Thursday, 29 November 2012

Gold from straw

Last Monday I attended the Children England AGM and 70th anniversary debate. Children England is the national membership body for voluntary sector organisations working with children, young people and families. It represents the interests of members to government and supports members by providing reliable information about policy, safeguarding training for staff and so on. I have followed in the footsteps of at least two of my predecessors at Children North East in chairing the north east Children England group and being a trustee of Children England, known in previous times as NCVCCO (National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations).

The debate asked 'what role should the children and families voluntary sector take in 'Austerity Britain'? In 1942 NCVCCO was formed by voluntary organisations asking a similar question - what role would the sector play in the coming post-war Welfare State? (By chance William Beveridge published his famous report exactly 50 years ago this week, the report which formed the basis of the Welfare State - Beveridge was a researcher for Beatrice Webb and worked with her on her famous 'Minority Report on the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress' which first articulated the principles of a Welfare State in 1909).

On the one hand Andy Benson of the National Coalition for Independent Action argued that many voluntary organisations are no longer connected to communities or to voluntary action, instead they behave too much like businesses, are too reliant on public sector contracts and therefore can no longer be independent or act on behalf of the communities they purport to represent. On the other hand Chris Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs argued that the voluntary sector should be delivering public services because we are likely to be better at it than the private sector, but voluntary organisations should not be permitted to accept public money and also to lobby because that looks like government lobbying in its own interests.

Prof Kate Pickett, co-author of The Spirit Level and from the Equality Trust spoke eloquently about the voluntary sector continuing to speak up with depth of understanding for the vulnerable, about injustice and suffering.

Sir Roger Singleton (chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority and government advisor) chaired the debate. The truth is that most voluntary organisations for children are like Children North East a mixture of many things. Most are partly funded by government to deliver public services and partly from grants we obtain to fund work we think is necessary. Most use volunteers as well as paid staff to deliver services. Most have local presence in one or more communities where their projects are based. We are in daily contact with vulnerable children, young people and families which gives us  in-depth understanding of the problems they face. Knowing what we know and seeing what we see every day it is impossible not to be moved to speak out or enable children, young people and families own voices to be heard.

Maggie Jones, Chief Executive of Children England summed it up beautifully. The voluntary sector she said creates value out of nothing. We take gifts of people's time as volunteers and small amounts of money and turn them into social value. Like the fairy story we create gold from straw. This is the real value of the voluntary sector which is far removed from the current preoccupation with who should 'deliver' public services and a bewildering array of 'financial products' to finance public sector contracts.. The simple fact is there are people in need and their number is growing, the state is not going to provide them in the ways we have become used to over the last 50 years, voluntary organisations harness the compassion of people who want to help and make a difference. That is what voluntary organisations have always done and will continue to do in 'Austerity Britain'.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Perfect Storms

This week's blog appears as guest blog on the North East Child Poverty Commission's website. It is about recent research by Children England that describes the two 'storms' currently raging around the public sector, voluntary organisations and the vulnerable children, young people and families that they support. They are the 'Business Storm' and the 'Locality Storm'.

In my opinion the report is required reading for anyone interested in the voluntary sector or the impact that cuts in public spending is having.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Living Wage and dignity

One of my favourite Bob Dylan songs is 'Dignity' - how every person needs and is searching for dignity. Dignity includes the right to respect and to be treated fairly, its sums up universal human rights and social justice in a single word.
This week is Living Wage week and I'm very happy to be supporting a Blog Action Day today in support of the Living Wage campaign because it's a campaign for dignity. The Living Wage is £7.45 an hour outside London compared to the statutory Minimum Wage of £6.19 an hour for people aged over 21. Quite simply it is the difference between having just enough for a decent life or not enough. The difference between being treated with respect or not.
Annual salary on Minimum Wage - £11,909
Annual salary on Living Wage - £14,334
Annual UK average salary - £21,330
Over 60% of children living in poverty in the north east are in working families, that is why Children North East supports the Living Wage because it would relieve the pressure on parents trying to get by on very strained budgets and would open out opportunities for their children - things like being able to afford winter coats, or to go swimming, or have a birthday party. The Living Wage can mean the difference between parents needing several jobs and so able to spend more time with their children.

The Living Wage campaign started 11 years ago in East London; in an article in The Guardian last Saturday David Milliband estimates 1 million people have been lifted out of in-work poverty during that time with no loss of jobs. The campaign is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Save the Children, KPMG and Aviva amongst others. All Children North East staff are paid above the Living Wage but we have contracts with cleaning companies who do not, we are in discussion with those businesses to persuade them to pay the Living Wage too.

The Living Wage is voluntary but support is growing, just this week Newcastle City Council announced it had become a Living Wage employer and urged other employers to follow their example. Part of Newcastle's commitment is to ensure they only procure services from organisations paying the Living Wage, so it makes good business sense for any organisation wanting to do business with the council to be a Living Wage employer.

5 million workers in the UK are paid below the Minimum Wage, that's 1 in 5 of all workers. The benefit system pays out £4 billion a year on in 'in-work support' for people on low incomes, that would be much reduced if employers paid the Living Wage and therefore good for taxpayers too. The New Statesman this week supports a recommendation by the Resolution Foundation that listed companies should be required to report how many employees are paid less than the Living Wage. That information plus Director's salaries would highlight the gap between best and least well paid and invite businesses to reduce that ratio. That would be another advance in reducing income inequality.

Friday, 2 November 2012

West Newcastle Children's Zone?

Harlem Children's Zone is a pioneering, not-for profit community organisation in New York City which began in the 1990s. It's 20 year aim is simple: to break the cycle of deprivation for 15,000 children and 7,000 adults by ensuring every child achieves at school and over 90% go on to college. They do this by providing free parenting training, nurseries, a free school and extra tuition for pupils attending other schools, out of school activities and intensive targeted support for those in greatest need. All this is available to the  the entire neighbourhood of families, children and young people from pre-birth to college. The two fundamental principles of the project are to help children as early as possible and to create a critical mass of adults around them who understand what it takes for children to succeed. Although it will take at least another decade to know the full success of the project, there have already been significant achievements, so much so that President Obama backed duplicating the model in 'Promise Neighbourhoods' across the USA.

The scale really excites me, one very disadvantaged community, can-do voluntary sector action, a range of different services all coordinated towards a single, ambitious long-term goal. Could the same be done here?

Children North East is a regional charity but we have a cluster of projects, services and activities in Westgate, Elswick, Benwell and Scotswood wards of Newcastle (child poverty rates 57%, 46% and 42% respectively in January 2012, the average for Newcastle is 31%) 3 of the 5 poorest wards in the city. The projects range from parenting training, programmes to encourage fathers to take part in maternity services, outreach to enable families to use Children's Centres including fathers, targeted family support provided by trained volunteers, intensive family work with homeless families and children with very poor school attendance, programmes that encourage fathers to be involved their children's education, groupwork for young carers, courses in mental well-being for young people in and out of school, drop-in advice centre for young people, sexual health services for young people, community cafe and mentors for young people who are trained volunteer young people.

In addition to these Children North East also has the expertise to provide nurture groups in primary schools, 'book buddy' reading schemes, mentoring training for disaffected young people, highly intensive work with families where there is domestic violence, parental mental ill-health or substance misuse and neglectful parenting.

All these different activities are commissioned or funded by different bodies for example separate departments in the City Council; the health service, schools, various grant making bodies. Each has it's own purpose and target group, each is required to report to the funder on different measures, none of the funders make reference to each other - they are not 'joined up', however it would be a simple matter for Children North East to align them, indeed we do to manage them effectively.

Just imagine what could be achieved if all those services were focussed on a common goal such as improving the long-term educational attainment of all the children and young people in those 3 wards. Like the Harlem Children's Zone and working closely with nursery, primary and secondary schools, Children North East services could provide seamless support for parents and children from pregnancy, through the early years, into school and on into secondary school. Some activities would be available for all (for example Children's Centres, parenting training, sexual health advice for young people, Community Cafe) others would be directed at children, young people and parents more in need but the overall goal would be the same for all.

What would it take to do that? Children North East could take the initiative working in partnership with other bodies especially schools. It would take commitment to a common cause by all including a commonly agreed way to define the outcome (such as college entry) and ideally, commitment to funding the whole endeavour for at least 18 years (to see one cohort of young people from birth through their whole childhood and school experience). Pie in the sky - I don't think so.