I want you to meet Colin Burrell because he’s a walking good-news story. I want you to meet him because he’s brilliant. But most of all, I want you to meet this 25-year-old because his tale shows you what can be done to fix both a life and an economy.
Perhaps you already know a little about Colin. I wrote about him after we first met last summer. I was visiting Neo, a community centre-cum-foodbank in Birkenhead, Merseyside, and bumped into this shy, skinny man who only occasionally looked other people in the eye. Colin was lodging nearby and bouncing between zero-hours work and benefits. He’d had to split up from his girlfriend because “I couldn’t make my pay packet feed two”.
Actually, it didn’t even feed one: Colin first came to Neo on the hunt for food. Worried they might charge, he brought along the last of his cash: 17 pence. Ema Wilkes and Jen Doherty, the two young activists who run Neo, gave him two bags full of groceries and took no money – but they did make him wash down a couple of floors.
Colin’s situation was hardly unusual. One of the features that historians of this decade will remark on is how little people of working age were expected to live on. In one of the richest countries on Earth, it is possible to be in work – but to be on such irregular hours or low pay that you are homeless or starving.
Among the hundreds who come to Neo for food are nurses, Tesco staff and factory workers on temp contracts. The much larger Trussell Trust calculates that almost one in four of the hundreds of thousands using its foodbanks are in work.
That was Colin, last summer. Stuck in a tiny room in a noisy hostel. Pouring breakfast cereal into the smallest bowls he could find in order to make it go further. Shuttling between temp agencies who couldn’t care less and a jobcentre that was just plain useless.
He’d ask advisers for help with training and draw a blank. He’d tell them about an interview for a part-time job and ask how that would affect his benefits. They’d offer him an appointment for next week – a fat lot of good when the interview’s tomorrow. Whatever his query, the answer that staff gave would always be the same: “Not here, not here. This company will do it … that organisation will do it … go here … go there.”
He was trapped in the same no man’s land as so much of post-crash Britain. On the one hand, the supposed helping hand of the state, now fully re-purposed by Thatcher, Blair and Cameron into an instrument of control and punishment. On the other, private employers who can’t and won’t live up to the promises made by ministers and the models confected by mandarins.
When David Cameron began his austerity cuts, his pledge was that the private sector would fill in the gaps left by the shrinking public sector. From the start, some of us said that wouldn’t happen. Sadly, we’ve been proved right. Leave the overheating machine of London, and much of what ministers used to call our “jobs miracle” is a patchwork of part-time, low-paid work. This isn’t only about economics. It concerns a private sector that is not expected to provide good jobs, decent pay, its fair share of tax – but which demands public subsidies, infrastructure and ready-made workers. One of the central issues in Britain – running through everything from Brexit to last week’s budget – is how to get businesses to earn the licence granted to them by the rest of society.
And this is where Colin’s story comes in. Because at least he could count on Neo to keep giving him food and advice. In turn, Wilkes and Doherty were gradually finding they couldn’t manage without their latest volunteer. But the trouble is, even the two women who run Neo don’t take a salary from it – they were in no position to offer him a job. Colin’s prospects were thin.
In desperation, Wilkes and Doherty texted everyone in their contacts book to help Colin – councillors, business people, charity groups. Within hours, Dawn Tolcher, an executive from local football team Tranmere Rovers, was in touch: she could apply for public funding for an apprenticeship for Colin, then put him on secondment to Neo.
When I met Colin again a couple of weeks ago, he’d just begun the apprenticeship. It paid just above the minimum wage and, more importantly, the work was secure: 35 hours a week for 13 months. So no checking for a night-time text to inform him whether a shift was available the next day; no hanging about a jobcentre to sign on for the next two weeks.
Colin gave me a tour of the storage units let out to Neo for free, which he now manages. Here was where he was going to put some shelving, the better to take inventories of stock. That room, already painted fuchsia, was going to be turned into a “community boutique” (“a charity shop with a bit more class, a bit more pride”) to be run by Neo. The shop should be open by Easter and, if you live in Birkenhead, beware: Colin will be coming after you with a flyer. He already has his patter worked out. Quite a change from the taciturn figure of a few months back.
He’s even back with his girlfriend, Ivett. She’s now working at a local Wetherspoon’s, and a couple of months ago they moved into their first proper home together, let out by a local housing association. Where the two once struggled to see past the end of the week, now they’re looking at staying here for a couple of years. Colin’s going to apply for a passport so they can visit Ivett’s folks in Hungary. Once the lack of money meant the couple constantly bickered over the tiniest of things; now there’s talk of starting a family.
I used to worry what the next few weeks had in store for Colin; now I wonder what he’ll do with the next few years. But I also wonder why there aren’t more like him.
He was fortunate to meet Wilkes and Doherty, two forceful women who, I’m sure, could twist the arms of Venus de Milo. And they all struck it lucky with Tolcher. Tranmere Rovers could have done what so many other companies do with the billions taxpayers spend on apprenticeship training: game the system and use it as a source of bargain-basement, publicly subsidised labour.
I wanted you to hear Colin’s story because it cheers me up. But also because it gives some idea of what can be done when businesses don’t rip off the public, bilk the tax collectors or exploit the staff – and actually pay their way as part of society.
It shows what can be done by activists working from the ground up, rather than top-down politics. And it shows that the “skivers” ministers like to vilify – well, they can put in a more successful day’s work than an accident-prone chancellor of the exchequer.