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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 23:27 GMT
'Life in the raw' for leading Tory
David Willetts at a homeless hostel
The shadow secretary had a meal with the homeless
by BBC News Online's Eric Simpson

A Conservative front bencher looking for ideas on how to beat poverty came face-to-face with inner-city anguish on a visit to the West Midlands.

David Willetts, shadow work and pensions secretary, walked into the Birmingham City Mission to experience first-hand how poor people live.

Within a few minutes he was hearing a story of violence and frustration from 36-year-old Mark Hobson, a life-long unemployed man from Birmingham.

Mr Hobson explained how he and his partner were driven from their homes by neighbours because they had reported them for cheating on their benefits.

Decent people

"We were beaten up and we had to get out. It was terrible. All this happened around Christmas time and it was distressing."

Mr Willetts, dressed in a white shirt and blue patterned tie, which was slung over his shoulder most of the time, heard that the couple felt like "prisoners in their own home".

Mr Hobson eventually broke into sobs and had to be consoled by his 23-year-old partner Sonya, who was also keeping an eye on their two-year-old son, Jordan.

Sonya, Jordan and Mark
The Hobsons were forced from their home

"They have been comprehensively let down by the system," Mr Willetts said.

"I think it is appalling and it is not the right way to treat decent people who are trying to do the right thing."

After 15 minutes of intense discussion, Mr Willetts promised to talk to the council about their case, and moved to his next appointment at the hostel over the road.

His next encounter was less stressful as he spent five minutes chatting with 57-year-old Gordon Palit, a former university lecturer who drops into the centre to help out.

Drug deaths

The MP for Havant praised the bushy-bearded academic, who described himself as a dedicated socialist, and told him: "You're full of good ideas."

He got a less enthusiastic welcome from 55-year-old Mike Kelly, an unemployed factory worker, who said: "The only time we see a politician is when they want something."

He scoffed: "I'm a bit sceptical" and headed for the tea counter, explaining that he was on income support after encountering problems with depression and anxiety over the years.

I have just had a meal with a guy who said he would be dead if it wasn't for the hostel

David Willetts

Before Mr Willetts left the room, Steven "Rambo" Jackson-Parr, 38, who works with the homeless, tackled the politician on the topic of drugs.

He said that the Tories need to concentrate on the drug problems in big cities like Birmingham.

"I have seen lots of deaths from drugs - both young and old people."

Heart problem

Mr Jackson-Parr, dressed in trainers and a T-shirt, was not impressed with Mr Willetts' wardrobe.

He told BBC News Online: "He's wearing a fancy suit."

"It would be better if he was dressed like me."

A few minutes later, Mr Willetts left with one of the homeless men to see one of the rooms and then joined about 20 of them in the dining room for tea.

Over a plate of pork chops, potatoes and gravy, he talked to several of the men surrounded again by several photographers and journalists taking notes.

"Everybody has an extraordinary story to tell about how they have been down on their luck, often from drugs, alcoholism, armed robbery," the shadow secretary said.

"I have just had a meal with a guy who said he would be dead if it wasn't for the hostel.

Raw experience

"He was an alcoholic with a heart problem who was sleeping rough.

"But it is moving to see people who are being helped."

Behind him, one young man seems unimpressed with the visit, drinking a cup of tea and eating a fruit pie, and studiously ignoring Mr Willetts and his entourage.

But Mr Willetts was clear on his agenda: "I am doing this because I want to listen and to learn.

"However much you research a subject or debate it the House of Commons, nothing beats real human experience.

"Here it is real human experience in the raw.

Click here to go to BBC Birmingham Online
See also:

27 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Tories get 'back in touch' with poor
27 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Willetts outlines One Nation hope
16 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Benefit fraud costs taxpayer 1.3 billion
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