Monday, 30 January 2012


To London today, for the Big Society and Equality Conference, hosted by the Women's Resource Centre (WRC) at the Human Rights Action Centre, Amnesty International UK, New Inn Yard.

The first person I see when I enter the conference room is Ian Robson, Director of the Leicester LGBT Centre and a fellow Core Partner on REDP. We silently mouth "What are you doing here?" to each other as I skirt my way through the tables to find the nearest free seat. I'm here representing both Leicester Council of Faiths and REDP. Ian's here for the LGBT Centre (and has to leave before the end of the morning sessions).

Around 40 organisations (mostly from the Voluntary and Community Sector) are represented here today, including:

Introduction & welcome Vivienne Hayes, Chief Executive, Women's Resource Centre.

Overview of Big Society Sheila Battersby, Policy Manager, Local Intelligence Team, Office for Civil Society.
  • The Big Society fits in with coalition agreements around decentralisation and localism and is about changing the role of central government.
  • Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society is leading on this programme of work.
  • There are three pillars to the Big Society: community empowerment, social action and opening public services.
  • This event is an opportunity for equalities organisations to feedback to Ministers on practical solutions to issues such as innovation, how to improve local democracy and so on.
  • One of the aims of this research is to provide recommendations for an Office for Civil Society (OCS) report. These recommendations will be shared with the wider Cabinet Office.

Equalities and the Big Society Natalie Ntim, Policy Officer, Women's Resource Centre.
  • Greater equalities awareness is needed amongst public bodies
  • A survey by WRC acknowledged the lack of capacity within organisations to engage with the programmes within the three pillars.
  • Case study of Equality Cumbria – a social enterprise made up of equalities networks that has supported 13 public bodies over the past three years in a variety of ways. They work in partnership but apply for contracts separately to cover their individual core costs.

Community First Grants Programme Ian Beason, Programmes Manager, Community Development Foundation.

The Community First Grants programme is an £80 million government-funded Big Society initiative. It aims to get people to give time, money, goods, services and facilities to improve the quality of life of local communities. The initiative replaces the last government’s Grassroots Grants programme which aimed to provide small grants for local community groups. However, rather than just awarding small grants to community projects, it requires government funding to be matched with community contributions. The programme aims to encourage community self-reliance; increase participation of all parts of the community; strengthen communities by identifying local priorities; and provide a source of grants in the future.
  • The aim of the programme is to make communities better to live in.
  • The Community First Grant is a neighbourhood level matched fund.
  • Decisions of who receives funding are made by Community First Panels. Panels are self selecting and determine their local priorities. After a year, they’ll firm these up by creating a panel plan.
  • Panels will nominate a Panel Partner- they will have to say that the panel is actually a representative group of the local population.
  • Projects are match funded 1:1 – although the organisation does not have to match the amount purely in money terms, it could also be volunteer time for example.
  • Over 250 panels have submitted applications already.
  • The programme has links with other programmes and partners e.g. Community Organisers, Business Connectors, Community Foundation Network, Asda stores, youth orgs, local authorities etc.
  • Q&A session:
  • Q: Accountability of Panels? How will CDF manage any possible conflict of interest?
  • A: Ian stressed the importance of website connection to panels, who will have to upload information about decisions made regarding funding. He said there is no specific equalities angle in this initiative and was unsure whether minutes displayed publicly will be obligatory.
  • Q: How will CDF counteract homogenous panels and encourage representation of equalities?
  • A: All local authorities have received a letter from CDF saying they should be representative. Local authorities generally haven’t sat on the panels in order to create distance between themselves and the decisions made. They don’t want to appear like they’re running the show to their own priorities. However, no equalities data is being collected on the membership of the panels.
  • Any organisation can become a panel representative and organisations don’t have to be based in the ward or even be a constituted group.
  • RECOMMENDATION: disaggregate panel membership by equalities data
  • Q: What is the process for financial accountability?
  • CDF are in charge of financial accountability. They then have to account to OCS.
  • Delegate Comments:
  • Harder and harder to get the most disadvantaged people to engage because it’s getting harder and harder to survive
  • Website accountability – disadvantaged people less likely to use the internet
  • Mistake to link equality and local level projects. Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it will be meeting equalities obligations. For example, LSPs were local and were also male dominated. Will be too late in a few years to see that all the panels are run by white men.

Local Integrated Services Victoria Westhorp, Policy Manager, Local Intelligence Team, Office for Civil Society; Martha Earley, Public Health Manager for Inequalities & Team Leader for Community Development, Royal Borough of Kingston.
Local Integrated Services is a new approach to delivering local services which brings together budgets and local assets (such as buildings) and puts communities in control of co-producing and commissioning the services that they need. It looks at ways to effectively use existing resources and explores the benefits of pooling budgets. The government supports the testing of community commissioning to see if it can produce better outcomes and create financial savings.
  • Community commissioning is statutory commissioning devolved down to community level. It’s more about communities being involved in decision making about services rather than directly handing money to communities.  
  • Past interventions (e.g. health action zones) focused on particular streets/areas of deprivation. The Marmot Review said that a universal approach benefits the poorest people more than specific interventions. So Kingston council wrote to the Cabinet Office to propose a new approach- working with everyone in the ward. Within this approach, the council identified the need to:
    • Develop community voice.
    • Pool money and resources for a single pot of money.
    • Increase partnership work between individuals and agencies.
    • The council ask the community what to focus on, without a pre-existing agenda. They used some previous research to find out what community members had already identified. There are monthly project meetings for all partners to get around the table. They have aimed to circumnavigating the segregation model- where someone is targeted just because they live on a particular estate - which stigmatizes people and discourages them from getting involved.

Community Organisers Programme Lawrence Walker, Programmes Officer, Locality

The Community Organisers Programme is a £15 million government-funded Big Society initiative. The programme aims to recruit and train 5,000 Community Organisers to help local communities come together to tackle social issues and develop community projects in deprived areas in England. The programme started in February 20112 and will run for the lifetime of this Parliament (until May 2015). Through the programme, government wants to strengthen community spirit; encourage participation of the local community; increase the effectiveness of existing community groups; create new community groups and social enterprises; and support communities to tackle local issues important to them.
  • Q&A/Comments:
  • What are the real costs of Community Organisers? Hosts will not be getting full cost recovery. Community development officers get paid more than the wages being paid to community organisers and they are very similar jobs.
  • Q: Can anyone become an organiser and how do you recruit them?
  • A: Yes anyone can become an organiser, follow the website and find a local host organisation to apply to.
  • Q: How are the expenses of community organisers paid?
  • A: Learning expenses are covered; the host provides liability insurance for the volunteers.
  • Q: What connections do you have with previous community organiser projects?
  • A: It refers back to previous community organiser projects, but the larger scale of the current movement means it’s an innovative new programme.
  • Group Discussion:
  • How could the Community Organisers programme benefit the groups that you work with?
  • It is another way in which our organisations can have some form of influence
  • One organisation said that they are being selective about which parts of the Big Society they engage with due to capacity and lack of finance. This organisation will not engage with community organisers as they are concerned about the legacy component- the political landscape is likely to change in 3 years’ time.
  • What is wrong with existing voluntary sector work? Fantastic organisations already do this work e.g. in Barnet.
  • Unsure as to what value the programme will bring to the sector, it seems the government are reinventing the wheel. We already know what people need, why we don’t use the money to fund what they need.
  • Community organisers should be coming to the voluntary sector first rather than us having to engage with them. They should be aware of and build upon our work. --- Locality see the community organisers programme as complementing the work of the voluntary and community sector.
  • Organisations are currently losing funding, expertise, knowledge and relationships. The organisations that would act as hosts are closing on a weekly basis. If the macro-level is taken away what use is developing the micro-level,
  • Recommendations:
  • Need to encourage those who don’t feel empowered to engage with the programme; need to support these groups to create a plan of the change they want to see.
  • The programme needs to manage financial expectations. If there is no money after the initial community organisation programme, it will be difficult to achieve any long-term positive outcomes.
  • Have organisers been CRB checked and how will you ensure they are protected if they are engaging with people in personal spaces, such as their homes?

By this stage in the proceedings there’s a negative atmosphere; a palpable air of anger, anxiety, depression, disappointment, disbelief, fear – I could go on. Suffice to say, a black cloud has been forming over the room, although it doesn’t seem to be overshadowing those on the platform or podium. The fellow sitting next to me has been responding to each new PowerPoint slide with a muttered, “Oh, for God’s sake!” After a while, I ask him if he’s aware he’s doing that, or if he thinks he’s just thinking it. Those taking advantage of the opportunities to ask questions and make comments become fewer and fewer. More people are just staring at their shoes or at the table tops; some have their heads in their hands.

I feel moved to comment at the end of this session (on the Community Organisers Programme). Bearing in mind the primacy of courtesy, and taking care to avoid giving the impression that this is any kind of ad hominem attack, I feel I have to take a few minutes to articulate what I believe most people in the room are thinking.

Addressing a group of patients who are struggling with a terminal illness and telling them that on top of that, they’re now expected to take on fostering duties.

Many of the people here today – and more people whom we know back in our communities and organisations – have worked over years (over decades in many cases) to develop a level of compassion, confidence, cooperation, courage, diplomacy, expertise, judgement, knowledge, rapport, sensitivity, sympathy, trust. Why should we be glad, grateful or thankful that the Coalition sees fit to jettison so many of these people and the organisations for which they work and that it offers something (in the form of the Community Organisers programme) that is a poor shadow of what we’ve spent all this time and effort developing? The creation of a stratum of Community Organisers as has been described today would be welcome if the sector as a whole is facing a collective death sentence.

I end by saying to the speaker that I don’t envy his position. I have no desire to “shoot the messenger” but I have to say that I wouldn’t be doing his job for all the tea in China.

As I'm leaving the venue at the end of the conference, one of the delegates wishes me farewell and hails me as the "William Wallace of the equalities world". I know that she's latching on to my Scottishness and my outspokenness but I can't help but be flattered by that - until I remember that William Wallace gets disembowelled at the end of Braveheart!

This event has vexed me for some time now. That’s partly why it took me ages to write this blog post. The reason why I found it so disturbing only became clear after I attended another national conference on Big Society a month later, in Bradford (see blog entry, Wednesday 29 February 2012). This event today was a showcase for those organisations which have won contracts to deliver Big Society initiatives; the Bradford conference was quite the opposite in tone.

The word "equality" is used often at this conference and in the material that accompanies it. But actions speak louder than words. It seems to me (and, from a straw poll of other attendees) that equality is conspicuous by its absence from the initiatives and programmes described here. It's well known that the Coalition has shifted government support from equality to "fairness". the latter could be said to be subjective. It's not enshrined in or protected by legislation, nor is it measurable - which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see or state whether or not it's changing for better or worse. It could be said that from this side of the fence, there is no equalities agenda in Big Society (whatever that is, since by the end of today, we're none the wiser except to say that what we do see of it, we don't much like).

A word on the idea of "replicating innovative projects", a phrase that is used often today. Some of us support the notion that this is akin to being a butterfly collector: spotting something attractive and different in the wild, netting it, gassing it and pinning its dead body to a board for display behind glass.

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