The general election, politics and charities

Charities have to be very cautious at the best of times about never being seen to support or oppose a particular political party. While there have been attempts, formal and informal, to restrict the freedom of charities to speak out on issues, these have been resisted.

In normal times it is fine for me to say that a particular policy will have a positive or negative impact on our client group, even if that policy is associated entirely with one political party. It is not acceptable to say: “Those evil (party name), typical of them proposing ….” And equally unacceptable to say: “I love the (party name), they are so wonderful ….”.

During a general election it is all the more restrictive. There is a fine line that can easily be crossed by statements that can be seen supporting or opposing the manifesto of a particular party. There are things I have long called for which might, and I suspect will, be in the manifesto of various parties, but not all.

Therefore, discretion is the better part of valour at these times.

In some elections we have a procession of politicians wishing to be seen visiting BHT or one of its services. The approach we will be taking this year is not to agree to a visit to BHT services by local candidates. I will meet with any of them to brief them on the issues facing our clients and those facing BHT itself.

In one election, three candidates who were due to debate each other on the Sunday Politics South East asked me to brief them. I t was amusing to listen to them, two of them normally at odds with each other, agreeing with each other, the third ignored what I had said and opposed the other two.

So this blog will be more toned down than usual. I will be publishing real life stories of clients but none will be related to the election.

But come 9th June, I might just find my voice again!

The smallest charities are finding the going hardest and fear for their future

18% of charity chief executives believe that their organisation is struggling to survive, according to a survey carried out by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (of which I am a member).

What is particularly worrying is that charities with a turnover of less than £1 million were disproportionately represented in those who are taking a pessimistic view. Those of us leading larger organisations are fortunate to have more options available to us, and the loss of one or two key income streams will not compromise the financial viability of the organisation as a whole, even though individual services might close.

It is these small organisations that are probably the closest to their communities but may also be ones that are least equipped to respond to a worsening economic environment.

Three small organisations have sought sanctuary by joining BHT over recent years – Threshold Women’s Counselling, the Hastings Community Housing Association (HCHA), and the Whitehawk Inn. There are some efficiencies to be gained by such mergers, but they are often overestimated. The real advantage can come through shared central expertise and improved cash flow.

Merging with a larger organisation can ensure the continuation of services and doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of identity. Threshold is still called Threshold, HCHA is now Hastings Community Housing, and the Whitehawk Inn remains the same.

There is a loss of autonomy with the governance and management arrangements of the ‘receiving’ organisation tending to take over, and the business disciplines will be applied across the expanded organisation.

An understandable mistake that trustees of small, struggling charities are known to make is to hope a corner will be turned or something cropping up. That very rarely happens. They might leave an approach to a larger, relatively stronger, organisation too late. It is tough to be at the helm of an organisation that is struggling. I know, I have been there. But an early approach can result in charitable services being saved and continued. After all, that is why we are here.

Charging charities for the work of the Charity Commission is not on

The Charity Commission is to consult about whether charities should pay towards the running cost of the Commission. In a recent poll, 78% of 225 respondent said no. The charge would be between £60 and £3000 and would pay towards the running costs of the Commission.

I wonder whether there is a fundamental flaw with this proposal. Charities are very restricted on how they can spend money. If money was donated for one purpose, it may not be spent on another. I am currently asking for sponsorship for a charity cycle ride and have said that the money raised would go towards the cost of running First Base Day Centre. We would not be allowed to use any of that money for any other purpose such as …. paying a fee towards the running costs of the Charity Commission.

If a charity spends money on an item for which the money was not raised, the Charity Commission would certainly have something to say about that.

We could, of course, start a JustGiving appeal to pay our fee to the Commission but I doubt that there would be an overwhelming response from the public to meet this dubious cost.

The Charity Commission is a Quango and, as such, the government should ensure that it is fit for purpose and adequately funded for that purpose. It should not be imposing a tax on charities whose funds were intended for truly charitable purposes.

The Role of BHT: to do the work we do, and to influence public policy

BHT has a duel role: first and foremost to do the work that we do, day in and day out, combating homelessness, creating opportunities, and promoting change, improving lives and changing the communities we work in for the better.

Secondly, it is BHT’s role to highlight the impact that public policy has on the lives of our clients and tenants, and doing so without fear or favour.

A couple of years ago, the then Minister for the Third Sector, Brooks Newmark, said that charity chief executives should avoid becoming involved in politics.  He said: “stick to your knitting”.  Perhaps he should have done likewise as a few months later he was caught out by a national newspaper sending photographs of himself in a state of undress to a middle aged male reporter posing as a young female research assistant.

There is a fine line to tread between campaigning on public policy that impacts on our tenants and clients, and becoming party political.  Merely praising or criticising a particular policy does not make us party political.  We have a moral obligation to do so, notwithstanding efforts by successive governments to clip our wings.  Politicians love charities at election time.  Less so when we criticise their policies.

BHT has campaigned and commented on, publicly and in private, on many issues during 2016, including:

  • Extending the Right to Buy to housing associations
  • The benefits cap
  • The sanctions regime
  • Cuts to rents in specialist supported housing
  • The high cost of funerals
  • The Homelessness Reduction Bill
  • The closure of courts
  • Cuts to legal aid
  • Housing policy in general
  • The increase in households, including children, in temporary and emergency accommodation
  • Lack of drug rehabilitation services in East Sussex
  • Attempts to silence charities through the Lobbying Act
  • Poverty and the rise in the use of food banks
  • And, incomprehensibly, the awarding of more giant contracts to companies such as G4S!

i see no reason to change our approach in 2017.

Thank You to the Argus Appeal

The Argus Appeal is turning 60, and the Argus is publishing 60 accounts of the work the Appeal has funded. Today (Wednesday 4th January 2017) they published something from me on behalf of Brighton Housing Trust:

img_4807“The incredible generosity of the Argus Appeal has allowed us to assist homeless people to move into their own homes, paying for essentials like bedding and contributing towards deposits. Without this money a number of people would not have been housed. Last year alone, 29 people were helped. Already this year (2016/17) we have helped a further 28. The need is ever increasing. Thank you, Argus Appeal, you make a huge difference.”

Brighton and Hove City Council Budget: My Reaction

brighton-hove-council-logoBrighton and Hove City Council published its budget at 3pm yesterday (30th November). I have reviewed it from BHT’s perspective and have a few observations.

But first, I want to recognise the huge challenges facing councillors. They are trying to cope with unprecedented reductions in funding from central government. I would start by paying tribute to the work of councillors. They will get a lot of criticism, personally and collectively, as well as some personal abuse for making tough decisions caused by circumstances for which they are not responsible. That is unfair.

Of course I am most concerned about homeless people and other vulnerable groups, be they people with mental health and/or substance misuse problems, those escaping domestic violence, and so on.

There are other things that will impact of council budgets, again over which councillors have no control. Welfare reform, not least the benefit cap of £20,000 on households, will see more families losing their homes in high cost areas like Brighton and Hove. There will be greater demands on homelessness services, and the City Council will have statutory responsibility to house many of these households.

All this means that homeless prevention services, like those BHT provides through our advice centres in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings, become ever more important. Last year we prevented 2,055 households from becoming homeless.

Can you imagine what would happen if we were not there?

The Council has produced a detailed 98 page summary of its budget proposals. It details cuts, the risk arising from funding reductions, and an assessment of the impact and outcomes of doing so.

There are things I welcome:

  • There are no further cuts proposed in hostel accommodation for homeless people on top of the cuts already announced.
  • There are no reductions in homelessness prevention.
  • There is no reduction proposed in the excellent Mental Health Team for Homeless People.
  • And there is no further reductions proposed in funding for specialist support services given the considerable cuts made in recent years.

There is recognition that recommissioned services are supporting the delivery of the City Council’s Rough Sleeping Strategy to which BHT is an enthusiastic signatory.

Savings of £356,000 proposed from the cost of providing temporary accommodation for homeless households out of Brighton and Hove is ambitious and not without risk and not without its problems such as loss of support structures, disruption to schooling, and so on, but I am reassured that the Council is looking at positive inducements for people to agree to these placements.

A further saving of £550,000 is proposed by prioritising households in temporary accommodation for social housing. If this can be achieved, then it will be good news for families, especially those of the 1,800 children in temporary and emergency accommodation. Inevitably, though, if one group gets greater access to social housing, others will lose out, but from a social and financial perspective, this is a proposal I support.

I do have some big concerns.

There is a proposed £470,000 reduction in funding to the third/charity sector through the new Third Sector Investment Programme. Many small community groups might struggle to survive without this funding. These cuts might also be a false economy. For example, cuts to BHT’s Brighton Advice Centre might see a reduction in the prevention of homelessness resulting in much more costly interventions that the City Council will, by law, have to provide.

First Base Day Centre currently receives a modest £20,000 from this source.  It is essential funding that allows us to continue to provide the services we do to those sleeping rough of our streets.

I was encouraged that the Council is looking at ways of reducing these savings.

I have a mixed reaction to proposals to save £600,000 from community substance misuse services.

The main provider of the Pavilions Partnership, Cranston, has negotiated a reduction in its funding in return for a longer contract. This is commendable.

The proposed £138,000 cut in funding for residential rehab services could be a decision the City might come to regret. If it is to reduce out of area placements I would be quite relaxed about that given that these are rarely effective and a lot of money has been wasted in the past. (People achieving abstinence out of area have limited prospects of remaining abstinent if they return to the City without support structures that are provided in abundance and voluntarily for those who achieve abstinence through a Brighton/Hove based service).

If there is a reduction in funding to the two local residential rehab services provided by the St Thomas Fund and through BHT’s Addiction Services, then I would be very, very worried.

BHT’s Addiction Services are amongst the most effective anywhere in Britain. It is no exaggeration to say that if this service was to be compromised, there will be an increase in drug-related deaths.

I hope that councillors are being well advised regarding this.

From the soup kitchens of 1939 to the food banks of 2016

(This is the text of a letter I wrote that was published in the Brighton Argus on 30th August 2016)

In Timeout Argus (24 August 2016) you quoted a piece from the Brighton and Hove Gazette from April 1939: “Moulsecoomb’s struggle to survive” with the following quote: “There are people at Moulsecoomb so poor they cannot afford two pence – the price of a bowl of piping hot meat stew at the food kitchen”.

Isn’t it ironic that in 2016 food banks proliferate in one of the richest countries in the world, including in Brighton and Hove, one of this country’s richest cities? Actually, isn’t it a scandal that such inequalities exist today?

Reflecting with a colleague on a recent celebration event at our Whitehawk Inn Project, she said that some of the people had only come for the food, and that it was probably the first meal some had had that week.

imageI was shocked. Another colleague told me that food banks are a fundamental support without which some of our clients and tenants would not survive. 1939, and now 2016. Surely we should be doing much better than this?

I am so grateful to the food banks and to the many community groups who help people to survive, providing food and helping them to overcome isolation and loneliness. I just wish there was no need for them.