Can you name the Minister for Homelessness? I couldn’t.

Earlier today I wrote about the prediction that the number of people who are rough sleeping would increase by 76% by 2026, having already doubled since 2010.

I called for the appointment of a Minister for Rough Sleeping who would focus exclusively on the issue and not be reshuffled until the next general election.

I have been reminded by a colleague that there is already a Minister for Homelessness although neither my colleague or I could name her/him. To be honest I didn’t even know there was such a post – clearly the best kept secret in Westminster.

Google told me that it’s the Minister is Marcus Jones, as I am sure you all already knew. Apologies for my ignorance. He is a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Local Government) and he is responsible for:

  • Local government policy, including local government reform
  • Local government finances (including local authority sustainability and business rates retention)
  • Adult social care
  • Local government interventions policy and oversight of existing interventions
  • Local government pensions
  • Troubled Families
  • Supported housing
  • Parks and green spaces

And in his spare time he is responsible for homelessness, that is all homelessness which includes the:

  • 9,100 people sleeping rough,
  • 68,300 households sofa surfing
  • 19,300 households living in unsuitable temporary accommodation
  • 37,200 households living in hostels
  • 26,000 households living in other circumstances, including 8,900 households sleeping in tents, cars or on public transport, 12,100 households living in squats, and 5,000 households in women’s refuges or winter night shelters.

I am so reassured that we have a Minister who can give the necessary focus to the issue of rough sleeping.

What’s his name again ….?

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The government has ‘paused’ implementation of a measure to gag charities. It should now abandon it.

This week the Cabinet Office announced a “pause” on the proposal to restrict the ability of charities to speak out on certain matters if the charity is funded by government, the so-called anti-advocacy clause. This is to be welcomed. I wrote about this attempt to gag charities earlier in the year.

I was also one of 138 charity chief executives who wrote to David Cameron on this matter. This “pause” is a good thing and has been welcomed by many, including Acevo (which represents charity chief executives), the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and Social Enterprise UK.  They put out a joint statement:

“Following correspondence with the Cabinet Office, we are pleased to see that the government has ‘paused on implementation’ of its anti-lobbying clause.

“We continue to call for the full and immediate withdrawal of this policy. The clause, as it stands, goes much further than it says on the tin and will deter many charities and social enterprises from making representations to government and parliament.

“We look forward to hearing more from government on how they will proceed – in particular we have asked them to consider a formal consultation with the charity sector and other affected bodies.

“We also require urgent clarification of how this pause will apply to those organisations that already have grant agreements containing the anti-lobbying clause.”

I am aware that today there are reports of police surveillance of elected politicians. One of Brighton’s MPs, Caroline Lucas, was recorded by counter-terrorism police as having attended “a pre-advertised protest” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the suffragettes rushing parliament and that she “gave a speech”.

Our society has many problems, not least the threat of real terrorism. What on earth is the state doing monitoring members of parliament and trying to gag charities wishing to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries? It doesn’t reflect well on those in power and this “pause” is a reflection that they are realising that the anti-advocacy clause hasn’t been properly thought through.

I wonder whether by writing this my card will be marked (again).

New rules will gag charities from campaigning and lobbying government

In BHT’s contract of employment is a section on gross misconduct, and an act that qualifies as gross misconduct is ‘insubordination’, that is being disobedient to authority or defiant. It is right that an organisation has such provision. It cannot be right if everyone felt that they were able to do, and say, anything they like.

But there must be a balance struck, and we have provisions to nature that if we, as an organisation, gets it wrong, there are measures available to staff and clients to try to rectify things. Clients have a complaints procedure, staff a grievance procedure. We protect the right of individuals to make a complaint or declare a grievance. We also have a whistleblowing policy that allows individuals to raise matters with senior managers, the Board or even outside bodies.

Such checks and balances are important for any organisation or institution because things can go wrong, sometimes inadvertently and other times by wilful, even corrupt, intent.

A confident organisation, committed to getting things right and to justice, values honest feedback. It even encourages it.

So why does the government take the opposite view. From May, charities will no longer be allowed to spend taxpayers’ money on lobbying government. The Cabinet Office said grants would mean funds go to good causes not political campaigns.

On the surface this might sound right and proper. But charities often are the first to grasp the harmful consequences and unintended consequences of government policy. Take the current proposal to cap rents in specialist supported accommodation (something I have written about a lot recently), BHT and similar organisations across the country have warned that this measure, to be introduced from April 2018, will result in the closure of tens of thousands of specialist rooms for people with high support needs.

What should we do? Remain silent, perhaps “stick to our knitting” as a former Minister for the Third Sector suggested? Say nothing and allow the government to make a monumental error?

Of course not. We must lobby government and, if necessary, should the government persist, we should campaign. I have written to our local MPs, I have campaigned on the issue, even appearing on Channel 4 News pointing to the folly of this policy.

A confident government, committed to getting things right and to justice, should value honest feedback. It should even encourage it.

What does it say about a government that tries to gag dissent? This is not a criticism aimed just at the current government, the same was also true under New Labour. I am reminded of the saying of the Latin American priest, Dom Helder Camara, who said: “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask, why are they hungry, they call me a communist!”

Of course charities shouldn’t become involved in party politics, but do allow us to speak truth to power. In fact, the government should welcome and encourage it.

Postscript: Do have a look at what my friend and fellow blogger Ian Chisnall has written about this. (Updated 08/02/16)

Kids Company: Questions for the Trustees to Answer

(This is the text of my latest Opinion column first published in the Brighton Argus on 13th August 2015)

The closure of Kids Company has taken many people by surprise. How could this charity fail when it enjoyed political patronage at the highest levels of government, loved by the media, and which had philanthropic and celebrity support by the bucket load.

Stories are emerging about questionable use of cash, of a chauffeur-driven car for the chief executive, of private boarding school fees being paid for the child of an employee.

But it wasn’t such excesses, questionable though they are, that caused the collapse.

A well-governed charity should not find itself in such a crisis, closing its doors with less than 48 hours notice meaning it was impossible to put alternative supports in place for their vulnerable beneficiaries.

Against the advice of civil servants, very senior politicians authorised emergency bailouts of, initially, £4 million, then just a week before it closed, a further £3 million.

Questions must be asked of the Trustees of the charity about their control over the ‘inspirational’ former chief executive. What legal and financial advice did they receive before they accepted the second tranche of £3 million of public funds? Had they satisfied themselves that Kids Company was financially viable?

Were the Trustees of the Kids Company actually in control? How much of a free hand did they Trustees give the CEO?

But I imagine the question the Trustees will actually be asking themselves will be about their personal liabilities if it is shown that they were not fulfilling their legal duties as charity trustees.

 

The online Graham Cox should be an example to other councillors

Earlier today Cllr Graham Cox blogged about a decision that he had to make as a member of the Planning Committee. The issue was not significant in itself other than to a few residents of the residents in the ward he represents on Brighton and Hove City Council.

Sometimes I get very frustrated by the low standard of so-called debate on twitter. It is the debating standards of the kindergarten when a politician is asked something along the lines of: “Yes or no! Do you agree that your party has failed miserably?”.

But Graham’s modest blog post made me think about accountability to local residents. Whether he was right or wrong about the issue is irrelevant. He spent a few minutes explaining the dilemma, how he had voted, and what the result was. I don’t think many people will read that post but one or two people in his area might, learning what he has done as their local representative.

I spend quite a lot of time talking to local councillors. Some of them see it as a virtue that they have not engaged with social media, and in particular Twitter and blogging. I can understand a hesitancy to tweet, as many people think it is another inbox similar to email. It shows a lack of understanding of Twitter. It is far richer than that, more immediate, and, with the right attitude, it is not at all oppressive because one doesn’t have to necessarily keep up with every tweet in one’s timeline. But never mind. I do think, however, that it is a shame that so few councillors blog.

Blogging allows counsellors to be held accountable, to express views, and to raise their personal profile. That last reason alone should convince most councillors to blog! Therefore, I am at a loss to know why there are so few councillors active in the blogosphere. It takes a little bit of time and effort, but done simply and efficiently, for example, by keeping it brief (I know some councillors find that hard!) or even merely cutting and pasting letters and responses raised on behalf of residents.

With local media struggling to keep up with everything but the more contentious issues debated within the Town Hall, blogging could evolve into a sort of self-reporting. Done well it would provide a great service to one’s constituents and strengthen the reputation of councillors as a group. Done badly, being overly partisan, or being too self-congratulatory, would turn people off, but could help them to decide how not to vote next time!

While Graham Cox has been known to be quite partisan and argumentative on twitter, he has stuck just the right balance in his blog and should be an example to other councillors.

Let’s upset and offend people by having challenging debates in 2014

A few days ago I was asked by the Brighton Argus to write a few words on my New Year’s Resolutions.  I gave them three, one boring, one predictable, and one off the wall.  If the Argus thinks f it is a resolution rather than an expectation.  I expect I will upset, offend and published that they are suitable, they should be published on 2nd January.

One resolution I did not include, because I am not sure if it is a resolution.  It is more a prediction: that I will upset and offend some people by what I say and write.  I don’t set out to do so, but it is inevitable that if one writes what one thinks, there will always be those who will get upset or be offended.

I recently wrote on this blog about the input I had had into a report on the future of the charity sector published by the Centre for Social Justice.  I tweeted “Can we have a proper debate about the role of the charity sector in delivering public services?” and included a link to my post.

Within a very short time, someone called Chris responded: “The CSJ don’t have neutral debates !!! And you join wholeheartedly the debate saying start point pensions are not affordable”.

Now I like punctuation when it is used correctly, and have even blogged about this, but why use three exclamation marks?  (Perhaps I should ask: “Why use three exclamation marks ???”  Perhaps not).

The pension point I raised regarding pensions was to quote from the report, that rules intended to protect workers’ rights are inadvertently deterring small charities from competing for government contracts, and I mentioned my view that in particular, pension liabilities was such a deterrent.  I made no comment about affordability per se.

A year or so ago, I was accused of taking an anti-Conservative stance by links I posted on twitter to articles on the impact of welfare and other government reforms.  Around the same time I had welcomed the debate started by Grant Shapps on the future of tenancies for life in social housing.

So I have upset someone on the left. I blog also about the failure of government, for example, the failings of the Work Programme, and I have commented about certain consequences of welfare reform.  If I use the now widely used phrase ‘bedroom tax’, people on the right say: “It is not a tax”.  But when I say that the social security system needs reforming, or that I really like the drug strategy published by the Coalition Government, I appeal to the right, not so much to some of those on the left.

This next year we must have more open and honest debate, even if this opens us up to accusations of having a party political bias.  I have always agreed that charities cannot and should not be party political.  But that is a far cry from charities commenting on, warning about, or screaming blue murder in relation to measures that will harm their beneficiaries.

But our time to have some of this debate might be limited.  Under the Transparency of Lobbying Bill currently before parliament, some of us might not be able to express some of the opinions in the previous paragraph.  If reports are to be believed, local authorities might be prevented from using the phrase ‘bedroom tax’ even though, like the Poll Tax, it is a phrase the public understands.

Under the Bill, charities might be prevented from campaigning on certain issues if they are deemed to be campaigning against government policy.  Charities should never campaign for or against government.  We should always promote the best interests of our beneficiaries, regardless of what politicians think or say.  It is not an easy thing to do, for charities and politicians alike.

Should we forget about charities as we know them?

(This is the text of a post that was first published on The Huffington Post on 18th November 2013)

William Shawcross, the chair of the Charity Commission, has questioned whether new definitions of charity are needed to highlight the differences between various types of charitable organisation.

He said: “I believe we should consider whether a single definition of charity can continue to accommodate so many wonderful, diverse models of non-governmental organisation. The commission’s online register of charities could play a role in describing the different models more clearly.

“Could it, for example, distinguish between organisations that are truly voluntary, those that rely on public donations of time or money to support their work and those that achieve their charitable purpose by delivering government services?”

For a while I have thought that there are at least four different entities that are all described as charities:

  • Small, user-led organisations that exist for, and are run by the beneficiaries. These tend not to have paid staff and few, if any, assets.
  • Small charities with up to a dozen or so members of staff, delivering services to beneficiaries in a locality, again with few assets.
  • Medium-sized regional charities, more commercially-minded, with assets, employing a significant number of staff (in the case of my organisation, Brighton Housing Trust, approaching 300 people on our payroll), and delivering a combination of national and local government contracts as well as activities funded through charitable sources.
  • Large, national charities which have substantial assets or resources, multi-million pound turnover, bank borrowing and bond issues amounting to billions of pounds and which, in some cases, are charitable only in name and for tax purposes.

I am not sure whether something far more fundamental is needed, a new settlement that sets out expectations and obligations, particularly on medium and large charities.

The overwhelming majority of charities remain truly committed to their charitable objectives, even those who receive government funding. But as more of the state’s work is outsourced, mainly to the private sector but also to large charities, how should we distinguish between those charities that are user-led, and others that, perhaps, compromise their independence by going into the state’s pay? Perhaps such charities should have separate designations to ensure charitable activities are not remain compromised.

There is already a problem with some charities being seen as having been co-opted by government to do its work. A legitimate question for them is whether their charitable objectives are truly being delivered, or whether decisions are being driven by the wishes of government or even the banks?

The reality is that the moment to question whether some charities remain charities has long passed. With some growing to become multi-million pound businesses, and salaries of top executives inflated to match, there are those who are no longer independent, relying totally on government work.

I recently wrote on Huffington Post asking whether charities can be political without being political. In that post I tried to highlight the importance of charities being free to draw attention to the impact of public policy on their beneficiaries, but without being party political. My view is that this is a duty for charities to ensure that the voice of their beneficiaries is heard; this is not optional.

Shawcross is right to make his challenge. He said: “I don’t pretend to have a firm answer to these questions, but I do think we – by which I mean the charitable world in the widest sense – need to have the debate. And I think we should have it now, while levels of public trust in charities are high and public support for charities is strong.”