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Prisons and the supersize solutions

March 24th, 2017

“We try to remove whatever it was that caused the crime”

News this week of plans to build four new “supersized” prisons in England and Wales contrasts miserably with progress in the Netherlands where nineteen prisons have closed in recent years, five in the last year alone.

Jan Roelof van der Spoel, deputy governor of Norgerhaven, a high-security prison in the north-east of the Netherlands offers this explanation for the difference.

“In the Dutch service we look at the individual …If somebody has a drug problem we treat their addiction, if they are aggressive we provide anger management, if they have got money problems we give them debt counselling. We try to remove whatever it was that caused the crime. The inmate himself or herself must be willing to change but our method has been very effective. Over the last 10 years, our work has improved more and more.”

Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, justified her expansion plans with this analysis: “We cannot hope to reduce reoffending until we build prisons that are places of reform where hard work and self-improvement flourish”. Is she really saying that the only way to close prisons is to first build more?

It is certainly never too late to “try to remove whatever it was that caused the crime” but the prevention of first time offending is even better than preventing reoffending. It can be done and it should be: Speaking about creating an  “early action culture” in the police service at our Insight event last year  Andy Rhodes of the Lancashire Constabulary told us that “to prevent crime”, not to arrest more, is the first “Peelian principle”, it should be a police officer’s  primary goal.

Andy embarked on a mission to shift the emphasis after reading our Triple Dividend  report in 2011. Now he says early action is part of our language, it’s referenced on the crime plan, it’s in our recruitment, promotion and Learning and Development with a masters in Early Action at UCLAN and tons of frontline toolkits.”

At the start of his quest Andy was the deputy chief constable and there were a lot of sceptics. Now, not everyone gets it but we are getting there” and Andy is the new Chief Constable , promoted just last week to the top job in the Lancashire Constabulary.

And if Andy is right and we can reduce crime, what might become of our prisons? Again the Netherlands are setting us a shining example: Part of Amsterdam’s Bijlmerbajes prison has become a cultural hub called Lola Lik and part of it is now the Wenckebachweg refugee centre. Here activities for up to 1,000 refugees are aimed at “accelerated integration” – the so called “Amsterdam approach”. The Refugee Company is launching a coffee shop on the site, there’ll be a solar-powered cinema, and The Startup Kitchen, will host food start-ups from around the world.

It’s a remarkable transformation and vivid testimony to the idea that supersizing prevention is altogether better for us all than supersizing prisons.

“Two peanuts of hope in the crackerjack box of despair”

March 10th, 2017

There wasn’t a lot to celebrate in the 2017 budget, indeed we might say there wasn’t a lot in the 2017 budget, full stop, but we have found “two peanuts of hope in the crackerjack box of despair” (Homer Simpson 2006).  We will start with them and then offer a quick Community Links perspective on the three issues which have dominated all the other  media commentary. 

First, the London Devolution Agreement

The Agreement was announced and published alongside the main budget statement. It included:

  • Co commissioning of criminal justice services with substantial potential for reducing offending and for improving services for victims and offenders. To be finalised in June
  • Devolution of a number of health care powers. Further details expected next week
  • Devolution of the adult education budget from 2019/20 and the promise of “greater influence” over careers services.
  • Transfer of the budget for the Work and Health programme and a further commitment to a “strategic dialogue” on employment support.
  • Powers to pilot a new Development Rights Auction model for funding future infrastructure projects. This model is likely to provide very significant new funding.

There is lots more detail expected in the coming weeks but the headlines are encouraging with more power and more resources invested closer to home. Now the responsibility passes to London’s leaders for ensuring that devolution does not stop there but that local communities are fully involved in designing, developing and delivering these important services

Second, the “next generation” passage from the Chancellor’s speech

“If you talk to people from any background and any part of the country about their hopes and their aspirations for the future, you’ll hear a recurring concern for the next generation. 

Will they have the qualifications to find a job?
Will they have the skills to re-train as that job changes, and changes again, over a working lifetime?
Will they be able to get on the housing ladder?
To save for a pension?

In short, the question that concerns so many people is “will our children enjoy the same opportunities that we did”?

Mr Deputy Speaker, Our job is to make sure that they do.

That’s why we are investing in education and skills to ensure that every young person, whatever their background and wherever they live, has the opportunity to succeed and prosper. The proportion of young people not in work or education is now the lowest since records began that’s a good base from which to build. But it is only by equipping them for the jobs of tomorrow that we ensure they will have real economic security.”

We are with you on all this Mr Hammond, now what can we do about it? A Bill of Rights for the Next Generation perhaps?

Finally our view on the three topics that have attracted most attention:

Business rates: The coverage has focused on the prosperous areas that are of most interest to Conservative MPs. In Southwold for instance a sausage roll will apparently soon cost £8.17 if the butcher raises prices in line with the rates increase. Business rates are in fact a problem for any area where property prices have gone up which, of course, they have in east London, and it is a particular issue in areas which have been undergoing regeneration like Canning Town and Stratford. We don’t yet know the likely impact of the measures that the Chancellor announced yesterday but this is seriously alarming and an issue to which we will return.

NI increase for self employed. Hammond hits white van man” screamed the Metro front page yesterday morning. “Hammond hits highly paid barristers and consultants” would have been more accurate. As the Resolution Foundation have pointed out this is a progressive measure. Low earning child minders and window cleaners in Newham will benefit. The messaging was dreadful but the change is good.

Social care: No amount of spin could make £2b over 3 years for social care and £450m for the NHS sound like anywhere near enough to turn around the crisis in health and social care. Most expert analysis suggests it will fill less than half the gap. Of course Conservative back benchers worried about “trolleys in corridor” stories in their local papers know this too. What will they do now?

Good news for the voluntary sector, but don’t stop now

March 8th, 2017

The Dormant Assets Commission reported last week that an additional £1bn to £2bn lies in old insurance policies, investment portfolios and pensions and can be released for funding the voluntary sector. This more than doubles the amount that has already been identified. 

The Dormant Accounts Act in 2008 provided for the collection and distribution of these forgotten funds. All the money so far has gone to Big Society Capital but Civil Society Minister Rob Wilson has already indicated that the new money could be used to “help good causes” in various ways.

First let’s put the numbers into perspective. The wonderful Comic Relief took 30 years to raise £1bn. Children in Need raised £46m last year. The Big Lottery Fund, far and away Britain’s biggest independent funder distributed £583m. All three are tremendously important funders of the third sector, particularly of smaller local organisations, but a dormant fund in excess of £1bn would be significantly bigger than all of them put together.  In the budget speech today the Chancellor will even announce to the nation government programmes with smaller numbers attached. There has already been much trailing,  for instance,  of an anticipated £320m for the expansion of the free school programme.

We congratulate the Minister for establishing this important Commission and we welcome its findings.

This, however, is only half the story.  I also want to make two other points:

First, the original arrangement was applied only to the small group of major banks included in the Merlin agreement – Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and RBS.  At the time Gordon Brown made clear the intention to first establish the process with the biggest players and then expand the scheme.  Seven hard years elapsed before the Commission was set up to explore the options in December 2015.  Throughout that time we pressed ministers, their shadows and their seniors, Manifesto groups, a party leader and a PM to, at the very least, take a look at the possibilities. I recalled repeatedly that £11bn was the number first discussed as the full potential of the scheme at the time of its inception. Back of a Treasury envelope, perhaps, and maybe overstated but even half that sum, harnessed to a programme for refuelling the voluntary sector, would have been a really substantial and eye catching government programme or manifesto pledge.

Why did no one listen for so long?  It’s not as if the sector has had more money than we needed in these recent difficult years.

Second, the Commission reporting last week was understandably cautious in its estimates and limited in its purview. £1bn to £2bn is a long way short of those early numbers. I think there is more money still yet to be unearthed. Much of it may be in smaller amounts, some of it might even be local and in unlikely places.  In London, for instance, £223m lies on dormant Oyster cards – the sort that most Londoners have, at some point, lost, replaced and forgotten. Suppose TfL spent a very generous £10m on a three month campaign promoting the reclamation of this money. I doubt if very much would be claimed but suppose we were left with just half. As we have pointed out to London’s Mayor you could do a lot of important work in London’s most disadvantaged communities with £100m.

And these are all schemes that keep on giving. Although the big numbers have accumulated over many years and will never be repeated, additional installments reach the deadline date every year.  The London Oyster pot, for example, rose by £53m between 2015 and 2016.  Once the reclamation procedures are in place the process will generate a more modest but regular yield year after year.

Let us be clear, none of this money belongs to the banks, the pension companies, TFL etc. It belongs to us. If it can’t be returned to the original customer it should be used for the common good. It should not be used to bolster numbers and generate interest on big corporate balance sheets.

It is, without doubt,  terrific news that a further £1bn plus will be flowing into the sector soon and I don’t mean to be a grumpy old man but, amidst the rightful welcome, lessons must be learnt: Pain could have been avoided if the opportunity had been responsibly explored a long time ago.  Let us not now endure another nine lean years before thoroughly exploiting ALL the possibilities.

A bill of rights for the next generation: What do you think?

March 3rd, 2017

Here’s a new idea which we are starting to think about.  Would it be useful, what might it contain and how could we make it work? We would welcome your opinion.

A Bill of Rights for Future Generations.

The Early Action Task Force is working in several ways to create the conditions, the understanding and the resources for early action to thrive. Our work is very practical. It is about doing what we can in the prevailing context – political, financial, cultural and legislative.  We wouldn’t want to abandon this pragmatic and practical approach but we are also thinking about opening up a new front:

The problem we want to solve:

We have a settled government with a political narrative that is dominated by Brexit. There are glimpses of other interests such as the PMs Shared Society speech but these are infrequent and insubstantial.

The opposition has very little influence.

It seems unlikely that either of the above will change before the next general election.

In this stasis we can support front line work and help to influence individual policies but building a society where problems are routinely prevented is an ambitious long term goal which will not be reached solely with the small pragmatic steps. We need to also think much harder about how we radically influence the direction of travel. We need to find a way of moving the conversation on to the big vision.

A bill of rights for the next generation.

All political parties need to offer a future that is better than the past but need and capacity are on irreconcilable trajectories. Likewise consumption and sustainability. Food banks, student loans, generation rent, trolleys in A and E, people sleeping on the streets – in different ways these are all symbols of a society that is moving backwards, not forwards. There is a political imperative, as well as a social, economic and moral obligation, for politicians to find a way of promising a better future, not as a rhetorical aspiration, but as a set of rights with a plausible plan for delivering them.

Suppose we began to talk about a Bill of Rights for Future Generations to fundamentally change how government thinks and behaves. Suppose we imagine the Bill as the set piece of the first Queens speech from the next government in three years’ time. It would be the world’s most far sighted and ambitious programme for ensuring a better future for our children.

Some of the ideas which we have discussed regularly on this blog would have a place (Ten year planning, transition goals, an Office for Future Generations, early action testing, a Next Generation Investment fund etc) but, to justify the billing it would need to be significantly more ambitious.

Leading that conversation

Suppose we think of this goal as a way of inspiring a different conversation over the course of the next few years.  The big objective would be extraordinary. Some more limited gains on the way would be worthwhile.

How would it be framed and what would it contain?

Please post your comments below in the usual way or mail me directly at david.robinson@community-links.org

What are you for Mr Hammond?

February 23rd, 2017

8 Months after he picked up the keys to No11 it is difficult to discern any clear pattern or purpose to Philip Hammond’s Chancellorship.

His most decisive action to date has been to cancel the annual ritual of a spring budget. The one he presents to the House in two weeks’ time will be the last. In future the budget is to be rolled into the autumn statement and delivered before Christmas. It’s a sensible reform but scarcely spectacular. On all matters economic the Chancellor has ceded visibility, if not control, not only to the PM but also to other ministers, particularly Boris Johnson, even to David Davies. March the 8th will be his moment in the sun and a chance to answer the question “what is Philip Hammond for?”

On taking office last July the new Chancellor spoke about a “new phase” for the economy. Contrary to some of the reporting at the time and some of the comment that has filled the void since then, he didn’t say that austerity was over but that it was “right to review the pace at which the government balanced the books.”  Is that review now completed? And if so will he be challenging the conclusion of the IFS Green Budget which claimed last week that “The rate of reduction (in levels of day-to-day public service spending) is set to speed up after this year, with cuts of nearly 4% due between 2016–17 and 2019–20”?

This matters because it is these kinds of numbers that have led Lord Porter the chairman of the LGA, to warn this week that services supporting very vulnerable people are “at breaking point”.  Lord Porter, the Conservative leader of South Holland in Lincolnshire, subsequently said he was “hugely disappointed” by the funding settlement for councils which was set out by the Communities Secretary in a written statement  to parliament yesterday: “As we continue to bring the deficit down” wrote Sajid Javid “local government, must continue to play its part”.

Trolleys in corridors have become a familiar picture on the front pages this winter and such has been the level of disquiet on the government’s own benches that the Chancellor will surely have something in the budget for the NHS. Anything less will risk mutiny. But doctors and hospitals are part of an ecology of care that reaches out through domiciliary services, reduces need through strong public health programmes and builds resilience and wellbeing through a diverse range of community services.  So the question is not about whether Mr Hammond responds to the crisis but about whether he sticks a bandage on the creaking fabric of an acute sector that faces irreconcilable trajectories of demand and resource or  becomes the first chancellor to really grip the necessity for prevention and for a cross government “need reduction strategy” stretching beyond the NHS, into other arms of government, particularly local government, and on to the community sector where some of the most effective (and cost effective) work is already going on. Our own work on a community development approach to the early detection of cancer for instance has increased the take up of cancer screening appointments in east London by 15%.

Clinicians at the huge and ferociously overworked London Hospital just down the road from Community Links tell me that one in five beds are taken up by patients whose condition is caused by, or seriously exacerbated by, diabetes. We know that more than half of all Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed by simple life style changes and the most basic early action. Ultimately it is only a sustained investment in this kind of preventative work that will enable our hospital, and the many others like it, to deliver the high quality acute services that they should be delivering.

The budget that the Chancellor is writing could buy enough new trolleys to placate his own side of the House for a few months more or it could set out the simple but ground breaking measures for the longer term transition to a preventative economy that I suggested in my address to the All Party Parliamentary Group last year  and that we have detailed in the various publications of the Early Action Task Force. It’s time to decide Mr Hammond. What are you for?

Fake relationships and Revolution 3.2

February 13th, 2017

The launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission a couple of weeks ago attracted more media attention than might be expected for such an event. No doubt this was largely due to the appalling circumstances of its genesis: Ms Cox was deeply concerned about the issue and was planning the commission at the time of her murder. MPs Rachel Reeves and Seema Kennedy are now carrying forward the work that she began.

However I don’t think the tragic association accounts for all the attention: As I have written previously, at least one in five Brits are lonely often or all of the time. Loneliness is a twenty first century  plague and although almost all the press coverage over the last two weeks has focused on  older people this is, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, a misleading emphasis.  Study after study has shown that no age or social group is immune.

 

We have been thinking about the early action contribution to this conversation. Our Early Action in Later Life report stirred passions in 2014 with the assertion that “befriending schemes are to social isolation what food banks are to poverty”.

We meant no disrespect to befriending schemes or to Food Banks, both are an essential response to a crisis, but neither, on their own, offer a long term solution. Alongside the remedial work we need a deeper, longer term approach to redressing the causes of loneliness.  Just as we must ask “why are so many people hungry?” and tackle those issues, so too must we ask “why are so many people lonely?” and confront the causes

This takes us into the wider issue of social isolation which we need to address not only to beat loneliness but also to boost educational performance, enhance economic opportunity and social mobility, reduce health inequalities, improve social cohesion and indeed do almost everything that really matters.

And, far from making progress on social isolation, we are not even moving in the right direction. Instead we are, as Alvin Toffler wrote, “experiencing the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”.  Our every transaction is now automated from paying the rent to fixing a doctor’s appointment. Social media has redefined our understanding of friendship. We have limitless virtual networks but fewer real friends. Those that we do have are likely to be scattered and distant. We network but we don’t relate. And we have devalued our understanding of the concept of “relationships” to the point where I travel to Birmingham and Virgin Trains assure me that they “value our relationship”.

Fake relationships are as ubiquitous in 2017, and just as insidious, as fake news.

Across the sweep of history this sequence is not unfamiliar. First the agrarian, then the industrial revolutions disrupted social patterns and called for new ways of behaving individually and collectively. Social change followed but it took a while. Now we are again in the catch up phase. Part 3.2 as it were, of the technological revolution that has so transformed our lives in recent years.

We have to tackle the scourge of social isolation by fixing the cause. To do that we must begin with a two part question:

First, what is a real relationship?  I think it is one that nourishes with depth and meaning.  It is between people, possibly facilitated by a machine or an organisation but not with a machine or an organisation. And it is about more than kindness or reciprocity, empathy or solidarity although it is all these things. It may be closest to what in Africa is known as Ubuntu – “my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life” Desmond Tutu.

And then, what is a real 21st century relationship? We can’t rewind the clock even if we wanted to. Our generation’s big challenge is to fathom out how we use and benefit from the recent advances in ways which don’t devalue our essential humanity but which value, sustain and enrich it.

Voluntary organisations like ours don’t have all the pressing mandatory duties of a statutory authority. We have the freedom, and with the freedom a responsibility, to try to understand not just how we manage or ameliorate a problem but how we build a better society. I’m not sure what Revolution 3.2 should look like but I do think  we should try to free the space to think about it not least because, as Dr Toffler also said, You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Living our values in 2017

February 8th, 2017

Life begins at 40, or at least our next adventure does.

Michael and Arvinda, our chair and Chief Executive announce today that Community Links is joining with the family of Catch22. This will give us the opportunity to develop our innovative work within the enhanced security of a bigger group and to work on a bigger canvas but without compromise to purpose or principle. We will continue as a separate organisation within the group, driven by our own values, retaining our brand identity and charity number and responsibility for our own work programme, staff and finances.

Catch22 make us look young! Its antecedents reach back to 1788. The modern organisation now runs a wide range of social welfare projects with local authorities and other commissioners across the UK. It is big, good and well-respected.

On stepping down as CEO of Save the Children Fund last year Justyn Forsyth said “If charities are not prepared to change, we will, in turn, be less able to change the world.” We at Community Links agree. “To generate change” is the first line in our statement of purpose and this continuous commitment to learning and evolution must apply as much to ourselves as it does to the world around us.

So our new partnership is an important change and a bold step but it is also a natural one for Community Links. Collaboration has always been at the heart of our model – collaborating in our own community and collaborating with business and with government, even when both have been unfashionable in the third sector.

We are doing it now because radical change and committed collaboration is needed more than ever: I noted in my Christmas blog that we entered 2016 with business leaders predicting economic recovery but with austerity and reckless disregard still demolishing the public realm. Local authorities were confronting impossible choices and anticipating imminent crises for social care and other essential services. Abject poverty was more accepted (witness the development of Food Banks), more intractable and also more visible than at any time in my working life. The 16% increase in the number of rough sleepers in 2016 announced last week is the latest evidence but surely no surprise to anyone who walks at night through any UK town or city centre.

The PM began 2017 with encouraging words about a “shared society” but these as yet shapeless aspirations are scant consolation to set alongside the brutal choices now facing managers in our council services, hospitals and government departments.

We at Community Links have changed our delivery models, increased our independent fundraising and reorganised our teams repeatedly since 2010. We are proud of the good things we have achieved in this difficult period but under no illusions. On a budget shorn of Legal Aid, New Deal and almost all local authority funding we do significantly less.

I wrote here last year about my profound sadness and anger at the loss of experienced people and valuable projects but surrendering to sentiment is a craven indulgence. Wiser by far to regroup and renew the charge. Community Links is still a big organisation. We could just reorganise again for the new financial year, thousands of charities across the UK do great work with far less, but we don’t think battling on in isolation optimises our assets. In this extraordinarily challenging environment we can do better together. That’s what will be getting me out of bed in the morning now, determined to advance again in the new alliance.

Important things won’t change. We decided when we began that a sense of local ownership was crucial to a model that was all about helping people help themselves. At the same time we believed that the learning from our local experience could be of value to other practitioners and should also be shared with policy makers and politicians. Community Links developed a special mix of the local and the national that has characterised our work ever since. This won’t change.

Going forward with an organisation that has a far bigger footprint and greater financial stability will enable Community Links to sustain those crucial local services, to connect with new networks and to continue to innovate and contribute to the wider business of making the world a better place. It is a smart, pragmatic alliance but it is also much more than that: The new arrangement will enable the future stewards of our organisation, to continue to live the values that have made us what we are. This matters partly because we believe that moral certainty is always important and particularly because we think it will be even more important in the years ahead:

When Community Links started the public, the private and the voluntary were clearly separate sectors. Now charities are anxious to be seen to be “business like”, businesses to stress how much they care and statutory services to do both. New forms like CICs and B.Corps, mutuals and social enterprises further muddy the waters. Indeed two of Community Links own most successful ventures in recent years are now an independent free school (Education Links) and a charitable foundation building social businesses (Shift).

In this crowded arena there will be no enduring logic in ministers pledging support exclusively to the voluntary sector or independent funders supporting only registered charities. Don’t look in the Mem and Arts for the distinguishing signifiers in the future, find them in the beliefs and behaviours.

As we enter this big birthday year at Community Links we believe that the values that have served us well since 1977 can be most effectively sustained and fulfilled through partnership with Catch22.  This is, for us, the forward thinking, 2017 way:

“To generate change. To tackle causes not symptoms, find solutions not palliatives. To recognise that we all need to give as well as to receive and to appreciate that those who experience a problem understand it best. To act local but think global, teach but never stop learning. To distinguish between the diversity that enriches our society and the inequalities that diminish it. To grow – but all to build a network not an empire. To be driven by dreams, judged on delivery. To never do things for people but to guide and support, to train and enable, to simply inspire.” (The Community Links statement of purpose)

Community Links to deliver Money Advice Service – What Works Fund project

January 31st, 2017

Community Links will be embedding financial capability into three existing programmes, supporting young people and unemployed BAME women.

 

Projects across the UK, including Community Links will receive new funding from the Money Advice Service, helping tens of thousands of people manage their money better.

Today, the Money Advice Service announced funding for 26 projects, with more to follow in the coming months. The projects, which cover every region of the UK, are being funded from the Money Advice Service’s new £7m What Works Fund. Funded projects will reach thousands of people – from younger people in school, to students and from working age adults to those in retirement.

Community Links will provide financial capability in a holistic and integrated model

Our aim is to embed financial capability support into three of our core projects:

  1. Talent Match London: works with young people facing the biggest barriers to securing work, training or further education opportunities and supports them into positive destinations. It is an innovative youth-led model that provides a mixture of personalised 1-2-1 support, peer support and group work to help young people achieve fulfilling careers. Young people can be supported for up to two years and the programme is highly flexible and driven by young people themselves.
  2. Future Links: is a 10 week employability programme supporting NEET young people into work, training or further education. Activities include CV preparation, apprenticeship/job search and interview techniques.
  3. Building Better Opportunities: A new programme to support unemployed BAME women into work through a mixture of group sessions and 1-2-1 support over a period of 6-8 weeks. The programme is designed to be flexible and adaptable to individuals, as such we would expect some to engage with the programme for much longer.

We know that levels of financial capability remain stubbornly low – four out of ten adults are not in control of their finances and around 16.8 million working age people have less than £100 in savings.

However, very little evidence currently exists on the best way to address this issue. That is why the What Works Fund aims to build evidence and to establish the interventions which best help people to manage their money. Ultimately, the aim is to scale up the most effective projects in order to improve the levels of financial capability of millions of people across the UK.

Arvinda Gohil, Chief Executive of Community Links, said:

 “Helping individuals to improve their overall circumstances, as well as breaking cycles of debt, is what Community Links responds to daily. We are delighted to be able to work with the Money Advice Service in advancing the knowledge and understanding of what works well in improving people’s financial capability.”

“This funding will allow us to further integrate our early action model of preventing problems from arising by embedding financial capability support into our existing services for young people and unemployed BAME women. We hope that results from this work will help to re-design more targeted and efficient money management interventions across the UK.”

Caroline Rookes, Chief Executive for the Money Advice Service said: “There is an urgent need to help people gain the skills and confidence they need to make good decisions about their money day to day. The insights from these projects will be vital, helping organisations to channel their efforts in the right places and to fund and deliver interventions that we know make a real difference. A collective approach is needed to really tackle the issues that underpin low financial capability in the UK.”

David Haigh, Director of Financial Capability at the Money Advice Service comments: “We know that millions of people across the country are one unexpected bill away from seeing their finances spiral out of control – and for those who are already vulnerable, that risk is exacerbated. We want to build evidence on how we can get these people to engage with their financial situation and avoid them ending up in problem debt or with other financial difficulties.”

More information

  • Read the full press release about the MAS What Works Fund and other projects they are funding across the UK

Contact:
Michelle Clark, Communications Officer
Tel: 0207 473 9658
Email: Michelle.Clark@Community-Links.org

Nurturing relationships: The test of a shared society

January 16th, 2017

How many contacts do you have stored on your phone? The head of an adolescent mental health unit once told me that his patients typically had 6 to 10 contacts listed and most of those people were likely to be professional helpers like himself. Social isolation could be both a cause and a consequence of his young patient’s ill health. It was certainly a common characteristic.

I was thinking about this when I read about the Age Concern research published last week revealing that “Half a million people over the age of 60 usually spend each day alone, with no interaction with others, and nearly half a million more commonly do not see or speak to anyone for five or six days a week”.

And whilst we are on the subject of alarming numbers an Action for Children survey of 2,000 parents in 2015 found that almost a quarter said they ‘always or often’ felt lonely.

Social isolation is not a problem for the young or for the old. It is a galloping crisis for us all

Last week we wondered on this blog whether a “shared society” is empty rhetoric or the PM’s genuine intention. If the phrase has any serious substance our collective ability to reconnect with one another, or at least to reverse the trends, must surely be the test.

The consequences may vary – loneliness, ill health, long term unemployment etc. – but the roots are the same. School performance, economic opportunities, physical and mental health, and ultimately life expectancy are all substantially influenced by the strength and depth of our social connections. Very few of us glide effortlessly through life without ever experiencing any difficulty. Our capacity for coping and bouncing back depends in part on our readiness, our acquired skills and strengths, and in part on the support around us, the networks and relationships which sustain and recharge us.

We often make the case for early action but nowhere is it more self-evidently essential. As the Early Action Task Force has noted befriending schemes are important but not sufficient. They are to loneliness what food banks are to poverty – an essential response to a crisis but not a long term solution. The early action response to isolation would involve a commitment to sustained community building throughout the life course – essentially what much of Community Links work on the ground has been all about for almost 40 years.

As we explored on this blog a few weeks ago technology has, in recent years, swept into every corner of our lives often, in the process, sweeping out friendships and relationships. We think people change lives, not transactions. Valuing and developing this element of deep value in our services here, and working to embed it more broadly across the public domain is another long standing priority for Community Links and now more urgent than ever.

The most useful work experience placements or internships are invariably shared across “warm networks” and as many as 8 out of 10 new jobs go to people known to the employer. The old cliché about it not being “what you know but who you know” is still a fair comment on the state of social mobility and, more broadly, on the distribution of opportunity in communities like ours. Building networks, and nurturing the confidence to negotiate them, is the focus of Community Links programmes like Future Links which won a Charity Times Award last October. It isn’t rocket science but it is important and it does work.

Incidental Connections showed that there is no single right way to build communities and to nurture effective and meaningful relationships but doing it better in 2017 may well be the single highest priority for organisations like ours, Jobcentres, GPs, police officers, schools, and indeed any agency in the public domain. Whether Theresa May is, or is not, seriously committed to building a shared society, we should be.

We can’t address ‘the burning injustice of mental illness’ without proper social investment

January 10th, 2017

Yesterday Theresa May made some welcome announcements about the government’s future direction on preventing mental illness and promoting positive mental health.

She rightly identified that not only is mental health a social justice issue, but that the best way to improve it is by making it “an everyday concern for all of us, and in every one of our institutions”. Taking an early action approach is therefore imperative to preventing mental illness, and in doing so “transforming the way we deal with mental health problems at every stage of a person’s life”. In doing so she recognises, rhetorically at least, that the current crisis in mental health is as much a social crisis as a medical or funding crisis.

Thriving Minds: Acting early on mental health

Just before Christmas the Early Action Task Force published its latest report looking at how we can act earlier on mental health. Central to the argument of Thriving Minds is that as mental health underpins so many aspects of our lives, we need a far ranging response that goes beyond simply reforming mental health services.

A useful way of thinking about this was best put by report co-author Rosie Hayes, when she asked is mental illness the ‘Great Stink’ of our time? She highlighted that since the 19th century the government has recognised the benefit of investing in physical infrastructure such as the sewer system to improve public physical health, arguing that today we face a comparable situation in mental health. Therefore, similarly to the areas identified by the Prime Minister, we argue in Thriving Minds that schools, the workplace, communities, money, and the criminal justice system are important areas for early action beyond – and in collaboration with – mental health services.

We would also add private renting to the Prime Minister’s list, as renters are 75% more likely to experience serious anxiety and depression than homeowners. This is largely down to insecurity in the private rented sector, itself a consequence of unaffordability, short-term tenures, and poor living conditions. If we don’t tackle these issues – and the issues identified in the other 5 areas mentioned above – then it is unlikely we will be able to prevent mental illness, let alone promote positive mental health. Legislative approaches like those found in Scotland with the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 and more local initiatives like co-regulation of private landlords are promising starts, but more must be done.

Was it all just rhetoric?

As other commentators have pointed out, we should be sceptical of these pledges – however welcome they are on the surface – when previous governments have at best consistently failed on mental health provision and, at worst, actively damaged it with cuts. David Robinson wrote on our blog yesterday that announcements like this – and Blair’s “Giving Age” – are sometimes pure rhetoric entirely lacking in policy substance. The mere fact that mental health was given such prominence in the Prime Minister’s first proper speech on social policy makes us optimistic, but equally we are wary about aspirational announcements with no new money to back them up. Only time will tell how serious this government really is about addressing our current mental health crisis and, ultimately, long-term investment in key social infrastructure such as schools, the workplace, and communities is the most likely thing to yield a triple dividend: enabling people to lead thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more.