Category Archives: Social Policy

Child Poverty Action Group Witness Seminar

On 6th January 2015 I attended a Witness Seminar at the Institute for Contemporary British History on the history of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in the 70s and 80s, as part of their forthcoming 50th Birthday celebrations. Not only was I interested to hear about how such a high-profile organisation had handled the huge political and policy changes of those particular two decades, I was also interested to see this group form of oral history in action for the first time. Continue reading

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Linking young peoples’ benefits to training

The Labour Party are set to announce their plans for cuts to the welfare budget. It is being reported that among them is a plan to link benefits for young people to training. For young people between 18-21 who do have such training, the Job Seekers Allowance will be replaced by a payment that will require recipients to be in training at level three, equivalent to an A-Level. The JSA will remain for those with that training already, meaning the policy will affect seven out of ten 18-21 year olds currently on JSA. The money received by young people will be broadly the same, though means tested and tapered off dependent on parental incomes between £20,000 and £42,000.

The idea of linking benefits to training is interesting and the devil will be in the detail in this case. Helping young people get the skills they need to find work is a good idea, but making this a condition of receiving benefits has a touch of the workfare about it. In addition, it is not clear how such training will operate and what will happen if the jobs these young people are expected to go on to fail to materialise. What kinds of training will be considered? Will volunteering count? Volunteer work has the potential to help people learn new skills, but is often not considered within the realms of formal training. The presumed links between volunteering and employability are also not entirely supported by research. And again, Labour and those who might vote for them to introduce such a policy will have to decide if this is a step too far towards workfare, and if they think that is the right thing to do.

Looking at what detail has been announced, I am not sure how comfortable I feel with the idea of linking benefits to parental income, especially at the lower income ranges. Families with more children will suffer disproportionately if having more mouths to feed is not taken into account. This also presumes that parents will continue to support children after an age at which they are legally independent. I am sure many will, but it makes assumptions that all young people live in families where this is possible and therefore could leave vulnerable those that do not. What does it mean for how we view young people if parents are still partly financially responsible for children under 21 who are not working, but that state wants to divest itself of some of that responsibility?

The Guardian have asked a few young people what they think of the proposed changes. Two say that the young are being hit because they do not vote as much as older people – a post for another day perhaps. Another says it is unfair for young people to be hit with austerity measures when they had no part in causing austerity. One sees it as potentially a good move. But as is often the case with stories about young people in the media and policy about them, their voice is not particularly loud and frequently drowned out. I’d be interested to hear in the comments if any other young people have an opinion on the proposal.

Until such time as a fuller policy is revealed and indeed only if Labour are elected to implement it, wondering how this might work is little more than an interesting exercise. Looking at the coverage of It does reveal something of assumptions about young people and the families they live in though. It also reveals continuity with earlier youth policies and perceptions, where boundaries between adulthood and parental responsibility are somewhat malleable. Finally, it continues the long running debate about precisely where the parameters of state responsibility for citizens lie. It is perhaps these assumptions and blurred boundaries that make policy-making around young people fraught with difficulties, and definitely one of the reasons I am so interested in researching them. This, from Labour is not the last we will hear of young people’s welfare policies in the run up to the 2015 election, but it sets out to continue the debate along familiar lines. Whether anyone will seek to move debate forward, especially by bringing the voices of young people to the forefront, I will wait to see.

Charity Closures and Changing Fortunes

This post originally appeared on the VAHS blog in January 2013.

In all of the pre-Christmas frivolity you may be forgiven for having missed an article in the Observer late last year, detailing how one in six charities could face closure this year. In the cold light of a New Year when many households are tightening belts and we have already seen some high-profile casualties on our high streets, it is striking to think that we may lose such a large proportion of our charities. When so many voluntary organisations provide much-needed services in straightened times, this raises a question of how society will fill the void they may leave and what the voluntary sector will look like by the end of this Parliament.

Frank Prochaska

Frank Prochaska

While concern about the future of the sector is valid in the face of a stagnant economy and budget cuts, history shows that voluntary action adapts and rises to the challenges of circumstance. More recent literature on voluntary action history, for example from Matthew Hilton in his edited collection on The Ages of Voluntarism, tends to stress the diversity and adaptability of voluntarism. It seeks ‘to tackle specifically the decline narratives’ and ‘champion interpretations of continuity and change’. One of the ways recent historiography on voluntarism has done this is by shedding light on previously neglected areas and inviting us to consider voluntary action in a wider sense.

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

By seeing the history of voluntary organisations as one of ‘constant renewal and adaptation’ we can perhaps more optimistically anticipate what the sector may look like in the future. For people within the sector, the call by Colin Rochester and Meta Zimmeck, for voluntary organisations to ‘return to their roots’, might provide a starting point for this latest renewal.

Despite the bleak outlook, even from Colin and Meta in their recent review of 2012, there is hope that the sector will once again prove resilient and innovative. There has also always been a vibrant, though little understood, swarm of informal voluntarism which may yet soften the blow of fewer organised voluntary services. Whatever manifests itself in the short term, in the longer term the ‘big society’ and the new emerging welfare economy will appear to historians as parts of the same continuity and change which have always characterised voluntary action history. This, at least, should offer us some reassurance as most of us start the New Year, like many charities, with a bit less money in our pockets.

Matthew Hilton talks about his research into Non-Governmental Organisations.

Will the Lobbying Bill become a defining moment in voluntary action history?

In a previous blog post for VAHS in January 2013 about predicted charity closures, I pointed out that historically the fortunes of the voluntary sector have ebbed and flowed. I argued that the flexibility and adaptability of the sector was one of its key strengths and that it would reconfigure on this occasion too. In that instance I was talking about financial constraints being put on the sector in the face of cuts and increasing demand, but a new challenge has since emerged.

This article from the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog on the Lobbying Bill contradicts my previous optimism, and reading what detail is available, it paints a bleak picture on what might happen to many NGOs if the Bill goes through. While I stand by my comments on the flexibility and versatility of the voluntary sector, this legislation poses a big challenge to one of the core roles of some organisations. I think it is fair to say that my optimism is dampened, though not extinguished in the face of this new challenge. Hopefully the Bill will be amended to lift potentially severe restrictions on NGOs continuing to campaign for their causes. If not, perhaps a work-around will be found or new organisations will spring up to fill the gap.

Overall, the Bill is a blunt instrument. Initially it was championed as a way for clearing up opaque and complex lobbyists’ activities which have been mired in suspicion of being controlled by corporate interests. A prominent BBC Panorama programme was just one exposé which made it look like a Lobbying Bill was necessary. However, it looks as though instead the Bill may make it harder to hear the voices of organisations campaigning on behalf of vulnerable groups. There are wider implications for voluntary organisations though.

What could the Bill mean for voluntary organisations?

Firstly, I would point to the wealth of voluntary activity outside of the campaigning and lobbying role. Much of the work of voluntary organisations in still in service provision and at least in the short term this work seems set to increase. For a large proportion of organisations, especially at local level, their core role will remain though their ability to communicate about it may be constrained. Because much of this provision is at the local level, this means that small local organisations are less likely to be affected by the terms within the proposed legislation. We do not yet know how local branches of larger voluntary organisations will be treated i.e. whether their local spending on campaigning will count towards the parent organisation’s total.

Secondly, while it is yet to be confirmed precisely how the Bill will require  recording and reporting of lobbying activity, it will mean an increased administrative burden on voluntary organisations. This will cost time and money, increasing the basic running costs of NGOs to whom the Bill applies. This in itself is going to be a challenge for voluntary organisations. Yet higher running costs have the potential to alienate donors who wish as much of their donation as possible to end up helping a cause, and as little as possible to go on paid administration. It could also be the case that the overall effectiveness of organisations is compromised by the extra work required to comply with the proposed legislation.

Thirdly it is clear that the relationship between government and the sector will be changed by the Lobbying Bill. The tone of the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network Blog linked to above shows divisions within the sector but hostility towards the Government. While not every reaction has been phrased in quite the same way, discontentment is widespread.

It has been made clear that the state sees the sector as a servant and not a partner. While it is happy to award contracts to the sector on a competitive basis and work with organisations as it chooses, it expects voluntary organisations to know their place, and via this bill, quite frankly, to keep quiet. In the history of voluntary action this is not particularly new. I see it in my own research on youth clubs. But this approach undervalues voluntary effort and I would go as far as to say, potentially undermines democracy.

The Bill, if passed, will also mean bringing the Electoral Commission in on regulating the activities of not-for-profit organisations. The Charity Commission, in its regulatory role, has faced criticism in the past, and it was the first to cast a critical eye over the political activities of several charities in the 1960s. In response to criticism of charitable funds being used to finance political activity, some more prominent NGOs set up sister organisations not registered with the Charity Commission to carry out this work, Amnesty International being just one example. Under the new system, this would all now be included, possibly on the same balance sheet. Furthermore it is unclear how the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission will work together and what enforcement will look like.

Like many others working in this area I am concerned about what curtailing charities’ ability to campaign in this manner will do, not only to the charities, but to the people these charities exist to help. Therefore, despite my tempered optimism about the sector’s ability to bounce back, I remain concerned. I am concerned about the casualties of such an approach; not only those who benefit directly from the work of large charities and in whose interests NGOs campaign, but the whole of society, which will suffer if public debate can no longer hear the contributions of its voluntary organisations.

I sincerely hope the Bill will not pass without amendments which will allow charities to continue to have a significant voice in public debate. If it does become law, the 2015 General Election will be an important test run in seeing how charities cope with the new regulations. This leaves me wondering: will future historians of voluntary action look back on the Lobbying Bill as a turning point in the sector’s fortunes? Honestly, in some ways, I hope not.