Updated second draft of my benefits story, still unfinished but a lot longer. Losing a lot of faith in its quality so yeah. I’ll just leave it here.
or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the Tories
The Day Britain Changed. You all remember it, right? The portentous headline that graced the newspapers the day the government first got really stuck into attacking “the benefit culture”. You all probably remember all the false starts that came before and after. Every paper desperately clambering over each other to declare the Welfare State dead, trying to stake their claim their first in a dying industry.
I’ll let you in on a secret. The Welfare State isn’t dead. But it is fucked. They’ve laid all the groundwork, set up all the institutions and even briefed everyone involved that when the time comes they can all join together and sweep away the ailing, weak, skeletal body of what passes for the Welfare State today. They’ve chipped away at it, slowly – ever so slowly. They’ve turned public opinion against it, at least in the parts of the country where they don’t need it. They’ve put the Departments in such financial straitjackets that they don’t struggle to get out of them anymore. They’ve “localised” services, and “ensured efficiency savings”, and made things “more agile” – what they mean is they’re killing it. At the same time as they’re giving free rein to the ultra-rich, the offensively rich, the literally have too much money than they have sense crowd because create wealth, apparently – only for each other, though but that doesn’t matter because the people who make decisions in this country and the too much money crowd are one and the same.
My name is Lily. I was raised on benefits that don’t exist anymore. I was the second in my family to go to university. I was on the dole for over two years before they asked me whether I’d like to sit on their side of the desk and work for them. So now I have a job, I work for the Department of Work and Entitlements. I know, I know. What a horrible American rebrand, right? At least you don’t have to look at it in big letters all day at work.
I spent two years trawling websites, and physical job centre boards (that do still exist, by the way) for the ten or so jobs that would be posted a month. I applied for every single one, even if it meant working up to my elbows in shit eighteen hours a day on less than what passes for minimum wage today. Every three days I’d have a face-to-face meeting with my Case Officer, and every day between that I’d have to type into the DWE website all the jobs I’d applied for. You needed at least five a day or your dole was cut. If you missed posting up your jobs once you got put on probation, and twice? Well they stopped your dole. Missing a posting meant you couldn’t eat for the foreseeable, so it was best to arrange your life around the postings. Have you noticed something? Yeah. There’d be about ten jobs a month put up, twenty a month was a real bumper crop. The economy was a fucking zombie. Nothing was happening. The companies that took a gamble and decided to hire people – folded. These offers now were more than likely because the guy doing it had died. That’s how things were, but the DWE didn’t recognise that. They still had the regulations that were out of date even when they were written. They made it as hard as possible to get any money off them. There was a big population of people living hand to mouth, without any help from the government. They’d steal scrap metal and sell it on, often to the people they stole it from and that would do them with enough rice and bread to eat for a couple of days. Rinse, and repeat. The Osbornevilles were full of people like that, and to be honest they were full of people claiming dole too. That’s what it had come to. Big tent cities in the inner-city parks.
Anyway, my point was the only way to keep your dole was to lie. You had to make up jobs to fill the empty spaces on your forms, because real jobs didn’t exist for you to apply for. So you’d create them, and type them in. You’d put whatever real job you could actually apply for at the top, and then fill the rest with job titles as convincing as you could muster: Human Resources Administrator at B&M Systems, Cleaning Operative at the Hilton Hotel, Sales Agent at Oak Furniture Superstore. You could reuse the same real job week after week; it acted like an umbrella for all the bunk ones you’d pad in after it. It was suspected, and I can tell you that it’s totally true now that I’m one of the people checking the lists, that you’d give as much lenience as possible to claimants. It was hard enough, and you know Case Officers are people too. They’re just people lucky enough to have a job. They understand how hard it is, and how strict the rules are. So give them a sign you’re not fully taking the piss and they’ll look the other way – having said that I’ve signed dole cheques for people in paint splattered overalls who smelt fucking toxic having just come from a job. I don’t care.
As I said, I went to University. A couple of years before people decided it was a total waste of time. My Mum insisted. We half-knew it was a lie even as I applied, that all the promises were empty and black inside. I worked my arse off in school to get the grades to be accepted (little did I know the grade system was a façade and the Universities were accepting anyone who was willingly enough to saddle themselves with all that debt); and I worked my arse off while I was there to get a First. It wasn’t worth it, boys and girls. Don’t bother. But, I do know all the big words and wanky theory that makes you seem like a real player. At least it did back in the day.
Let me tell you a story, well three stories. They’re all good stories. Let’s say they’re this Britain’s creation stories. It won’t take a minute. It’ll be over before you know it. You might feel a little bit of pressure, but you should be totally numb.
Once upon a time, way back in the annals of history there were two Germans called Karl and Friedrich. They were the best of friends. Both left Germany and travelled all over Europe. On their travels they saw people working long hours in jobs that were dangerous for very little pay. They saw people working in factories, and on farms. They saw people working in produce markets, and cleaning shoes. They saw everyone, working everywhere. They also saw the people above them, their bosses; the people who owned the businesses, or the land, or the building where these normal people worked. They saw the bosses crushing the working people under their heel, trying to drain more hours of them for less pay – constantly turning the press to get trickles of more money flowing into their own pockets. Greed drove them to make more and more money to satisfy a thirst that could never be slaked, and it also drove the normal people into the ground. Karl and Friedrich said “This can’t be right! Why is this happening? How can we change this?” So they went away, and they watched more people, and they wrote things down. Slowly, slowly, slowly they wrote books and spread them to people. To normal people (who couldn’t read so probably used them as doorstops), to the bosses and to the people in between. They’re books said “This isn’t right. This shouldn’t be happening. Here’s how to change it.” Not many people listened, but some did. Some years later, a cluster of people who had been listening – who had, in fact, based their entire lives and beliefs around Karl and Friedrich’s big doorstop books – picked up guns and knives and took power away from the bosses and the kings and took over power in a country that they said they would remake in Karl and Friedrich’s image. There wouldn’t be any more bosses. The bosses would be the workers. Everybody would be the same, and everybody would be happy. Everybody would live happily ever after.
Except, once the people who had listened were in power for a little while, some of them decided that they liked it more than they had expected. They wondered, now that they were the ones in power – why should power be shared with other people. So they clung to it, and when things didn’t go right they clung to it all the more and changed some of Karl and Friedrich’s ideas. As they clutched power tightly to their hearts, it changed them and they changed it. They had become very different, although they would never be able to see it. The only people who could see it were the normal people who were still working long hours, for little pay in dangerous jobs.
That was a nice fairy tale, right? Want to hear another? I could do this all day. Well, I’m in work later so I couldn’t but you get my drift.
Once upon a time, a time much like today but in the dark brown past, people were suffering. Some men in fancy suits had squandered away everybody’s money. For years and years before everybody was happy and everybody was spending money and with all the money air was pumped into a huge bubble in the sky. Some people couldn’t see the bubble at all, but some could see it and said that it would never burst. It did burst, and when it did people lost their jobs and their savings. The men who had done it jumped from buildings to hit the ground below. The people who had given them the money were left with nothing. People were hungry, and cold and lonely. Soon spread over the entire world and last for a very long time. People would wake up every day and say “Why can’t things just be like they used to? Why did all this have to happen?”, and then go to sleep without answering it. Rinse, and repeat. Nobody believed in anything anymore, least of all money.
Finally people in the country where it had all started got sick of it all, and booted the men who did it out of office, shouting “This is all your fault!” They let a man be their leader who tried with all his might to stop people believing in nothing. “Believe in me”, he said. “Believe in the person next to you”, he said. “Believe in the country”, he said. “Believe in something!” Around the same time a man from our country, who knew about these things, said “This man’s right! People are scared, and that’s the problem. They’re too scared to buy things, and other people are too scared to open shops and businesses. It’s because we’re all so scared that things are this bad. So let’s pretend not to be scared! If we pretend not to be scared, then things will get better and then we won’t have to be scared!” He wrote big books all about it, and people read them and said “Yeah! Why has no-one though of this before? This is brilliant.” And the leader in the country where it had all started said “This is exactly what I was trying to say. We have nothing to fear but fear itself, I said!” And the man from our country agreed. He said the best way to stop people being scared was for the leaders to act like they weren’t, and for the governments to buy things and give people jobs. As soon as ordinary people saw that the government wasn’t scared anymore, then slowly but surely they’d stop being scared.
They tried it, and it worked and people stopped being so frightened of everything. Every time something went wrong for the years after people would say “Remember the two men? They said that we shouldn’t be scared, so let’s not be.” And everyone lived happily ever after.
Well sort of. No-one lives happily ever after, because of that “ever after” bit. I guess this one is kind of a two-part story. You want the other half?
Once upon a time, about half way into the story I told you before, a man grew very worried about things. He looked across the world and he saw politicians and leaders spending money to give people jobs and he said but what about the people who already have jobs? Why do they have to pay for other people getting jobs? Matter-of-fact why should they pay for anything? People should just look after themselves. A woman who had ran away from the country in our first story, the country of people who had listened to Karl and Friedrich, said “Yeah!” and started to write big, big, bigger than doorstop books filled with stories about men who looked after themselves and only themselves and how this was good for everybody in the end.
More and more people thought that this was a good idea. They had jobs, and they didn’t want to share the money they made. They said “I’ve worked hard for this money. Why should I donate it to help other people? I want to make more money.” As people got richer and richer, more and more people decided that they should only look after themselves. It grew, and it grew until finally two politicians called Margaret and Ronald said “We’re going to stop what we’ve been doing, and we’re going to stop spending money.” They decided that giving people jobs wasn’t what was important, but that we should let people keep more of their own money and protect their savings instead.
It worked for a little while. People got rich, then richer, then richer, then eye-wateringly richer. Things that used to be done by the government were sold to rich people, and money flowed through everywhere – everywhere except the places that were poor to begin with. People forgot about these places, because they were drunk on their money. Soon the entire world followed what Margaret and Ronald did, and the money flowed everywhere and in every country handfuls of people got very, very rich. Even the country led by the people who had listened to Karl and Friedrich, said “We want this money!” and they started to listen to Margaret and Ronald.
Everybody lived happily ever after, apart from the poor people who grew in number; but nobody cared because some people were getting incredibly rich. They bought the television stations and the newspapers and they decided not to tell anyone about the poor people, because that way they could get even richer. It grew and it grew until it exploded.
Or, at least, the start of ‘The End’; because we’ve been living with the consequences of those three stories (but mostly the last one) for twenty years, and most normal people don’t know the stories or the men involved. And it was all men, mind.
I think I’m at the end of my story-telling tether. Maybe one more. Today we received the first explicit orders from central government that we had targets to meet. Some of the people I work with smiled apologetically and said that these targets have always been there for the higher-ups, but now everyone had to know and follow them.
The targets were simple. For every two people who comes to our desk every day – we have to kick one off benefits forever. We can do it legitimately, or (and this is in writing) we can manufacture reasonable doubt about their working arrangements.
We were told in the morning meeting, and then all made to sign non-disclosure agreements, in case we went to the press – like the press would care, anyway! This is the sort of stuff they’ve been claiming for on their sites for years.
All that I noticed was the slow erosion of the Welfare State suddenly becoming a fucking landslide.
I think it was peer pressure that stopped me whistleblowing straight away. I spent about two weeks doing what everyone else was doing. We’d spend all day throwing people off benefits, and looking guiltily at each other (well most of us would at least give it the dignity of looking guilty about it) and then at the end of day meeting, with us all sat in our coats, we’d report the numbers. Everybody hit 50%. Pamela would often report figures of 75%, but then again she would bring the Mail in everyday to reach at lunch, so that was to be expected.
I’d started out thinking that I could maybe cushion the impact. I could target the people who came in smelling of paint, or who came in with a clearly brand new pair of trainers that cost about eight weeks dole. These were both valid reasons to put down on their cancellation slips, by the way. I did this for a couple of days before I ran out, and I suddenly had to start kicking people off who desperately needed this money to live. After everyone, I began to get a knot in my stomach, like a ball of sick rage that this was happening; and worst of all I was being made to do it.
I realised I was ruining lives just to keep my job.
The thing about Liverpool is that we return Labour MPs to Parliament. We’re one of the few places left that does. There’s a couple in Newcastle, more than a handful from inner-city London, and two from Manchester. When Scotland got independence we lost any hope as a country of getting a Labour government ever again, so this little act of defiance is all we have. Thanks to the nature of the whole thing now, these MPs are hardly firebrands. They tend to be timid, conciliatory and better suited to making speeches acceptable in the Commons than drafting bills. What’s the point in them writing legislation to be put to a vote? It’ll get defeated by the 400-odd Tory majority so why bother? Their speeches tend to be the only way for them to get heard, and more often than not BBC Parliament switches to other coverage when a Labour MP gets up to speak.
Mostly our MPs just email out CLP reports telling us what the government have done this quarter and telling us how bad things are. The most recent count in Riverside, my ward: 82% child poverty, 20% adult employment and of that 13% underemployed, and 30% on benefits. So that’s half of the ward on no benefits, and without a job.
The report doesn’t make for nice bedtime reading.
I like to exercise. I feel a special clarity when my body is completely exhausted, and it helps me to think things through properly. It’s almost as if when you’ve ran for kilometres, or cycled and your legs get that dead-weight feeling, you become a lot more sensible. I like the sensation too. The feeling of accomplishment that I get when my legs are empty of any juice satisfies me. I almost feel that if I’m not stiff and sore the day after, then I wasn’t doing it right – so more often than not, I know, I go too far when I run, or bike.
It was during one of these stretches of going too far that I finally made my decision. I wasn’t going to stand by silent while this continued to happen. I’d pierce the secrecy surrounding the Job Centre, and tell people the inner workings. Maybe if they saw the sausage being made they wouldn’t support the “reforms” as much – which incidentally garnered 70% support in England and Wales at the last count, and 88% support in the South.
I mentioned that my Mum was disabled, right? She had a severe stroke when I was young. My family history is a pretty picture actually. We have a big family. My Mum has eight brothers and sisters, and my dad has six. Every one of my Dad’s brothers have had heart attacks of varying levels. Every one of my Mum’s sisters has had what’s called a “mini-stroke”, and my mum went one better with the whole hog. So I’m pretty much hobbled.
Her stroke came when I was young, as I said. It was the day after a parent’s evening at school, actually. I’d gotten fair to middling comments from my teachers, the only ones who really enthused about me were my History and English teachers but my mum was more concerned with trying to get back for soaps, so we breezed through as quickly as possible. She’s said everything was fine on our bus back from school, and the next morning she woke up and had her stroke.
I didn’t notice anything wrong at first. My Auntie Carol and cousin were staying over that day, and my Auntie had noticed something was different before anyone. As my Mum came down the stairs slowly and went outside for fresh air with my cousin, my Auntie followed her and was there to catch her as my Mum fell; the fire in her brain spreading already, although we didn’t know that at the time.
‘Call Lily’, was all I heard shouted through to me getting ready for school from the front of the house. So, vaguely sensing something was seriously wrong, I rushed to. While on the phone to Lily (my Mum’s other sister, told you we had a big family) telling her something was wrong with my Mum, Carol shouted ‘Call an ambulance!’ so Lily quickly did then made her way down to our house herself.
It was about ten minutes before the flashing blue lights and sirens came and took my Mum away and I was left alone in my house and told I could stay off school if I wanted to. I decided I would – anything to skip school right – and stayed under my duvet all day.
I was only interrupted by phone calls. Two from my Dad. Crying. It wasn’t unusual for my Dad to call me crying, but usually it was after he’d drank in the evening. This was different. It was ten in the morning for a start, and he was crying about my Mum, not about himself.
It was a month or so before I went to visit my Mum in hospital. The rest of the family just sort of didn’t question why I hadn’t gone in to visit. My brother had come home from Oxford in the middle of his exams to see her, some of my uncles had come across the country; but it took me a month. While the entire family was in the hospitals every night I stayed home and washed dishes. I hadn’t really been one for “chores” before, at all – but now I felt like I was helping if I cleaned up, so that when my family came home they wouldn’t have to do that on top of everything else.
When I finally went in to see my Mum it was surreal – the same quality that every visit inside a hospital gives me. Time kinds of dilates inside the walls of a medical centre, and the air has a certain glimmer-sheen to it. This all happened back when the National Health Service was still operational, thanks goodness – if it happened today it would’ve ruined the family.
Anyway, the day I finally went we went in a big group. My Auntie Lily kept close watch over me, and held my hand throughout the entire thing. We went into the shared ward, the walls seemingly very close and I saw my Mum. I barely recognised her. She was paralyzed down her right-hand side completely and her power of speech was virtually non-existent. She could manage stuttering glottal stops and wails for the most part. Her face glowed with recognition when she saw me, and my family told me she had been asking for me. After about ten minutes of being in the cloyingly hot room, I felt terribly sick. Lily must’ve recognised this, because she took me outside the room and we ate sub-par cafeteria chips, smothered in ketchup, together outside in the hall.
I didn’t visit again until my Mum was moved to a gentler ward. When I did she had improved loads. She could talk now and be understood, although it was much slower than usual and she didn’t have the same wit or bite. Still, it was, at least, my mum again. She looked like herself now.
This was around the same time that my Mum’s sisters found a deep vein thrombosis in my Mum’s leg that the doctors had missed. It they hadn’t caught it then it could’ve been fatal; just like the stroke, after which the doctors said my Mum was lucky to be alive.
She came home a couple of months after, and one of my Aunties moved in part-time to take care of her. We had a huge metal hospital bed in the living room for the longest time until the Council agreed to install handrails and a chair lift. Basically, my Mum was herself again now. She was much more timid than before, and she sank into pretty obvious depressions from day to day but she was herself. She also needed help to wash and dress herself.
About two months after that my Auntie had to move out, and I had to take over my Mum’s care. My brother had moved away by now.
After I was offered the job, I went home to tell my Mum the good news. She immediately insisted that she move in with one of her sisters so that I could have enough time to work. I reluctantly agreed on the basis that I pay for a full-time carer over there.
The last time I left the job centre I felt a damp sweat on my back. It was a Friday and we’d just had one of our “Look How Many People I Threw Off Benefits” meetings, one that was particularly thick with tension. I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to come back on Monday, especially not if the story broke properly.
As I left the door, one of the many security guards nodded at me. I’d never really spoken to the security guards before. They took their jobs very seriously. They’d come in before any of us got there in the morning, head-to-toe in black and stand either side of the doors. A few would position themselves inside. They were taciturn, and would only ever speak to each other in terse monosyllables.
I think the main reason we didn’t really engage with them is the fear of their presence. These over-six foot, built men and women being there meant that us Case officers were doing something dangerous, that could get us into physical harm. It was a physical manifestation of the ill we were doing to many of us working there, particularly the COs who didn’t have personal experience of benefits and poverty.
As I walked past the nameless hulk of a man on the doors for the last time, worried that at any moment he’d grab my arm and pull me back because he’d read my thoughts of what I was planning to do – his phone went off. The tone was a very old-fashioned end-of-battle tune from an ancient video game – Final Fantasy 7.
I smiled, but picked up my pace.
Print journalism is dead. Hey, they were writing articles about it (on the net, and even in the print media itself) twenty years ago. Some of the old dinosaurs adapted, co-opted the new culture of blogging and rode the wave into the 21st century. The Telegraph, Mail, Times, and Guardian all survived and their web presence is still pretty prominent in the blogosphere. News reporting is now just a couple of lines, that’s all people care about right? After that you get comment pieces, analysing the news stories more in-depth with opinion. That’s just news blogging; obviously, there’s still stuff like fashion, music and games blogs that are more varied. They more often than not pay popular bloggers for exclusivity on their specialist subject. They found a way to squeeze money out of something expected to get for free, because people would pay to hear their favourite voices talking about their favourite things.
The dominant force though is single writers or photographers, or those working in a small collective. There’s hardly any money unless you gang together and drive traffic to your site.
I spent my Friday night thinking about which of the blogs I read I could leak to. I wanted it to be someone experienced, but not one so experience that they had become part of the establishment. I needed someone with a radical political position so that they would take the information seriously, and not just hand it over to the authorities. I thought about sending it to Aurora Bingham for a while, but I feel like her political positions had drifted right in her middle-age, just like her signature dyed red hair had slowly mellowed out into ginger. Then I thought about sending it to Victoria Zade; but she was growing into more of a theoretical journalist these days. Most of her articles were about the progression of women’s rights in society, and their representation in popular culture. She would rarely write on the news, and I needed someone who was focused directly on this; but then again she was in an editorial position at the State blogs, and so was the boss to the guy I was leaning towards most. Jon Ward was my favourite to send it to, as I hulked over my thick black laptop. He was primarily a tech journalist, and wrote about stuff like the new Android but, in the past few years, he had moved into reporting and commenting on the news. I figured he would take the documents and my information in a more logical way and could convey it to people more easily.
I decided I’d send my first email to him and CC Victoria Zade – his boss – and then if they were interested send the actual stuff just to Jon. I took a swig of coke, and breathed out deeply. I typed out the email and hit send before re-reading it.
I have information that people should know about welfare.
This is legitimate.
I tried to calm my shallow breathing.
I woke the next day, much earlier than I’d like on a Saturday, to a phone call. My phone vibrated under my pillow – dragging me out of my dream. I hate phone calls. I feel stupid standing there with the phone to my ear; talking to somebody I can’t see. I stammer over my words and come across as a total dunce, and I sweat like I’m doing a marathon. I have no idea why, but me and phones don’t mix.
The number showed up, and it was a landline – so a cold call probably. I had moved my finger over the ignore button before I realised something. Urgh. It was probably Jon Ward. Or at least it could be Jon Ward. He’d probably gotten my number from my Facebook or something. Sheesh.
I gulped back my reluctance and answered the phone.
It was Jon Ward.
‘Hello, I’m calling in response to an email I received last night. This is Jonathan Ward at the State blog.’
His confidence was something to behold.
‘Are you the person who sent me the email, a Miss Lily Benedict?’
He was an investigative reporter all right. I started to sweat.
‘Yeah, that’s me…I mean, I was the person who sent you the email, yeah.’
‘Great. I’d like to know more, do you think we could meet?’
‘Great, I’ll get the train up. Shall we say…hmm…the pub opposite Lime Street at around four o’clock?’
He knew my city well then.
‘That sounds…yeah. Okay.’
‘See you there.’
The phone clicked and a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Now all I had to worry about was being seen talking to one of the most famous journalists in Britain in a busy commuters’ pub.
He walked into the pub at five to four. Early. Good sign. I had ensconced myself near the back of the place, facing the door, trying to fend off suitors for my four-seater table for nearly forty five minutes. After the initial four “I’m sorry, I’m waiting for some friends”, I had quickly graduated to snarling and clutching my pint. People eventually took the hint, and by the time Jon Ward entered and looked around I had manage to create a one and a half metre exclusion zone of every suit around me.
He made a bee-line straight for me. Fuck! He had memorised my face already? This guy was good, and for some reason that worried me. I glanced around to see if there were any police or government officers waiting to catch me leaking, as if I had any idea how to spot them if they were trying to be incognito. It was then, that I had the terrible though “What if he’s the one trapping me?”
I shook that idea out of my head, and stood up to shake his hand, my foot firmly pinning my folder full of documents to the floor – out of sight.
‘You must be Lily,’ he let slip out of a huge grin which instantly disarmed me. He was immediately likeable. His short cropped hair, smart shirt buttoned almost to the top and thin rimmed glasses dismissed any doubts I had that he wasn’t serious about this. His pale blue eyes glistened with eagerness as he grabbed my hand and pumped.
I couldn’t help it. I grinned back.
‘Yeah, and you’re Jon.’
‘That I am.’
He sat. Then noticed that I had ordered a drink, and shot back up and walked off to the bar.
Left alone, I fidgeted. What if he looked at the documents and laughed and said that everybody knew this already and it wasn’t important. I never get the feeling that I fully understand any subject, you know? I feel like even the things I’m really comfortable with, there’s still thousands of people who know more and know it better. I have always felt like an amateur in a world of professionals.
He sat back down mid-thought.
‘Shall we get down to it then, Lily?’ He brought his pint up to his lips, sipped and watched me over the top of his glasses.
I nodded, and reached down to the floor for the folder. I grasped them tightly, squeezing once, before bringing it up to the table. I took a deep breath and cast a quick glance around. I let the fear that he would already know what I was trying to leak marinate in the air between us before speaking.
‘I work for the DWE, in a centre quite near.’
‘Yes,’ Ward had pulled a notebook out of the breast pocket of his shirt, and was scribbling in it.
‘The reforms…erm…the….we are being given targets to throw people off benefits.’
‘…and you have proof?’ Ward shot a look to the folder I was pinning to the table with the palm of my hand.
‘Yes. Well, at least, I think I do. I’ve got memos written from our bosses, and they talk about the stuff they’d gotten from Whitehall. I’ve got the new forms we were issued with – they have boxes for reason for dismissal. Got a copy of a few minutes from meetings where we were encouraged to post high percentages of people denied benefits,’ I breathed. My voice had become a whisper half way into talking.
He had nodded all the way through without looking up. I was half expecting him to finish scribbling in his notebook and say that everybody knew this and I was an idiot. But I had searched the States blogs and loads of other news aggregation sites for the story of targets for kicking people off and found nothing. I wasn’t very good at searching though.
‘We’ve never had proof before,’ he half-smiled. ‘I’ll definitely be interested in running this.’
‘Good. Good. I was worried that this might have been common knowledge.’ I slid the pack of papers across the table towards him.
‘We’ve suspected for a while, but it was shrouded in secrecy. To be honest, the will to find out just isn’t there anymore with most of my colleagues. I’m different.’ He grinned, and opened the folder. The second he did his smile was replaced with a grim concentration. He was already lost in thought and calculations.
‘I can leave these with you?’ The questioning tone appearing, feeding and getting fat off the insecurity in my voice. ‘Or you could take them back to London. I don’t know.’
He nodded once slowly, before seeming to snap out of it. ‘I can take these to London? Great! If they check out, Id love to publish them with my piece. Is that okay? I can redact anything that would identify you?’
‘That sounds fine by me. The more people that can see what is happening the better, right?’
‘Right.’ He drained the last of his pint. ‘You know what else could help? An email, a letter, a form, anything that can link these policies directly to central office would help immensely. If you can get me one of them then I think this story would blow up. Could you try and do that?’
I hesitated, and started to chew my lower lip.
‘It’s fine – fine – was too forward of me to ask. Don’t worry.’ He looked downcast.
‘No, I can try. If it will help the story, but that’s all I can do – try. It’s more than likely I won’t be able to get my hands on stuff like that.’
I quickly became lost in my own thoughts of the logistics of finding the material he wanted.
‘Anything would be a great help,’ he added as he flipped through the stuff I had already given him. ‘Emailing me it would be a great help.’
I nodded, but stayed silent.
‘Listen, it was fantastic to meet you, but I have to get back to work.’ He drained the last of his pint, boxed off the papers and slid them back into the folder.
‘I understand.’ I stood, and he followed suit. He shook my hand warmly, and was off out the door before I could blink.
I walked into the job centre on Monday morning with a smile plastered across my face. I nodded to the security guards at the entrance before realising that this was totally out of character, and checking myself. Head hung, and looking at my shoes, I scooted to my desk, attempting to compose myself before the morning meeting. Before I had more than a couple of seconds to myself though, the bosses walked through and called the meeting. Their eyes lingered on me, or did I imagine that? I trudged into our meeting room full of trepidation.
The meeting went as predictable as anything. Short speeches on how the targets are being met, some case officers raising certain issues they had with clients. About half way into it a wave of nausea consumed my mind, so I had to make my excuses and leave fearing that otherwise I was going to vomit onto the conference table. I figured avoiding that possibility was worth all the dark looks I got as I left.
After sitting in the cool air of the toilets I started to feel better. I splashed water on my face thankful that I hadn’t threw up. As I left and made my way towards the meeting room that was still full, I walked across the office of my supervisor. His computer was switched on and logged in. He must’ve been called away from his desk just like I had. I cast a glance over my shoulder to check the rest of the building was empty. It was. The security guards were all either outside smoking, or so far towards the entrance that they were not going to look back into the building, at least not while there were no claimants inside. I remembered Ward telling me an email would put the icing on the cake, and make a real difference. My blood cooled to a chill and shot through my body.
I tried not to overthink.
I darted sideways, cushioning my footsteps like a fencer. In an out. It’d be quick, they’d definitely still be in the meeting. I hit the back of the chair fast, making it skid backwards. My eyes darted to the screen and back to the door. I loaded up the internal email and prayed he was lazy enough to have his password saved, like I was. He was!
His inbox floated in front of my eyes. Mostly just memos talking about the performance of the people he watched off. I pointedly ignored any emails with my name as the subject line. There were just too many. I was at a loss. I reluctantly typed “targets” into the search box and hit enter. This was essentially damning me to being discovered, if he ever used the search box himself – but I’d come this far.
The search gave me three emails. Short ones, too. The second was about the proposals, the second a stupid query about installation and a third from Whitehall. This was it! I pulled out my phone and snapped pictures of the email from the central civil service. My breath was coming in ragged spurts.
I closed all the windows, and despite my legs feeling like jelly I headed for the door of the office. The second I left the, the meeting room across the way started emptying out. I received more than a few looks, but I don’t think anybody actually saw me leave. I clutched my phone in my pocket.
‘I’m so sorry I missed the meeting! I just feel terrible, I’m sorry,’ I feigned regret to my colleagues but primarily to my supervisor at the back of the crowd leaving the meeting room. ‘I hope I note contagious,’ I half-smiled at the rest of them, hoping to diffuse the tension that was palpable.
Usually with a sickness laid on this thick, even the supervisors would relax the rules and just tell you to go home. The silence on this now was telling. I started to panic that they had found out somehow. My mind whirred.
I turned heel and walked with the crowd to my desk. I sat, and breathed deeply until everyone was settled. I leaned over my desk, and took my phone out as quietly and discreetly as I could. I cracked its back and took out my SD card. I slipped my foot out of my shoe and dropped the card inside. My paranoia suddenly seemed ridiculous to me, but I maintained it. Better to be safe than sorry. I stood, and made immediately toward the exit. Hopefully, people would assume I was going on a smoke break – and conveniently forget that I had never done so before.
The story was straight on the homepage of the States blog the second it was posted. It got 600,000 hits the first day, one of the highest breaking news page view counts of the year. It spawned hundreds of comment pieces, discussing it – countering, supporting, suspiciously analysing, attacking (the piece or me personally). Ward hadn’t named me directly, but he had called me “she”, so that narrowed it down. The documents I had given him were redacted to keep my identity safe (although we both knew this was largely a hollow exercise) and published straight up there with the piece for anyone to download at their leisure provided they were behind seven proxies. These were highly confidential government documents after all.