Helen Barnard: Conservatism’s civil society traditions are being neglected in this leadership contest

12 Aug

Helen Barnard is Director of Research and Policy at Pro Bono Economics.

Ballot papers are beginning to land on Conservative Party members’ doormats. The leadership contest is viewed by some as a fight for the heart of the party – a chance to truly define modern conservatism.

Underlying this is the question of whether the electoral coalition which delivered a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together without the twin factors of Brexit and Boris.

Character and communication are as important as policy in determining which way members move, and it’s fair to assume that policy positions laid out in the heat of a contest don’t necessarily predict everything the next government will do.

But the issues each candidate chooses to focus on, as well as their policy prescriptions, do give significant indications of the direction they want to take the country in.

The issues that have received by far the most airtime are the timing of tax cuts and the role of public borrowing in funding responses to the cost of living crisis and measures to improve growth. Other issues, such as housing, immigration and the NHS, have received more attention as the contest has progressed, though still lag far behind.

But, so far, both the leadership contenders and those questioning them seem to have overlooked an enormous swathe of conservative tradition, which has always viewed solutions to national challenges as not just lying with the state or businesses, but bubbling up from communities and families.

Within this tradition, civil society and charities are seen as playing a crucial role in building social capital and resilience, innovating and enabling communities to create their own responses to the issues they face.

Early on, the Johnson Government was criticised for focusing its levelling up agenda too narrowly on hard infrastructure (such as new train lines and bridges) and overlooking the importance of social infrastructure (services like childcare and training, and the community groups, spaces and relationships which support community life).

The Levelling Up White Paper marked a decisive turning point, setting out goals which looked beyond pay and productivity and encompassed ,wellbeing and community pride. Its analysis of the causes of places being ‘left behind’ highlighted the role of social, human and institutional capital, as well as physical and financial capital.

The white paper was light on concrete policies, but gave many hope that it had laid the groundwork for an approach that could finally make progress on the UK’s enormous geographical inequalities.

In the first televised debate, both candidates committed to continuing the levelling up agenda. But the narrow focus of the leadership debate so far signals a potential risk that the leadership takes a step backwards in its conception of how to achieve it.

Retreating to a narrower focus on taxes and public spending would be a mistake. There is a huge opportunity to be seized in harnessing the power and ingenuity that lies within communities, and the charities and groups which build trust and connections between people. The vaccine rollout stands as a striking example of what can be achieved when the public sector, charities and business combine their resources.

Across all three televised debates neither candidate has mentioned the role of charities or civil society, despite both being patrons of charities themselves (Rishi Sunak of the National Osteoporosis Support Group, Leyburn Brass Band and Wensleydale Wheels community transport project, and Liz Truss of the Ulysses Trust, a volunteer and Cadet Force charity).

There was a fleeting mention in the second debate, when an audience member spoke of relying on a charity for support through his cancer treatment. Even then however, the discussion immediately focused on the performance of the NHS. There was no acknowledgement of the vital role played by the social sector, both in directly delivering healthcare and preventing future demand through its wider role in communities.

The competition to be seen as the true heir of Margaret Thatcher understandably prompts fierce debate about taxes, sound money and the role of the state. But Britain’s first female premier had strong views about the vital role of voluntary associations and philanthropy, as well as the importance of the state supporting and enabling communities to act for themselves through civil society.

This tradition is alive and well in the party. Polling shows the vast majority of Conservative MPs and councillors are in contact with charities and community groups and recognise their important role in local and national life. Similarly, 84 per cent of Conservative voters believe charities and community groups play an important role in our society.

When the new prime minister takes office in September, they will speedily have to get to grips with the cost-of-living crisis, which looks even more forbidding after the Bank of England’s latest forecast of inflation reaching 13 per cent and a year-long recession. They are fortunate to be able to call on the ideas and ingenuity of innumerable charities and community groups, backed by philanthropists, business and public donations, as well as government funding.

Alongside the big calls they will need to make on taxes and the autumn Budget, the next prime minister would also do well to strengthen their government’s links with these vital civil society actors and increase the ability to leverage in philanthropic investment where it is most needed.

Without this, there is a real risk that their response to our big national challenges will be hamstrung and unstable – relying exclusively on the state and business, not reinforced by the third pillar of civil society.

The post Helen Barnard: Conservatism’s civil society traditions are being neglected in this leadership contest appeared first on Conservative Home.

Mieka Smiles: Our Middlesbrough Lottery is delivering funds for local good causes

6 May

Cllr Mieka Smiles is the Deputy Mayor and Executive Member for Culture and Communities on Middlesbrough Council.

As a bright-eyed, brand new councillor I came into the role with a million new ideas.

Looking after the culture portfolio, I wanted bigger and better events across the town, eye-catching and Instagrammable public art, and to help grow some of our key museums and galleries. All had the power to draw more people into town, get them spending in town-centre businesses and increase pride of place.

My belief is that investing in culture is fundamental to the regeneration of our town – but statutory commitments clearly come first: children’s services, adult social care, roads and refuse collection to give just a few examples.

So – as follows the playbook of many a naïve newbie – I quickly realised that having hopes, dreams and aspirations were one thing… but having the money to pay for them quite the other.

One night drifting to sleep (dreaming of mammoth potholes and inappropriate parking) an idea popped into my head. Every week millions of people across the UK take a flutter on the National Lottery, with millions being invested into communities across the UK as a result. Could we have a local version?

I was certain that if it was legally doable and properly promoted then we could persuade our residents to gamble for good and raise funds for cultural projects in Middlesbrough.

I quite quickly established that local authorities across the country had beaten me to it. A number of our peers were already running their own lotteries for all kinds of reasons; be it for a single issue such as fixing a crumbling historic building or investing in an array of community causes.

Our head of culture was on it and contacted a lottery provider called Gatherwell, well versed in setting up these kinds of lotteries for local authorities.

After a number of meetings we determined that their model was what we were after.

Tickets for our Middlesbrough Lottery would cost £1. Out of that £1, 50p would go to Middlesbrough groups, charities, and organisations who’d signed up with us. They would help grow the lottery by using their networks to sell tickets.

10p out of the pound would come to us, to spend on cultural activities. Punters could also choose to direct the entire 60p to us if they wished.

People seemed to be on board and think it was a good idea.

There were the usual moaners. The Labour Group was characteristically gloomy about the idea saying it was a “sad indictment of this Government’s record that councils have to resort to delivering gambling as a solution to our funding crisis.”

On the first point – I think it’s only right that we look for innovative ways to fund cultural ‘extras’ rather than relying on taxpayer’s money.

We had also very carefully considered safety measures to guard against problem gambling. Tickets are only available online via direct debit and those taking part can’t buy tickets for the same day’s draw. This fights against that impulsivity that’s invoked when you buy a scratch card.

Community lotteries are also classed as low risk by the Gambling Commission. They are considered a form of ‘incentivised giving’ and our marketing very much focuses on what this kind of fundraising can do for the town.

We’re now a year into our Middlesbrough Lottery.

Each week those who play have the chance to win £25k. Just the other week someone bagged £2k by supporting one of our 59 good causes.

We’re now on track to raise a projected £37,000 in year one and we’ve handed out £5,000 in cash prizes so far.

River rescue, domestic violence support, junior sports teams, and groups combating loneliness are just a few of the types of groups that have money deposited into their account every week.

And it’s very satisfying to see payments coming into the council coffers for a change.

Why not encourage your council to give it a go in your town?

Or, better still, take a punt on ours.

Take part in the Middlesbrough Lottery’s here.

David Willetts: Is it too hard for Ministers to exercise power in modern Britain?

17 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

One of the most extraordinary features of the debate on Covid measures has been the interventions of Conservative MPs who think that we are on our way to a Soviet or Nazi state. There are legitimate arguments about balancing the costs of new measures with the benefits, but that is a far cry from authoritarianism.

A requirement to show you have been vaccinated or offer evidence of a recent negative test before entering a crowded place is not an over-mighty state. The price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance, but this seems to be going rather over the top. A limit of £50 on the amount of money you could take abroad as part of post-War exchange controls until 1979 was a far more illiberal extension of the state.

Meanwhile, many ministers feel the very opposite – how hard it is to exercise power in modern Britain. They chafe particularly at the legal constraints on their actions as everything is now up for judicial review. Will the MPs who voted against the new controls because they extend the power of the state nevertheless vote to weaken judicial scrutiny of what governments do?

When I was working for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the obstacles to her reforms were essentially organised opposition from trade unions, left wing local councils and then Jacques Delors and the European Commission.

Trade union power is much weakened –if anything today’s gig economy workers could do with innovations to strengthen their voice. Locall councils are not the force they were, and the Government is trying to give them a bigger role. And the Delors agenda of using majority-voting to impose European social regulations on us had been seen off long before Brexit.

Coming back into Government in 2010, I was struck by how the constraints on ministers had changed. Everything we did was susceptible to legal review and challenge in a way that had not applied during the 1980s. Many more decisions came with elaborate advice on legal pitfalls and constraints.

Sometimes the advice could be very cautious. David Cameron rightly said to Cabinet that we should not automatically be inhibited from acting because of the risk of legal challenge. We should be willing to go ahead and then see our judgements tested in the courts – if we lost, that was not to be seen as a political blow. He would rather that than our being reluctant to do anything because of the fear of legal challenge.

Moreover, sometimes these legal protections can serve Conservatives as much as socialists. It would be terrible if the cancel culture spread as far here as it has in the US. One reason I still hope it won’t is that there are more legal protections for workers here than in the US, so an employee can’t just be sacked because they get caught in a social media storm.

Judicial review is clearly more intrusive than it was a generation ago. It can be surprising, even, shocking when you find how far some lawyers want to go.

For example, I did my best to resolve a constituent’s complaint about child support but I failed to get the result he had hoped for. But what took me aback was then getting a letter from his lawyer saying that they wanted to take me to court for failing in my duty of care for my constituent. Nothing came of it – but still it was a reminder of how the legal environment was changing.

However, this is not something peculiar to politics. Boards of companies, trustees of charities and indeed even conventional media outlets are much more legally constrained than they were. Indeed, some of these intrusions have been led by politicians themselves, who are then surprised when they themselves are subject to similar constraints.

These constraints can be very tiresome when you are trying to get something done. And then the paranoia which can creep up on any busy and harassed Minister means you start thinking there is a deep-state trying to stop you doing anything. But it is not an organised conspiracy like that – it is the checks and balances which protect us in a liberal democracy.

Now ministers ought to be worried about another constraint. A strong majority and the belief that you will be around as a Government for a long time does give extra authority and capacity to do things.

But if your majority is falling, and people think you may not be around in a couple of years then authority drains away. One Cabinet minister said to me that he thought his officials were much more helpful when the Government had a healthy lead in the polls than when it was behind. He was too pessimistic, but perhaps sometimes advisers might go through the motions but don’t believe you will be around long enough to check what has been done. Then making things happen really would get hard.

Ed McGuinness: Children need to be taught what it means to be a member of our civic society

18 Nov

Ed McGuinness is a founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green at the last General Election.

I have found myself (re)watching The West Wing, one of my favourite TV shows of the early 2000s on Channel 4. Immersing oneself in the machinations of an idealistic US political drama focusing on a Democratic president is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a Conservative like me but it’s fiction, it’s fun and it offers a unique perspective on some issues alongside a tone of aspiration I find refreshing in what can be a brutal realpolitik. A character who is more idealistic than most is the affable, nerdy deputy communications director Sam Seaborne, played by Rob Lowe, who often reaches for the stars.

One quote which always sticks with me is whilst discussing with his on-screen love interest he says:

“Education is the silver bullet.”

This I totally agree with and I do not think falls under the ideological banner outside of realism. Education should be about preparing young people to enter and be fully integrated members of society. Note carefully, I do not mean contributors to society. Contributors to society implies that education need only furnish people with the skills to “make” something (be that a widget or something more intangible). To be fully integrated means not only being able to contribute to society, but to shape that society, to build it and help it to grow responsibly.

I think the UK covers, to a greater or lesser extent, the contributory factor quite well, although there is always more work to be done. As an example, in England, 52 per cent of pupils are achieving grades 5 or above in English and mathematics GCSE; an increase of around ten per cent on 2018/19. Those who go on to achieve degrees are earning an average of £27,400; up £2,200 from six years ago. Then there are non-academic qualifications and apprenticeships which consistently have over 700,000 participants each year.

However, there is a loss of focus on what it means to be a member of our civic society. The National Curriculum does actually cater for citizenship at KS3 and KS4 levels, but if indeed this is assessed, it is surely a side note given the many competing demands on teachers and schools. Charities can play an important role in this. Schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award, the Scouts and Cadet Forces inculcate their members with a set of principles which strive to create a selflessness and desire to protect and preserve our society. I don’t agree that charities exist because it is an area in which Government has failed. The third sector has a huge part to play in providing targeted help to people that the large hand of government simply does not have the dexterity to do so.

The value of civic studies is one that is certainly not paid enough attention to in mainstream education and really ought to form a core part of the skillset we want to imbue our young people with which is as important as numeracy and literacy. A sense of ownership in society, a core Conservative principle, comes not just with physical property but with a more intangible feeling of empowerment in your community. For this reason I argue that a civic society element be implemented as part of a general qualification people must attain at each level of education.

In practice, this could be joining and participating in one of the aforementioned societies as a young teenager. It could also involve recorded voluntary work at residential homes or community projects. In higher education it could take the form of tutoring younger people or, as I did in my degree course, a module whereby I taught mathematics for a term in a local school in a more deprived area. In apprentice courses, it could involve taking part in seminars with younger people about your journey, why you chose an apprenticeship and its value, or perhaps volunteering your skills to a local charity or community group.

The pillars of the Government’s levelling-up strategy include (amongst others): Empowering local leaders and communities and restoring local pride. Both these things require knowledge of one’s community and a sense of achievement and belonging in it. To formalise, or require, a civic element to education, beyond learning the mechanics of elections and voting, surely is essential to the levelling-up agenda, but brings many benefits to society with people, and young people in particular, finding themselves in a position to influence society for the better and achieve a lot more than a grade on a paper.

In ending I will reference the US in another way, this time a real-life president who said:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

By showing young people the value they possess through their addition to society the UK Government can do something for them but also have them do something for their country – creating that silver bullet.

Ed McGuinness: Afghanistan – and the changes that should now be made to better support our veterans

10 Sep

Ed McGuinness is a founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s General Election.

This week the summer seemed to return and, as the sun rose over Westminster, MPs began filling the House of Commons once again, bringing a buzz to the start of a new political term. In a week packed with domestic legislation, the Prime Minister took to his feet to make a statement on what was surely the major story of the summer: Afghanistan.

Many have pored over the strategy of the withdrawal – and will continue to.  Even more will consider the operational and tactical decisions that led to chaotic scenes at Kabul airport. What can, I believe, be objectively said is that the bravery, dedication and professionalism of our Armed Forces and diplomatic service is without question. However, as the Prime Minister pointed out, those men and women were only the final team of the over 150,000 British service personnel who have served in the country since 2001.

It was therefore welcome that the Government laid out extra support, in the form of an extra £5 million, for veterans of the conflict who are undergoing mental and physical health issues as a consequence of their service to the nation.  A quick calculation, assuming that five per cent of those who served are undergoing or require treatment, is that this new measure will provide an extra spend of around £650 per person.

But however welcome this extra funding may be, it is not is not enough in and of itself. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and best practice in the public domain with respect to promoting aspects of service life: one need only look at the number of military charities that are out there. And the Veterans Affairs Office was a good start to coordinating the Government action to protecting and promoting veterans’ interests from a top-down perspective.

However, structures do not make a strategy, and I believe that there are three changes that could be made to strengthen the bonds between the Government and the Armed Forces.

First, the Government should make the Minister for Veterans Affairs a Cabinet-level position – or else place it under the purview of the Secretary of State for Defence with a Defence Minister (it currently resides in the Cabinet Office), so that it has the requisite clout when negotiating for funding with other departments.

Second, there ought to be a serious consultation with the Armed Forces charity sector. In 2020, there were around 2,000 Armed Forces charities. Some of these charities have a very broad remit, and some very specific. The Government should establish an umbrella organisation to act as a forum to share best practice, identify areas not covered and allow better co-ordination. Most importantly, this would allow for the identification of where public funding can be more efficiently allocated to better support serving and retired service personnel.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult objective to implement, is a mindset change. There needs to be a recognition that the Armed Forces are a unique public service. Whilst many public servants, especially the emergency services and health services, will undergo traumatic experiences through their careers, there is no expectation that those public servants will explicitly lay down their lives in the service of the nation, although it is recognised that many have made brave sacrifices.

Furthermore, the Armed Forces are the only public service whose major purpose is to actually stand ready to act for the majority of the time, rather than to be acting all the time. To this end, resourcing the Armed Forces for “outcomes” is not an appropriate mindset. Instead, Ministers should resource single living accommodation for serving soldiers, provide sufficient funding for equipment and good food, and make sure there is adequate housing (including families) and employment for retired soldiers. Changing mindset from quantitative outcomes to qualitative is more appropriate in this respect.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was painful for a whole spectrum of people, for a whole series of reasons, but it presents an opportunity to reform our approach to the Armed Forces and how we support soldiers. There has been a hugely positive change in mindset over the past 20 years when it comes to soldiers’ mental and physical health.  But in order to solidify this and build on it more reform is needed.

Not all of it requires lots of additional funding; most simply requires a willingness to engage and support. Our Armed Forces come to our need, domestically and overseas, time and time again. Our efforts to support them should never be exhausted – there is always going to be scope to do more, and it is government’s duty to do so.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 8) Charities Bill

15 Aug

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

8. Charities Bill

Most of the seven Bills that we’ve written about to date have been contentious.  But there are in each Queen’s Speech a few Bills that are essentially tidying-up exercises.  This is a classic of the kind.

The Bill “implements recommendations from the Law Commission’s 2017 Technical Issues in Charity Law Report. It will simplify a number of relevant processes to help charities consolidate and restructure, for example by making it easier for charities to amend governing documents, dispose of land or carry out mergers”.

Responsible department

Like many other relatively uncontroversial pieces of legislation, this Bill has kicked off in the Lords – and the Culture Department is in charge. Baroness Barran, the Lords Minister, will take charge of steering it through.

Once the Bill reaches the Commons, the Minister whose portfolio is the least incompatible with the Bill is Caroline Dinenage, one of the Department’s two Ministers of State, but other Ministers may pitch in.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Currently under consideration.

Arguments for

The basic case for the Bill is that there’s little point in asking such bodies as the Law Commission to undertake reviews if governments then don’t respond to them.  It produced a report in 2017 called Technical Issues in Charity Law which “addresses a variety of technical issues in the law governing charities.

The Bill does so mainly by amending the Charities Act 2011, though it also amends other legislation, including the Universities and College Estates Act 1925 and the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996.  Ministers claim that “the reforms will save charities time and money, notably legal costs” a “remove or reform unnecessary or overly bureaucratic processes”.

Arguments against

None in principle seem to have been raised to date, though there may well be devils in the details.  The National Council for Voluntary Organisations says “the Bill has been warmly welcomed by the sector” for the flexibility it aims to bring to charity organisation, and “there are a raft of scenarios where charities could see red tape cut”.

Those zealous for free speech should note that “the Charity Commission’s powers will be expanded to allow the regulator to remove misleading or offensive names being registered as charities”.  The Bill will enable governing documents to be updated more easily, land disposal to be speeded up, charities to have greater endowment flexibility and be able to pay trustees for goods provided.

Politics

As a Law Commission Bill it is expected to be considered by a special public bill committee, which may help its progress through the parliamentary process, as it can bypass the second reading and committee stages.  The procedure “allows the Bills to be considered and scrutinised despite the pressures of Parliamentary time”.

It’s a statement of the obvious that charities have cross-party support, but Conservatives with an enthusiasm for Big Society-type politics will have a particular interest in the Bill – as will MPs who might seek to hang  amendments on to the Bill, for example perhaps in relation to the sales limit on charity lotteries.

Controversy rating: 1/10

We would mark the Bill even lower if we could, though we may be mistaken to do so.  It could be that there is some element in the small print of the legislation that leaps out to bite the Government.  But more laws than one might think are carried through Parliament on the back of cross-party co-operation, and this will be one of them.

Judy Terry: Defeating the scourge of litter is just one example of the power of volunteering

6 May

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

The last year of unparalleled economic and emotional uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of community, and the way people have come together to support and look after each other.

For example, 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS ‘test and trace’ when the call went out during the first lockdown. But volunteering is nothing new; it is embedded in the British DNA, with individuals and groups spending their free time doing a range of unpaid work, quietly and modestly, contributing to society, saving the State and local authorities billions of pounds annually.

So why did the Census not have any questions about volunteering, when the data is supposed to inform and prioritise future policy and investment for the next ten years?

Charities couldn’t survive without their volunteers, manning shops (when open) and foodbanks, as well as telephone helplines, including Childline and the Samaritans; volunteers are crucial to organising fundraising events, engaging with the disabled and lonely, masterminding amateur theatre performances, and managing local clubs which are key to the safety and security – as well as bringing fun – to their communities.

‘Saving Lives at Sea’ is a series of real-life incidents filmed by highly trained RNLI volunteers, illustrating their bravery and generosity of spirit in some of the most frightening circumstances. But they are not the only volunteers putting their own lives at risk to save others: in some locations, fire services rely on their volunteers for rapid response. We must also be grateful to the Mountain Rescue Service for going out in all weathers to help those at risk, as well as volunteer ambulance drivers and those who assist the Police and homeless.

Volunteer coastguards are also essential to the safety of experienced and amateur sailors as well as protecting beaches and swimmers, and supporting the Immigration Service, saving illegal immigrants from drowning when their boats are overwhelmed.

At times of crisis, including floods or wildfires destroying communities and countryside, volunteers immediately arrive with tractors and other equipment, food and hot drinks, they help with searches to find and transport the most vulnerable at particular risk, opening their homes and public buildings to offer comfort to victims. They also put their own lives at risk to save livestock, wildlife, and domestic pets.

With the environment threatened by waste, groups of litterpickers regularly spend hours collecting the rubbish thrown out of cars, left on beaches, and dropped in the countryside, endangering wildlife as well as potentially causing damaging fires. Volunteers help with mental health and wellbeing on allotments, welcoming the lonely and forgotten to tea and coffee with cake in ‘man sheds’, creating a friendly atmosphere for sharing concerns and expertise.

Retired Ministers routinely volunteer to conduct services in their local places of worship, across all religions, providing leadership and comfort in the good, as well as bad, times.

National Trust and Museums rely on volunteer guides, who also man public libraries, or put themselves forward to become parish councillors and school governors. Volunteer sports coaches are key to mentoring and developing young people’s fitness, keeping them out of trouble by giving them the confidence to recognise and develop their own abilities, learning to socialise, and giving them hope and ambition as they plan their futures.

Whilst it was always common practice for neighbours to babysit for each other, and look after pets when their owners are away, during the last difficult year, many thousands more people have relied on the kindness of neighbours, doing their shopping, taking their dogs for walks, helping with some garden maintenance or painting fences. People of all ages, from all walks of life, have responded to these challenges, bringing empathy, and humour, where appropriate, during doorstep conversations.

Once the vaccine rollout began, volunteers were on hand to help manage sites, and drive the elderly and vulnerable to get their jabs, celebrating the likelihood of long-awaited freedom to see friends and family again with them.

Volunteers have a remarkable humility; they are driven by a strong sense of duty and a willingness to share whatever knowledge and skills they have, expecting nothing in return.

Consequently, the Census was a wasted opportunity, when this commitment to others is evidently so undervalued that it won’t be recorded, leaving a massive gap in the ‘data’ analysis. How will this be reflected in expenditure – and where it is directed – over the coming decade?

It is a significant failure because cash-strapped Government and local councils appear dismissive of their (hidden) reliance on volunteers who save taxpayers billions of pounds. Something to be celebrated rather than ignored; perhaps volunteers should adopt the massive egos of some politicians to be appreciated.

Danny Kruger: Charities must be allowed to carry out their work. Our most vulnerable children need them.

29 Apr

Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes. He chairs the Centre for Social Justice’s Commission on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Care.

The number of children in care has never been greater. Over 68,000 children were living apart from their families in June 2020 – an increase of three per cent over the previous year.

Already before the pandemic, the care system that should support these children was under pressure. In 2018 Ofsted judged 58 per cent of local authorities to be ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires improvement to be good’ with regard to their children’s services.

But the pandemic has made things much worse. In the first six months of the pandemic, incidents involving death or serious harm to under-one year olds because of suspected negligence or abuse increased by 31 per cent over the same period in 2019. Among one to five year olds, it increased by 50 per cent.

Directors of Children’s Services reported that, as a result of Covid-19, families face less support, more investigations and more removals of children in response to their difficulties.

But the pandemic has also tapped an extraordinary voluntary movement in this country. Small local charities have worked in innovative ways to help feed, educate and advise families. Charities provide ideas, energy, and cost-effective interventions.

By relying on these under-used grassroots voluntary organisations, service professionals can reach deep into the community, engaging with the most disengaged. Using informal networks – including youth organisations, church groups, local volunteers – complement statutory services to support the most vulnerable. Free of bureaucracy, place-based and highly flexible, this community-level support can transform outcomes for children at the risk of going into care.

Vulnerable families like volunteers because they are local, less intimidating, and often unpaid. They also invest the kind of time that social workers, overwhelmed by caseloads, cannot afford to dedicate.

One model is the wrap-around service offered by the charity Safe Families for Children. A church-based volunteer organisation, Safe Families for Children delivers temporary foster care to support families in crisis.  The charity offers a befriending service whereby a volunteer will act as a mentor/befriender for the family in crisis and offer financial support for the family in terms of goods or skills. They host the family, and will support them for months on end, developing a strong relationship with family members.

The programme has reduced the flow of children into care by between nine to 16 per cent, and is now working with more than 30 local authorities. It numbers 4,500 volunteers from over 1,000 churches and community groups, and 100 professional staff.

The West London Zone for Children and Young People, a charity I set up in one of the most unequal areas in the country, is another example. WLZ covers an area with 60,000 school-age children and young people, among whom one in five is at risk of leaving school without the proper skills to thrive. Twenty-nine schools across four councils refer children to the charity because of needs such as low grades, poor attendance, wellbeing concerns, low levels of parental involvement. All children referred are below the threshold for additional statutory support.

Service professionals should welcome such collaborations, as they offer a way to scale programmes in a cost-efficient way. But, all too often, grassroot organisations report a defensive, “territorial” mindset among statutory partners. A survey of the 400 plus Centre for Social Justice Alliance’s charities found that members felt undermined by statutory services:

  •  “It’s as if they see themselves in competition with us”.
  • “It has not always felt like a mutually respectful platform”.
  • “I think some budget holders see us as competition eg. we have had occasional times where the cost benefit the LA has been willing to attribute to services has been down scaled because of concerns it would result in them losing staff.”
  • “It’s as if they see voluntary as secondary.”
  • “The demands to fall in line with “clunky” operating systems and LA databases can be prohibitive from a resource perspective with a small staff structures.”
  • “There is a definite sense that we are helping them with “their” cases. “

They also reported facing serious obstacles in getting funding from local government and non‑governmental organisations.[5]  One reason for this is that government funding comes in a large number of discreet, time-limited funds, pilots and initiatives which are too short-term for small charities to cope with.

Government can enforce the stipulation that public service commissioners’ contracts meet “social value” criteria. The taxpayer spends £300 billion a year on goods and services through hundreds of thousands of separate contracts that follow guidance laid down by government.

The Public Service (Social Value) Act 2011 required commissioners to consider the wider social value of bids when awarding contracts for services. Despite this, Social Enterprise UK found that only eight per cent of the £300 billion public sector procurement budget actively champions socially and environmentally responsible business practice.

Government can also ensure that Job Centre Plus staff are aware of the amount of volunteering claimants can take part in, and correctly informing them of it; and it can include information on volunteering in the pensions pack sent to those who reach retirement age, as was recommended by the House of Lords committee on civic engagement.

The post-pandemic economy will see a surge in unemployment. Channelling the energy and creativity of job-seekers and the job-less, especially among the young, into community engagement will benefit these individuals and the local area. According to Department for Work and Pensions guidance, volunteering can count for up to 50 per cent of a jobseeker’s time that they are spending taking reasonable action to find a job.

The introduction of the government’s Innovation Partnership model may help counter this: it allows commissioners to work with potential providers on the design of a contract, seeking to leverage their resources to support the public budget using simpler, outcomes-based contracts.

It would be a shame for the goodwill, energy and flexibility of the voluntary sector to be wasted by bureaucracy and wrong assumptions. Government must act urgently to ensure that charities are allowed to carry out their work: our most vulnerable children need them.

The CSJ’s report Safely reducing the number of children going into care was published this week.

Nick Maughan: After Covid, our children will need after-school clubs to make up lost ground

5 Feb

Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist.

All young people have been dealt a bad hand by the indirect effects of the pandemic – school closures, disrupted social lives, stifled educations, scuppered paths to university, the looming prospect of insurmountable debt, and diminished prospects for gainful employment. However, some young people are more equal than others.

The current restrictions look likely to last until Easter and possibly beyond. The evidence from the first national lockdown is unambiguous – children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are more adversely affected by the direct and indirect effects of such measures. The broad picture remains unchanged and will be made worse by current circumstances.

The problems affecting many less advantaged young people today are a regular feature of news headlines: knife crime, drug abuse, lack of access to quality education and skills development and destructive gang culture. Across all this hangs the spectre of mental health concerns, which have been gravely exacerbated since the onset of the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, casting a dark cloud over our children’s future.

Confronted with this bleak outlook, we should be looking beyond short-term government policy – in terms of educational subsidies, grants and home learning tools – and thinking about the broader state of the social fabric that will need addressing in order to surmount the challenges that have been piled upon ‘Generation Covid’ in the long-term.

Support for disadvantaged young people needs to happen at a local level. There could be no better illustration of where society can step up than with the concept of out-of-school clubs.

Over the past decade national youth work budgets have been squeezed, leaving many disadvantaged young people vulnerable to dangerous distractions, with no safe haven through which to develop their skills and talents outside of the classroom.

Further data collated by YMCA England and Wales last year showed that spending on youth services in England has been decimated by 69 per cent in a decade, and is set to reach its lowest point in a generation next year. Analysis of figures revealed average spend on youth services per local authority plummeted from £7.79m in 2010 to a planned expenditure of just £2.45m this year.

This comes after research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on knife crime, published in May 2019, found that areas suffering the largest cuts to youth spending on services such as social clubs and youth workers had seen bigger increases in knife crime.

Out of school youth work, through youth clubs in particular, has its origins in the 1880s, arising out of the Ragged School and Sunday School movements. From the 1960s onwards, out of school work with young people increasingly shifted away from the voluntary sector to the state – but this support has recently dropped off. These cuts have seen a marked shift from prevention towards support for those already in crisis or at very high risk, and increasing numbers of young people are not supported until their needs reach a crisis.

It is against this backdrop that my foundation will be devoting considerable resources to nurturing out-of-school clubs, designed to help young people make successful transitions to adulthood. One such project we’ll be contributing to is the reconstruction of the Waterside Centre in Newbury, undertaken by the Berkshire Youth Trust, a youth support charity that has been operating in the region for 75 years.

The Waterside Centre – on which construction got underway in September and is set to open in this Spring, hopefully just as restrictions begin to be lifted – will be the first in a series of ‘Inspired Facilities’ the Trust aims to roll out across Berkshire and, eventually, Britain.

Through the provision of modern facilities, offering a range of activities from sport to music making, counselling services to vocational training and routes to gainful employment, these state-of-the-art youth centres will offer safe havens for young people, opportunities to develop their skills and talents, and give them respite from the stresses and strains of their often difficult and complicated lives.

Last year, Boris Johnson took personal charge of a new cabinet committee to tackle surging levels of knife crime and violence, with a particular focus on ‘county lines’ gangs that are abusing and exploiting children. Organisations like The Berkshire Youth Trust and BoxSmart work towards preventing the circumstances arising through which such behaviour becomes an option or temptation for young people in the first place.

Naturally, the charitable sector can’t go it alone. We will continue to push for government help. But we must also foster a culture in which we can rely on the conscience, goodwill and dynamism of the private sector to get things done.

For understandable reasons, since the onset of the pandemic our focus has been on government and what it can do for us. And we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

With a vaccine in sight, we should be shifting our focus away from what crutches government can provide to support the broken parts of our system, and back towards building our society’s muscle to do the heavy lifting on the issues that matter.