Community Links

Community Links blog

Early Action: Delivering value-for-money, avoiding more serious consequences.

November 24th, 2014

Two reports from the National Audit Office last week confirmed our worst fears.

National Audit OfficeFirst the NAO investigation into the Impact of Funding Reductions on Local Authorities warned  that one in six councils are at risk of financial failure within the next five years and that core services like education and social care are endangered, particularly in the local authorities that are most dependant on government grants. Those authorities are also, of course, the ones that serve the most deprived communities.

As many English authorities are now, once again,  budgeting for severe cuts for the fourth year in succession,  the findings of the NAO were virtually inevitable. The next three years are unlikely to be better.

Our report “The Deciding Time”  was published  two years ago and painted “an urgent picture of escalating  needs and diminishing resources”. Even then our findings were hardly a revelation.  Most organisations of any size can identify some waste, some duplication, some level of management that might be eliminated with minimal damage to the front line but all that was lanced in years one and two. Now the leanest councils are cutting into the meat of the service and the cuts are getting deeper.

We pointed out then that “as funds have been cut over the last year acute services have been prioritised at the expense of earlier action. More problems have become more difficult when they might have been prevented entirely.”   “These trajectories” we suggested “are unsustainable but they are not inevitable”. We argued that effective early action is a “need reduction strategy” reducing future liabilities, promoting growth and above all improving lives.

Future Generations Bill

Of course the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago – but the second best time is now and even in the very difficult position in which many authorities find themselves its not too late to start acting earlier:
In Wales last week I met with government officials who are working on the Future Generations Bill. The idea of imposing a duty on public agencies to think about the longer term was a twinkle in our eyes  at the start of the Early Action Task Force three years ago but is likely to receive Royal assent in Wales next April. Later on in the day I met Jenny O’Hara Jakeway whose work with the Glyncoch Community Regeneration project shows just what this approach might mean on the ground:  Their co-designed ‘safer communities strategy’ saw crime go from the highest in the area to zero and has remained the lowest in the area ever since. They have  co-designed a three-year education and the alleviation of poverty strategy, and a co-produced a healthy communities strategy all focused on a thorough understanding of the needs and assets in their community and on acting early.

It can be done. More than ever now, it must be done, without or without a statutory duty.

Legal Aid Funding

The second NAO report “Implementing reforms to civil legal aid” was not unrelated. Regular readers of this blog will know that the abolition of legal aid for most social law has had a devastating impact on Community Links advice services and on similar provision in other areas. We argued at the time that the “reforms” would fail on their own terms. Quite apart from running a coach and horses through the hallowed principle of equal access to the law they would be very likely to, in the longer term, increase the burden on the public purse not reduce it.

Last weeks report found that the Ministry of Justice  “did not estimate the scale of the wider costs of the reforms – even those that it would have to bear – because it did not have a good understanding of how people would respond to the changes or what costs may arise.”

In consequence, for instance, “In the year following the changes, there has been a 30% increase in the number of family court cases in which neither party has legal representation. This is likely to create extra costs for the Ministry and wider government, with the NAO estimating additional cost to HM Courts & Tribunals Service of at least £3 million a year, together with direct costs to the Ministry of approximately £400,000. There may also be costs to the wider public sector if people whose problems could have been resolved by legal aid-funded advice suffer adverse consequences to their health and wellbeing as a result of no longer having access to legal aid”

The head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, concluded that the “Ministry’s implementation of the reforms to civil legal aid cannot be said to have delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer.” The kind of work that Legal Aid paid for at Community Links wasn’t expensive barrister fees or long running trails. Most often it was about avoiding the court system not paying for it, about preventing evictions, resolving debts, untangling disputes before the crisis not afterwards. It was about early action and ultimately it saved money

When the legal aid legislation was debated in parliament the minister Lord McNally said “…we will not devote limited public funds to less important cases on the basis that they could lead to more serious consequences” Now we can look at the impact on communities like ours in east London, we can read about the impossibly difficult choices facing local authorities across the land, we can glimpse the potential  of an alternative, early action approach in communities like Glyncoch and we can see that this wasn’t only an absurd thing to say, it was a staggering dereliction of duty.

Unemployment statistics: digging deeper

November 12th, 2014

Digging in the Dark

New labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the unemployment rate is down to 6%, with 592,000 fewer people out of work than at this time last year.

Surely this is call for celebration; Employment Minister Esther McVey certainly welcomed the news, arguing that “record numbers of people in work means more people with the security of a regular wage who are better able to support themselves and their families”. Indeed, from the Department of Work and Pension’s perspective, it is great news that “the number of people claiming the main unemployment benefit – Jobseeker’s Allowance [JSA] – has… been falling every month for the last 2 years and is now over a half a million lower than May 2010”.

However, these seemingly simple messages hide some uncomfortable truths.

Firstly, whilst the employment rate (73%) is back to pre-recession levels, of those jobs created since the recession started only 1 in 40 are full-time work. Part-time work can offer the flexibility to deal with other life commitments, and so is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the number of people in part-time work who want to work full-time (1.3m) is almost twice as many as when the recession started in 2008. Furthermore, as our forthcoming report (to be published next month) on the impact of welfare reform shows, being in work is not necessarily a route out of poverty – particularly when work is based on zero-hour contracts and low pay. This can also leave people feeling insecure and uncertain about their future.

Secondly, research from Oxford University shows that at least 500,000 JSA claimants have disappeared from official unemployment statistics. This is important as it not only shows why we should not take official statistics at face value, but raises further questions on what the impact has been on those 500,000 people who appear not to be in work or receiving benefits. As our research into the cumulative impact of welfare reform has shown, sanctions can prevent people from having enough money to buy food, pay for their heating and, in some cases, even actively prevent them from finding work.

A fall in unemployment is a welcome thing, but only when it means that people are moving into fairly paid and sustainable work. This is exactly why we should never take such messages at face value, and always dig deeper into official statistics.

Launching the Community Links, Newham Recorder Christmas Appeal

November 5th, 2014

A guest post by Community Links Ambassador, Colin Grainger

The last 12 months have seen many changes on the landscape in Newham as the pace of development increases. But despite this enrichment of the community, the levels of poverty are still very much a significant part of life in East London.

The recent stunning report from The Campaign to End Child Poverty showed that Newham remains among the top areas for child poverty in the UK, despite being so close to so much wealth … and it can be devastating. YOU can help ease some of that poverty by helping a special appeal that is at the very heart of all that is good in Newham.

For almost all of my 42-year working life I have penned a plea to the community in East London to help with this special appeal. This year I will pen that appeal not from the columns of the newspaper that was part of my life for 40 years but from my own website, and this one, using the unique power of social media.

I ask everyone to help change the lives of some young ones who are at risk through no fault of their own. The Community Links and Newham Recorder Christmas Appeal is a special appeal at the heart of all that is good in the community in East London. Poverty can hit anyone at anytime – the loss of employment, the loss of a parent, a long term illness can push a family onto the downward poverty spiral through no fault of their own. I urge everyone who can – individuals, businesses, schools, clubs, churches, organisations to give a toy because together we can fill those empty sacks and ensure that Christmas Day is a real Christmas Day this year for every child in Newham.

This week, the Recorder and Community Links are combining again for the special appeal to reach out to thousands of vulnerable children, families and adults. Christmas can be a time of stress and isolation as we still have over half our children living in poverty. But Community Links looks to strengthen communities and raise aspirations at this time, making Christmas special and futures brighter. Community Links is a truly remarkable organisation which does so much to enhance life in East London.

So I ask that you to include some very special people in your Christmas shopping budget and see it in your heart to add some special youngsters to your Christmas shopping list.  When you buy gifts for loved ones and friends, please add another – for a child in Newham. If you give a special person some money for their own gift, perhaps you could put aside some money for a needy child. All toys need to be new and unwrapped and can be for any age up to 16. In particular, the appeal is always short of toys for teenagers. Many youngsters who benefited from campaigns years ago are now workers or volunteers at Community Links. It is a philosophy that has stood the test of time: helping and enabling people to help themselves.

A sponsored swim for the Christmas Appeal from the 1980s

It has been my privilege to be part of this special appeal for many years. I shall be doing my usual 50 lengths sponsored swim so if you want to sponsor me please feel free to do so.

You can also contribute to any of the events Links and the Recorder will be mentioning. There’s a great quiz night at Links HQ in Canning Town on December 4. Or there’s the annual Christmas lunch at Links on December 12.

More details on Links’ website or in the paper.

If you want to send us a cheque, please make it payable to Community Links.

Community Links Chief Executive Geraldine Blake revealed two weeks ago that Newham residents in the main work very hard, often on more than one job, but for very low rates of pay. More than half the workforce here earns below the London Living wage and over 20% are illegally employed on less than the minimum wage.

Last year we raised a record 15,000 toys. The appeal needs to equal that this year. The appeal involves the whole community. It provides gifts for over almost 4,000 children to open on Christmas morning.

Over 1,000 children had a once in-a-lifetime Christmas party, and 1,500 children had the opportunity of experiencing a pantomime. And another 70 families at risk and 50 senior citizens living alone had a seasonal food hamper to help them through Christmas.This year Links have some great ideas on how you can help. See the website and follow the updates on Faceboook and Twitter for more details.

The appeal aims to provide a bag of gifts to open on Christmas morning for children who are referred by a combination of East London’s caring agencies and family support groups, ensuring that the Appeal helps those most in need at Christmas. Newham Council back the campaign by making a number of buildings available as drop-off points. Others will be listed on Community Links’ website and in the Recorder.

The need is greater than ever this year. Please do all you can to help.


Living wage week: fair pay, fair play

November 3rd, 2014

The Resolution Foundation last week reported that a record five million UK workers are in low-paid work. This is a problem for the government because it limits tax revenues. It also means that the government must spend a lot of money subsidising low wages through Working Tax Credits.

Low salaries coupled with rising living costs have created significant financial pressures on households, increasing levels of in-work poverty. Research shows that in-work poverty results in poor health outcomes, increased debt and lower attainment in school. In-work poverty is not good for a healthy, functioning society in which individuals are enabled to succeed.

As you can see from the map above, low pay is a particular problem in Newham; where Community Links is based. Newham has more people in low-paid work than either the UK or London averages. Research undertaken by Newham Council showed that nearly half of all residents in work in the borough receive less than the London Living Wage.

At Community Links, we are half way through a longitudinal qualitative research project examining the impacts of welfare reform on local residents. Most recently we collected information from people both in and out of work and found that those with jobs seemed to be struggling just as much to make ends meet as others who had been impacted by headline reforms such as the ‘Bedroom Tax’.

One case study highlighted in the report is the story of local resident, Bradley, who works full time as a traffic marshal, earns the minimum wage and tops up his income with Tax Credits. Bradley explained to us that he felt frustrated by having to rely on Tax Credits. He could not understand why some employers do not ‘give people a decent wage to live on so there’s no need for tax credits’. Even though he was working hard, he could not afford a basic standard of living and struggled to pay his rent.

This week is living wage week, and new rates have been announced which see London’s hourly rate increase from £8.80 to £9.15. The campaign offers a chance to publicise the challenge and promote better practices. It is a celebration of employers who are committed to fairer remuneration. Alongside the campaign there have been some important news stories recently, including the battle won by unionised Ritzy cinema workers in Brixton.   Many well-known public figures came out in support of the highly politicised Ritzy campaign which culminated in the cinema chain agreeing to pay staff near to the living wage. Furthermore, there has been a surge in firms signing up to the living wage in the run-up to this week with big names like Google, Barclays and ITV now committed to paying staff fairly.

Whilst, these cases are positive, there is still a long way to go. It is clear both from our study and other research that low pay is a serious and widespread problem, especially in Newham. When working does not provide a family with a fair wage, organisations like Community Links are looked upon to pick up shortfalls. Every day we support people who are in work – including with referrals to food banks. It feels unfair to everyone involved that this basic need cannot always be sustained through working.. In fact, it makes people feel disempowered and discouraged from finding and sustaining employment.   Furthermore, if we truly want to enable people to be ready to seize opportunities, it is crucial that challenges in the housing market are also addressed, as a recent LSE blog highlighted.

That said, a fair living wage for all workers will start to address some of the root causes of poverty and inequality. It is right that we move towards greater fairness and equality and we need to properly reward and respect the hard work that many living in the borough undertake with hopes of improving their lives. It is about dignity and justice and it is about being able to thrive and strive.

Community Links is proud to be a living wage employer.

Deep Value Assessment: How ongoing, participatory employability assessments could improve outcomes for jobseekers

October 23rd, 2014

Today we publish our new report, Deep Value Assessment, which sets out how assessment of jobseekers’ needs and abilities could be improved.

The report comes as new employment figures show that unemployment is at just 6%, its lowest level since before the financial crash. Youth unemployment has also fallen substantially. But the same employment figures show that most of this decrease in unemployment is due to people moving into economic inactivity, and not into work. These statistics highlight how as the unemployment rate falls, it is increasingly difficult to get the remaining unemployed people – many of whom face the largest barriers to the labour market – into work. This echoes the message from recent Work Programme statistics which show the programme is still failing to deliver for the people with the most entrenched barriers to work.

There are many reasons why employment support services are struggling to deliver for this group, but problems with assessing the type of support they need are definitely an important one. Good assessment is crucial to any public service, and an essential part of tackling the problem of long-term unemployment is ensuring that employment support services – both Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers – have a solid understanding of jobseekers’ needs and abilities.

Many recent proposals call for a more efficient ‘segmentation tool’ as a way to improve support for people facing the most barriers to employment. Such a tool would identify early those jobseekers that were going to be the most challenging to get into work, and split them off into more intensive support. If a day-one segmentation tool could be made to work it would no doubt address some of the immediate problems in the employment support sector, such as creaming and parking. We originally undertook our research – which involved qualitative fieldwork with 40 jobseekers and several other stakeholders – by attempting to understand more about how such a tool might work.

A new approach to employability assessments

Ultimately, however, our research suggests that such a ‘segmentation’ tool may not be the best way forward in the longer term. Instead, a different approach is needed:

  • Firstly, assessment should be an ongoing process. To get an accurate, in-depth picture of a jobseeker’s situation requires continually updating the assessment. It’s essential that advisors have the time and resources to build Deep Value relationships, use them to continually assess needs and abilities, and tailor support accordingly.
  • Secondly, assessment should be more participatory, emphasising jobseekers’ own perspectives. Jobseekers understand their own needs and abilities better than anyone. They should be enabled to actively contribute to their assessment and thus shape their support offer. A more participatory assessment would also encourage employment support to include a consideration of jobseekers’ strengths and abilities, instead of just addressing their barriers and needs.

Now is an excellent time for the employment support sector to think about how assessment could be done differently. Discussions are underway for how ‘Work Programme 2’ should be commissioned, but with a few years left on existing contracts, there is time to start piloting different ways of doing assessment. These will need to be built into its design from the start, as this will have implications for how contracts are made and how providers are expected to work together.

The roll-out of Universal Credit is going to change both who receives employment support and how people interact with these services. Claimants will no longer be on a straightforward linear path from ‘signing on’ as unemployed to eventually moving into work. Instead claimants may have different periods of un- or under-employment within one claim, interspersed by periods of being in work. Ongoing and participatory ways of understanding their changing needs and strengths will be crucial, and reduce inefficiencies and waste by allowing employment support to be tailored to claimants’ increasingly varying situations. More work need to be don to understand how best ongoing and participatory assessment can fit within the new system.

Our report highlights four areas where the principles of a Deep Value approach to assessment can be put into practice now. The processes and tools of assessment need to be less ‘tick-box’ and more collaborative and engaging – and it needs to be possible to regularly update them. Partnerships need to be strengthened to ensure that different providers are able to share information about jobseekers’ strengths, abilities and barriers. Frontline staff need additional training to be able to undertake ongoing, participatory assessment. Employment coaches and advisors need to be enabled to build Deep Value relationships between jobseekers and their advisors.

Deep Value assessment done right would benefit all jobseekers, but in particular it would help those who the current employment support system is failing. Deep Value Assessment is about making sure that we can get, and act on, a proper understanding of jobseekers’ needs and strengths, and ultimately provide quality employment support for all..

Beating Cancer in the Community: early action to save lives

October 16th, 2014

This Guest Post by Community Links Health Coordinator Zoraida Colorado details our community Breast Cancer screening project.This week a new Screening Centre was opened at East Village on the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. This is an edited version of Zoraida’s speech at the opening event.

When we started our calling service four years ago, take up in Newham was 56% compared to London average of 62%. To tackle this problem, we created our telephone reminder project. We put together a team of outreach workers who could speak many languages.

They telephoned women about a week before their appointment date to confirm that they have received their invitation letter. If they hadn’t then we give them details of their appointment. For those who were not able to attend, we will reschedule for a convenient time. Some women had no intention of going as they felt perfectly well, embarrassed or scared of the result. In those cases we spent time talking through the importance of screening and how it could save their lives. We reassured them that the screening unit is a women-only area and although the test is uncomfortable, it is definitely worth doing.

During the call, we also spoke to women about self-examination and the signs and symptoms they need to look for between invitations. Women have responded positively to our calls and the service has been very successful with an increase in take up of 15%.

During these four years, we have built great relationships with every GP practice in Newham, with the Breast Screening Team at Bart’s Hospital and with our commissioners. We have witnessed some excellent improvements and we are very excited to see the screening moving into the wonderful new building part of the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health and Wellbeing Centre, which has been developed at the former site of the Olympics Medical Centre for the London 2012 Games. This new unit will serve around 180,000 women in north and east London.

Over those last four years, most importantly we have saved lives, not only within our calling project but also in our other early detection projects which run in schools, sixth forms and in the wider community. We work with students from St Angela’s, we are training these young women to know about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, to know how to self examine and to understand the importance of the screening programme. They will go on to share these life saving messages with other students as well as their family and friends.

All our projects have something in common and are very special. We use creative ways to reach those people that the usual health messages don’t reach. We listen to what people have to say and try to find a way to breakdown the barriers that prevent people from taking up these services.

One in eight women get breast cancer, if we are going to survive this we must catch it early and one of the most important things that we must do is come to screening!

Child poverty in east London, the maps the statistics and the human impact.

October 15th, 2014

The Campaign to End Child Poverty has today published new figures showing that London contains 14 out of the top 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty across the UK. The three boroughs with the worst record on child poverty are in the heart of east London where Community Links operates.

Our headquarters are in Newham – a borough which often features in league tables measuring poverty, ill-health and social exclusion, and today’s figures showing that Newham remains among the top areas for child poverty in the UK, despite being so close to so much wealth, are truly devastating. We know that Newham residents in the main work very hard, often on more than one job, but for very low rates of pay. More than 50% of the workforce here earns below the London Living wage and over 20% are illegally employed on less than the minimum wage.

But by focussing on the figures it’s too easy to lose sight of the human effect of poverty. Our own research into welfare reform earlier this year showed how multiple cuts combine to become unmanageable for families. The end result is to leave them less, rather than more, able to cope, find work and support themselves; many reported cutting back on essentials such as food and fuel. Parents felt particularly vulnerable and spoke of the pressure put on their dwindling finances by the cost of clothes, food, and transport. In some cases, parents go without food to allow their children to eat.

Today’s statistics are yet another reminder that life remains really tough for many people in our borough.

As well as dealing with the consequences of family poverty through our debt advice and money management services Community Links is addressing the causes – supporting people to find training, sustainable work or set-up their own enterprises. Additionally our research and policy team are working to change the circumstances which leave east London’s Children growing-up in poverty; we will be continuing to use our understanding of life on the ground to lobby the government to make sure that future welfare reforms focus on improving the lives of the poorest people: encouraging their strengths rather than controlling their weaknesses.