for me, one for whom I have a ‘soft spot’ simply because I could see his potential beyond the ravages of his drug of choice. My concern is that in the current climate where government ministers brief about ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ there is no room for us to invest anything of value or meaning into a life like Matt’s.

At the time I was working with him (before Cameron and Osborne began dismantling the welfare society) we offered him a place on an intensive multi-agency programme (comprising Probation Service, NHS, Police and Drug Charity staff members) whose main aim was to find ways to divert this prolific offender away from his need for drugs and to provide a pathway and the means to fulfil his potential.

The funding for such schemes – which targeted the 5% of criminals locally who committed 50% of acquisitive crime? Gone – replaced by ‘payment by results’ contracts with private companies such as Serco and G4S. Although, we had a proven record of significantly reducing re-offending rates. There was a cost, in time: average time on the programme, three years; in resources: each local team committed a full time member of staff to the core team of four (the police committed two neighbourhood police officers), we had a budget for ‘rewards’ such as interview suits, work boots and, on one occasion, Artists’ materials.

The concept of a Society in which all children regardless of birth would have the same access to Health, Education and Shelter was born out of the deprivations of World War. The politicians of the day were determined that the orphans, widows and wounded of our nation would not be neglected. There is an economic argument for cutting back on where resources are allocated. From what I can observe of the current round of ‘austerity’ this seems to be focused not on ideology with humanity at its heart, but on profit and loss as solely measured in monetary terms. The problem for the current government is that societal change relies on a desire to bring all members up to the same level of value. No one member of society is ‘worth’ any more than another.

I contribute as I am able and if that is more than my neighbour is capable of giving, then please share my over capacity with them…. Idealistic? Maybe, but the likes of Clement Attlee didn’t think so, and it did work in its very British way for so long.
Surely, there is enough inventiveness in this country to find a way to balance the books whilst maintaining a compassionate society with the ideals of education, health and welfare for all people regardless of background, upbringing or beliefs?