Community Links

Community Links blog

Tackling racism at its root

November 25th, 2016

The murder of Jo Cox, which led to her killer being given a life sentence on Wednesday, was a shocking reminder of where racist thinking can lead. Yet, despite a concerning rise in far-right activity and hate crime against ethnic minorities, there appears to be little focus on preventing racism from taking root.

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However, one small organisation in Swansea is acting earlier to tackle hate crime and promote better opportunities for young people. Through working with disadvantaged ethnic minority young people, the Ethnic Support Youth Team (EYST) noticed that the young people they worked with were experiencing increasing levels of racism and hate crime. They realised that nearly all the emphasis in this area was on encouraging victims to report hate crime, but little was being done to prevent it from happening. Furthermore, a rise in far-right activity in Swansea highlighted that it was a particular type of young white person being recruited into these organisations: extremely disadvantaged, often excluded from mainstream education, and sometimes within the youth offending system.

In response to this, EYST developed the Think Project, a targeted intervention for 16-25 year olds which mirrored the work they were doing in preventing radicalisation in young Muslims. The project stands out as one of the few programmes in the UK that solely focuses on targeting young white people who are most vulnerable to far-right extremism. Delivered through pupil referral units, youth offending teams, and schools, it is a three day educational programme that combines education about Islam, migrants, and asylum seekers with positive, first-hand experience of diversity. It is delivered by ethnically diverse youth workers and connects the young people with those they have previously feared or misunderstood, hearing their stories and challenging myths.

The importance of learning the facts and gaining these experiences couldn’t be starker. Of the nearly 500 young people that Think Project has worked with in the last four years, over half thought that immigrants make up 50% of the population of Wales before completing the programme, and a quarter believed it was around 75%. The reality is closer to 6%. This distorted perception of reality plays into the hands of far-right groups who claim the country is overrun with immigrants taking our jobs, homes, and benefits. Yet Think Project demonstrates that given the opportunity to learn the facts and gain positive first-hand experience of diversity, these opinions can be challenged. The project’s external evaluation showed that whilst most young people on the programme initially held strong and largely negative views about immigration, asylum and diversity, these views change significantly for the 95% of participants by the end of the programme.

The power of Think project is most clearly demonstrated through the stories of those involved:

‘Kayleigh’ took part in one of the group sessions delivered in Merthyr Tydfil, and by her own admission at the start of the programme, ‘just didn’t like people with different skin colours, didn’t like it when they talked their language, just couldn’t stand them’. After the 3 day programme she said ‘I feel completely different now, we’re all human, we’re all here for different reasons’. After the programme, the Think project workers supported her to take up volunteering opportunities with an international volunteering exchange charity. She thoroughly enjoyed a one week residential volunteering opportunity in Cardiff, meeting people she would never have met in her home town. She is now considering undertaking volunteering abroad with the same charity, something she says she would never have done without the Think Project. She volunteered to speak about the impact of the project at the end of project conference, and has applied to become a community organiser with Hope not Hate.

 

Key to the success of Think Project has been recognising that whilst these young people are potential perpetrators of hate crime, they are also victims of the failures of our education system and society more generally. By providing a safe space where they can air their real and perceived grievances and by treating them with respect, the Think Project enables their views to be debated and challenged without pushing them deeper into prejudice. During the programme, emphasis is placed on improving the participants’ confidence, understanding, and communication skills and once it is completed participants are encouraged to pursue volunteering opportunities. In doing so, Think project is further increasing their resilience to far-right groups as well as increasing their opportunities to thrive.

Think Project sets an example on how to act early to effectively tackle racism and create better outcomes for some of our most vulnerable young people. But it is only a small organisation, and its perception as an ‘add-on’ service means that the issue of funding is a constant challenge. Whilst there are also much wider challenges around poverty and inequality which must also be addressed, it is crucial that schools and educational institutions begin to act earlier on racism, and equip our young people with the tools they need to become positive and active contributors to society. In the words of Jo’s sister, Kim Cox, “Whilst we can’t change what’s happened, we can try and choose how we respond… with love, strength and positivity”.

 

You can read more about Think Project on their project website here.

You can see more examples of early action in our case study gallery.

 

Six ways society can act earlier for mental health

November 25th, 2016

On the 9th December, the Early Action Task Force will be publishing its newest report: ‘Thriving Minds: Acting Early on Mental Health‘. Within the report we’ve focused on six areas, although we could have doubled this list as mental health runs through everything in a circle of cause and effect. Below is a snapshot of our thinking on how society can act early on mental health.

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1. Education

Half of all diagnosable mental health conditions in adults begin before the age of 14

Given the above statistic, our school years present a significant opportunity to promote positive mental health early. School can take measures to promote positive mental health, such as the whole-school approach of the Mancroft Advice Project. Local and central governments also need to ensure that their policies are focused on promoting positive mental health in children through collaboration with local services and reducing the pressure of exams.

2. Work

Mental health problems account for 47% of long term absences from work

If people felt they wouldn’t be stigmatised for having a mental health problem, they’d be much more likely to disclose this and take time off earlier to prevent their mental health from reaching crisis point. Training in Mental Health First Aid can aid understanding and reduce stigma, whilst organisational approaches such as ‘happier@work’ can make workplaces a more mentally positive place to be. Of course, some people may still fall ill and need time off work, so it’s also important that employment support services are tailored to those with mental health needs to enable them to get back into sustainable, good quality work.

3. Money

Problem debt makes a person twice as likely to develop a mental health problem

At present, a significant number of people are caught up in a vicious cycle of mental health problems and problem debt. By reducing the amount of problem debt people take on, improving early access to advice, and changing debt collection practices, we can act earlier to ensure the cycle is broken. CAB’s ‘Healthy Advice’ scheme is a good example of how services are innovating to ensure they are reaching the people who need advice as early as possible.

4. Criminal Justice

90% of prisoners have a mental health problem

The criminal justice system is host to many people at the sharp end of the collective failure to act earlier for mental health. Yet the system can play a role in creating an alternative for these people. We’ve come across excellent examples of Street Triage and Liaison & Diversion schemes which divert people away from the criminal justice system and into the care they need. Acting earlier also means making prisons mentally healthy environments, so they aren’t creating or exacerbating mental health problems for offenders who will eventually leave prison. Finally, the majority of offenders do not go to prison, so it is important that probation services are equipped to provide support in the community, as well as ensuring offenders are ready to re-enter society.

5. Housing

Renters are 75% more likely to experience serious anxiety and depression than homeowners

Insecurity in the private rented sector, as a result of a lack of affordability, short-term tenures, and poor conditions, is a significant damaging factor to private renters’ mental health. Accordingly, it is important that these issues are tackled in order to reduce the likelihood of mental illness and promote positive mental health – the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 is a promising start but more needs to be done.

6. Communities

Chronic loneliness is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

Local services can play an important role in preventing loneliness and fostering social connection, ranging from highly formal services explicitly aimed at connecting people, to the more incidental connections that are created through the varied community spaces and events that we might engage with on a day to day basis for other purposes entirely. Building these connections can positively influence the way that we think about ourselves and our communities, in turn promoting better mental health, as demonstrated by Haringey Thinking Space.

 

It is evident that if we are to act earlier to promote positive mental health, we need to be acting before people need to engage with mental health services. In order to achieve this, it is essential that we recognise the current crisis in mental health as a social crisis, as opposed to simply a healthcare crisis. In acknowledging that mental health is everyone’s responsibility, sectors should act together to share the cost of early action, as well as the resultant benefits – the triple dividend of enabling people to lead thriving lives, whilst costing less to public services and contributing more to our economy.

If you’re interested in the ideas we’ve raised here and would like to know more, please sign up to our mailing list to ensure you receive a link to the report when it is published. You can also attend our discussion on early action for mental health, hosted by the Big Lottery Fund, on Friday 9th December from 9.30am-12pm. For further information and to register for a free ticket, please visit our Eventbrite page.

The Autumn Statement: A Question of Growth?

November 23rd, 2016

Although this year’s Autumn Statement failed to live up to its billing to help households who are ‘just about managing’, it did make a renewed attempt to tackle one of the biggest and most damaging challenges we currently face: the UK’s productivity puzzle. Whilst increasing investment is welcome, it is a missed opportunity as it is largely investment in physical infrastructure – trains, cars and telecoms – as opposed to social infrastructure. If we truly want to solve the productivity puzzle, we need to invest in people as well as things.

Today the Early Action Taskforce are publishing a collection of short essays on how acting earlier can promote good growth. This collection is based on our “A Question of Growth” blog series we ran earlier this year, asking members of the Task Force and others to contribute their thoughts on what constituted ‘good growth’ and how taking a more preventative and investment-led approach can provide a solid foundation for growth.

It is clear from the contributions in our report that one of the first problems we must overcome in our quest for good growth is measurement. Many contributors pointed out that GDP is partial and does not capture fundamental elements that contribute to improving people’s wellbeing, arguably an important measure of human progress. As Dan Corry from New Philanthropy Capital argues, we must not throw GDP out entirely, as it risks alienating policy makers and losing a useful if partial indicator of economic progress, but growth that does not contribute to our overall well-being is unlikely to be ‘good growth’. Anna Coote from the New Economics Foundation makes this point most strongly, defining wellbeing as “the way people feel when they lead a good life, functioning well on personal and social levels”.

We should therefore be aiming for, in the words of the London School of Economics’ Anne Power, “a less greedy, more socially just, more equitable and more environmentally sensitive approach to growth”. Focussing on investment in physical infrastructure alone will not achieve this.

Investing in society can improve productivity

Early action provides the opportunity to not only broaden the debate, but to widen the horizons of what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it.

Two contributors focussed on how we relate the early action agenda to market forces in order to foster ‘good growth’. Debbie Pippard from the Barrow Cadbury Trust argues that the poverty premium, in which poorer people end up paying more for essential goods and services, is hugely problematic for both moral and economic reasons. If we could reduce or abolish it through collective consumption practices then we could free up more money for spending in the wider economy.

Dan Paskins from the Big Lottery Fund calls for early action strategies that ensure “the aggregate benefits of globalisation are shared more equitably”. By investing in early action – an integral part of the social infrastructure of the UK – we can intervene more efficiently in market failures and societal problems, leaving us with more money to invest in classic growth strategies around physical infrastructure, and improving social outcomes too.

The point about investment is crucial. As Caroline Slocock of Civil Exchange notes, early action is not a cost but an economic investment. We therefore need a positive cycle of investment in early action that clearly yields a return on investment (arguments around investing in science and education to increase our human capital already recognises this), and there are already tools out there that can help us to measure this (for example in New Zealand). Other early action areas that are traditionally seen as costs rather than investments include welfare – something the Task Force has written on before – as highlighted by Neil McInroy, employment support, and mental health.

Ben Jupp from Social Finance takes (un)employment as his focus, arguing that the massive inequalities individuals with mental health problems face in the labour market constitute a major drag on our economy Governmental attempts to address this have been patchy to date – the Work Programme for example has been particularly unsuccessful at helping those with health problems – but there is hope if we can invest more money in early action activities such as Individual Placement Support that integrates health and employment support, starts with people’s wishes and aspirations, and aims to get people into work they actually want to do as fast as is appropriate. In doing so we can harness people’s potential and enable them to flourish.

Also thinking about mental health, Cliff Prior of New Philanthropy Capital discusses Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) as a newish form of investment that can yield social and economic benefits. For him and indeed many of our authors the argument that it is too costly to invest in early action is glib, particularly when you consider the huge economic and social costs of mental health problems. He points to several SIBs such as Newcastle’s Ways to Wellness and the Fair Chance Fund that are aligning funding from different sources for positive social and economic outcomes for individuals, communities, and for society as a whole.

To steal Cliff Prior’s conclusion: “good growth – sometimes you know it when you see it.”

Investing in the next generation

November 22nd, 2016

Chancellor Phillip Hammond will make his Autumn statement on Wednesday. Alongside the spring budget this is the most important statement about the governments intentions for the economy. A lot has happened since last March. The Brexit vote, a new government, a churning global economy all make this year’s statement even more significant than normal. Here Early Action Task Force colleague Caroline Slocock makes the case for investment in the next generation.

 

I hope the Chancellor will announce new investment in people, not just in capital infrastructure, tomorrow. We’ve already heard that the Government is willing to spend £1.3 billion on reducing congestion on roads, £2 billion a year on research and development for industry and £400 million for new Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund. The Autumn Statement is likely to include investment in other forms of capital investment too. But the case for investing in the next generation is equally strong and just as important for making Britain “match fit” for Brexit.

The key is to believe in the talents of all of our young people and communities – particularly those at most risk of being left behind – to aim high and invest long term. A good model was the bold decision by successive governments to invest in the potential future Olympic champions of the future, which bore fruit not just at the London Olympics but in Rio too. A similar act of faith in children and young people otherwise at risk of underperforming could by hugely more significant to Britain’s future prospects.

This is a productivity, as well as an equality, issue, and an even more pressing one in the light of Brexit. Theresa May has already pledged to tackle Britain’s longstanding educational inequalities, and rightly so. Britain has a long tail of educational underperformance, which primarily affects children from the poorest backgrounds, white working class children of both sexes, as well as Pakistani and Bangladeshi, Caribbean and Gypsy and Traveller groups. Indeed, the UK is the worst performing of OECD countries in this respect and, as an OECD report has modelled, the value of bringing all students to a minimum level of attainment in the UK for GDP could be very substantial over time.

New investment would be a cost now but would help Britain achieve a surplus longer term. Get it right, and everyone in this generation will contribute to the success of the country, financially and socially, paying more taxes, raising productivity, creating healthy, happy and strong communities that lay the foundations for Britain’s social and economic success. Get it wrong and the chances are many will end up relying on welfare payments unnecessarily and face avoidable health and social problems that will contribute to the debt burden for which future generations have to pay.

The Government’s current strategy is to raise standards in schools and put in extra money for children with Free School Meals (FSM) through the pupil premium but this is not enough. Professor Steve Strand from Oxford University found the largest gap in attainment between FSM children and others in outstanding and good secondary schools and concluded that `

What is needed is a more sustained and holistic approach for at risk children and young people that provides support from “cradle to career” and is sustained across institutions, bringing in not just schools but other public and voluntary sector services in a co-ordinated and targeted way. This approach has been shown to work. In the USA, for example, the Federal Government has invested in Promise Neighbourhoods that do just this. A similar approach is now being pursued in the UK by Save the Children, with support from a number of charitable foundations, in Wallsend in North Tyneside, Collyhurst in Manchester and Pembury in Hackney, London. The West London Zone is another example. These experiments are based on a considerable body of evidence and are themselves beginning to provide evidence that the approach bears fruit.

That’s why the Early Action Task Force is calling for the Government to establish a Next Generation Investment Fund that would be available for different communities to access, putting forward ideas that meet the diverse needs of different communities, but which are united in an optimistic view of their children’s potential.

How big should this Fund be? The Early Intervention Foundation has estimated the costs to the Exchequer of late intervention to correct problems for children and young people is nearly £17 billion a year in England and Wales. If just 1 per cent of that were earmarked now for the Fund, that would be a good start.

Now is the time to invest ambitiously in making the most of all talents in Britain.

This blog is written by Caroline Slocock, Director of Civil Exchange and a member of the Early Action Task Force.

 

Surviving today, jam tomorrow

November 21st, 2016

Speaking today at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference, Jeremy Corbyn will argue for long-term public intervention for “the common good”He will highlight how the Prime Minister’s mantra of people “just about managing”, now known as ‘Jams’ in Whitehall, doesn’t ring true for many who instead find themselves “just about surviving”. A combination of policy changes and market failures mean this group are forced to continuously cope with immediate challenges rather than being enabled to find sustainable ways out of poverty.

Back in 2014, we published our third report analysing the cumulative impact of welfare reform in East London. It was called “Just About Surviving”, and explored the ways in which individuals and families were struggling to cope with changes to the social security system.

We found that the reforms were putting people into highly stressful situations, often left feeling powerless and trapped in poverty. People were cycling in in and out of poorly paid and precarious employment, constantly juggling diminishing incomes, and making choices that no-one should be forced to make; going without meals so that their children could eat, washing clothes by hand as they couldn’t afford to replace a broken washing machine, and walking long distances to work in the early hours of the morning.

These coping strategies meant that most of them were just about getting by. But only just. People were living on the edge, drawing on finite sources of support where it was available, and increasingly reliant on friends and family as official support was – and is – cut closer to the bone.

The worsening situation

As Corbyn will note, low wages, precarious employment, and high housing costs are pushing these strategies beyond breaking point. Our research shows that this isn’t a new story, and has been a feature of life in the UK for several years now. Structural issues with the labour and housing markets combine with regressive and counter-productive social security reforms to ensure that people are trapped in a cycle of survival; making short term choices that just about keep them afloat for another week or two, but often reduce their possibility of escaping in the future. This short-termism is mirrored in policy making. Measures such as Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP), for example, provide a vital lifeline for many, but rarely come with the support to make sustainable improvements to their lives like finding secure and adequately paid employment or more affordable housing.

As research by Policy in Practice shows, families are set to be £2,500 a year worse off by 2020 due to welfare reform. Whilst this is an important figure and illustrates the scale of the problem, it only tells us part of the story. It doesn’t get at crucial information such as what kinds of coping strategies people may or may not have exhausted. It won’t tell us how the cuts affect individual adults, children, or communities. Nor does it tell us the broader effect on local organisations who are already struggling to meet demand in an increasingly difficult funding environment. We will therefore continue to shed light on these issues through our qualitative research on the cumulative impact of welfare reform, focussing in particular on how Universal Credit affects both those in and out of work.

We are also going to start looking at some of the underlying issues that cause and exacerbate problems for those who are just about surviving. Over the next year we will be conducting in-depth research into the private rented sector, aiming to understand how poor quality housing, overcrowding, and unaffordability can affect people’s health, education, employment and communities. We hope that by doing so we will be able to show that a lack of action by government on these issues is self-defeating and short sighted, as not only will it damage lives, but will increase costs as the demand for services continues to soar.

Moving beyond survival

The problem with the depiction of people as “just about managing” is that it evokes an image of relatively secure individuals and families who face the occasional high fuel bill. It insinuates that they can easily work their way out of their predicament if they just put their minds to it. In turn this leads to policy responses that are partial, short-term, and ultimately unable to enable people to find a sustainable route out of poverty. These responses are also unlikely to solve our low productivity problem, also highlighted in Corbyn’s speech.

The reality for those who are “just about surviving” is far worse than the Prime Minister seems willing to admit. Until we act earlier on the root causes of the problems that this group faces, any progress made via tweaks to the system is likely to stutter and stall before too long. If we want people to thrive, then a long-term investment in society is what we desperately need; more affordable housing, greater job security, better relationships, and a social security system that promotes opportunity rather than acts as a last resort.

Help local families by donating to our Christmas Toy Appeal

November 11th, 2016

Every year, Community Links and the Newham Recorder work together to collect toys to give to underprivileged children at Christmas. For the 39th year, our friend and former editor of the Newham Recorder, Colin Grainger is with us once again supporting the appeal which he helped to launch and has been a part of ever since. In this blog, Colin Grainger writes about the importance of our Christmas Toy Appeal and how you can support it. 

                                                                                                                                                                 Photo Credit: Archant/ Ken Mears

This week sees the launch of a special community appeal that has has shown the true soul of life in Newham for the last 40 years. And the success of the Community Links and Newham Recorder Christmas Toy Appeal shows how much we look after each other in this special part of London.

I hope you can help support the incredible kind of outreach work that has helped  change the lives of young people who are at risk through no fault of their own.

I first helped launch the Community Links and Newham Recorder Christmas Toy Appeal as a reporter on the paper and did so throughout all my roles there, especially in the last 15 I spent there as Editor. But the special pull of the campaign means it never leaves your heart, even if you leave the workplace you spent most of your working life at.

We have helped thousands of children over those years and the appeal is just as relevant today. The need has grown with the campaign and we need to collect the equivalent of 18,000 toys. Over the coming weeks, Community Links and the Recorder are coming together again for the campaign to reach out to thousands of vulnerable children, families and adults.

Christmas can be a time of stress and isolation. But this appeal helps Community Links strengthen communities and raise aspirations, making Christmas special and futures brighter. So I ask for you to find it in your heart to add some special youngsters to your Christmas shopping list this year. When you buy gifts for loved ones and friends, please add another gift – for a child in Newham. 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.

Each year the pressure mounts to reach the target, but we have always made it. Hundreds of celebrities and people in the public eye, including the Royal household, have helped us. Businesses do their bit. Newham Council are always there to help. It is an appeal that involves people from all walks of life.

Please give a toy so that together we can fill those empty sacks and ensure that Christmas Day is special this year for every child in Newham.

I shall be doing my usual 50 lengths sponsored swim so if you want to sponsor me please feel free to do so. I am trying to raise £250. You can donate by going to my Just Giving page here.

What to give

Gifts should not promote war or violence, and should ideally be both fun and educational.

• Story books for all ages,

• All types of craft sets, model kits, jigsaws, stationery and coloured pencils.

• Dolls and accessories.

• Cars and car sets for all ages.

• Boxed board games.

• Rucksacks.

• Lego, Duplo and other construction sets.

• £5/£10 fashion or sports vouchers.

• Compilation CDs.

• DVDs of children’s films.

• Toys from newborn to three years and early years toys from three to five years.

Where to give

DROP-OFF POINTS

• Beckton Library, 1 Kingsford Way, Beckton. Open Mon – Sat 10.30am – 8pm.

• Beckton Community Centre, 14 East Ham Manor Way, Beckton. Open Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm.

• Canning Town Library, Barking Road, Canning Town. Open Mon – Sat 10.30am – 8pm.

• Custom House Library, Prince Regent Lane, Custom House. Open Mon, Tues, Sat 9.30am – 5.30pm, Thurs 1pm – 8pm.

• East Ham Library, 328 Barking Road, East Ham. Open Mon – Fri 9am -8pm, Sat 9.30am – 8pm.

• Field Community Centre, 147 Station Road, Forest Gate. Open Mon – Fri 10am – 4pm.

• Grass Roots, Grassroots Children’s Centre, Memorial Park, Memorial Avenue, Stratford. Open Mon – Fri 10am to 4pm.

• Green Street Library, 337-341 Green Street, Upton Park. Open Mon – Sat 10.30am – 8pm.

• The Gate Library, 2-6 Woodgrange Road, Forest Gate. Open Mon – Sat 10.30am – 8pm.

• The Hub, 123 Star Lane, Canning Town. Open Mon – Fri 10am – 4pm.

• Jack Cornwell Community Centre, Jack Cornwell Street, Manor Park. Open Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm.

• Jeyes Community Centre, 1 James Close, Plaistow. Open Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm.

• Katherine Road Community Centre, 254 Katherine Road, Forest Gate. Open Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm.

• Manor Park Library, 685 – 693 Romford Road, Manor Park. Open Mon – Sat 10.30am – 8pm.

• Plaistow Library, North Street, Plaistow. Open Mon, Tues, Sat 9.30am – 5.30pm, Weds and Fri 9.30am – 5pm, Thurs 1pm – 8pm.

• Stratford Library, 3 The Grove, Stratford. Open Mon – Sat 9.30am – 8pm, Sun 1pm – 5pm.

• North Woolwich Library, 5 Pier Parade, North Woolwich. Mon, Tues, Sat 9.30am – 5.30pm, Thurs 1pm – 8pm.

• Newham Bookshop, 745 – 747 Barking Road, Plaistow. Open Tues – Sat, 10am to 4pm.

• St Bartholomew’s Church Centre, 292 Barking Road, East Ham. Open Mon – Fri 10am – 5pm.

• Theatre Royal Box Office, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford. Open Mon – Sat 10am – 5pm, or until the start of that evening’s show.

• Community Links, 105 Barking Road, Canning Town. Open Mon – Fri 9am – 5.30pm.

• Community Links ASTA Hub, 14 Camel Road, Silvertown. Open Mon – Fri, 10am – 3pm.

• Arc in the Park, Hermit Road Park, Bethell Avenue.Open Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm.

• EAT 16, St Lukes Community Centre, 87 Tarling Road, Canning Town. Open Mon – Fri 8am – 3pm.

 

Next steps for early action in Wales

November 10th, 2016

I have written so often about the sunny outlook and the can do optimism in government and public services in Wales at the moment, that I half expected the American election result to be different in Cardiff yesterday. It wasn’t. But the commitment to building a better future enshrined in the Future Generations act continues to animate a different, more confident conversation amongst policy makers, practitioners and parliamentarians than I encounter elsewhere in the UK.

I was there primarily to give evidence to the Finance committee in their scrutiny of the 2017/18 budget. Was it they wanted to know a “more prevention focused budget”? And what more must be done?

Last year I suggested that the then forthcoming enactment of the Future Generations legislation was potentially transformational. “Had it been?”, Members asked yesterday.

It’s hard to imagine these questions being asked of other budgets, local or national, elsewhere in the UK at the moment, let alone being answered positively.

I started by welcoming the narrative and the intentions. They are unequivocal. …”to give everyone the opportunity to flourish at every stage in their lives… our spending priorities… will enable us to use all the levers available to us to have the greatest impact and deliver the promise of the Well being of Future Generations Act”.

But as elsewhere in the UK , good intentions are swimming against a rushing current: The IFS say “Wales is looking at an extraordinary 11 or more years of retrenchment in public service spending.” And as JRF research has reminded us again this week Wales faces many challenges.

The budget response is robust and defiant : “it is important to collaborate to plan for the tough choices ahead. We will work with our partners to use our collective resources effectively. The Well being of Future generations Act gives us, and other public bodies, a strong foundation to build on”. In other words the government recognises that investing in early action in a time of diminishing resources is difficult but it is also more essential than ever.

If politics is as much about messages as it is about substance, these messages are very clear. Many individual spending lines are also encouraging “we will continue to prioritise budgets which support prevention and early intervention. For example evidence suggests that cognitive development in the early years will impact on later academic attainment, occupational outcomes and adult health and wellbeing. We are continuing to protect our Flying Start programme”. There was investment too in public health, regeneration, child care and mental health.

However there is, as last year, a fundamental structural weakness in the budget captured in this sentence “we have decided to publish a one year revenue spending plan for 2017/18 but 4 year capital plans, which will provide certainty for longer term investments”. As I asked the committee yesterday, and as we have discussed previously on this blog, what is it about capital spending that does not equally apply to investment in early action? Until budgets for preventative work are also planned and protected for the longer term managers on the ground will always struggle to meet the aspirations of the Future Generations Act.

I told the committee last year that the legislation is more ambitious than any comparable legislation elsewhere. It can change public services in Wales and be a beacon for the world. Over the course of this year I have seen, from the committee rooms of the Senedd to the tiniest community groups far from the capital, a widespread and big hearted commitment to that objective. Extending the timescales in the budgets and protecting early action spending are now the big missing pieces and the vital next steps.

Where next for the benefit sanctions rollercoaster?

October 21st, 2016

Looking at a graph of benefit sanctions statistics since 2010, it has more in common with a nerve-racking rollercoaster ride than a DWP dataset. For many benefit claimants, that’s exactly what it has been. 

Between 2010 and 2013 the number of sanctions against people claiming Job Seekers Allowance more than doubled, from a rate of 533,000 a year to an eye-watering peak of over one million. Since then they have almost halved, raising the question: why the great rise and fall in sanctions in the space of just a few years and where will they go from here?

Benefit sanctions (where a claimants benefits are reduced or stopped for a period of time) are a pertinent issue for Community Links. Through our delivery of the Work Programme we are obliged to ‘raise doubts’, often leading to claimants being sanctioned, while through our advice services we regularly support clients who have been sanctioned. For many years, Community Links – alongside others in the third sector and academia – has campaigned against the punitive use of sanctions as they have driven many of our service users into destitution and away from the Government’s stated aim of encouraging people into work.

Why the great rise?

In 2010, the Coalition Government’s new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, signalled the starting gun in a statement to the House of Commons: “we expect co‐operation from those who are seeking work. That is why we are developing a regime of sanctions for those who refuse to play by the rules.”

The impact was immediate, resulting in more Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants being sanctioned and more people likely to receive multiple sanctions. At the same time sanctions also increased in severity, in terms of length for JSA claimants, and in terms of length and income reduction for ESA.

Adding to this, the numbers of people unfairly sanctioned also increased dramatically. One of our service users, who was strongly work-orientated, explained how powerless and destitute not being able to attend a job interview due to an incorrect decision made her feel.

“I had times when I literally had no food and no gas. I just lay in my bed looking at the walls. I couldn’t travel or make any calls. I couldn’t even afford to get the bus to sign-on, but I knew that if I didn’t go I’d be suspended again. It’s like a vicious cycle. I turned up to the Jobcentre actually hungry. I hadn’t eaten for two days and I was scared that if I was five minutes late they might suspend me again – it really wasn’t easy.”

The increased numbers of claimants being sanctioned for failing to participate in training and employment support – largely via the Work Programme – had a significant impact on the overall rise in sanctions, and in 2014 this accounted for 31% of all sanction decisions. Another factor attributed to the rise was the DWP raising its off-flow targets (the removal of claimants from the unemployment register) for Jobcentres. Although the Government has repeatedly stated that sanctions targets do not exist and that they are only imposed as a “last resort”, there have been numerous reported incidences of Jobcentre staff being put under pressure to impose financial penalties on benefit claimants in order to meet staff performance standards.

And then the fall?

As with the unprecedented rise, Government have never provided a clear explanation for the precipitous fall in JSA sanctions since their peak in 2013. The fall in JSA claimants (dropping 49% between 2013 and 2015 due to the labour market recovery) obviously had a large part to play.  However, the monthly rate of sanctions as a proportion of JSA claimants has also halved during this period, suggesting a significant change in policy.

Other key factors influencing the downward trend have been a reduction in referrals of claimants to the Work Programme and the growing number of claimants being transferred from JSA to Universal Credit (UC), for which sanctions statistics are not yet available.

Whilst the continued demise of sanctions is welcome, and the work of charities and others who influenced this change should be commended, they still cause untold hardship and misery, even if it is for a smaller number of claimants. For many of our clients, a sanction means going hungry, being unable to heat their home, and in some cases not being able to afford the bus fare to meet a Jobcentre advisor in order to find work.

The future of sanctions

The noises from the new Government indicate a potentially more constructive approach to social security. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, has said that there will be ‘no new search for cuts in individual welfare benefits’, and has scrapped reassessments for chronically-ill disabled people seeking to claim ESA. His predecessor had already introduced a “warning period” for those facing a sanction. However, this does not mean that the rollercoaster that many of our most vulnerable service users have been on will not rise again.

A commitment to no new cuts in welfare benefits could in itself be an incentive for Government to seek cost savings through increasing benefit ‘off-flows’ and hence increasing sanction rates. The introduction of in-work conditionality in Universal Credit (UC) and the new Work and Health Programme will introduce new sources of sanctions in the coming years, though it’s still unclear the balance it will adopt between support and punishment.

Community Links will continue to make the case for sanctions to only be used as a last option. In submissions to the Work and Pensions Committee and National Audit Office we have continued our call for a full evidence-based review of the sanctions regime, as well as asking the DWP to provide a clear rationale for applying conditionality to UC claimants in work. We believe that the focus of any regime should be about supporting people into sustainable and fulfilling employment, rather than ensuring compliance, which too often results in destitution on the one hand, or forcing people into unsuitable, low paid insecure work on the other.

Dr David Webster, October 2016, Explaining the rise and fall of JSA and ESA sanctions 2010-16

The Second Revolution

October 19th, 2016

The driver of the 214 bus last night greeted us warmly, stepped off the bus to help a passenger who was partially sighted, roared with laughter when he played the recorded message that says “no standing up stairs” and then explained the joke (you had to be there, the 214 is a single decker), thanked us for travelling on his bus and, at the end of the route, wished us all a safe journey home.  As we motley strangers traipsed round from Finsbury Square to Liverpool street station we talked about what a nice man he was and said good night to one another.  The driver of the 214 had built a community in five bus stops.

Of course all this was very trivial and transitory, but I don’t suppose I am the only passenger who has wondered today how different life might be if all our routine interactions were infused with such humour and humanity.

As it happens I had been reading on the bus Gaby Hinsliff’s Guardian piece about the “Internet of Things”. Her sub-heading had tempted me in: “We are a generation struggling to look after elderly relatives. Maybe technology can ease the load?”

The internet of things is essentially the networking of everyday devices, already allowing the uber cool to start boiling the kettle before they get home and the fridge to order more milk when the bar code isn’t showing on its shelves.  The same kind of technology might be used to send out a message if an elderly relative hasn’t followed their usual routine.  Hinsliff imagines how useful this might be in a world where the “harassed care worker has 15 minutes to get you fed or bathed or dressed but not all three” and where “the state simply can’t guarantee to look after older people in any half-decent manner and nor in many cases can their children”.

Hinsliff isn’t wrong about the children, or the state or the harassed care worker but surely if we think smart white goods are the answer here then we haven’t understood the roots or the dimensions of the crisis. In recent years technology has swept into every corner of our lives. Every transaction is automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctors appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. Our organisations and our social systems are more efficient but less human. We are more atomised and automated, more comfortable with technology but more remote from one another.  We spend 10 hours or more, every day, looking at a screen.

The internet and all that it has spawned are wonderful things transforming our lives in many positive ways but they are just that – things, not a replacement for human relationships.  Our generation is allowing technological progress to become so disconnected from social progress that we are rapidly approaching the point where the damage it does will exceed the good that it serves.

We are not the first to reach this kind of disjunction. The industrial revolution is the obvious comparison. It wasn’t only about entirely new ways of working but also about entirely new ways of living. At first the essentially rural population struggled to adapt but in time our great great grandparents began to learn how to embrace and exploit the advantages of industrial progress and  how to manage and redress the disadvantages.  This, the second, social revolution, was no less seismic and significant in the evolution of our society than its industrial predecessor.

This is not a silly plea for the techies to slow down. It is a hurry up call for the second revolution. Every pound that is spent on the universities, the industries, the speculative punts that are driving the technology should be matched by another. These funds should be dedicated to reimagining the world in the light of our enhanced capacities and to directing the revolutionary forces in ways which don’t undermine our essential humanity but which value, sustain and develop it.

If we don’t, and if it is to be only the kettle that notices when I am dying at home on my own, I think I might prefer to be left to get on with it.

What do Community Links and the punk movement have in common?

October 17th, 2016

Community Links is turning 40 in 2017. That means we’re a few months younger than the punk movement, whose 40th anniversary is currently being celebrated. 

While Community Links may admittedly have little in common with the Sex Pistols, the beliefs animating this charity’s founders and the rather more legendary Sid Vicious were rooted in the same decade of forgotten industrial peripheries and broken ideals that followed the 1960s, with their passionate rejection of postwar injustice, their popular struggles, the widespread student demonstrations and all the local-yet-global mass protests. The ultimate goal of this – then small – group of activists from east London might have been justice for all rather than a rebellious call for anarchy in the UK, but the irreverence and DIY ethos animating some of the first actions organised by Community Links had perhaps something to share with the ripped-up T-shirts and gravity-defying mohawks that still define the punk era.

“With £360 we bought an aging Routemaster, unscrewed the seats, sold them, bought art supplies, knocked in some benches and a couple of moveable tables,” remembers David Robinson of those early years. The bus could soon be seen parked on council estates around Newham, as a diverse group of community workers, activists and volunteers entertained children, listened to people and gave advice. When, in the early 1980s, the tower blocks campaign was set up in collaboration with local residents who were tired of being isolated in low-quality, high-rise forms of social housing that tended to sway in the wind, the loudspeaker became Community Links’ most prized possession; leaflets and other campaigning material were hand-drawn, glued together and published as zines; and protest strategies also included gathering a group of people, having them dress up as cardboard blocks and shout loudly, at the demolition of two high-rise estates, “2 down, 107 to go!”

Radical beliefs and radical action required radical means. If the system wasn’t working, the only way to escape alienation was to go back to the roots, back to the people, back to the community. To do something radical yourself. To do-it-yourself.

A lot has changed since then. Forty years are a long time for a human life, let alone in the existence of an organisation. The Greater London Council, Europe, Thatcherism, Gordon Brown and the coalition meant doors were opened then shut abruptly; that funding abounded then was hard to come by. Community Links has indeed grown then shrunk again, but that initial DIY sensitivity still pervades it – though it’s expressed in different styles, ways and forms. The work on how third sector organisations should live their values, published in the mid 2000s, is one such example: “It was produced as a report,” says Richard McKeever, who oversaw much of Community Links’ editorial output through the years, “but it has a toolkit at the back. It’s go-and-do-it-yourself stuff.” Not too different from some of those early National Tower Blocks Directories, which included constructive stories of empowerment and how-to guides on a wide range of topics, from getting rid of cockroaches to regenerating green spaces on high-rise estates.

And it’s precisely these local stories, these ground-up perspectives, these simple human insights into complex social issues that have characterised the work of Community Links since 1977, while the political context has continued to change around. Gone are the days when the charity resembled more a spontaneous movement than a mainstream organisation, and the same is true for punk – which last summer was curated into exhibitions at the British Fashion Council and the British Library. But structural definitions aside, the imagination of those who’ve participated in both likely remains the same. It remains radical; it remains open to rejecting and reinterpreting the system as a whole if needed; it remains focused on the acquired awareness that alternative – and sometimes more effective – solutions can be found in the pragmatic knowledge of local communities. That’s why Community Links has never ceased to gather stories, amplify the voices of the disempowered, propose constructive narratives, bring local people in touch with Downing Street, and Downing Street in touch with Newham. And that’s also why we’ve been working, for the past five months, on a book that will hopefully act as a collection of thoughts, recollections and learning narrated through the voices of some of the people who have interacted with Community Links for the past four decades. To inspire, despite the adverse context stifling most changemakers today, a different policy framework. A systemic, go-and-do-it-yourself type of framework.

The book will be released next year, in time for our 40th anniversary celebrations. Keep checking this blog for updates!