Iain Duncan Smith: Small local charities are the heroes of our time – and we honour them this week at the CSJ Awards

15 Jun

Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.

One of the things I have been most impressed with in my constituency over the last year is how many people have been mobilised to help their neighbours, especially those who are elderly or had to shield, and I know this has been the case up and down the country.

These acts of kindness and community fellowship have been bright lights during the pandemic. Charities have been at the heart of this, supporting the most vulnerable in their communities and doing everything in their power to keep their services open as the world shut down around them.

Each year, the Centre for Social Justice (the think tank I founded) recognises some of these outstanding charities through our annual awards, where each winner is given £10,000 and a chance to showcase their life-changing work.

What makes the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) unique is that rather than being a think tank wrapped only in the Westminster bubble, our policy recommendations are informed directly from over 400 small charities spread around the country who apply their expertise and local knowledge to fight poverty in innovative ways.

And these methods are effective. Reforms the CSJ bring forward are based on what has been road tested and proven to work on the ground. Our charities know their clients, understanding that it is relationships not systems that empower people to build a better life for themselves.

This year it was only right that we recognise charities that have tailored their services to meet the specific needs of the pandemic, showing the very best of localism and the power of the community spirit. Many of the CSJ Alliance charities have harnessed the power of the community to support their work. Often for the first time, neighbourhoods have come together to support their most vulnerable members, demonstrating the very best of the British spirit and something which I hope will be one of the few enduring side effects of this pandemic.

Take for example one of this year’s winners, MCR Pathways, a mentoring and talent development programme which supports young people in or on the edges of the care system in Scotland. The charity supports 2,500 young people and, due to the intensive mentoring provided by volunteers, have seen 82 percent of their mentored pupils go on to college, university or employment compared to just 60 per cent of non-mentored peers.

During lockdown, MCR Pathways organised funding to deliver over 300 laptops and data connections to pupils across Scotland who were digitally excluded and could not receive online lessons. A unique aspect of the MCR Pathways model is that the charity hands the programme over to the local authority at the end of five years, meaning they can focus their energies and volunteers on a new area.

Another example is The Snowdrop Project, a Sheffield-based charity that provides long-term support to survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery. Charities like this understand that it is not enough to only intervene at the immediate point of crisis, but that support must continue to assist people in re-building their lives, to thrive, and to be fully contributing members of the societies in which they live.

As is the case every year it has been difficult to narrow down the most deserving charities. To choose this year’s winners, the CSJ team scoured the country to identify the most effective organisations who fight poverty and disadvantage on the frontline. We found charities like One25 and Oasis Community Centre & Gardens who do superb, local work but are small players in the charity world.

Over 40 per cent of applications for this year’s awards came from charities with an annual income of less than £100,000. The organisations we have picked this year help the hardest to reach and who have discovered ways of scaling their work beyond their own neighbourhood. They are truly worthy winners and I look forward to being able to honour their work during our digital awards ceremony this week.

While the headlines may be preoccupied with the Government’s latest decision on Covid, the real work of fighting poverty is often done quietly and without fanfare by those who on the surface may appear unremarkable. These small charities are gradually and slowly empowering people to build a life for themselves free from poverty and the pathways that lead to it. The CSJ Awards allow us to shine a light on their life changing impact, and to show Westminster something we already know – that these charities and the individuals who run them are the true heroes of our times.

Introducing a series this week on ConservativeHome with the Centre for Social Justice about the pandemic and fairness

1 Nov

Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.

This week, ConservativeHome will feature articles from the Centre for Social Justice on how we address some of our biggest social issues as we rebuild from the pandemic.

These articles will set out a longer term approach to issues such as worklessness, preventing debt pushing people further into poverty, tackling the rise in domestic abuse, and the role of family in education and tackling our worsening mental health crisis.

Alongside longer-term thinking, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has put together proposals which could help the Government avoid going into the Christmas holidays with the same fractious debate that it has faced over proposals to extend the provision of Free School Meals during this half term break.

Too often, our discussions about serious social issues become politicised and simplistic. This is a good example of a debate that has become simplistic. The real issue is not should we or should we not, it is how best to deliver the support.

CSJ proposals set out a plan to work with the Department for Work & Pensions, whose existing data can identify families in most need, to provide extended support for the Christmas holiday.

This support should work with civil society and through local authorities with a clear remit to address unmet need. Furthermore – and this is where the simplistic call for Free School Meal vouchers goes wrong – professional nutritional guidance should be given to councils, with a clear obligation to pass on such guidance to parents in need. Councils should then work with local community groups to support families.

No government, Labour or Conservative, has ever proposed extending free school meals outside of term time, and for for good reason. The provision of free school meals during term-term is to cover the costs of the nutritious meals provided by schools.

It works, because we know that children in school will receive a healthy hot meal. The issue is different when the child is not in school, and so we look to families. It is important to find a way of ensuring the same standard is met as if they were in school.

The Government has made more money available than any before in these challenging times. More than £380 million has been provided and spent on food vouchers alongside an uplift in Universal Credit. This is significant support  -obscured by a bad tempered debate.

In the longer term, a poverty strategy is needed. It was a mistake by Theresa May’s government to abandon the language of social justice. The Prime Minister should announce that he is pulling together Cabinet colleagues to address poverty with a comprehensive plan.

This starts with forgetting poverty lines. As soon as you focus on a line, wherever it is drawn, the preoccupation of ministers will be on lifting people just above that line – rather than asking what the root causes of that poverty are, and how they might escape poverty for good.

Instead, we need to revisit the framework of measurements we established at the Department for Work and Pensions after the 2010 general election.

These measurements focused government on outcomes, ensuring we looked at the wider reasons why children weren’t properly fed. Such problems as family breakdown and dysfunction, addiction, worklessness, debt and failed education are the root causes of poverty; dealing with these will help children growing up in poor households escape poverty in adulthood.

These outcomes-focused measures were put together to give governments the right targets to tackle poverty. They should be updated and re-instated, as the focus of a long-term Government poverty strategy.

To deliver this plan, the Prime Minster needs to put his authority behind it by re-establishing a Social Justice Cabinet committee. I led such a committee in government, and it gave me permission to focus Cabinet colleagues in every department on moving the metrics set out in our social justice framework. Unusually for a Cabinet Committee, it published periodic reports on the areas of work we covered, and the results.

Now that Universal Credit (UC) is rolled out and working well, despite the enormous increase in demand, it is time to complete the original task that I and David Freud envisaged for it.

So we should now roll out Universal Support alongside UC which, once done, will give government the targeted delivery mechanism with which to intervene in a more compassionate and productive way.

In essence, Universal Support, using the data from UC, puts a key worker at the centre of a series of support mechanisms to provide bespoke help. This is delivered locally working through local authorities partnering with charities to provide this support. It aims to help change lives for the better, allowing them to eventually take control of their lives as far as they are able to.

Levelling up isn’t just about infrastructure projects, from broadband to big citie: it is about people. People trapped in a cycle of despair, far too often determined to rise above their problems but lacking the constructive support to help get themselves out. I believe it is our task to ensure that levelling up leaves no one behind.