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Community Links blog

Launch of the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund

February 27th, 2015

A pilot of the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund was launched last week, representing an investment of £5.3m in three early action projects.

This joint-funding initiative, pioneered by the Early Action Funders’ Alliance, was welcomed as an “exciting moment” by Dawn Austwick, CEO of the Big Lottery Fund  – one of the three funders who are directly involved. Indeed, it is the product of over a year’s work and illustrates not only the growing interest in the important idea of early action, but an attempt to ensure that innovative projects are well-funded and provide evidence for future initiatives.

The three criteria for a successful application were partnerships that could:
• Change local systems and structures
• Affect the future commissioning of services
• Demonstrate the wider case for early action

The three projects

The first project is based around an organisation in Hartlepool called Changing Futures. It originally started as an informal gathering of parents and young children for the purpose of socialising, but eventually grew into an organisation that helps families in the Tees Valley through a variety of different services. They aim to reduce spending on acute childcare services by 10%, whilst also having a positive effect on outcomes such as the emotional wellbeing of children.

The second, Mancroft Advice Project, will work with three schools in an attempt to improve the wellbeing of children and young people whilst also reducing acute spending in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. This will free up future money to be invested into preventative measures.

The third and final project, Ignite, is based at the Coventry Law Centre and aims to address the problems that many of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of their community face with the legal process. By building the legal knowledge, confidence and skills of local people they will enable them to address problems for themselves and empower others to do the same.

Thriving lives: costing less and contributing more

Each of these projects has three important things in common. Firstly, they all try and reduce the demand for acute services, and therefore also the amount of money that is spent on them. This won’t happen overnight, of course, and so the second common theme is an explicitly longer term approach – a key element of early action. Finally, they all want to achieve better social outcomes for those that they work with. This is not merely a matter of supporting people to overcome problems, but also enabling people to be ready to seize any opportunities that come their way; whether that’s a training course, a new job, or even better relationships between friends, families and the wider community.

It is great news, then, that these projects have been funded via the piloted scheme. Hopefully both they and the pilot scheme itself will provide plenty of evidence for the common sense idea that preventing problems is far better – both in financial and social terms – than picking up the pieces after a crisis has already occurred.

Links to Enterprise: networking east London’s start-up businesses

February 26th, 2015

Rose Randles is works on Community Links, Links to Enterprise Team which supports people to harness and develop their enterprising skills. As well as comprehensive training focused on business start-up and practice trading opportunities at street markets and pop-up shops each partcipant has support and guidance, including regular network and social events. In this blog post Rose details the latest enterprise network event.

 

Throughout 2015, Links to Enterprise will be holding regular networking and social events for people who are interested in enterprise. These evenings are a great way for budding entrepreneurs to share ideas, offer support to one another or even form working partnerships. We recently held the first networking event of the year and enjoyed a really interesting and inspiring couple of hours. To kick off the evening, we heard from a few of the entrepreneurs who we helped along the way to getting started in 2014 and some very inspiring stories they were…

Francesca came along to our Introduction to Enterprise in March last year with a business idea – she wanted to run workshops for parents whose children were going through difficult transitional phases. She said that the Links to Enterprise programme helped her to sort through all the ideas and plans that were whizzing around her head so that she could find a starting point and lay down a clear route to start-up. By September Francesca had founded YAPS and now has regular ongoing work lined up with schools and colleges.

Nisha also joined the programme in March 2014. She had already dreamt up her ‘product’ – a website that shares good news – but hadn’t yet launched it. Shortly after attending the Introduction to Enterprise, she launched ‘Good News Shared’ and has since built up a great team of writers. Nisha said that the most helpful things for her were to be able to meet other people who were trying to start up, to network and to bounce ideas off one another. She is now looking for sponsorship for the site and with her online community building day by day, we’re confident she won’t have to look for long.

Halima had already created her Rustic Roots chilli condiment when she signed up to the programme last February. She had her product but wasn’t that confident about going out and trying to sell it. She said that the training and ongoing support from Links to Enterprise has helped her to build confidence and realise that she actually has a natural talent for networking and selling herself. Halima will be launching a new range of products in May and dreams of being stocked in Waitrose!

After a fruitful networking session with numbers being swapped and ideas shared, we heard about some of the Links to Enterprise opportunities coming up in 2015.

  • If you’d like to talk to Community Links about support for your own business start-up you can call the Links to Enterprise team on 0207 473 2270  or e.mail enterprise.team@community-links.org

How We Can Do Better For Less: New Report by the Early Intervention Foundation

February 12th, 2015

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Today the Early Intervention Foundation launch a new report called Spending on Late Intervention: How We Can Do Better for Less. Amongst other things, it outlines how much we currently spend on late interventions; crucial yet often unnecessary services that attempt to ameliorate the immediate problems of children and young people, but do not deal with their causes.

It argues that shifting investment towards the prevention of crises can yield a triple dividend: thriving lives, costing less, and contributing more. As worries over public finances are set to dominate political rhetoric in the run-up to the General Election in May, this report is an important and contribution to the debate about the importance of a proactive rather than reactive state.

The Costs of Late Intervention

In the report Chowdry and Oppenheim estimate that we spend almost £17 billion a year on late interventions. Three fifths of this total is spent on child protection and safeguarding, with crime and anti-social behaviour a close second, and benefits for 18-24 year olds not in employment, education or training (‘NEETs’) the third main area of expenditure.

Perhaps most notable is the difference between the amount of money spent on late intervention as compared to early intervention: only £200 million is spent on crime prevention, whereas £1.4 billion is spent on already-existing anti-social behaviour and youth offending. Some commentators might try and quibble over the actual figures, but the huge difference in expenditure on late and early intervention is unarguable, as the National Audit Office’s Early Action Landscape Review has shown. Such a disparity is a fundamental problem across many areas of public service expenditure, from health to social security.

Some examples of early intervention are also detailed in the report; for example Multi-Systemic Therapy is a family based intervention aimed at reversing patterns of anti-social behaviour for teenagers aged between 12 and 17. Several randomised control trials – the gold standard for evidence-based approaches – have been conducted and it is estimated that for every $1 invested, $6.60 is saved in the form of reduced crime.

Whilst arguments about the money-saving capabilities of prevention are important, we must not forget that there are social costs to late intervention too. As the report points out, we need to ensure that the wellbeing of children and families is at the heart of any approach.

The Future

The report also sets out three ways in which the government – whether local or national – could shift spending towards prevention. The first requires them to prioritise early intervention funding. The report challenges the next government to reduce the £17 billion expenditure on late intervention by 10% over the next parliament. This would be achieved by, on average, a 2% shift per year. Whilst this might feel a bit cautious, even a small amount can have a significant impact over the long term when it is part of incremental change.

One of the mechanisms for such a transition, they argue, is a dedicated and ring-fenced Early Intervention Investment Fund which is tied to the life of the next parliament. This could be supplemented by private sector capital, particularly in the form of social investment. At the Task Force we’d argue another way to change patterns of spending would be to set up an Early Action Loan Fund – a scheme that allows public sector agencies to take out interest free loans to be paid back over 3 to 7 years if they have a suitable demand-reduction plan in place.

The second recommendation is to incentivise local services to work together. This would require the pooling of budgets and sharing of information between different agencies. Health and Wellbeing boards should be a key area of focus, and making early intervention a fundamental part of their work should be a priority. Another interesting development is that of Southwark and Lambeth’s Early Action Commission, which aims to work with the local community and local stakeholders to identify areas in which they could reduce demand for public services and improve health outcomes.

The third and final recommendation involves putting the early intervention agenda at the heart of government. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with someone about prevention where they have thought it’s a bad idea in principle. However, the major problem often appears to be actually following through and coming up with policies to put these principles into practice.

If the next government truly wants to spend public money on promoting thriving lives rather than coping with problems, then it needs to start taking the suggestions in this report seriously. As the authors point out, any commitment to reducing the fiscal deficit must be combined with a commitment to reducing preventable social problems. The time to act is now.

 

 

You can read more of Haroon Chowdry and Carey Oppenheim’s ideas in our upcoming compilation of essays, “One Hundred Days for Early Action: time for government to put prevention first”.

Talent Match London Employment Project: A Volunteer’s Journey of change

February 4th, 2015

This guest blog post, from Fateha Begum chair of Community Links Youth Board,
details her journey onto the Talent Match London programme

 

Fateha Begum with members of the Youth board and Community Links Staff
Fateha Begum pictured with members of the Youth Board and Community Links staff

In today’s world, it’s rare not to be busy.  There are so many things to do, that we can take time for granted. I had it all planned out that after college I would go university and graduate, then get into a career. Funnily life took an unexpected twist, causing me to leave university and all my plans to go flying everywhere.

This is where Community Links came in and brought light to the end of a dark tunnel. After a horrible year of health problems, I finally recovered but did not know what to do anymore. I felt lost and like a failure. Only 19 years old, I stepped through the doors of Community Links and into a project called Bridges into Work, where I had my own Personal Advisor who amazingly helped me gain confidence and see life in a new perspective;  I felt doors opening again.

I wanted to explore options whilst still recovering and the voluntary position offered was a fantastic way to get back into the world of work and balance my personal life.

At first it was daunting and nerve-wracking. I was always in education and now to experience a working environment was alien to me. I initially kept quiet and would observe everyone but soon I was part of a team.

I started off with administration work, observing the personal advisors, designing posters and writing feedback for events – and now months into volunteering I am the leader of a youth board for a program called Talent Match London. It has been an interesting journey. The range of opportunities only boosted my self-development and gave me the confidence to try new things.

Almost a year on now, I have got a job with an opportunity I got through volunteering. Words cannot do justice to the support, encouragement and guidance I have got from the team at Community Links Youth Hub.  As a teenager, volunteering was never appealing but now I appreciate and value the opportunities, because not only does one gain invaluable experience but to know that a person has the ability to make on impact in the world, no matter how small they may think that impact may be …. it all gives back to the greater community-  it’s great! – Fateha at 19

The story continues …

The journey from being a volunteer who listens to everyone else, to being a volunteer with the power to steer a program is amazing.

Talent Match London funded by the Big Lottery, was launched a year ago by a group of young people to tackle youth unemployment. It is a program that was designed by young people for 18-24 years who faced the biggest barriers and had long term unemployment. Through its “journey of change” and personalised support offered, the aim is to get young people into “careers and not just jobs”.

Community Links is one of the partners that help London Youth deliver the Talent Match London program in Newham and Barking & Dagenham. Talent Match London’s unique touch is being youth-led at the heart of the programme; myself and other young people have formed EastSideLinks Youth Board with the support of the Talent Advisors.

We organise a meeting once a month where the board comes together to discuss and evaluate progress whilst making suggestions and coming up with new ideas. Plus the refreshments are a bonus, alongside the numerous games that have been introduced – it is always a good laugh.

Throughout the month, everyone has the chance to volunteer and attend various opportunities to gain knowledge as well as make a difference. It’s flexible to suit everyone’s life. The best part so far for me, has to be planning events, going out to meet new people and having our voices heard. The youth board is only now turning on the ignition for the exciting and successful year ahead.

Join us, as the year has only begun – Fateha at 21

Payment By Results: Learning from our experience.

January 29th, 2015

Paying for outcomes – rather than delivery – of public services has been increasingly applied as a method of commissioning over the course of the current and previous governments, particularly through Payment by Results (PbR) contracts. Community Links has a long history of successfully delivering PbR contracts, as well as engaging with the social finance policy behind these schemes. Our experience working with PbR has taught us several key lessons, which are set out in a new policy  briefing published today.

Payment by Results (PbR) as a means of commissioning has several attractive features. In our experience, PbR can work particularly well when the contracts are small scale (resulting in a closer link between providers and the commissioner) and when the outcomes are simple, for example when only one outcome is required. We support the principle of PbR, a principle which allows us to focus on achieving outcomes for our community. When PbR works, it should enable us to deliver our services innovatively, drawing on our local knowledge and experience.

We think three main issues need to be addressed in order to ensure that PbR contracts work well

  1. Contract financing needs to be carefully addressed. A blended funding model, with some ‘up-front’ or grant-based elements is useful; and PbR should not be the default way of contracting. This is particularly the case when working with people whose situations are most complex.
  2. The size and structure of PbR contracts can determine the role that different organisations play. Smaller PbR contracts would increase the number of small voluntary sector organisations able to become prime contractors. Supply chain issues – such as the extent to which risk is passed down from prime to sub-contractors – should also be addressed.
  3. PbR contracts risk forcing providers to focus on a narrow range of outcomes rather than working holistically. A greater proportion of up-front payments can enable providers to work more holistically. For groups that have the most complex issues, PbR contracts should be designed to incentivise the achievement of intermediate steps and ‘soft outcomes’.

Our new policy briefing draws on our experience with PbR and contains recommendations for both Voluntary Sector contractors and commissioners could get the most from this funding model.

 

 

Seeking evidence for sanctions: compliance or support?

January 20th, 2015

This week I have been asked to give evidence on behalf of Community Links to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee as they examine the role and impact of sanctions within the social security system.

Parliamentary Committee roomThere is simply not enough evidence about the best form of sanctions to encourage people into work. Given this, plus the hardship that we know sanctions can cause, I will be continuing Community Links’ call for a full evidence-based review of the sanction regime. Until such a review is completed, the rules around sanctioning jobseekers should be reversed to their pre-2012 levels. I’ll also be calling for the introduction of a first-warning system, to prevent jobseekers having their benefits stopped the first time they make a mistake – and to ensure they understand the conditions of their benefit claim.

Sanctions (where benefits are reduced or stopped for a period of time) can be imposed on people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA). They are applied in a number of circumstances including failure to attend meetings, not putting sufficient effort into looking for work, turning down a job, or leaving a job voluntarily.

Community Links is exceptionally well placed to understand sanctions, from the perspective of both their application and their consequences. Although our Work Programme advisors do not have the power to issue them directly, they may initiate a process that could lead to sanctions by “raising doubts” about clients who are not following the conditions of their JSA claim. Additionally through our advice services we often support clients who have been sanctioned. We have detailed our policy on sanctions in a policy briefing published last year, and have submitted written evidence to the current review.

There has been a considerable increase in the application of sanctions – with referrals increasing by 30% since the introduction of a new, more stringent, system in late 2012. Yet over half of all reconsideration requests and appeals against JSA sanctions are successful.

Our submission to the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s current inquiry explores a fundamental question of approach – are sanctions intended to be a punishment for transgression or ‘nudge’ to improve behaviour? We believe that rather than focusing on compliance, the explicit and overriding rationale for sanctions should be about supporting people towards work: encouraging behaviours that move people further towards sustainable employment and discouraging negative behaviours which detract from this goal. We are concerned that there is no clearly stated rationale for the current sanctions regime. Alongside the lack of clarity, evaluation of outcome is impossible whilst no robust, independent examination of their efficacy has been conducted. We believe the current system of sanctions should be rolled back to the previous, less punitive system whilst such an evaluation is undertaken.

Overall we believe that the existence of sanctions can act as a useful ‘nudge’ for some people, when this is part of a strong and personalised supportive relationship with advisors. But sanctions must be applied as a last resort – when all other options have been exhausted. The harsh conditionality of a stricter sanctions regime has caused unnecessary hardship – sometimes preventing people from finding a job. An inflexible system which sanctions people unfairly, often without reason, cannot be delivered within a supportive relationship.

Our recent examinations of the welfare system have recommended a change in approach. In “Secure and Ready” we suggest a “presumption of willingness“, which sees conditionality and sanctions imposed only when a person has identified themselves unwilling to engage. A second paper, “Deep Value Assessment” sets out how an early assessment of job seekers – based on greater reciprocity than the current system – could improve outcomes. By taking the time to understand the detail of people’s situations, this could help more jobseekers into work, and reduce the number of unnecessary sanctions by enabling jobseekers and coaches to work better together. Jobseekers understand their own needs and abilities better than anyone. They should have much more opportunity to contribute to their own assessment; shape their own action plan and identify the support they need. A more participatory assessment would also encourage employment support to include a consideration of jobseekers’ strengths, instead of just addressing their needs.

Focusing on understanding what the customer can do – and wants to do – would encourage them to build on their strengths, and ensure many more were ready to move into sustainable employment.

 

You can view the whole evidence session on the Parliament Live TV broadcast:

The Benefit Cap: An Unequivocal Success?

December 16th, 2014

 photo CliffEdgeconsolidatedgraphic_zps78283dbf.jpg DWP published its evaluation of the cap on household benefits (Benefit Cap) yesterday, arguing that it has succeeded in its aim of incentivising people into work. Some of the commentary by the media has been laudatory; for example The Telegraph argued that the new figures ‘give strongest evidence so far that the benefits cap is encouraging people to move off welfare and into jobs’. It highlighted that of those affected by the cap 19% had found jobs 12 months later, and that more than 30% of claimants who lost £200 or more per week had found jobs in the same period.

An unequivocal success?

This initially appears like compelling evidence for the cap, and Community Links as an employment support provider welcomes the focus on getting people into work. However, as we have argued before, audiences should be wary of seemingly simple statistics masquerading as the whole story.

The first problem with the evaluation is that it sees moving into work as being synonymous with “a household having an open Working Tax Credit claim”. Let’s assume for a moment that this is a suitable way to measure success. At best it means that the Benefit Cap has actually incentivised some people to move into work. However, how many of these jobs are of a high enough quality to improve a household’s situation? Research from Australia has shown “unambiguously that the psychosocial quality of bad jobs is worse than unemployment”.

Put simply, unemployed people who move into poor quality work suffer a significant worsening of their mental health as compared to those who remain unemployed. As the author of the above article points out, this doesn’t undermine the need to support people to find work, but it does undermine the idea that we should force people to find any job at all. Community Links has previously explored one possible solution to this, beyond the structural changes needed to improve labour market conditions, which is to ensure that jobseekers are properly assessed by employment support services.

Causing and Compensating for Problems Elsewhere

The other problem with using open Working Tax Credit (WTC) claims as a measure for the success of the Benefit Cap is that it means that people are just being cycled onto a new benefit. Not only that, but a benefit that is inherently tied to being on a low income. In some cases they are a useful way to help those who need to work part-time supplement their earnings. However, in most cases WTCs are merely compensating for low wages, the precarious nature of employment and/or underemployment. Therefore WTCs may currently be vital for numerous people’s livelihoods, but are largely a subsidy to employers who insist on paying low wages. Unfortunately this role – compensating for failures elsewhere – is a fundamental part of our social security system as it currently exists. In our most recent report, the Early Action Task Force sets out some new underlying principles and changes to current spending rules that challenge this role.

Furthermore, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, “there is still much we do not know” about “the large majority of affected claimants” who have “responded neither by moving into work nor by moving house”. Indeed, there are a variety of other responses to the Benefit Cap that the quantitative data does not explore, including cutting back on spending, building up debts and/or getting help from family and friends. All of these responses are likely to have both social and financial costs. For example, a recent report by StepChange highlights how ‘problem debt’ has a social cost of £8.3 billion that includes additional welfare claims, moving and eviction costs, lost productivity and demand for care, support and other state services.

It is therefore important that we don’t forget those who are not captured in these statistics, particularly when we consider the fact that at least 73% of the individuals affected by the cap are children and that the estimated cost of child poverty in 2013 was £29 billion. As such, the Benefit Cap actually causes costs elsewhere – both financial costs to other already cut back services and social costs to the lives of those affected.

Ten Year Tests

The Early Action Task Force has long been arguing that we should build a society that prevents problems from occurring rather than merely coping with the often more costly consequences. One specific recommendation we have made recently is to apply Ten Year Tests to new policies in order to ascertain the effect of a decision across the whole public sector budget in a decade’s time. The Benefit Cap, amongst other policy changes, should be subject to such a test to gauge it’s (potential) success as although the projected savings from the Benefit Cap were approximately £500 million between 2013 and 2015, it is likely to have caused far more costs than it has saved.

We must therefore think beyond headline statistics highlighting the ‘success’ of policy reforms that only yield short term benefits and instead seek to understand their long term impact. The social security system, and in particular the Benefit Cap, is currently not doing this.

In isolation the announcement by DWP yesterday does seem like a success, but the evaluation largely misses the point. Until we start looking at the broader picture – including thinking about the long-term future – such mistakes are destined to continue.

‘Twas the week before, the week before Christmas…

December 12th, 2014

Sally Muylders explains how she spent her day on the 9th of December
as Sustainable Neighbourhoods Manager at Community Links

SallyWhile many people in the UK are winding down at work and getting ready for the Christmas break, things go up about five gears at Community Links and especially in the Early Action Team.  We have our 38th annual Christmas Appeal trying to gather toys and donations so children across Newham can wake up on Christmas Day with a present that they would not have received otherwise.  Our Enterprise team are preparing to open the Established pop-up shop at Westfield Shopping Centre for a week-long trading experience for the young entrepreneurs we have worked with all year.  And in the Neighbourhood Hubs, its parties galore.  We have a Community-led Superhero party taking place, children’s Christmas parties hosted by our corporate supporters and under-fives events at all of our hubs.  This is in additional to pantomimes at each hub, in between all the normal community activities that take place every week.

After leaving home at 7am, to get an early start at work on the 9th, I finally arrived at 10am due to a sad fatality on the M25 which caused immense tailbacks.  Undeterred I launched straight into a meeting with the Hub facilitators.  These are the people that keep our centres open each week, support community members to use them and ensure that they are safe, welcoming and well-resourced.  We have two new Hub Facilitators that are now working at our Chandos East Centre and Play Sow and Grow (our environmental and growing centre); I want them to meet regularly with the wider team to learn, support and develop each other.  This meeting was the first of this plan.  I left there after the meeting, but not before unloading my car of some carpet remnants that I had that will serve the flock of hens well over the winter as I gave Rizwana some advice on how to line the Hen House with it.

I returned to Community Links head office to meet Kirsty from The Good Gym who I had invited to our team meeting.  The Good gym are an innovative and unique organisation that help people to connect to the area in which they live through exercise and helping voluntary groups and individuals who need help with something.  Last week the group of runners helped us by delivering leaflets door to door.  (Read their report here) In the coming year we will hope to do more work with the Goodgym.

Following the team meeting I caught up with Tracy one of our Community Engagement managers about an event that took place last weekend; children from our Play and Special Educational Needs projects took centre stage at the Westfield Shopping Centre performing in front of thousands of Christmas shoppers.

I left the building to attend another meeting in Stratford and parked my car outside our Rokeby Hub, so that I could walk round to West Ham Lane.  I popped in to tell Jackie the Hub Facilitator and say hello to the Active Minds group that meet there every Tuesday since moving from Chandos East.  They were admiring the 10ft Christmas tree that they had helped erect and decorate on Monday.

Also there was a community member we know well called Vivian.  Recently Vivian who is elderly has been unwell and had been having issues in her flat with the gas and electric which had been turned off.  Jackie had the previous week worked really hard with agencies and providers to get the utilities reinstated and had rectified the electric, but the Gas was still not on and Vivian was living without heat after being in hospital only the previous week.  The council had been round to help as there was a fault with her boiler and they were now waiting for a replacement part but had not brought a promised electric heater. Jackie and I attempted to stir-up the full force of the council as I had some connections there and this is a resident physically shaking with the cold and spending all day in the centre to keep warm. By the end of the day, Jackie had managed to get the heater delivered and a guaranteed appointment for the next day for the engineers to repair the boiler.

If it wasn’t for staff such as Jackie, quietly working away in our Community Hubs supporting the people who use them and intervening on occasions, when needed, I don’t know what would happen to people such as Vivian who go unnoticed by official agencies. Our staff work so hard, not only to provide fun and community building activities, but also acute interventions at times and use the skills developed over many years to help people in dire need. They do this almost invisibly.

I made it to my meeting and left there to head straight to Chandos East, our most northerly Community Hub where I met with Nabila our other new Hub facilitator and Ysr, a really active community member who is involved in many things with us at Chandos East.  We are planning an event in the New Year and worked out some actions for before Christmas for us to all beaver away at, set a date and time and will now work hard to get other local people involved in planning and delivering it in January.

My last activity of the day was really special; I headed over to a small green surrounded by the houses of Bisson Road where Candy from Play Sow and Grow had organised, in partnership with St Johns Church, Stratford, community carol-singing. I was actually moved as I stood singing with community members that I had known for years, having previously worked in that area myself.  Singing Christmas carols together on a crisp night, with the Vicar playing a keyboard and the candles flickering in lanterns was a unique and special experience – one that I will remember for a long time.

It was on this day exactly one year ago that I started a new job at another organisation, I left Community Links to go and work somewhere else. Being away for a number of months confirmed for me what I already knew (but I wrongly felt I needed to change) that Community Links is an amazing organisation to work with, nowhere else will I be able to work with such a special team people that create endless opportunities for our community members and endlessly work to advocate, support and make sure that everyone is ok.

Our lack of resource is very real whilst the need that we see every day continues to grow, but still people remain motivated, creative and come in to work every day to help change the world in small and silent ways. The team I work with constantly inspire me and for that I’m grateful. On August the 9th this year I returned to work at Community Links having been successful in applying for the post of Sustainable Neighbourhoods Manager. I am grateful for the opportunity to come back to Community Links where I was welcomed with open arms, Ill work harder than ever.

If you’d like to support Community Links, read about our Christmas funding appeal.

Poverty and hunger: from food banks to social security

December 9th, 2014

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“Why is it that in countries that have welfare states offering a minimum income has hunger reappeared?” asks ‘Feeding Britain’, the final report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty published yesterday.

Amongst its recommendations were better education about nutrition, attempts to improve wages and reduce living costs, and a new national network of food assistance schemes – such as food banks – called ‘Feeding Britain’.

You’d be hard pressed to find many people arguing that food banks are not a vital service to the public at this moment in time, nor would many argue against cross-sector collaboration. However, you also wouldn’t find many who argue that they are a long term solution. Professor Graham Riches, for example, pointed out yesterday that Canada has a system of nationally institutionalised food banks, but there is no evidence that food charity is an effective response to reducing food poverty, particularly in the long term.

Celebrating food banks?

Elsewhere it has been suggested that food banks are “one of the greatest success stories of the voluntary sector in the past few years” and that, actually, “the poorest people in any decade have always gone hungry, regardless of which party was in power”.

This misses the point for two reasons. Firstly, whilst meeting emergency need should be lauded it is absurd to suggest that the proliferation of such crisis support is cause for celebration. As Community Links has argued, it would be better if charities that focus on alleviating crisis didn’t need to exist. A measure of success for food banks should not just be the amelioration of hunger, but its abolition. Yesterday’s report should therefore be lauded for suggesting that we need to end hunger and for correctly identifying some of the underlying causes – stagnating wages, the rising cost of living, and welfare reform. However, it focusses far too much on food assistance programmes rather than hunger prevention strategies.

Secondly, to suggest that the poorest have always gone hungry and therefore always will is a self-defeating argument. Not only does it condemn an increasingly large part of the population to hunger, but once again it suggests that it is a problem that we must react to rather than proactively prevent.

Preventing crisis

Hunger is largely a result of poverty. Recent research argued that people are often forced to rely on food banks following crises that were out of their control; for example bereavement, the loss of employment, or benefit payment delays and reductions. Some of these crises are unavoidable – we will all experience bereavement at some point in our lives – but others could be prevented.

However, it is hard to prevent crisis when people feel financially insecure and personally undermined. Last week Community Links and the Early Action Task Force published two reports. The first – Just About Surviving – is the most recent report from our longitudinal research project looking at the cumulative impact of welfare reform on residents of Newham, East London. It highlights increasing levels of insecurity amongst individuals and families affected by welfare reform, one result of which is hunger.

Take Diana, for example, who cannot work because of her multiple health problems. The cumulative impact of three reforms – the Bedroom Tax, Council Tax Localisation, and ESA re-assessment – have drastically reduced her income:

“I’m diabetic so I am supposed to eat three times a day which I can’t afford to do. I was supposed to take my medication with meals but I couldn’t do that… So my son was coming at about 9 o’clock with chicken and chips from up the road – just £2 for those – and I ended up in hospital… it was total hell.”

We did not explicitly ask recipients about food banks, but Diana’s story highlights the endemic levels of hunger seen across the country for those in poverty.

We therefore need to shift the discussion beyond the narrow parameters of whether or not we need food banks towards a debate about poverty; its root causes, effects and, ultimately, long term solutions. And as Julia Unwin of JRF pointed out last year, poverty is far from inevitable.

Secure and Ready: Acting Earlier for Social Security

So how could we promote security and reduce poverty? What kind of system would need to be in place to ensure that individuals, families, and communities feel secure and ready to seize opportunities and thrive?

In our second report, Secure and Ready, we aimed at answering these questions. We argue that the social security system should have two primary functions: firstly, it should enable us to be ready to deal with setbacks. This would be premised on new and revitalised underlying principles including a presumption of willingness, recognition of the value of relationships, and valuing other forms of contribution. Secondly the social security system should enable us to seize opportunities. Seeing social security spend as investment in individuals and communities is fundamental to this – whether in housing, education, or public health.

Standing in the way of these changes are spending rule barriers such as the welfare cap, siloed working practices, and short-term planning horizons. Let’s take the welfare cap as a quick example: in its current form it operates on a short-term, annual basis, and as such discourages upfront investment to improve outcomes outside of the remit of DWP and therefore also reduce costs. Instead it encourages cuts to individual entitlements, exacerbating problems such as hunger and the need for food banks whilst also pushing up expenditure. If the cap is to continue it should be reformed, allowing investment that would improve social outcomes and reduce expenditure.

Such shifts in how the social security system works would facilitate a reduction in demand for crisis oriented services such as food banks. Whilst hunger still exists they are a necessity, but it would be a great success to no longer need them in ten years’ time.

Migrant tax credit cuts are part of a wider attack on social security

November 25th, 2014

The proposal to ban EU migrants who are in work from receiving tax credits is the latest in a long series of changes which cut entitlement to social security. The suggestion, which was made today in a report from Eurosceptic think tank Open Europe and a version of which has already been aired by Labour’s Rachel Reeves, would mean low-paid workers from EU countries lose an average of £55 per week.

Road sign surviving thrivingThe story is being framed in terms of immigration. But the proposals are at least as important to another debate happening right now: that of the future of our social security system. These proposals are emblematic of a social security system in which eligibility continues to be further and further restricted, and conditionality further and further increased. They are symptomatic of an ongoing failure of our social security system to act early to prevent crises from occurring, rather than dealing with the consequences. In this case, the root cause of the ‘problem’ of increasing tax credit spend – namely, the fact that real wages have been in decline for over six years – is ignored and instead the consequences are being tackled in an incredibly short-termist way.

The news of these recommendations made me think back to Kazia, a trained psychologist who had worked as a scientist in Poland and was one of the first people I met when I started working at Community Links. Kazia came to our advice service for help because, while claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance, she had been told to drop out of an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course which was taking more than 16 hours per week: hours that she should have been spending applying for jobs in coffee shops. Kazia wanted to improve her English so she could continue as a professional scientist in the UK. When she refused to drop out of the course, she was sanctioned.

Kazia’s story reveals the nonsensical failures of a short-termist social security system. If the system had supported her to use her skills in Britain she may by now be flourishing and contributing more to society and the economy. Instead it aims for short-term wins: a job in a coffee shop whose low wages would have had to be topped up by tax credits, or even a sanction that could have helped to improve DWP’s statistics of the numbers of people leaving unemployment benefits.

Since I met Kazia in February, she will have been subject to many further attacks on her benefits. If she was claiming Housing Benefit while she searched for coffee shop jobs, that will now have gone. Her children will now be expected to be able to do without child benefit for their first three months in the UK. Now the proposal is to restrict her eligibility for Working Tax Credits even when she does get a job. These various attacks come despite huge net benefits that immigrants bring to the UK economy.

This trend of increasing conditionality and restricted eligibility is not restricted to migrants. In the last few months we’ve seen a doubling of the number of days that jobseekers have to wait for eligibility for JSA; we’ve seen parents with children as young as one forced to look for work in return for their benefits; and we’ve seen plans for a two-year freeze on in- and out-of-work benefits for 10 million working families. What’s more, there is every sign that this trend could get worse. Osborne’s forecasts of continued austerity in the next parliament, a media and public discourse which continues to harden public opinion against claimants, and an ongoing failure to fix underlying causes of social security spend – by building houses and creating well-paying jobs – all mean that our social security system is heading in the direction of much more short-termism.

The argument that we need to make our welfare state less generous leads us to an end-point of a system which provides no security, which pays far too little to live on, which traps people in poverty, and which allows costly problems to spiral out of control. We can already see this beginning to happen. Last week, the IFS declared that the Coalition’s welfare reforms, despite making life incredibly tough for millions of households, have saved just £2.5bn of an expected £19bn.

Our research, to be published in Westminster next Tuesday, shows how the cumulative impact of the welfare reforms has been to push people into survival mode, squeezing them to focus on short-term, day-to-day getting by and preventing them from being able to make long-term positive changes to their lives. The knock-on effects of this end up costing money in other public sectors: in NHS treatment for stress and depression, in services to deal with reduced community cohesion and in tax credits for jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.

Instead of further attacks on benefits, we need a social security system that acts earlier, preventing problems before they arise, and works to make sure people are both secure and ready to seize opportunities. For Kazia this would mean helping her to use her skills and contribute more to the UK economy, and if she does end up in a coffee shop, it would mean paying her tax credits to allow her to focus on longer-term goals, rather than day-to-day survival. More broadly, it means we need to see social security as an investment in people that will pay off many times over in the long-term. It means we need to rethink the principles underlying our social security system, and how it can become an enabling system than encourages people to thrive and the economy to flourish.

  • A version of this post first appeared on  www.politics.co.uk
  • The new research mentioned in this blog will be launched on Tuesday 2nd Dec at 4.30pm, alongside
    Community Links’s current thinking on principles for an early action social security system.

    If you’d like to attend follow this link or sign-up using the form below.