Monthly Archives: September 2012

Understanding welfare differently

Last week, Paul Spicker gave a presentation at Newcastle University Business School, offering an alternative view of the role of welfare and the ‘need’ for some of the reforms that are currently taking place. I’m not going to try and summarize Paul’s presentation, mainly because I wouldn’t do it justice but suffice to say that he showed, using DWP data, that the suggestion that welfare somehow trapped people or led to long term ‘benefit dependency’ was unsupported by any evidence.

Paul began his presentation by highlighting that his work was very unfashionable and that people had largely stopped working on the issue of ‘social security’. One of the things I’d like to highlight here, is just why Paul’s work and those of others like him (Declan Gaffney, for example) is so important and I’ll try and do this by offering up a couple of other useful resources which help to counter the dominant narrative about the unaffordability of our benefits system and the abuse of it by individuals and families who receive benefits. Firstly, Paul’s blog deserves a plug and you can sign up for it here.

Before I do this, however, an example of the ‘dominant narrative’ was waiting for me when I returned to work in the afternoon – the Centre for Social Justice had sent an email newsletter which opened with the following statement:

Universal Credit – designed by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) – will rejuvenate Britain’s ruptured welfare system and give millions of people the tools to escape poverty

Paul pointed out during his presentation that Universal Credit actually manages to include almost every single recent failure in the benefits system, including: requirements to work for those who can’t; medical reassessment; penalties not linked to knowledge; and complex assessments with multiple dimensions. So this would suggest that UC might not do everything that the CSJ are proposing it will.

John Veit-Wilson who also attended the session forwarded me a couple of articles in the Scotsman following Iain Duncan Smith’s visit to Glasgow to speak at a conference. One noted that:

Iain Duncan Smith … is a decent man, or so people say, who is on a crusade to reform the benefits system. Unfortunately, he is also presiding over the biggest assault on the poorest people in living memory and causing untold misery to families the length and breadth of the country. While the Work and Pensions Secretary and his aides talk about scroungers and cheats, huge cuts to the living standards of people already on the edge are being masqueraded as reform

The other link was to the letters page of the Scotsman and it included a letter from Adrian Sinfield which included the following comment:

The coalition government needs to tackle the regressive unfairness of the overall tax system where the poorest fifth contributes more of its income than the richest fifth – 38.2 per cent as opposed to 33.6 per cent, according to the government’s own 

This linked to one of John’s comments at the event about the need to remember that there are two welfare states – one for the rich and one for the poor. Kevin Farnsworth from the University of Sheffield has also identified a third form of welfare – corporate welfare and he estimates that British corporations save more in tax breaks and loopholes than they actually pay in tax. Kevin notes that

Just as social welfare protects citizens from the cradle to the grave, corporate welfare protects and benefits corporations throughout their life course. And
yet, in most countries, corporate welfare is hidden and underresearched.

Finally, a couple of pieces of further reading, if anyone is interested:

  • False Economy, the campaigning group launched a briefing note highlighting ‘5 things you need to know about welfare cuts and the economy’, which is, in my opinion, a very useful resource.
  • One thing Paul didn’t touch on in his presentation was the level at which benefits are set and there have been three very interesting blogs on this recently – one by Chris Goulden from JRF looking at the heardening of attitdues towards ‘benefits scroungers’, one by Ben Baumberg on the Inequalities blog looking at whether or not people overestimate the level of benefits and one by Donald Hirsch, also on the JRF site, on the proposals to uprate benefits in line with earnings rather than prices – a situation he refers to as ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’
  • And, the evening before Paul’s event, I read an article by Jay Wiggan called ‘Telling stories of 21st century welfare: The UK Coalition government and the neo-liberal discourse of worklessness and dependency’ which explores the language used in the both the Green and White papers linked to the current welfare reforms. Very interesting reading indeed…..

Best wishes,



New event: Child Poverty – local authorities, local duties & local action

Child Poverty: local authorities, local duties & local action

Friday 19th October, 9:00 – 12:00

 Lindisfarne Centre, St. Aidan’s College, Durham University, DH1 3LJ

The Child Poverty Act (2010) requires local authorities to produce a ‘joint child poverty strategy for their area’ in collaboration with their partners. The decision by the Coalition Government not to produce statutory guidance for these strategies has enabled local authorities to develop their own approaches to producing these strategies and the Child Poverty Needs Assessments which must accompany and inform them.

The North East Child Poverty Commission has produced a report exploring the approaches of the 12 local authorities in the North East to fulfilling their ‘local duties’ under the Child Poverty Act. This event, led by Stephen Crossley, acts as the launch of that report. The session will explore priorities which can be found in a number of the strategies and will discuss some of the academic research linked with these priorities. Adopting a critical social policy approach and drawing on the work of Peter Townsend and Steven Lukes, the session will also highlight and explore issues which were absent from local authority strategies.

This event is being co-hosted by the North East Child Poverty Commission and the Institute for Local Governance. We expect interest to be high for this event and places are limited. If you have any questions about the event, please contact Stephen Crossley on (0191) 334 9107 or e-mail at

If you would like to book a place at this free event, please fill in the online registration form at:

“A boon to be sparingly conferred upon the multitude…”

I spent much of yesterday afternoon working on a presentation for school governors on the links between child poverty and educational attainment. Serendipitously, yesterday was also the day that the OECD published its 2012 Education at a Glance report. The country notes for the United Kingdom make some interesting comments, including:

The socio-economic composition of UK schools poses significant challenges for disadvantaged students as well as students with an immigrant background: 80% of students with an immigrant background attend schools with a high percentage of immigrant students. Even immigrant students with highly-educated mothers are more than twice as likely to be in disadvantaged schools as non-immigrant students.

No country saw a steeper increase in spending on tertiary education than the UK, but most of that was funded from private sources.

The impact of socio-economic background on student performance at age 15 remains moderate to strong in the UK, depending on the methodology used for measurement. This signals significant scope for improvement.

In 2011, schools in England had the greatest decision-making authority, after the Netherlands, among all OECD countries (35 percentage points higher than the OECD average) in 2011

The average public primary school class has about 26 students, more than the OECD average of 21 students per class. But private institutions in the UK have significantly smaller classes of around 12 students

(my emphases)

The above table from p17 of the report shows that the UK ranks 24th out of 32 countries in terms of the % of total public expenditure which is spent on education – 11.3% against and OECD average of 13%. The table also notes that the UK ranks 4th out of 30 countries when the share of private expenditure on educational institutions in measured – with 31.1% against an OECD average of 16%. Excluding tertiary education (and therefore tuition fees) the figures for the UK are 21.3% against an OECD average of  8.8%, putting us in 3rd place behind Chile and South Korea. So nearly 22% of funding for primary, secondary and post secondary, non-tertiary education in the UK comes from private sources and, almost certainly, goes mainly to private institutions.

I was also reading an article by Diane Reay yesterday afternoon called ‘The Zombie Stalking English Schools: Social class and educational inequality’. In it she raises concerns about the ability of the education system to ‘positively address social class in the classroom when contemporary initial teacher training rarely engages with it as a relevant concern within schooling’ which is something we are interested in, especially given the profile of organisations such as Teach First in the new educational landscape*. She also provides a quote  from William Lovett, a working class campaigner and Chartist, from 1837 which I thought was very approrpiate given the launch of the report yesterday:

Possessors of wealth … still consider education as their own prerogative, or a boon to be sparingly conferred upon the mulittude instead of a universal instrument for advancing the dignity of man and for gladdening his existence.

Best wishes,


*Another interesting (and short) paper related to the issue of teacher education which I was sent recently is It’s Not the Culture of Poverty, It’s the Poverty of Culture: The Problem with Teacher Education, by Gloria Ladson-Billings

GYA guest post: child poverty is unacceptable

Almost a third of children in the North East are living in poverty.

As a group of young people, we at the Gateshead Youth Assembly think this is unacceptable and believe that all young people should have an equal chance.

Young people at the Gateshead Youth Assembly have come together to develop a child poverty strategy: this shows our ideas, what we think will alter the way child poverty is handled and viewed in the North East. The strategy is a group of ideas that the young people of the assembly have developed through personal ideas and group discussions. We are confident that our strategy would make a difference as it not only looks at supporting young people living in poverty, it also looks at educating young people who are more fortunate and do not.

The ideas are as follows:

  • Improve housing: restore rundown family houses, neighbourhoods and rebuild where necessary.
  • Tackle the cost of school and improve schools: Provide second hand uniform shops/banks which will ensure good quality second hand uniform is available at reasonable prices or free of charge. Provide free bus passes where pupils need to travel on public/ school transport for educational purposes. Ensure that school kit is reasonably priced so families can afford them. Provide more grants for low income young people in schools. Provide breakfast clubs and lunches so people can eat at school. Bring back the Building Schools for the Future program, so that all our schools are better.
  • Improve family incomes: Introduce a living wage. Get rid of the youth wage, all people of all ages should earn the same. Increase child benefit; make it for all young people. Ensure child maintenance works by ensuring payments are made and not take it off benefits. Increase heating allowances over winter.
  • Ensure no young person goes hungry: Subsidize healthy food so everyone can afford it. Provide food grants for low income families. Make sure breakfast clubs and free schools meals are available to all low income young people and ensuring that families on low incomes have the information/ support they need to claim these benefits, and work to cover provision over the holidays. Look at supporting families to grow their own food with seed banks and allotments etc.
  • Make the childhood experience better: Provide free leisure activities to young people from low-income families. Provide programs to raise aspirations. Ban or change alcohol and junk food advertisements; so young people don’t get bombarded with them (as you have done with cigarettes). Change citizen curriculum to include money management, raise aspirations and highlight issues with alcohol, drugs and junk food.
  • Make things fairer: Cut higher wages – avoid helping people get super wealthy. Harsher penalties and community service for people convicted of crimes.
  • More work opportunities for younger people: Look at moving public sector jobs out of London.
  • Tackle stereotypes of young people in the media and wider society.

The assembly recently did a weekend workshop on Child Poverty with a PhD student working on developing a child poverty strategy with young people. Over the weekend we looked at all the pros and cons of growing up in the North East area and came up with projects to help young people over the North East region. These include:

  • A scheme to give students Secondhand School uniform
  • Promoting Healthy eating in schools
  • Giving out free school meals over the Christmas break to children that have free school meals
  • The Breadline project: promoting child poverty awareness in the North East
  • Holding a conference with other young people to inform others of our ideas and facts/figures.
  • Creating a Regeneration Map of the North East to show the parts of the region that the assembly thinks needs regenerating.

We feel that by encouraging the involvement of young people and adults from all areas of the North East, to participate in activities, designed to look at poverty and the impact this has, not only on families in general, but also the impact it has on young people in particular and their long term futures; we can raise awareness, educate young people and aim to reduce childhood poverty and its long term affects in the North East.

All of our ideas are in the early planning stages and may change if they prove to be unnecessary or they duplicate someone elses work, the projects will also be tweaked to best suit and represent young people in Gateshead.

Mirander de la Haye

Gateshead Youth Assembly member

I came across this blog via Twitter last night and the author, Holly Brockwell, kindly gave us permission to re-blog it here. It is a very good example of how people on people who receive benefits are ‘fair game’ and how, to use Owen Jones’s phrase, ‘ the working class are demonized’ . The blog is very measured but some of the language in the comments below it is a bit ‘industrial’ so to speak, so please be warned. Steve

Holly Brockwell

I have nothing against Iris, the ad agency that invented 2012 Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville. I even know some great people working there. But I just can’t justify what I saw on Campaign magazine’s website this week.

You see, Iris have been busy re-doing their internal staff benefits booklet. This is the brochure they give to employees to let them know what they’re entitled to at Iris in terms of life insurance, maternity leave and so on. And being an ad agency, they decided they really needed a concept for this booklet.

So they went away, thought about it for – ooh, twenty seconds? – and decided that “Iris on Benefits” was the best possible title. And for the images? Well, why don’t we all dress up as stereotypical on-benefit types (apparently inspired by the fictional people on ‘Shameless’) and have a good old laugh?

Here’s the resulting…

View original post 328 more words

Surviving or Thriving case study: Scotswood Natural Community Garden

Guest post by Amanda Hannen (VONNE)

Q & A

Scotswood Natural Community Garden

August 2012

The Scotswood Natural Community Garden aims to promote learning about nature, the environment and sustainable living in Scotswood, Newcastle upon Tyne. The Garden itself is a beautiful and wild site of more than 2 acres where a range of activities for children and adults are run. The Garden’s activities include educational workshops for schools, Forest Schools, volunteering opportunities for adults, a weekly youth club and regular community open days.

VONNE talked to Chris Francis at Scotswood Natural Community Garden about the impact of the spending cuts and the recession on their youth work programme:

Can you describe the impact of the spending cuts and the recession on your organisation?

At the moment there’s been very little impact because our youth programme is funded by Children in Need and we are just in our first year of a three year tranche of funding from them, so in terms of the general work we do there has been no reduction there. We have also applied for some small amounts of funding to top up the Children in Need fund to cover some of the activities that the organisation does with children and we’ve been successful with £1,000 here, a £1,000 there – that sort of level of income. If you’ve got three years of funding then in that time you’re quite comfortable and happy to continue, it’s when we reapply that we’ll be in a more competitive market and the situation could become more critical. I guess in two years time we’ll be thinking about resubmitting when the money runs out the end of October 2012. The concern is when we go back to Children in Need in two and a half years time, we’re aware that there is going to be more demand on those funds.

In terms of the [impact on] people we work with, this part of Newcastle is fairly deprived so the fact that there are fewer jobs around, increased pressure on families and less people working for local authorities with their cutbacks, there is less support available to families out of work.

Can you tell us about changes you have seen around you which might have an impact on your organisation or your sector in the future?

We know that in the west of Newcastle there’s been a change in the city councils tender process for delivery of youth work in the area, resulting in the latest contract going to a large organisation who didn’t really have much of a presence in the West End of Newcastle. One or two smaller organisations that are based here have missed out on that funding and it’s certainly caused a bit of uncertainty and anxiety amongst those groups that had the [city councils] funding. There’s meant to be dialogue between those groups to see how all that moves forward. We didn’t have money from that source so we haven’t been directly affected.

It’s a tricky one because I’ve been here for about 11 months now and the whole tendering process is something I’ve not been involved in before this job. I’d been on a few training courses and the advice we were given then was basically follow the money. If you apply and don’t get it, and a larger or national organisation does go and talk to them to offer your help in delivering it and subcontract.

The other change I’m conscious of is the number of local authorities that are moving their services out into new charitable organisations – I’m aware that North Tyneside has done that with their leisure services – their country parks. They’ve created a new charity, which will be able to apply for sources of funding that in the past the local authority couldn’t possibly have applied for. This will obviously put them in competition with people like us for those sources of funding. So, I can see that being a problem, I can’t define the problem but it will mean there’s more demand on funding pots as they [Local Authorities] create more charities to do this work and they all apply to the same pot. That will have an impact.

What do you think your organisation might do in the lead up to the funding coming to an end?

We’ll certainly talk to Children in Need who have funded us so far, going back to them for further funding. They are impressed with what we do and I think what we do here is fairly impressive, the kids do benefit enormously. So going back to them would be the first point of call. If that wasn’t successful or we had indications that that wouldn’t be successful we would look at other grant making bodies really. We have looked at tendering but the issue is that if you do start chasing tenders you lose sight of what you’re actually good at and end up doing things that don’t quite fit so that would be a concern really. But they do sound really attractive – you put in a tender, you get paid to cover the overheads of the organisation and away you go.

We did look at a tender for alternative education provision for 14-16 year olds in Newcastle but again it’s a very complicated process to go through and we weren’t quite ready at that stage, but that would have involved working with children who either had been excluded or at risk of exclusion from mainstream education. Many of the kids we work with now are in that bracket but we weren’t quite sure how we’d deliver that, we’d need to invent some new system and it all takes time and effort really. We only had about two weeks to complete the tender so we decided to leave it. We certainly would look at tenders but I think there are dangers for organisations who deliver quite a direct service really.

How would you describe the long term future of your organisation?

I think the future is looking fairly good…I think. We’ve just got some money from the Big Lottery Local Food Programme for two years of working with local schools to develop their food grown in the schools. There’s lots of interest in the work we do because we’re linking people with nature, the value that brings in all sorts of ways. There aren’t that many organisations in this particular neck of the woods that can do that so easily and I think we do get to the heart of some of those issues.

But we are aware that Children in Need might come back in two and a half years and say ‘no, actually you’ve had your six years now, go somewhere else for your money’ and that then puts the whole youth programme at risk and for the kids involved it’s important stuff.

Lastly, what would your key messages be to central government, commissioners and funders?

They must be aware of the fact that if they reduce the amount of money being made available to local charitable organisations then they are going to increase the competition between those groups. That can be a good thing, it could make us work more creatively and in partnership to try and deliver the same for less, so I can see in some respects that will be a positive driving force for change. But clearly when it goes too far you see things being cut that are essential to the local community. Government knows the value of the voluntary sector, they know what it brings to society, and they already know that, they’ve got the figures. If all these people providing services on a voluntary basis stop doing it, it’s a massive cost to society if that wasn’t being done. I do think it is a danger when you make every decision based on the cost of it rather than the value of it. I suppose we have seen it before from government of similar colours, where you save the money centrally and pass the problem on to people further down the line, with no real thought for the impact on the communities who rely on them and who benefit enormously from the local charities who do tremendous work.

Government has all the evidence on how important it is to engage people with the natural world. We tick so many boxes from the point of view of the mental health of people who get involved, local food production is a massive part of what we do and certainly organisations now are looking at that aspect of the local area for all sorts of reasons, including sustainability of a local food supply. The Big Lottery has put a lot of money into local food projects and we just got money from them for this.

Government know the value of what we do and there is a deluge from the top at the moment to the bottom but if there’s no money there it’s not going to happen. When we talk about individuals, all of the kids benefit enormously from the experience they have and the relationships they develop with the staff and other members of the group are just so important to them. If we weren’t doing that, that would be another group of kids not getting that level of support from anywhere really. The impact of the young people involved in the project, meeting positive role models – if those things suddenly stop, the reality is they’re back on the streets doing things that kids of those age who don’t have role models get involved in. How do you pick up the cost of that?

Amanda Hannen


Chris Francis

Scotswood Natural Community Garden

This interview forms part of work carried out by North East Child Poverty Commission, with support from VONNE, to identify the impact of the spending cuts and recession on VCS services to children and young people in the region. It forms part of the sector-wide campaign, ‘Surviving not Thriving’, led by VONNE.

Preventing the poverty premium?

On the 22nd August, the Big Lottery Fund announced that it was ‘Preventing the poverty premium’ and was investing £31million to help achieve this. I was, as one might expect, heartened when I saw this news because,as Martin Lewis, the ‘Money Saving Expert’ points out in the press release ‘it costs more to be poor’. Save the Children estimated in 2011 that the ‘poverty premium’ costs an average low income family around £1280 per year and a report by Barnardo’s at the end of 2011 highlighted the impact of high cost credit on the lives of low incomes families, calling it ‘a vicious cycle’. CPAG , in their ‘manifesto for success‘ in ending child poverty identified ‘ending the poverty premium’ as one of ten vital steps. The document states:

An authoritative analysis of the problem (with the telling subtitle: ‘the limits of competitive markets in the provision of essential services to lowincome consumers’) shows that poorer consumers get a worse deal with food, housing, water supply, telecommunications, public transport, financial services and energy.

The reason for these market failures are complex and intertwined. Access to some lower-cost goods or services may be closed to low income consumers, for example, through redlining (advertising to some groups and not to others), while access to the same cost or similar quality services may be limited because of credit records.

Differential pricing for different forms of payment exclude or disadvantage poorer groups. For example, direct debits (which exacerbate problems like fuel poverty) are more likely to be used by the well-banked majority, rather than the financially excluded. And access to cheaper goods, for example, bulk purchases at supermarkets which may need a car to access, systemically disadvantage poorer people.

However, on closer inspection of the Big Lottery programme, none of these issues are being addressed. Instead, according to the accompanying press release the focus of the projects will be on helping ‘an estimated 150,000 tenants across England become more financially aware and more confident in money management’ and it notes that ‘there has been close to a 10 per cent surge in debt relief orders since the same quarter last year’. With these comments and others throughout the document, the press release gives the impression that the fault for paying a poverty premium lies with the individuals for not being ‘savvy’ enough to negotiate what the Chair of BLF England called ‘ the maze of modern money management’. It appears to be an admission that the system is unfair and complex and the answer is to make people more aware of how unfair and complex it is, rather than making the system fairer and simpler.
There is, however, lots of evidence that suggests that the vast majority of low income families are very skilled at managing their money.Ruth Lister highlights some of this evidence in her book Poverty (2004, pp133-134), noting that Gilliat (2001)states:

many of the poor are very good managers of their poverty. They are resourceful and use their money and time with great expediency. They are precise about planning hosuehold accounts and ruthless about expenditure, savagely cutting back to keep out of debt. They set priorities and cut out luxuries. Despite this they understandably describe such work as sacrficie and relentless struggle.

Vaitlingham (2002) notes that: in general, poor people manage their finances with care, skill and resourcefulness. There is no evidence to suggest that there are two types ofpoor families – those who can cope and those who can’t although McCrone (1994) suggests that whilst a distinction can be made, it represents ‘a very fine line’.

The problem, I would argue, appears to be that there are many families who do not have sufficient money to meet their needs. An insufficient income will always be insufficient, no matter how carefully it is eked out. One might achieve, in the words of Spike Milligan, ‘a more pleasant form of misery’ with a bit of financial nous, but it is hardly likely to be life changing. George Orwell made a very good point in The Road to Wigan Pier when he wrote that we, as a society, allow families to live with in poverty and then have the cheek to tell them how to spend their limited income more wisely: ‘First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money’. And it all, of course, contributes to the narrative that people with an ‘income and resources so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which they live’ are somehow to blame for their circumstances. If these people are to blame for their circumstances, then it naturally follows that poverty can be solved by focusing on them, and not problems caused by wider society.

There is, however, sufficient wealth and resources in the UK to ensure that no-one lives in fear of poverty. The problem is with how the wealth and resources are distributed and used rather than a problem of an absolute lack of resources, which is in contrast with the families highlighted above. Finally, and in another example of what a strange society we live in, there is also the slightly unfortunate irony that it is left to a charitable fund whose sole source of income is from a form of gambling to support advice to low income families on how to manage their money better…..

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