David Gauke says that all that is wrong with Universal Credit is that criticisms go without challenge

David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has denied that the introduction of Universal Credit is causing hardship. He said: “I strongly believe we have got a really good policy with this that will transform lives, but there is almost a sort of knee-jerk criticism and a temptation in particular with universal credit that you can almost say anything critical about it and it goes without challenge.”

That’s alright, then.  Just the same as when Iain Duncan Smith repeatedly claimed that Universal Credit would be delivered “on time and within budget”. The massive overspend, the wasted millions on a failed IT system, and the massive overrun on its delivery must be Fake News.

And what about the hardship being caused to those claiming Universal Credit. Fake News, Fake News, Fake News.  It just goes without challenge.

What about the excellent and well-researched article by Heather Spurr, once with Inside Housing and now with Shelter.

And what about this item by the Resolution Foundation, or this from the Institute for Government, or this from Citizens Advice, or BHT’s own research following the roll out of Universal Credit in Hastings.

I know I have had a word or two to say about Universal Credit, such as the blog post entitled “Universal Credit is a disgrace, and those who have advocated it and continue to defend it should hang their heads in shame” or this one “Another day, another report on the disaster that is Universal Credit” or this one “More evidence of the disaster zone that is known as Universal Credit” or this “Should the roll out of Universal Credit continue at this time? Watch the evidence to Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee”.

Noi doubt it is all Fake News that has gone without challenge.

The problem, Mr Gauke, is not that criticism goes unchallenged.  The problem, in the words of the former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, is that Universal Credit is “operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving” (see here).

The problem, Mr Gauke, is that you, Mr Duncan Smith, the DWP and the government as a whole carry on regardless, in spite of the evidence.  The most modest reforms imaginable announced in the autumn won’t resolve the fundamental flaws inherent in Universal Credit. A lick of paint would not have saved the Titanic after it brushed up against an iceberg.

Universal Credit has become Mrs May’s poll tax. (I vlogged on this recently).  No matter how well Mr Gauke defends the indefensible, Universal Credit remains flawed, it remains operationally messy, it remains socially unfair, and it remains unforgiving.


Should there be time limits for how long a housing association chief executive should stay in post?

Last week there was an interesting debate on Twitter (although I don’t think Twitter is the place to have such a debate). The debate concerned the suggestion that there should be a maximum term for housing association chief executives, such as five or ten years.

Housing association Board members have a time limit, usually nine years, yet there is no limit for the time that a chief executive can you remain in post.

I should declare an interest here: I’m about to start my 16th year as chief executive at BHT. I’m always looking for a new challenge, but not one outside BHT. There is always so much to do here. The fact that I have been at BHT for over 32 years suggests that I do not spend time looking for my next promotion bringing with it a salary increase! (Either that or nobody else would have me!).

I think that longevity has something going for it. It means that you can be held accountable for the success or failure of a business plan. I am always sceptical when I see someone making bold announcements and publishing ambitious plans before moving on to a new organisation to do just the same, never seeing their plans coming to fruition or failing, for that matter.

Of course there is the risk that a chief executive might become stale. That depends greatly on the strength of their board. With robust accountability, and clearly defined objectives, a chief executive would not be allowed to remain in post, nor would they be allowed to oversee a declining or stagnant organisation. I personally cannot understand people remaining when they no longer have passion in their bellies to bring about positive change.

There is no right or wrong length for someone to remain. I accept that some chief executives can hang on for too long, sometimes standing still in neutral, waiting for retirement. But it must be down to the board to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Strong governance is the key.

In the twitter discussion, Tom Murtha wrote that most housing associations where he had been a statutory appointment had CEOs who had been around for too long and that they had weak boards. He said that he had suggested fixed terms some years ago but, “strangely” he said with some cynicism, most CEOs opposed the idea. (I guess I am reenforcing his experience!). He suggests a minimum term of five years and a maximum of 10 years, subject to strict annual review and accountability.

Paul Roberts, the chief executive at Newydd Housing, recalls that David Edmonds, when he was at the Housing Corporation, suggested a five year maximum term. Paul thought this would be a recipe for short-term decision-making and said that sustainable decisions and accountability are more important.

Alison Inman, the current President of the Chartered Institute of Housing, raised the issue of chief executives who are also board members. That is a debate for another time (although I agree that there is too strong a potential for conflicts of interest and the erosion of accountability).

Maddy Bunker said: “Just to be contentious, I don’t agree with fixed term CEOs. I have witnessed brilliant CEOs that have been around over 10 years“.

She is right when she asks whether CEOs could be on fixed term contracts so that boards can you give them their marching orders. I personally agree with that idea, but even within existing arrangements this can happen (although it usually has a hefty price tag attached to the Settlement Agreement).

I am persuaded by Matt Campion, chief executive of the Shepherds Bush Housing Group and a board member at Newlon Housing Trust, who suggests that boards should give fixed term contracts which can be renewed, or not, depending on performance. That, to me, sounds like the right approach.

When we have new board members at BHT, as part of their induction, I say that the three most important tasks that they will have in any year is to review the business plan, agreed the budget, and question whether I remain fit for purpose. I’m confident that the BHT Board would not hesitate to remove me when it felt that I was approaching my ‘best before’ date.

I hope that that time is still some way off, and that I will decide to go before I am pushed. I still remain as motivated as ever. In December, the Board agreed an exciting and challenging new Business Plan that has been eighteen months in the making. We have brought about changes during 2017 resulting in performance in all areas that has reached new highs, and a culture exists that encourages innovation and improvement (a culture shared at Board level, within the executive team, and throughout the organisation). Tenant and client involvement is reaching new levels and we have very exciting plans to take service delivery to new levels, drawing on best practice from within the sector but, crucially, from beyond.

A related but separate issue is the level of chief executives’ pay. I would suggest a cap on salaries so that chief executives do not go from one organisation to the next, securing ever-increasing levels of pay. I don’t go with the argument that salaries in excess of £300,000 are necessary to attract ‘the best’. I would cap salaries at, say, £150,000. That, in my opinion, is more than enough for anyone (and it is well, well beyond anything BHT pays). But that is a debate for another day.

Graffiti and Tagging: An Attack on Services for Rough Sleepers

One of my posts from the last year that attracted quite a response was in September when I wrote about graffiti.  The post resulted in wider media coverage including an appearance on television news.

Today I walked past my office in London Road to discover that we have been the target of some mindless idiots who have tagged walls, the front door, even a window.

We will, of course, get it cleaned off, but it will cost.  The money we spend, which will run into several hundred Pounds, if not over £1,000, could have been used to provide services at First Base Day Centre.  In this instance, tagging is a direct attack on services being provided to rough sleepers.

I hope those responsible feel proud of what they have done.


Record breaking street collection for Brighton Housing Trust

This weekend we collected a record £5,207 in our annual street collection, smashing last year’s total of £4,511.

Collections took place at Brighton Station on Friday evening and at sites throughout Brighton and Hove on Saturday afternoon.

We are extremely grateful to the people of Brighton and Hove for their incredible generosity this year. This record amount is indicative of the concern that people feel about seeing people sleeping on our streets.

This money, together with the funds raised through other activities this month, will help our day centre, First Base, to support rough sleepers at Christmas and throughout the year.

The Rock Choir

We had over 100 people out on Saturday, either collecting donations or singing in choirs. We had church groups, community organisations, councillors, volunteers, members of staff and Board members, even the Brighton Table Tennis Club, all turn out.

I am so grateful to them all and, in particular, everyone who donated towards achieving this incredible result. It will definitely make a big difference.”

It is not too late to donate. Donations can be made online or by sending a cheque payable to ‘Brighton Housing Trust’ to 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH.

David Chaffey, BHT’s Director Of Housing and Property Services, with Cllr Phelim McCafferty

Councillors Adrian Morris, Karen Barford, and Daniel Yates

Television journalist Tracey Dooley with the BHT Elf (and our Senior Manager for Mental Health Services) Sharon Munnings

Former Mayor of Brighton and Hove, Cllr Pete West

Being with and apart from those you love at Christmas

Dear Friends

My dear old mum died at Christmas eleven years ago, and I miss her more with every passing year. I also miss my brother, Simon, who lives in South Africa.

But I am lucky. I will spend Christmas with many of those I love and, thanks to FaceTime, will share some of the festivities with Simon and his family.

But not everyone is that lucky.

It is particularly difficult for homeless people over Christmas. They are reminded of all they have lost, not least home and family. And if they are street homeless, there won’t be decorations, presents under a tree, or festive cheer. There won’t be warmth, comfort and security.

Christmas morning for a person sleeping rough will be the same as every other morning – cold, wet, lonely. There aren’t gifts and, like every other morning, there isn’t a toilet, shower, kettle, or breakfast in the cupboard. The heating can’t be turned up a notch, and there won’t be the smell of a roast in the oven.

Far from it being ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, Christmas can be the worst of all times for homeless people.

Fortunately there are services open on Christmas morning where homeless people can go.

First Base Day Centre, for example, will provide a cooked breakfast. People can shower, put on clean and dry clothes, be warm and comfortable and for a few hours forget the daily indignity of living on the streets.

The efforts and sacrifices made over Christmas by staff at BHT and other organisations in Brighton and Hove cannot be over emphasised. They ensure that homeless people do have somewhere to go. Fortunately, this year there is more emergency accommodation available, provided by the City Council, churches and, in the most extreme weather, several charities, including BHT.

How do you feel about people being homeless at Christmas? Are you able to help?

The most immediate and obvious way is to make a donation to one of the organisations that opens its doors over Christmas.

My job is to ask you to support First Base which you can do online by following this link or by sending a cheque payable to BHT to First Base Christmas Appeal, 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH.

Please remember that services such as First Base don’t just open over Christmas. We open throughout the year, offering all the facilities that homeless people rely on to sustain life and to maintain basic dignity.

Every week we help people to move off the streets and into accommodation, so that they don’t have to face another night, let alone Christmas, without somewhere safe to call home. We can only do this with your ongoing support.

Thank you so much for your support. It is only with your help that we can continue to do what we do to help those in the greatest need.

I hope you have a lovely Christmas.

Brighton Housing Trust launches Christmas Appeal for First Base Day Centre

We have launched our annual Christmas Appeal for First Base Day Centre with the publication of a disturbing film about the invisibility of homeless people. The film can be viewed here.

The film, produced at no cost to BHT by local film company, Big Egg Films, captures the invisibility, loneliness and sadness experienced by rough sleepers, particularly at Christmas.

This year we have had a big focus on women and homelessness.  The report we published in the autumn written by Cathy Bunker, quoted Jo, a rough sleeper, who said ‘Everyone’s looking but they are not looking at you, they’re looking through you like you’re not there.’

We aim to make Christmas a little bit more bearable for those with nowhere to call home.  But rough sleeping isn’t just about Christmas, and the funds we raise at this time of the year helps us to work with people living on the streets throughout the year.

First Base offers a range of services to support people who are sleeping rough or who are insecurely housed in Brighton and Hove.  We provide food, hot drinks, showers, clean and dry clothes, and support to get off the streets.

First Base also provides opportunities for work experience and learning.  In partnership with other agencies, a range of services are provided for our clients including dentistry, podiatry, nursing interventions, mental health advice and support, and accommodation and relocation services.

Last year many people who could afford it donated their Winter Fuel Allowance to BHT.  That made a huge difference and where we can we claim Gift Aid which increases the amount we receive by 25%.

I would like to thank all at Big Egg Films, who donated the film at no cost to BHT, for being so generous with their time and expertise.

Donations can be made by cheque payable to ‘Brighton Housing Trust’ and sent to me at BHT, 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH, or online.  You can also donate by text message by texting FBAS17 and an amount (e.g. £10) to 70070.

A good day to bury bad news

Just 21 minutes after Kensington Palace announced the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, the Department for Works and Pensions announced that millions of people will have their benefits frozen for a further 12 months at a cost to a typical working family with two children of £300 a year.

State pension and some other benefits will increase by the rate of inflation (3%).

The freeze, which has been in place since 2015, means a real-terms cut in income for millions of people because of rising living costs.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found benefit entitlements would be lower by an average of £450 per year for over 10 million households affected by 2020.

And how much does a Royal Wedding cost?