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Launch of “Towards Effective Prevention: Practical steps for the next government”

July 17th, 2014

In our newly launched paper, “Towards Effective Prevention”, the Early Action Taskforce argue that early action, an ethos that emphasizes intervening earlier at all points in the lives of individuals, should be a central part of the next government’s policy framework.

The paper outlines a set of recommendations that could contribute to this vision, split broadly into three themes. Firstly, by building support for early action goals across the whole political spectrum we can enable people to live happier and healthier lives. Integral to this is ten year, longer term planning, including regular budget reviews to ensure changing economic circumstances are taken into account. Finally, we must increase investment in early action by utilising better information, incentivising the breakdown of silos, and encouraging collaboration between a wide range of innovative people and organisations.

Responses at the launch

The recommendations were welcomed by Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who stated in her response that it was time early action, a common sense idea that most sign up to in principle, was implemented across the board. She argued that moving beyond a parochial focus on political cycles was integral to this, and that leadership firmly rests with the Treasury and Cabinet Office. Furthermore she called for ring-fenced funding for early action initiatives, and suggested that Labour would do well to adopt an explicit early action ethos if it gained power in the 2015 General Election. Indeed, some of these ideas are already embedded in Labour’s most recent thinking about public services.

Alison Scott, assistant director at CIPFA, echoed some of these sentiments and added that there is a need for accounting practices to focus on outcomes as well as outputs. She argued that, by quantifying future liabilities that were likely to incur without such a transformation, we could incentivise a shift towards early action. She also recognised that whilst buy-in from the Centre is important, we must not forget the importance of a local approach in finding solutions and overcoming silo working.

These responses prompted a thoughtful discussion from attendees. A fundamental concern centred on the high costs of simultaneously running both preventative and acute services. This is exactly why longer term planning is needed, however, as higher costs in the first few years will be saved further down the line as demand for acute services diminishes. It is very important that this is made explicit in plans and budgets during the interim period in which policy shifts towards early action.

Another strand of discussion emphasized how we need to understand the way in which cultures and systems reinforce each other. Whilst it is important that we financially incentivise change, there must also be a shift in wider policy cultures. Linked to this is a need for a concerted effort to replicate successful early action initiatives. Both of the above could be addressed through a more localised approach, one which complements change at the Centre. This is an issue that the Taskforce has started to think about, and will be developed in more detail at a later date.

What are we waiting for?

It is always striking how you can tell anyone about early action and they will, to some extent, agree with its central tenets. Unfortunately there are still several barriers to overcome in both central and local government; barriers such as short termism, under investment, and silo-working.

It does not need to remain this way. The 2015 General Election is a prime opportunity for any new government to transform what is currently accepted as common sense into something concrete; a platform of early action from which everyone in society can benefit. With the framework set out in this paper, there is no longer any excuse not to act.

 

The paper launch was reported at localgov

Enterprise, Education, and Enthusiam in east London

July 17th, 2014

Enterprise is a key part of Community Links’ work. For us enterprise isn’t just about helping people to set up their own businesses: it’s about ensuring that the people we work with are ready with confidence and skills they need to seize the many opportunities available in east London.

This week we launch our latest Policy Briefing – where we set out how we see enterprise as a vital way for people to overcome their barriers, develop their strengths and realise their passions. The briefing also sets out our recommendations for public policy: policy-makers are increasingly keen to promote enterprise, as a way both to boost employment and to develop skills and innovation.

Our enterprise project, generously supported by Barclays works with young people to help them realise their ambition and release their entrepreneurial energy. Crucially our approach is to provide both theoretical and practical knowledge for our young entrepreneurs – whilst also working to change the environment in which enterprise is understood and taught within schools. Monique Graver who has direct experience of trading through our Barrow Boys and Girls Academy, has written this personal account which sets out her part in shaping and influencing government policy. Participants from Community Links “Next Generation” conference visited Downing Street to pass-on recommendations about Enterprise in Education which were referenced in the final report from Lord Yong of Graffham.

 

Community Links – This Generation Youth Conference from CL-Q on Vimeo.

A few months ago I received an email, inviting me to ‘This Generation -Youth Conference’.  I’d only even been to religious conferences and they’re usually elongated so I didn’t have high expectations for this one. When I did arrive at community Links for This Generation I was pleasantly surprised to see a room packed with youth predominantly.

The conference started in the best way possible – a speaker; but no ordinary speaker. Terry Jervis  left us all in shock and disbelief as he took us through his journey and his life. Many parts of his story seemed very hard to believe and as I pictured myself in his situation, at his very young age (at the time), I shuddered at the thought of even imagining, being able to do what he was able to do. Yet his continuous message throughout his whole speech was ‘You can do it do!’

We were quickly placed into groups and worked our way around tables, each with their own topic to discuss. By the end of the day we would all choose what we thought were the most important recommendations to be sent to the government to implement Enterprise as a mandatory school subject.

I enjoyed discussing my thoughts and ideas with like-minded people of different ages from different communities. Together we all had one thing in common – we loved enterprise and wanted young people to be able to experience Enterprise from a much earlier age. That way they could grow with it, and be in a better position to utilise it when they grow up. I left the conference that day not only feeling that I’d potentially helped to change history but also felt a sense of elation. I promised myself that nothing was going to ever stop me from making my own success.

A couple days later Kevin Jones from Community Links, called me to ask if I were available to go to 10 Downing Street! Of course I was available, who wouldn’t be? But I was quickly informed that this trip was not for leisure… I and four others were to deliver the five recommendations discussed at the conference to: Lord Young of Graffham, the Prime Minister’s Enterprise Advisor. 

We arrived at Downing Street,  after spending the morning rehearsing what we would present. Before we were allowed onto the street, our bags had to be searched and we all had to walk through a metal detector. Although we were warned of the entry procedure, this was very surprising for me to see, but we finally stood outside Number 10 Downing Street, for photographs with our specially made placards. We were soon ushered inside – where we saw beautiful paintings on the wall and a lady sitting by a computer that surveyed the street outside; I giggled to myself when I realised that she was watching us outside all that time and probably saw the amusing photographs we took.

It wasn’t long until Lord Young himself, came downstairs to greet us each with a handshake – automatically I could sense his calmness and felt very relaxed around him. We all conversed together for a while, sharing our individual experiences with enterprise and the recommendations from the ‘This Generation Youth Conference’. I was very surprised to find out that Lord Young grew up in Muswell Hill and his assistant, Paul Lewis was actually a St Bonaventure’s School Boy – both of these places relatively close to where I reside in London.

Lord Young himself has had many businesses and enterprise related encounters; and understood our ideas and opinions completely.

I think that the government should promote enterprise more. Enterprise is all around us and benefits us all. It’s something that can be moulded by our individual interests and skills and still be used to create something amazing.

If I was given the opportunity to study or learn about enterprise whilst in school, I may have had my own business today. There are so many things I feel I’m good at or ideas that I’d like to expand on but without the relevant knowledge and support, putting these plans into action is very difficult. Things like how to work out a mark-up when selling products, or understanding the business environment and the best way to penetrate the current market. Implementing Enterprise into the national curriculum would change this. Yes, Business studies covers these topics but alongside learning about these ideas we need to also need the opportunity to practice.

At the conference, the question ‘what proportion would you give to Practical and theoretical learning?’ was asked. At first, the most popular answer was 60% Theory and 40% Practical – but after discussing the reasoning for this we all changed our mind. In order to fully understand what has been taught in the classroom we need to be given the opportunity to try it out. After all, practice does make perfect.

Underspent housing support funding does not mean it is not needed

July 7th, 2014

Newham rooftopsSometimes we shy away from stating the obvious. Perhaps we are afraid that, in doing so, we will attract the scorn of others. Sometimes in not bothering to challenge seemingly straightforward messages they can be twisted and take on a whole new meaning.

A good example of this is a recent press release by DWP about Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). DHP is an important source of support for people experiencing hardship, most of which is caused by welfare reform.

The press release states that 63% of councils have spent less than their DHP allocation for the year, approximately 1 in 10 have spent less than 60% of their total DHP budget, and 18 have spent less than 50%. It argues that “recent scare stories about councils running out of money were grossly exaggerated”, and that “vital reforms are fixing the broken welfare system… as part of our long term plan”.

This is important because DHP has become one of the primary tools to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reform. Although the amount of funding has been increased substantially – it tripled to £180 million last year according to the press release – it has also been extended beyond its original purpose of supporting those struggling to pay their private sector rents, to also help people affected by the Benefit Cap and Bedroom Tax as well.

Distorted reality

The major implication of this press release is that there has been plenty of support funding, and that councils actually needed less than was originally thought. This is a distortion of the truth.

Firstly whilst the 63% figure is true – 240 local authorities have spent less than 100% of their total allocation – of these, 73 (30%) have spent over 95% of their total allocation. This could be seen as prudent fiscal management. Many of those councils who spent 95% or more also had to reject tens of thousands of support funding applicants, presumably at least partly because demand exceeded supply. This mirrors JRF research findings that most councils are making full use of DHP even if individual practice varies.

Secondly, if we compare data for the ten most deprived local authorities in England with that of the ten least deprived some interesting patterns emerge. For example, all ten of the most deprived had spent over 99.5% of their total allocation (which includes any extra money they have bid for and won), and seven of the ten had spent over 100%. In contrast, 5 of the least deprived councils had spent less than 95% of their total allocation, and the average underspend was almost six times higher than the average underspend for the most deprived local authorities.

Those who overspent in the least deprived areas did so, on average, by £7,661: just 3% of the average overspend for the most deprived areas. There are far more people affected by welfare reform in more deprived areas, and it is exactly those areas who have to make up the shortfall in DHP funding from elsewhere in their budget.

So what?

This may all seem self-evident: of course there is more demand for hardship payments in more deprived areas, that’s just common sense. However, when we combine the above with recent research showing how the ten most deprived areas in England face cuts averaging 25.3% between 2010 and 2016, ten times higher than the average of 2.54% in the ten least deprived areas, the story gets even more worrying. There is already less money for vital support services in these areas due to cuts, and this is exacerbated by the need to find more funding for DHP from elsewhere. In fact, “recent scare stories” may not have been “grossly exaggerated” after all – especially when we consider warnings of future funding problems for local authorities and the fact that actually many people, particularly those with disabilities, have DHP claims rejected anyway.

Those who have underspent may not have done so due to a lack of need, but rather due to confusion and miscommunication – both within and beyond councils. As the remit of DHP has been massively expanded there was a need for caution: expecting a fund to be perfectly spent in its first year is unrealistic. Another important point to consider is that the introduction of the Benefit Cap was delayed, which could well have had an impact on the amount that councils spent. Furthermore, some local authorities apply curious conditionality to their DHP awards; take North Lincolnshire, for example, which denied funding to tenants who made ‘negative life choices’ such as smoking or even having satellite television. Finally, funding allocation was done using a complex and opaque formula; partly based on previous spending rather than need, which is a fairly static way of allocating hardship funds in a time of such social turmoil – turmoil largely brought on by the cumulative impact of welfare reform.

Those who have overspent are likely to need more funding in the future, or risk not properly supporting those who need it most. There are other potential impacts too; for example, increased rent arrears, homelessness, and additional costs to the voluntary sector who often have to pick up the pieces.

Closer to home

At the risk of stating the obvious, then, continued funding for DHP and other support is still desperately needed. This is especially true for those areas where spending has been high. Newham, for example, is the third most deprived local authority in England. The council spent 99.52% of their DHP allocation for 2013/14, and actually proactively targeted people who were going to be worst affected by the cumulative impact of welfare reform. This is a laudable approach, and we should also welcome the fact that central government made more money available for these vital hardship funds. However, if the press release is taken at face value it is unlikely funding will be increased in the next year. Indeed, the overall amount for DHP is likely set to reduce in 2014/15 and 2015/16. As a result some tough decisions are going to have to be made over the next few years, and not just in the most deprived areas.

The “Condition of Britain” and Localism: Why Go Local?

June 23rd, 2014

I have a problem with national political leaders talking about localism. If they don’t mention it I wish they would. If they do, I’m suspicious. Why would an ambitious politician fight night and day for high office and then give away the power?

Possibly because they recognise that economies of scale may work for the making of widgets but support for the clinically depressed, the desperate parent , the isolated elderly, works best on a local scale? The “big is always best” approach lacks the granular sensitivity to maximise efficiency on tackling issues that are definitively personal and it ignores and squanders the assets of the wider community.

Or possibly because the problem is too difficult for them? The Prime Minister, for instance, has repeatedly sidestepped responsibility for voluntary sector cuts by explaining that these are a matter for local authorities. True, of course, but a somewhat partial answer given the scale of budget cuts imposed on councils like Newham by his government over the last three years.

Sometimes politicians want it both ways. Eric Pickles, apparently ideologically attracted to localism and responsible for its delivery from the department of communities, cracked the whip swiftly and loudly when tory voters began complaining about reductions in the bin collection service.

The excellent IPPR report The Condition of Britain launched last Thursday talked a lot about devolving power and rightly calls for “… a different kind of spending review … to devolve power and resources in significant areas including housing, back to work support and parts of the criminal justice system. … The spending Review would be accompanied by longer term financial settlements for local areas with the flexibility to pool budgets…  Essential steps for enabling the leadership of local areas to deliver real spending efficiencies, shift resources into prevention and prepare our public services for the challenges of the next parliament and beyond”

I whole heartedly support the intention but the specific proposals in this largely impressive report are less reassuring. For example, 95% of the housing budget is currently spent on Housing Benefit and 5% on building homes. This is plainly stupid and devolving housing benefit – IPPRs suggestion – may be a good idea for all sorts of reasons but doing it to “drive down cost” , begs more questions than it answers.

Similarly how are we to understand IPPRs enthusiasm for investing in the expansion of the worthy but insubstantial National Citizen Service programme? NCS is a national two month youth engagement scheme which has been established under the current government, whilst the kind of local youth provision that provides deep value care and support week-in-week-out been disappearing all over the country. Nothing it seems to me is more dependent on sustained commitment, neighbourhood roots and personalised delivery than first class youth work. Surely providing for the restoration of that work, owned, managed and led locally, is a higher priority than a national scheme, patchily distributed?

IPPRs proposal for a “Troubled Lives” programme on the other hand seems to get the balance just right. It would address “the root causes of a set of social problems” and “be developed collaboratively with local authorities and voluntary agencies working with people facing social exclusion and with these individuals … People living with multiple problems have the greatest insight into what would enable them to turn their lives around and the ways in which existing services could do more” A “National Social Exclusion Board” would “ensure that local authorities work with those facing the most serious problems … monitor progress and spread innovation”. So – real local control, real user engagement but also real oversight and real quality control. Exactly the correct balance.

Devolution is absolutely the right idea and we warmly welcome the thrust of the IPPR narrative, but doing it right is difficult. It needs to be well considered, consistently applied and above all, when politicians promise it, we need to understand why.

The Work Programme – making it work for those who need it most.

June 20th, 2014

Job Centre plusYesterday, the government published the most recent tranche of statistics on their flagship welfare-to-work service, the Work Programme. This is the second time that the Work Programme has hit the news in a week, coming just a few days after think-tank IPPR’s report made national coverage – “Work Programme failing those most in need and should be broken up’” were the headlines.

These statistics show that the work programme continues to do fairly well for mainstream jobseekers – as well as previous programmes, like Flexible New Deal, did, and at a lower cost. The Employment-Related Services Association (ERSA) estimates that over half a million job seekers have entered employment via the Work Programme since its inception, and 300,000 of these have remained in work for six months (or three months for the hardest to help).

But the statistics also show that the Work Programme is continuing to struggle to deliver for those with the biggest barriers to work. Despite increases in success rates for new claimants of the main disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), they are still only half as likely as jobseekers allowance (JSA) claimants to get a job. The succes rate for other ESA claimants (who have been on benefits for a longer time) is even worse. ERSA estimates that only 25,000 jobseekers on ESA have found a job through the Programme, much lower than for JSA claimants. Figure 1, taken from IPPR’s paper, shows the stark difference in how well the Work Programme works for mainstream jobseekers compared to those with larger barriers.

Figure 1: Proportions of Work programme participants and outcomes by payment group.

At Community Links we know from first-hand experience how this differing success rate can pan-out on the ground. We’re proud that the type of employment support we deliver – grounded in communities, using our knowledge of local labour markets, and focusing on supporting the harder-to-help – is the right model for those with the largest barriers to work. But some aspects of the Work Programme’s structure make it very difficult for us to deliver intensive support to those who need it most. Today we’re publishing our newest policy briefing on the Work Programme, which sets out how we think it should be changed.

All of us – Community Links, IPPR, the official statistics, and many others – agree that there’s real a difference in how well the programme supports different jobseekers. It works well for the ‘mainstream’ but struggles to support those with largest barriers. Our briefing sets out some key things that could be changed to address this problem:

  • Make sure payments to providers match need. The current system of assessing people based primarily on benefit status leads to incentives for providers to focus on those with the smallest barriers. Needs-based, up-front holistic assessment to define the amount of support people need would help to address this.
  • Provide tailored services for those with the greatest barriers to work. Some people on the Work Programme – including many on the ESA benefit – are a long way from the labour market and face complex problems. Paying providers only when people move into work simply doesn’t work for this group. Support for people with the largest barriers should be funded on a cohort-based model, or provision should be made with the focus on achieving intermediate steps and ‘soft outcomes’.
  • Improve accuracy and performance reporting. The lack of transparency in the Work Programme, with providers being forbidden from sharing their performance data, prevents us from learning what work for others. Additionally poor referral forecasts from the DWP make it hard for us to plan our work for the hardest to help – for example to hire the right number of staff with the right specialisms. DWP should improve its referral forecasts, and should provide contingency funds to providers when those forecasts are incorrect.
  • Strengthen co-working across the supply chain. We know that local collaboration is important to ensure that people, especially those with the largest barriers to work, can be helped. DWP should introduce local partnership forums to encourage better collaboration at a local level.

It was good to see the IPPR report making many similar recommendations. Like us, they recommend that future employment support programmes should “adopt a more sophisticated framework to triage claimants into appropriate support”. Like us, they recognise that “the current ‘work first’ philosophy does not work for everyone” and that future employment support must “explicitly recognise the differing support needs of diverse claimants”. Putting these changes into practice would really help to close the gap and make sure the Work Programme really works for everyone.

Finally, like us the IPPR report argues that more local provision could be essential for people with the largest barriers. IPPR’s suggestion for how to make this happen – by locally commissioning programmes for ESA and former Incapacity Benefit claimants – is more radical than ours of “introducing local partnership forums” which support collaboration, but ultimately both work towards the same aim.

There’s real agreement now from across the welfare-to-work sector on some of the key things that need to change about the Work Programme. It’s essential that the government implements these changes, to make sure the Work Programme works for everyone.

Download our Policy Briefing on the Work Programme

Unconditional Britain: we should invest in support without cutting benefits

June 19th, 2014

IPPR’s Condition of Britain project – launched at Community Links last year – concluded today with publication of a weighty 270 page book and Ed Milband’s announcement that he is adopting three of the recommendations straight off the bat. It’s a vital, authoritative and clearly influential piece of work, which links a clear narrative with a raft of detailed policies.

The proposal that has garnered the most attention today is for a new youth allowance to replace jobseekers allowance for 18 – 21 year olds. In many ways it is a great example of early action but the way it is funded – a cut in support – also illustrates the challenge for our agenda in years ahead.

The report argues there are three roles for a social security system.

Social assistance, or the safety net, provides a backstop against destitution which might otherwise be brought about by unemployment, disability, low wages, or high costs either in markets like housing or in bringing up children. It dominates current working-age benefits spending since it includes all the means-tested benefits: housing benefit, tax credits, jobseekers allowance, employment and support allowance and arguably some non means-tested benefits such as child benefit and Disability Living Allowance.

Social insurance, in IPPR’s report, refers to so-called ‘contributory’ elements of the system, where receipt of particular benefits is dependent on having paid in previously. It is a strong element of welfare systems across Europe but not in the UK, where national insurance contributions count for little. IPPR argue this should be revived and Miliband agreed – Labour is proposing to increase the contributory rate of Jobseekers Allowance, and pay for it by lengthening the qualifying period (although this arguably values certain contributions less than at present).

Finally, IPPR contrast the cash transfer of social assistance with social investment in services and institutions like childcare, education, housing and skills training – a dominant element of Nordic welfare systems. Rather than react to need, these services pre-empt it – building what we would call readiness. They are clear examples of early action. IPPR’s thesis is that a shift in spending from social assistance towards social insurance on the one hand and social investment on the other would both shore up public support for the benefits system and stave off rising costs.

It’s a compelling approach in many ways and explains why an increase in support for training for young people leaving school and unable to find a job (an example of social investment) is paid for by cutting the cash support they are entitled to through the benefits system (social assistance). Similarly IPPR’s recommendation of greater investment in childcare (social investment) is paid for by freezing child benefit (social assistance).

But this approach is subtly wrong. Investing successfully in young people’s training should cut the benefits bill because more people in better paid work will make less demand on the benefits budget and contribute more in taxes. There is no need to change the eligibility criteria – the savings will come as fewer people claim.

But crucially these savings accrue in the (albeit not too distant) future. In their battle to ensure every proposal is fully funded the IPPR are trying to switch spending on the spot, which – since need hasn’t yet changed – means a cut in entitlement. In this case, abolishing jobseekers’ allowance for 18 – 21 year olds completely, replacing it with an allowance means-tested according to parental income and conditional on attending training.

There is a valid debate about whether this is appropriate for 18-21 year olds, but it’s clearly not an approach you can generalise indefinitely. Increasing support for disabled people to access the labour market, for example, should not be paid for by cutting eligibility to disability benefits.

What this approach ducks is the more systematic question of how our public funding system can better prioritise investment. We are happy to spend upfront on a building project in the knowledge that it will pay back over years. But we’re not happy to spend upfront on support for youth training which should pay back over years, and instead feel the need to fund it via cutting eligibility to our – already meagre – safety net.

This invest-to-save approach is met with deep suspicion in Whitehall – civil servants never tire of telling stories of promised savings which never materialise. In cash-constrained services like the NHS where demand outstrips supply this makes sense – savings in one department will immediately be consumed by unmet demand in another. By a quirk of our public spending system though, the same is not true of the benefit bill. The person who moves off benefit and stays off will notch up an immediate saving to the exchequer, and contribute more in tax. Multiply this over several years (as New Zealand now do – pdf) and the savings add up quickly. Welfare spending seems like an ideal place for ‘invest-to-save initiatives’ to take off.

As the IPPR’s director Nick Pearce made clear at the launch, the report is primarily concerned with social policy and as such has stayed clear of both the mechanics of public spending and the taxation through which public spending is raised. It’s understandable that an already wide-ranging inquiry needed to constrain its ambitions somehow, but it leads to some uncomfortable conclusions – that the only way to invest in the support we provide to those most reliant on the social security system is to simultaneously cut funding to the same people in other ways. By looking longer term – as the Early Action Task Force has argued – we should be able to invest now and let the savings accrue later.

Responding to DWP welfare reform consultations – Is anyone listening?

June 18th, 2014

House of Commons Chamber - elevated viewA key element of Community Links’s approach is sharing the lessons from those with whom we work to a national audience of decision makers: coming from the ground up. Like many others, we think this evidence is key to helping government to get its policies right. But sometimes it seems that parts of government are reluctant to hear this evidence from voluntary sector organisations who know the reality ‘on the ground’.

Over the past month we’ve shared our experience by responding to two consultations from the Social Security Advisory Committee, which has a statutory oversight role for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The first was about an increase in waiting days following a claim for new JSA or ESA claimants. The second concerned Housing Benefit eligibility, effectively preventing jobseekers from the European Economic Area from claiming support towards their housing costs.

These are both vital issues which will have a significant impact on our service users, and those of many other organisations like us. The change to waiting times, an increase from three to seven days, will effectively cost all jobseekers £50 at the start of their claim. Our research into the cumulative impact of welfare reform has already shown the psychological and financial damage that losing such an amount can have on an individual. Meanwhile, the changes to housing benefit eligibility are likely to lead to increases in street homelessness (an already vilified group as we wrote last week) This may mean that people who are still entitled could lose their benefits. We know for example that due to language barriers and having to frequently move house, EEA migrants may be more likely not to keep relevant paperwork.

Although these are really important issues, the government seems set on ploughing ahead with them, without fully considering their full impact. George Osborne already publicly announced the policies – last June and this April respectively – and the government even used emergency measures to push through the housing benefit changes without the usual scrutiny.

The two policies were passed to the Social Security Advisory Committee for review, but in both cases after the announcement of the policy and with the impression that DWP may not be so interested in what the Committee has to say. The DWP’s accompanying explanatory notes often make assumptions with little evidence behind them (such as stating that ‘Many people affected … will be coming to benefits from relatively well paid jobs’). The resultant consultations have only allowed short time periods for front-line organisations  to feed in. Community Links co-founder David Robinson has previously written about how consultations can be “little more than window dressing for a set of proposals already on the way to becoming decisions”. If the government chooses to block out input from organisations like us, these decisions will be far less informed by those with direct experience.

This apparent lack of external consideration is worrying considering the policies’ broader repercussions. The government has suggested that under Universal Credit (UC) claimants will have to wait seven days before payments begin – this will have much bigger impacts as it will include the housing, childcare and other components. Similarly, the current changes to Housing Benefit are just one of a raft of changes affecting migrants’ access to social security.

Given the wider implications, it’s essential that the DWP considers voices from the ground about the impacts of these policies. Similarly, its important DWP monitors these impacts and bases future policy – such as around UC – on that evidence. We look forward to seeing the Social Security Advisory Committee’s reports from these consultations, and in particular to hearing what the DWP undertakes as a result.

‘Anti-homeless’ spikes are just the latest example of prevention gone bad

June 9th, 2014

“Always park your bike next to a much more expensive bike” was the anti-theft advice doled out to me by a policeman, as we stood next to a stall in a park while his colleague scraped off the rust to emboss a security code in my bike frame. Moments earlier, he had effortlessly cut through several brands of bike lock with a standard set of boltcutters, to the worried surprise of several cyclists gathered around.

The spikes installed outside a housing block in London, courtesy of Ethical Pioneer / Twitter

The demonstration was sound but his advice has troubled me since. Displacing theft onto the expensive bike next door is a rational choice for the individual but not for society and not, therefore, for a policeman charged with delivering public services.

I think of it often when we talk about early action and I did again this weekend, when reading about the block of luxury flats that have installed spikes in their doorway to deter rough sleeping.

Both are perfect examples of what some mistakenly label as ‘prevention’ or ‘early action’ but which are in fact little more than displacement. The housing provider has done nothing to prevent people becoming homeless, just prevented them sleeping outside one particular block. The policeman is not preventing bike crime, merely shifting it elsewhere. Examples of this abound in private life, where it might be excusable, and public policy, where it certainly isn’t.

Remember those loud high-pitched sounds broadcast in areas where teenagers gathered, which adult ears cannot detect but younger people can hear all too well? They don’t prevent teenagers congregating or address the reasons why other residents might object, but merely displace them elsewhere.

In Fortress Britain (pdf), Anna Minton explains how a government-backed policy called ‘Secured by Design’ prioritises (and in some cases makes obligatory) technological responses to social problems which see buildings commended for their ‘small windows, reinforced steel door with full size iron gate and grey aluminium military-style roof.” All in an effort to ‘prevent’ crime.

The housing provider’s spikes caused a stir over the weekend and are cruelly unambiguous in their appearance but are not at all unusual in intent. So-called ‘unpleasant design’ is a regular feature of urban design, as Jules Birch points out in his excellent response to the debate. Witness Camden Council’s ‘Camden bench’ whose ‘ridged top and sloped surfaces make it difficult to lie on’, deterring rough sleeping. Many cities adopt similar techniques. Some, like Chicago’s installation of steeply sloping caps to previously-flat surfaces, are as unsubtle as the spikes. Others are better disguised as statutes and sculptures, such as these dolphins in Tokyo. The housing provider’s mistake, it seems, was installing spikes not a statue.

‘Prevention’ of this sort can be cruel or inhuman, is often self-defeating in the long run, and usually short term and selfish. The worry is the extent to which it is embedded in public policy, particularly in response to crime and so-called anti-social behaviour. The dilemma is that the agencies responsible can do very little about it. The policeman can’t really address the poverty, or drug problems, or crisis that force most bike thieves to crime, so he resorts to telling people to offset crime to a wealthier victim. Until policy is joined up across departments and capable of thinking over the longer term, this kind of short term thinking will remain depressingly common.

Volunteers Week: The story of Annie

June 4th, 2014

Felicity Wishes: The Great Fairy Balloon RaceFor the last nine months I have spent an hour each week during term time reading with a group of local children at one of our community hubs. Whilst I work at Community Links in the policy and research team and hugely enjoy my job, the majority of my time is spent in front of a computer or in meetings. It is not hard to see how my weekly reading session very quickly became the most coveted and eagerly anticipated hour of my week.

The children are all great and equally rewarding to work with, but I’d like to tell you about one little girl in particular who we can call Annie for the purpose of this blog.

When I first met Annie she was shy and quite nervous about picking up a book to read. It transpired that Annie hardly knew how to identify letters in the English alphabet, let alone read simple words and sentences. As she got to know me, Annie grew more confident to sit with me and was soon the first to turn up to reading club, wanting to tackle the most recent book she’d been practicing. Her willingness to learn and perseverance, (though she knew she was behind the other children) was motivating and we’d both muddle through sentences together laughing at words we got wrong and discussing the story at length.

Yesterday I went to reading club after having several weeks off and I was amazed at how far Annie had come. She read a whole book from start to finish, hardly making any mistakes and closed the book beaming. I told her how well she had done and asked her to remember back to before Christmas – could she see how far she had come? She smiled and said her mother had told her in Bengali to work hard and use her brain. She explained that she had started to help her mother read and communicate in English and I realised that she had truly flourished over the year we had been working together.

One hour may not seem like much. And it isn’t. Annie will have had lots of other people working and spending time with her over the last year, and her achievements can not in any way be attributed to the hour each week we spend laughing at the ridiculousness of the sleeping beauty story (seriously, how any girl, princess or not could spend 100 years sleeping waiting for a kiss is anyone’s guess, let alone mine and Annie’s). We can without hesitation however recognise the contribution of clubs like this and wider community facilities on a broad network of lives.

The centre manager at the hub has explained to me on several occasions how difficult it is to keep services running without reliable volunteers. Volunteering is vital to charities and civil society and helps to strengthen local communities. Currently one in four people in the UK volunteer formally on a regular basis, but some evidence suggests that the numbers of people volunteering regularly has flat-lined in recent years and may even decline in the future.

We cannot let this happen, and it is up to the government to make sure that the value of volunteering both to society and individuals is properly understood and recognised. Let’s highlight the business case for allowing employees a small amount of time to give something back to their communities and let’s see what can flourish and grow as a result.

I am very lucky to work for an organisation where volunteering is valued and indeed encouraged … Roll on next Tuesday – I think we’re taking on ‘The Great Fairy Balloon Race’!

Community Links Employment and Enterprise Fair

May 21st, 2014

Over 600 people attended our Employment and Enterprise Fair at East Ham Town Hall in April. There were nearly forty local employers showcasing employment opportunities; over half of the attendees took part in employability workshops and enterprise taster sessions during the day and 30 people signed up to learn more about our Links to Enterprise projects supporting young entrepreneurs. However the most remarkable statistic was that the entire day was created by an inspiring group of 30 volunteers who worked cooperatively to deliver the Employment and Enterprise Fair.

The fair was organised by local unemployed people to counter the negative stereotypes of unemployed people presented in the media and on TV programmes like Channel 4’s Benefits Street. At an initial meeting several months ago Community Links sought to develop a strategy to counter the stereotype, while ensuring that motivated volunteers, who wanted to help themselves by improving their chances of securing employment, could take matters into their own hands. The aim was to prove that people who are unemployed are capable, energetic and resourceful employees in-waiting.

Community Links helped set up a pilot social enterprise tasked with managing the event. Volunteers from two local organisations, Volunteers for Change and Stand Up and Be Counted took on the responsibility of organising the Fair including marketing, communication and administration roles as well as ensuring the smooth running on the event on the day.

These tasks, delivered in a group setting, boosted confidence, sharpened skills, and engaged volunteers in a social environment. Participants attended the Community Links offices on a daily basis, committed themselves to specific hours and worked methodically in a professional setting to create a successful event.

And it worked. Three volunteers secured employment even before the event – there was a 95% satisfaction rating in follow-up evaluations. Conversations and connections started at the Employment and Enterprise fair continue to develop.

The “lazy scrounger” stereotype of unemployed people was directly challenged through this process. Establishing a self-help approach for local people to create employment opportunities for themselves worked in east London – and we believe it is a model that could be applied in many other communities across the UK

The video above provides background to the event through interviews with those who arranged it and attended.
BBC Radio London94.9  reported on the event throughout the morning: here are three radio interviews  with Community Links CEO Geraldine Blake, With Stephen Timms MP and with event volunteers Sonia Stewart and Craig Barry