Mhairi Doyle spent a quarter of a century helping people with substance problems into work. She talks to David Gilliver about austerity and the new benefits landscape.
‘If you’re on heroin, you have all the attributes that an employer is looking for,’ stresses Mhairi Doyle. ‘Your time management skills are second-to-none, you get on with people, you’re inventive, you can look at situations and find the best way around them. So all we ever did with people was to show them this – show them what they can do, instead of going on about what they can’t do.’
Recently retired, she spent 25 years at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its forerunners, much of it helping people with drug problems in Liverpool into employment. ‘I loved it,’ she says. ‘I thought I had the best job in the world.’
Crucially, it was easy for her to empathise with her clients and their situation. ‘I’d been in AA – I’m going to be 27 years sober this month – and when I started work in the department I was nine months sober,’ she says. ‘I started as an admin assistant and progressed up the food chain.’
She was soon promoted, and with three children to support she sat the executive officer exam and became a claimant adviser. ‘In those days claimant advisers were seen more as social workers,’ she says. ‘This was the Thatcher years. In Liverpool in the ’80s, she decimated us. All the manufacturing industry was closing down and it was high unemployment – at times up to 20-25 per cent there – and we got all the folk who had real difficulties.’
The role also provided her with her first encounter with problem drug use. ‘They sent this laddie round to see me, he was about 22 and limping because he had an abscess on the vein in his foot where he’d been injecting. That was the first time I’d come into contact with anything like that.’ By chance, a friend was working with consultant psychiatrist and harm reduction pioneer Dr John Marks, and arranged for her to spend a week shadowing staff at his service. ‘I went to an outreach, family conferences, scripting sessions. It was a whole new world,’ she says.
She took what she’d learned back to her role at a job centre in Walton, Liverpool, where an ever-growing percentage of her clients were using heroin. ‘I just tried to help,’ she says. ‘People would come in and they wouldn’t have a scrap of food in the house, so I used to give them their giros early – as long as they told me the truth, that was the only criteria I had. I didn’t want people lying to me, but it was so hard for people, because they were used to lying.’
In the late 1990s she was seconded to the Training Enterprise Council to set up an ‘employment zone’ aimed at people who were long-term unemployed. Realising quickly that a lot of her clients again had substance issues, she developed an initiative with the Social Partnership, a Liverpool-based training and employment agency.
‘It was a specific, specialist employment zone advisor who other advisers could send people with drug or alcohol issues to,’ she says. Many of the clients had never worked, but the fact that they were listened to – many for the first time in their lives – and given the time to change meant that the project flourished. ‘It was really successful because we looked at the individual as an individual, found out what their issues were and helped them to resolve them, and then moved them into employment. It worked because we were personalising it.’
In 2002, she was the first ever Progress2Work coordinator to be appointed, and again made the most of her links with the Social Partnership and other agencies. ‘We set up the ‘fixers’ programme, which gave people a job, with training, for a year. It was an intermediate labour market scheme and we trained them up as community drug workers. The vast majority of people who came through that had former issues with substance misuse, and most of them had a criminal record as well, but we got them placements in things like probation – we actually had a placement in Walton prison at one time – and anything that was in the health and social care field. That was really successful.’
Key to the success was giving people a chance to believe in themselves, she stresses, although – as through much of her career – she often had to overcome the resistance of senior management in the civil service. ‘They’d hide when they saw me coming. But we were getting 97 per cent of the people into jobs – and I mean proper jobs, not crappy minimum-wage jobs. There was one man who was in his 30s and hadn’t worked since he was 17. He started out as a drug worker and a few years later he was running a housing project and earning more than me. That was the sort of thing we did. I saw miracles happening every day.’
By the time Progress2work came to an end in 2011 – having had more success in Liverpool than elsewhere – her role had grown to cover the whole of Merseyside, with a vast remit. ‘I was a drug coordinator, Progress2work coordinator, a social inclusion manager. I was dealing with drugs, alcohol, homelessness, people in the criminal justice system, I managed the prison adviser team, I had asylum seekers, refugees. But I always just did what I thought needed to be done – if something was right it was right.’
However, the change of government and relentless bite of austerity measures have meant an end to this ethos, she believes. ‘The pressure that’s being put on the staff in job centres now is ridiculous,’ she states. ‘The vast majority of the staff want to help people, but people are too frightened to tell them the truth about their situation now, and we’re not psychic. The consequence of that is that they’ll get their money stopped. The government brought in the incapacity benefit reassessment and that’s what I spent my last year doing. But I used to go around all the service user groups, take my badge off and tell them what they needed to do, and then I’d go around the drug workers and tell them what they needed to do, to keep people safe.’
Although retired, she’s still a trustee of the Social Partnership and is on the board of both Birkenhead YMCA and a homeless hostel in Bootle. ‘I’m still keeping my hand in, and I’m still in touch with my colleagues,’ she says.
What’s the morale like among them these days? ‘It’s hellish. Nobody wants to work in that situation. We always tried to do our best for our customers – it was always a caring organisation, but it’s not now. There’s no job security and the front line’s getting cut. They’re losing all the people with the experience, and everybody’s fighting against everybody else now, whereas we all used to work together.’
Her tireless work on behalf of her clients, however, saw her awarded the MBE in the 2013 New Year’s honour’s List, ironically an award that her mother had turned down years before. ‘I got this letter with “Cabinet Office” on the front,’ she says. ‘I had no idea – it was such a shock. I just didn’t believe it. I phoned my husband and asked him what to do, and he said, “bugger your socialist principles – you deserve this, you should take it”. So I’m going to Buckingham Palace on the day after my 27th AA birthday. It’s just phenomenal.’
But, with the present administration in place, she holds out little optimism for the future. ‘I’m very disappointed in the way the government is talking about unemployed people,’ she says. ‘It’s horrific the way all of them are talking about scroungers and skivers. The problem is that none of them understand – they’re all sitting there in their little offices in Whitehall, making up all these things.
‘I think the new [universal] benefit they’re bringing in is really going to work against our clients, and it’s all going to have to be done online when a lot of them don’t have access. At the same time they’re cutting back on all the Citizen’s Advice centres – they’re hammering the people who really need the help. Public service isn’t just about the people who can look after themselves. It should be about the people who can’t look after themselves as well.’ DDN