Thursday, 26 July 2012

Passing the funding buck to well-meaning staff

Newcastle City Council has its own temporary accommodation for homeless families. For many years Children North East has enabled the children of families living there to play - we run a creche and an after school club as well as supporting the parent(s) to find and move to permanent tenancies. At any time there are about 60 children living there. This work is funded by grants from the City Council and some we obtain from charitable trusts.

Earlier this year the City Council cut its grant by 10%. We duly made savings by cutting out our 'activities budget' - this is money set aside for children's activities during the holidays, in the past this has included meals for some children. We are applying to charitable trusts to make up the difference but so far with no luck.

It is not well known that far from being 'benefit scroungers' some families in the UK have 'no recourse to public funds (NRPF)' meaning they are not entitled to welfare benefits, generally they are 'refused' asylum seekers or people who have overstayed their visa. There are a good many families in this position in the temporary accommodation in Newcastle.

They don't have a right to work either so they are entirely dependent on friends, family or charity. During the school term the children of these families do get one meal a day for free at school but now the school holidays have come their families often have nothing to give them. In previous years we have used part of the activities budget to offer children cereal for breakfast and a simple lunch such as beans on toast during school holidays. J R Holland the fruit and veg wholesalers are generous throughout the year and donate fruit for the children.

This year we cannot afford to do this having cut the 'activities budget', instead our own staff are plugging the gap by buying a little extra in their weekly shop and donating it. So here we have a Government without the humanity to care for very vulnerable people until they are deported by giving them even a minimal amount of money to feed their children; a local authority providing shelter for those families but forced to cut back on its spending by the Government; passing that cut on to a charity which too has to economise; the buck passes to the charity's staff who cannot stand by and do nothing while in daily contact with children in basic need of food; so they take it upon themselves to make sure children do not go hungry. This is the reality of the so-called 'Big Society' in 'austerity Britain'.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

More trouble with 'Troubled Families'

Louise Casey's report 'Listening to Troubled Families' is distressing reading. She interviews 16 families summarising their life stories and including verbatim excerpts from her conversations with them. It will take you half an hour to read all 16.

All but one are interviews with women, although 4 of the 16 are two-parent families, we hear little of the men's histories, plenty of the women's. Theirs are like stories from a war zone - repeated abuse, rape, dozens of homes, in and out of care, false starts, rejections and dashed hopes, victims of crime - experiences that amount to serial post-traumatic stress and grief. In some of the interviews you can feel the fragmented memories of someone suffering from post-traumatic stress. They have barely got over one misfortune before another befalls them, victims of bad luck. One of the most striking things is how little control any of the interviewees have had over the course their lives have taken. None seemed to have chosen to become parents at the time they became pregnant.

They are adults in crisis under enormous stress but still trying to be parents (blog 31st May 2012). It can take years of patient listening and 'being with' someone (such as a counsellor) as they repeat over and over again the memories of trauma, loss, shame and regret gradually making a coherent account and in the process gaining some control of them. They take enormous pride in their children's achievements, putting paid to the idea that these families lack aspiration.

A disproportianate number of the children have chronic health problems, learning difficulties or other special needs. These children have lots of medical appointments and need to be accompanied to them by parents, yet one of the objectives of the Troubled Families initiative is to get parents into work. How many employers are sympathetic to employees continuously taking time off for children's health appointments, school appointments, attendance at meetings to discuss children's behaviour or parenting training? The Troubled Families programme envisages appointing someone to coordinate all the services provided to each family, difficult to combine that and parents finding and remaining in employment.

Some of the interviewees have been seriously mislead by professionals - one parent thought her son was in a special class for gifted children when in fact it was a remedial class. How can parents be expected to work with the public services if they are not told the truth? It is not just a matter of rights but respect to inform parents what is going on with their children. Given that so many of the parents had spent periods in care when they were children, often with traumatic consequences, it is astonishing that they have any faith at all in 'helping professionals'.

These portraits are meant to represent an underclass that the popular press portray to be feared and loathed in equal part, and the coalition government tell us are responsible for society's evils and unnecessary or unaffordable expense and who therefore must be controlled or punished. The truth is very far from that portrayal.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Troubled Families - Human Rights

I am in two minds about the government's 'Troubled Families' programme. On the one hand Children North East would agree that working with the whole family often intensively can bring about profound changes; on the other hand I worry about the rights of these 120,000 families.

The 'Troubled Families' programme was announced as the response to last summer's riots but had in fact been planned some months previously. It takes the Labour Government's 'Family Intervention Programme' model but targets it to 120,000 families and couples it to 'payment by results' rewards of £4,000 to local authorities for each family where there is an improvement in school attendance, reduction in anti-social behaviour or crucially the parents go into work.

Local Authorities were given a target number of families to identify using local data. I was part of these discussions in Newcastle and Gateshead who struggled to identify the required number. The north east did not have riots last summer; unlike other metropolitan areas (notably Manchester) we do not have high numbers of people subject to ASBOs having followed a policy of using them sparingly. School attendance is generally good in the north east and though there are part-time and short term jobs, we lack full-time, long-term jobs for unskilled workers. Newcastle and Gateshead councils both felt they already knew all the families in difficulty in their areas and were already offering them services. They say the issues are more to do with ill-health, insufficient income, homelessness and the stresses they cause including substance misuse, domestic violence and sometimes neglectful parenting.

Louise Casey who heads up the Troubled Families Unit in the Department for Communities and Local Government now has the names, addresses, benefit records, criminal records and other personal data of 120,000 families – without seeking their permission. Her justification is to ensure that they get the services and help that they need and deserve; and ultimately reduce the cost of the damage they cause to society and inconvenience to the rest of us. I wonder how many are middle class families? Almost certainly none, even though alcohol abuse is rampant in middle class families; mental illness, drug misuse and domestic violence are prevalent in all classes; and neglectful parenting by better off parents can be masked by sending children to boarding school and holiday activities. The fact is better off classes have financial resources to avoid using state-run services (unless they have a child with a disability). Despite the good intentions, collecting data on the weaker members of society looks like an assault on their human rights. In my darker moments I wonder what might become of those families if they don't improve? Would a UK government be tempted to consider dawn raids to round them up and send them to Gulags?

Local Authorities are now planning how they work with these families in need. Many are considering commissioning intensive support for particular families, parenting training and long-term support. Children North East can offer all these as 'spot purchases' meaning councils can buy these services from us one at a time. We have been anticipating this sort of business model for last the year and are well-prepared for it, in fact the sooner councils start to buy from us like this, the better! However our approach will always be to ask agreement of the family to work with us, we believe they always have a choice; and we will always engage every member of the family, especially the children, not only because children have rights as well as adults, but because more often than not their opinions and feelings are the key to making the difference.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited

Last night Children North East was delighted to jointly host a public talk by Stephen Armstrong, author of 'The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited' with the North East Child Poverty Commission. Stephen Crossley  Commission Coordinator write about the event on his blog. I can't do better than that so please read his blog here:

Saturday, 7 July 2012

A sparkling occassion

Our annual Sandcastle Ball took place last night at the Gosforth Park hotel. Once again it was a fabulous party evening superbly hosted by Steve Walls who also enterained during dinner by singing - what a a great voice.

Of course the Sandcastle Ball is connected with the Sandcastle Challenge last week. We are indebted to GB Building Solutions, especially Dawn Limerick and Martin Westgate of Robertson Construction, our main sponsors. Together with John Matthews, Ces Maddison, Brian Hodgkinson and Stu Burlinson they form the Sandcastle Committee who help organise the beach event and support the Ball. They give up their time for meetings, site visits, table sales, raffle & auction prizes in the run up to both events. So a huge thank you to them all.

Another big thank you to Stu who kindly brought his band 'Under The Radar' - what a treat, if you haven't heard them you should, they got everyone dancing and rocking the night away.

Thank you too to staff from Barclays Bank who volunteered their help on the night to make everything run smoothly alongside Children North East staff who also volunteer their time.

Congratulations to Clare Stagg of Plan It who won the Sandcastle Trophy for the best design, execution and construction on the beach working with Ryhope Infant School from Sunderland. Their design was 'the route of the torch' - a map of the whole country showing the route of the Olympic Torch.

A great many businesses also donated raffle and auction prizes so a big thank you to them all for their support of Children North East. I hope all the winners enjoy their prizes.

Lastly none of this could happen without a lot of hard work over many months. So thank you Carol Taylor, senior fundraiser at Children North East and the team - Eileen Botterill and our student Emma Patterson.