A bigger issue: The day the inspectors came to call

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I was on holiday. They came not at night but in the broad light of day. Two gentlemen from the euphemistically named 'Special Projects Team' of the Adjudication and Inspection service of the Employment service. Rather a mouthful - and this mouth

definately had teeth.

They walked in unannounced to the Big Issue office and said that they had powers to demand a full list of the homeless people selling the paper. It was immediately obvious to Lucie Russell, our development director, that these lads were from the fraud squad.

What they required was a full list of Big Issue sellers to check against their records of people signing on and claiming benefit. Someone from Crimestoppers, a programme normally concerned with crimes of violence in the inner cities, had said they knew people who were selling and claiming. And the fraud inspectors intended to use our records to catch the fraudsters.

The first day back from my holiday I had a pleasant meeting with the two inspectors. They assured me that they were not out to nail the innocent. Rather they were going to help us clean up our act and get rid of any seller who was on the fiddle.

We were in a bit of a quandary. If we handed the list over we would immediately lose the support of our homeless sellers. Many of our vendors had their own reasons for choosing to disappear from their former lives. They had every right to do so. Violence, abuse and various social problems often led them to this decision. And here we were, expected to knock up a list that would put them squarely back into state records. And who was to say that this information would not be used by other government departments?

We knew we were not above the law. But it seemed that the Employment Service was intent on smashing a nut with a sledge hammer. We reasoned that if they got their way the days of the Big Issue would be numbered.

I asked the inspectors why they didn't follow the more traditional route of investigating those whom they suspected of fraud. They admitted that they had no evidence to suggest that Big Issue sellers, en masse, were selling and signing on. Their argument was that it was too time-

consuming to carry out individual investigations and so they were resorting to a trawling exercise.

I asked whether there was a precedent for presuming the guilt of such a large group of people. According to the inspectors, they often did this with mini-cab companies which also employed people on a self-employed basis.

A letter came a few weeks later stating that under section 58 of the 1986 Social Security Act they were entitled to demand the list. And failure to do so would make us liable to daily fines for as long as we refused to supply the list.

The inspectors made an appointment to come and see us to pick up the list on Tuesday. As the day approached we were still worried about what we could and could not do. Last weekend the Big Issue decided to go public. Our reputation as independent guardians of the interests of homeless people was something that we had to fight for.

A small item appeared in a national broadsheet newspaper on Monday and the floodgates opened. We had chosen to bare our souls and see if there was any route left that would allow us to guard our most precious asset: our reputation.

Thankfully the media jumped at the story and we were inundated with coverage. Support, which we didn't petition for, flooded in.

Tuesday came and with it the inspectors. Like us, they had been inundated with press interest. They were polite, but before they could ask for the list we handed them a letter from our solicitors, Stevens Innocent, a firm that had voluteered legal help. According to Stevens Innocent, we were in fact not equivalent to a mini-cab firm after all. The Employment Service had every right to check up on cab drivers because they were self-employed drivers employed by a cab company. We were wholesalers selling to retailers who sold directly to the general public.

Stevens Innocent also pointed out that the inspectors were actually quoting the 1986 Social Security act as the basis of their powers. Section 58 had been repealed in 1992.

After some more polite conversation, the inspectors left empty-handed in order to seek legal advice from their policy unit, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

But it is not over yet. We have to prove that we do not fall within their remit and they presumably will be trying to prove that we do.

The Big Issue will not willingly break the law. But if we are to do the work that has garnered praise across the political spectrum then we can do without such ham-fisted treatment by the authorities.

As the inspectors left we suggested that if they were really interested in fraud busting they ought to look at the homeless industry. Millions of pounds are being handed over to unscrupulous B&B owners who prey on the vulnerability of homeless people. By cramming beds into dirty rooms they can charge the housing benefits agency what they like. Homeless people are thus ill housed and taxpayers' money lines the pocket of this new breed of Rachman. All this before we even begin to discuss whether people can actually survive on benefits.

It's time the government and their departments started putting their heads together. We say: stop throwing money away. And stop knocking those who are dedicated to helping the homeless to help themselves.

(Photograph omitted)