Category Archives: social exclusion

“The human balance sheet”

Over the last couple of days, three incredibly powerful blogs or reports relating to issues of welfare reform have caught my eye. This short post is intended to highlight and promote them to readers of this blog. All 3 deal with the impact on people of the welfare reforms we are currently experiencing.

In chronological order, we’ll start with Alison Stenning’s blog on the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’. Alison’s short post on the impact of the bedroom tax on relationships ends “It’s a terrible policy, one with a potentially enormous human cost. Relationships matter and we need to take care of them.”

Alison’s post inspired Tom Slater to write ano-holds barred longer blog post drawing on the work of Marc Fried and others that highlights the extensive literature on the effects of ‘displacement’. Bringing to mind the statement that ‘we’re all in it together’, Tom notes that

Once we come to understand – and communicate more effectively – that an involuntary change change of home, like bereavement, can be a devastating disruption of the meaning of life for the person or family affected, only the coldest and cruellest policy elites and government ministers would not reflect on how they might feel if the positions were reversed

Finally, this morning saw the publication of a report called ‘Real life reform’ by the Northern Housing Consortium. This project is tracking the lives of 100 households until 2015, looking at the impact of welfare reform on them as families and individuals. The first page of the report includes the quote below from a respondent:

The pure worry of what’s going to happen has caused me anxiety. I’ve been to see the doctor… I’d rather go hungry than be cold/dark. It feels like that’s where we’re heading… I feel lost

These contributions all reminded me of a powerful section I read a while ago by Professor Mike Miller in the Introduction to ‘The Philosophy of Welfare’, a collection of selected writings by Richard Titmuss. Miller writes

Reducing expenditure on a programme not only collapses its scope but also transforms its character, leading to increased pressure to bar people from gaining access to needed aid or ending rapidly such aid. Inhumanity becomes a social policy because it keeps the costs down …

Challenging reductions in programmes or advocating restorations of some cuts require more than the examination of budgets. The effects of reduced expenditures on daily functioning is the crucial issue. A social programme is what it does daily and how it does it. The political atmosphere of the 1980s is poisoning the character of programmes and eroding their contributions; the Titmuss perspective leads us to examine the delicate processes which shape the on-going experience of those who need services and benefits. The financial balance sheet has to be compared with the human balance sheet of distress, despair, isolation and stigma.

Reading the three articles I have mentioned, it is hard to not to consider and reflect on the ‘human balance sheet’ of many of the welfare reforms. Please read them if you can.



Arbitrary lines, short-term approaches and small statistical gains

Last week, the latest figures for ‘troubled families’ whose lives have been ‘turned round’ were released. The figures, showing that 14,000 families had been ‘turned round’ were accompanied by a press release, a written statement to parliament and various interviews where the achievements of the Troubled Families Programme were lauded. Eric Pickles suggested that progress had been ‘phenomenal’ and Louise Casey said

we are finally getting to grips with problems which may have persisted for generations, giving hope to people who have often been failed in the past and relief for the communities that suffered the effects of their behaviour.

The figures, the criteria for the payment-by-results framework and the hyperbolic language prompted me to revisit a couple of statements in the government’s child poverty strategy. Firstly, on p39 of the strategy it is stated that

It has been estimated that there are around 120,000 families in England with multiple problems. Turning round the lives of these families is a core element of our strategy. (original emphasis)

Secondly – and separately from this statement – the strategy criticises the previous government’s income based approach to tackling poverty thus:

… a fixation on moving families above an arbitrary line risks distorting public spending towards short-term approaches, which provide a small statistical gain, whilst failing to provide the life-transforming support that disadvantaged families need (p20)

So we can glean from these two statements that ‘turning round’ the lives of the ‘troubled families’ is central to tackling child poverty and that this government is not going to focus on ‘short-term approaches’ which might produce some nice statistics but fail to deliver long-term change.

However, none of the outcomes required under the Troubled Families Programme Financial Framework relate to tackling poverty directly. Local authorities can claim the central government funding if relevant crime/ASB/ educational attendance outcomes OR ‘continuous employment’ is found. We know that employment doesn’t always offer an income which lifts people out of poverty and it is unlikely that large numbers of adults in ‘troubled families’ will find secure, well paid employment in the current economic climate. In fact, nationally less than 5% of the families who had been ‘turned round’ found ‘continuous employment’.

The outcomes are measured over a 6 month period, after which, if either of them are achieved, the family will have been classed as ‘turned round’, central government will pay either £700 or £800 to the local authority and no further incentive to continue to work with these families. Why should it, if their lives have been ‘turned round’? In fact, if their lives take a turn for the worse, there will still be no incentive as the TFP will only pay out one per family – to achieve maximum value for money.

We know that people’s lives are complex and many more people move in and out of poverty than stay in poverty for a long time. Therefore the behaviourist focus and the relatively short-term approach (6 months) perhaps isn’t sufficiently deep enough or long enough to make claims about ‘turning lives around’. It may even ‘risk distorting public spending towards short-term approaches’. One could even call the outcomes required ‘abitrary lines’.

Many people will remember that Nick Clegg once criticised the previous government for a ‘poverty plus a pound’ approach and he stated that it ‘is simply not an ambitious enough goal’. We might deduce from the above that, if these families lives have been ‘turned round’ then tackling the poverty which is likely to affect many of them is simply not even a goal anymore.

***I am due to start a PhD in October looking at the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme. If any of you are interested, I have blogged about the TFP a couple of time recently on a blog set up for my PhD, including a longer post on the figures released last week.

Just to be clear, the views on my own blog are mine and not those of the North East Child Poverty Commission.***

Best wishes,


Intergenerational cultures of worklessness

A JRF report exploring the idea of ‘cultures of worklessness’ and whether they are passed down the generations was published today and it has already received a lot of press coverage and comment. The report was produced by researchers from Teesside and Glasgow Universities and involved fieldwork in some of the most deprived areas of Middlesbrough and Glasgow. The research, which found no evidence of ‘3 generations of worklessness’ within the same family, suggests that:

Policy-makers and politicians need to abandon theories – and resulting policies – that see worklessness as primarily the outcome of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations

I won’t say too much more about the content of the report because it makes sense to encourage people to read it themselves.

I do, however, want to highlight two things which I think are important about the report: the strength of the arguement within in and the importance of it.

The researchers are clear that they made every effort to find families that exhibited a ‘culture of worklessness’ and were very conscious that people would claim that they had not looked hard enough. Indeed, some of the comments on newsapaper websites that have covered the report would suggest that JRF might have been better off asking members of the public to identify such families. Drawing on work by Declan Gaffney (who has published a very interesting blog on the ‘invention of worklessness’ ), the report highlights ONS stats which suggest that approximately only 0.5% of workless households ‘could be described as having members across generations who have never worked’, as can be  seen from the infographic below.


In terms of the field work, no interviewees were able to direct the researchers to families that fitted the criteria for 3 generations of worklessnesss and, despite talking to and meeting over 30 practitioners working in the local areas:

none was able to direct us to potential recruits for the study … when pushed to identify families where ‘three generations had never worked’ these practitioners were unable to do so, despite their apparent belief in the existence of such families and their close engagement with local communities.

The approach of the researchers has not yet been challenged and organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice and Policy Exchange who have talked previously about deviant cultures have yet to respond to the report, to the best of my knowledge.

The second point I would like to make about the research is how important it is at the present time. The report contains quotes about worklessness from figures such as Chris Grayling, Gordon Brown and Dame Carol Black, and Iain Duncan Smith frequently uses examples of such behaviour in his speeches:

“And those who have no interest in work … because they have seen their parents, their neighbours and their entire community sit on benefits for life … have simply had their destructive lifestyle confirmed..”


“This entrenched culture of  worklessness and dependency is not only the source of soaring welfare bills”

Even the DWP Social Justice Strategy has a section on ‘challenging the culture of worklessness’ . The idea of cultures of worklessness has also permeated down to local authorities and their partners and here are a few examples that I have come across in the North East:

Research carried out in 2010 … revealed low aspiration levels in some areas of the borough, in many cases as a result of second and third generation family unemployment.

The cultures embedded in second or third generation workless households, including benefit dependency, need to be changed

… highlighted a number of areas of concern, including … the problems of cultures of low aspiration and worklessness in some of our communities,

We will work towards enabling people to break the cycle of benefit dependency; encouraging a culture of work in every household

It will be interesting to see what the response of politicians, policy makers and practitioners is to this report. Let’s keep our eyes and ears peeled for the next mention of 2, 3, 4 or even 5 (yes I have heard it) generations of unemployed. Of course, the best way of proving the existence of intergenerational cultures of worklessness is to find families that fit the bill. And yet, nobody has found any such families – and certainly not in large enough numbers to suggest it is a cultural phenomenon.

N.B. In the interests of full disclosure, two of the authors of the report are colleagues of mine. Professor Tracy Shildrick is a member of the North East Child Poverty Commission and Professor Rob Macdonald is a member of the Institute for Local Governance Management Committee, where I am based.


We’ve been framed….

It has been suggested that we need to ‘re-frame the debate’ around child poverty and I came across an interesting article a couple of weeks ago in Evidence & Policy by Frank Mols called ‘What makes a frame persuasive? Lessons from social identity theory’. In the article, Mols argues that ‘politicians and other influential leaders appeal to our social identity by emphasising common in-group membership (‘us’)’ and that they ‘harness social identity by exagerrating intra-group homogeneity and intergroup differences’. Mols goes on to suggest that:

such exaggerations have the potential to shape public perceptions, especially if there are prejudices about the group being targeted, and it is in this way that leaders can create a public opinion wave, and subsequently surf the wave they themselves created. (my emphasis)

I thought about this article when I read a couple of commentsmade by David Cameron on the Andrew Marr show yesterday and when I heard George Osborne’s speech today at the Conservative conference. The comments are below.

Cameron – “We have to find these spending reductions and if we want to avoid cuts in things like hospitals and schools, services that we all rely on, we have to look at things like the welfare budget,”

Osborne – “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”

“We modern Conservatives represent all those who aspire, all who work, save and hope, all who feel a responsibility to put in, not just take out.”

“How can we justify a system where people in work have to consider the full financial costs of having another child, whilst those who are out of work don’t?”

Cameron thus manages to cleverly frame the welfare budget as very separate from health and education and something that not all of us rely on. People who rely on the welfare state are thus ‘othered’ and portrayed as being different from the rest of ‘us’, the ‘non-poor’. This frame is achieved by talking about universal benefits for pensioners as though they are something completely separate from the rest of the welfare state.

Osborne manages to frame benefits as generous and a lifestyle choice of those who ‘just take out’, carefully closing off the truth that many working families rely on benefits and tax credits to make ends meet. The next door neighbour ‘sleeping off a life on benefits’ and the carefree, promiscuous out of work families who have children ‘knowing’ the state is there to write a blank cheque for them (prejudices perhaps?) are contrasted with ‘us’, ‘those who aspire, work, save and hope.’ The potential to move between the two categories of ’employed’ and ‘unemployed’ doesn’t appear to be an option, with both categories being ‘framed’ as static and absolute.

Returning to Mols, he suggests that a ‘frame is expected to be strong when it (a) successfully evokes an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ categorisation’, (b) explicitly portrays the issue as a choice for or against ‘our values’, and (c) implicitly portrays those who disagree as hostile to their own group.

Still, it’s reassuring to know that the government do use ‘evidence’ of some sort when designing their policies, especially, as Professor Alex Stevens has suggested, if it fits with the story already being told



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.

CPAG Guest post: The death of the social fund?

Guest post by Rys Farthing

One of the many welfare reforms currently underway is the localisation of the social fund. Currently administered by the DWP, the discretionary elements of the social fund are being devolved to local authorities, who will each need to develop and implement their own localised replacement schemes by April 2013.

 However, the funding made available to each local authority to develop a localised replacement scheme represents a significant reduction in the funding that was previously provided to households in each region. Based on a sample of 12 Local Authorities who shared the details of their settlement with CPAG, the average reduction in funding for the social fund replacement schemes in 2013/14 compared to the funding for the nationally administered Social Fund in 2011/12 is 13.9%, rising to 15.6% in 2014/15.(1) However there was significant variation across regions, with some regions indicative settlements being 5.8% lower in 2011/12 than 2013/14, spanning up to a massive 20.4% lower.

The percentage reduction in “social fund scheme” spends between 2011/12 and 2013/14 and 2014/15 across 11 different Local Authorities.

These reductions continue a recent trend in reducing support available for the social fund. Reforms introduced in 2011 meant that Crisis Loans were no longer available for items such as beds and cookers (exceptions were allowable for disasters such as after a flood); the rate of living expenses was reduced from 75% to 60%, and a cap of three loans per year was introduced. These were significant changes in themselves and already represent a reduction in the support that was available to households for many years previous. If you compared the reductions indicated in the settlement letters with the amount of help available in each region in 2010/11 (before this first round of reforms were introduced), the localisation of the scheme represents an even more significant cut. For example in one local authority, comparing the indicative settlement for 2013/14 with the actual 2010/11 spend highlighted a 41.6% reduction (2). The social fund was already under pressure before its localisation.

 While Local Authorities received around 20% on top for administration (which simply reflected the costs of administering the scheme at a national level), many authorities CPAG spoke to were worried that this amount, combined with start up grants as low as £4,000, would not adequately cover the costs of developing and implementing an entirely new scheme by April 2013. Some felt that they would need to dip into programme funding during the first year to cover these costs – further increasing pressure on the funding available to develop a localised scheme.

 On top of these pressures on the scheme, settlements to authorities are not ring-fenced. At a time when councils are feeling the strain of overall budget cuts and attempting to localise council tax benefit cuts fairly, pressure on any localised scheme is going to be intense. So intense that many authorities we spoke to are worried that even referring to their schemes as “social fund replacement schemes” will set claimants expectations too high. One of the core messages authorities wanted to send to central government was to stop saying the social fund was localising and to start saying it was being abolished to help them manage expectations. As one local authority officer recently said to us, ‘The social fund is not being localised, the social fund is dead’.

 CPAG is opposed to the government’s plans to abolish the social fund and leave councils to fill the gap with fewer funds. The death of the social fund is risking the wellbeing of children and families and could potentially leave them with nowhere to go to meet exceptional needs, for example when they have no cooker to feed their children or bed for them to sleep in. Ministers will need to be ready to intervene in the eventuality that local authorities are unable to meet the need.

Rys Farthing

Senior Policy Officer, CPAG 

CPAG has produced two reports about the social fund:

How the social fund can be delivered at a local level in London and the Localisation of the social fund – and note for and from practitioners (England)

(1). Calculated by comparing the indicative settlement figures provided to Local Authorities by DWP to data about Social Fund spends in regions for April-Sept 2011/12 which have been doubled out, to estimate a full year spend. OBR CPI predictions used to keep calculations real to 2011/12 value.

(2). Compared to a 13.6% reduction between 2011/12 and 2013/14 in the same Local Authority.

Surviving or Thriving case study: The Junction

Guest post by Amanda Hannen (VONNE)

Tees Valley has some of the most deprived areas in the country. The Junction is providing more and more support to children and young people in Tees Valley as they face increasing economic and social pressures and the children they work with are coming forward with issues at a much younger age.

On one contract The Junction has lost 50% of its funding from the Local Authority and yet is working hard, creatively and successfully to meet the increased demand for their services, seeing up to 300 children and young people a month.

The Junction strives to make a positive difference to the lives of disadvantaged children, young people and families in the Tees Valley. The organisation prides itself in being somewhere that children, young people and their families feel able to approach for support when they need it.

The Junction believes the key to success is building positive relationships over time, which requires sustainable funding and continuity of provision.  Talking about the value of their work, Chief Executive Lawrence McAnnelly states:

“One young women is 17 and we’ve worked with her over a period of 8 years, that’s half her life.  When you hear this it starts to sink home that it’s more than just a contract for 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, the commitment has been for half that girl’s life, we’ve been one of the constants in what has been a complex and challenging life.

The Junction are responding to the funding cuts by working hard to demonstrate the difference they make, by being competitive and working in partnership with other organisations locally to provide the best service possible. However, funding is required to continue to deliver such a vital service.

Part of competition is essentially to drive up quality and drive down price and I see that, I recognise it’s a major part of our society but we’ve got to get the balance right.  I think for young people there is a massive danger that we just leave them behind, particularly in the North East.  I do worry that we’re going to get lots of children and young people that just get lost and their futures will be severely prohibited.

We’ve seen an increase in demand for services but I’m guarded because we’re now recording this much, much better than we’ve ever done before. For instance, our figures for last year talk about 145 young people per month, now it’s more like 250-290 per month. There are two things, we’re collecting the data better and there’s an increase in demand for services.

I think the pressures on young people are increasing– it feels like we’re going back 20 years in terms of what’s potentially happening around unemployment, complex issues they’re facing, of lack of services etc. I think it’s bubbling, I think some of the lack of services will hit home at some point in time. I do worry about the generation now planning for their future, I worry that young people may just almost give up or settle for less.

Recently we went down to London to collect an award for a film some of the young carers had made. Afterwards we walked down Pall Mall and Buckingham Palace and I realised actually, there are more affluent places than Grangetown and Southbank in Redcar. There’s no Poundland down the Pall Mall’. It’s really sad that a man of my age needs to do that to think – it hits home that things aren’t equal by any stretch of the imagination and it feels very, very much like there’s a high degree of inequality and that we’re used to dealing with people at the bottom end or towards the bottom end of that.”

Karl a young carer and volunteer at The Junction – the photo above is as he receives a Young Leader Award at the North East VCS Awards Ceremony 2011

This post forms part of a series of posts looking at how voluntary sector organisations working with children and young people in the North East are coping with austerity measures and budget cuts.

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