By Warren Escadale, Acting Chief Executive, Voluntary Sector North West

This is a momentous time for Greater Manchester. The details about control over £6bn of current health & social care spend are about to be announced. What happens in Greater Manchester could set the tone for devolution in England and should act as a clear signal to the voluntary and community sector in England to take this agenda seriously.

The emphasis on health and social care – in many ways our sector’s core business – could be very good news. Rather than the loss of this agenda, this could be where health and social care connects to and influences a growth agenda. Growth with a wellbeing focus, attuned to population health and population approaches, determined to tackle health inequality, with a sophisticated understanding of the connections between life expectancy, confidence, career and happiness, could represent something far beyond the simple integration of services.

My hope is that this model of devolution means that ‘wellbeing’ (individual and collective) is given a central role. So, for example, when there are conversations about how the Work Programme works, there should be a focus on wellbeing and jobs: wellbeing creates the confidence and journey that gets a job, gets a career, that creates happiness, and that builds community. I also hope that key tenets, like those outlined in NHS England’s Five Year Forward View about “a new relationship with patients and communities”, are cherished and championed.

However, greater thought needs to be given to how the voluntary and community sector operates across these new emerging territories – apparently there are 40 Combined Authorities in the pipeline, including many counties. We need to make effective, collective strategic offers connected to and influencing emerging models and structures. While I’m not sure I’m advocating a series of mini-constitutional conventions in every devolved patch, democracy, accountability and genuine consultation do need serious consideration. Obviously, I want more community involvement, a fuller role and broader partnership with the voluntary and community sector, a greater emphasis on social action and investment in the right VCS infrastructure.

In the immediate future, I think local HealthWatch CEOs and Chairs, VCS reps on local Health and Wellbeing structures, leading local and specialist VCS infrastructure agencies and lay representatives on CCGs need to think about how the people and communities they work for are more intrinsically involved in the future of their local devolved world.

Let’s not wait for devolution to come to us.  That could well be the wrong kind of devolution!


By Warren Escadale, Acting Chief Executive, Voluntary Sector North West

VSNW welcomes the final report of The Independent Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure, of which we were proud to be a constituent member. The report provides the opportunity to put the issue of infrastructure (what it needs to do, how it needs to adapt, and how it needs to be supported and financed) firmly back on the national agenda. The Commission states that: “If the message to funders is to invest, the message to infrastructure has to be to change. This must be a ‘something for something’ deal.”

Clearly, we need to find ways to seize the moment and pick up the momentum created by the report. It needs further action and VSNW, for instance, will talk to local, regional and national partners about the way forward.

I think we need to develop a ‘deal’ that includes the sector more broadly (not just infrastructure). It is up to us to develop that discussion, and more importantly to develop mechanisms to effectively reconnect our sector – in reality and rhetoric – to a social change agenda. Infrastructure is a vital means to do that. And the leadership of the Lottery in thinking and action as a catalytic investor is evidently necessary.

Too often, we seem to be on the back foot, caught between plugging the growing gaps in the welfare state and competing in a public service delivery agenda that tends to compromise our values, and even sometimes put us at odds with the very communities we strive to work for. Fenced-in, pigeon-holed and divided, we obsess about infrastructure without consciously connecting it to our sector’s grander vision, mission and potential.

I know this sounds like words, but this is the central policy issue of our time. We keep being told we are marginal players in this world, but we really are not, and this is why…

Consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, public sector partners, think-tanks, academics, politicians, and policy-makers inevitably come back to the issue of change. More concretely, at this moment the biggest ‘wicked issue’ of all is: Do we fix or do we grow communities?

For me, this is about how we develop alternatives to the model of Broken Britain, troubled families, spot purchasing, and deficit-driven intervention models. This is where we need to talk about lasting change, created through a focus on quality of life and wellbeing.

There are allies and there are new alliances to be made. I think the relationship with a public health agenda and the public health world is vital at this point and it’s pleasing to see that Public Health England are returning to regional structures in the summer. We need to think clearly about how we engage, support, challenge and nurture this crucial relationship and the work of Directors of Public Health where we can and get involved in essential discussions about what might be called (amongst many other things) “untapping community assets”.

As part of that conversation, we need to re-imagine and re-engineer the functions and internal relations of our world of big and small, national and local, and policy and implementation. This is the context – ‘growing communities’ – that gives our sector and our infrastructure purpose and immeasurable value. So, as well as talking to infrastructure, we will be talking to larger VCSE providers about how we make this rhetoric a reality.

If you are a larger VCSE provider that operates in the North West, and are interested in attending a roundtable discussion from 12noon to 2pm on Thursday 26th March, please contact me –

Voluntary Sector North West welcomes and supports the recommendations of Due North, the Inquiry on Health Equity for the North.

The inquiry shines further light on structural inequality – what Professor Marmot described in his 2010 review as the ‘organisation of misery’ – and its impact on health in England. The report makes the case for how the lack of social and economic opportunity in many areas of the North intertwines with poor health and reduced life expectancy. The link that the report identifies between health, poverty and quality of life from birth is compelling reason alone for actions that address this surely intolerable situation.

Where Due North strikes new ground is in its emphasis on addressing the economic causes of health inequity. We endorse the inquiry’s recommendation for a rebalanced relationship between local and national control over budgets and powers. However this is, as the inquiry makes clear, on the understanding that “budgets and powers are decentralised and used in ways that reduce economic and health inequalities”.

Devolution needs to include a clear understanding about what we need and how we work towards addressing the deepest long term challenges facing our communities.

Headline recommendations from the report:
1. Tackle poverty and economic inequality within the North, and between the North and the rest of England
2. Promote healthy development in early childhood
3. Share power over resources and increase the influence that the public has on how resources are used to improve the determinants of health
4. Strengthen the role of the health sector in promoting health equity.

Ben Barr, one of the lead authors, will discuss the report at our conference on 15th October.To book your place, visit the VSNW website.

VSNW Involvement
It was an honour for VSNW to be involved with the work of the inquiry but now we need to talk more fully with our voluntary and community sector partners about how we, as a sector, play a fuller role in tackling health inequity in the North and contributing to delivering the inquiry’s recommendations.

In thinking about our role in ‘healthy economies’ (as a sector) and how infrastructure organisations like VSNW and Regional Voices can better support the sector, we have identified a number of areas of potential activity (please see below). Also, we will meet with the Regional Director of the North of England Team in the next few weeks to discuss ways forward.

Potential actions for the voluntary and community sector in addressing health inequity:
1. Understand how voluntary and community groups can contribute to local intelligence about health inequity, and how this intelligence can be ‘translated’ into local action
2. Support community leads to get involved on the understanding that communities can influence, share in driving change, co-design and co-commission place-based services and connect to professional expertise
3. Support the development of intelligent local investment strategies that build connections (networks) and community capacity (knowledge, opportunities, motivation) especially with regard to early years’ public service delivery outcomes
4. Re-energise sector involvement in delivering holistic employment support with an emphasis on the person and on building confidence, wellbeing and opportunities
5. Strive to become Living Wage employers and ensure that volunteering is not used as a form of job substitution.
6. Develop an effective voluntary sector workforce strategy, e.g. in a developing early years’ delivery landscape.

Please contact me with your thoughts:

By Warren Escadale, Policy & Research Manager, Voluntary Sector North West

The Cabinet Office is consulting on a fund to support the voluntary and community sector’s sustainability. This is their major consultation on funding for the sector’s future in the run-in to the next general election.

However, it seems that, in the consultation’s focus on medium-sized organisations, that a lot of the Cabinet Office’s thinking has already been done. This is my quick interpretation of the assumptions that are made within the consultation:

• The emphasis on sustainable medium-sized organisations will inevitably focus on delivering public services and finding ways to subsidise delivery. Some of the ways envisioned will be innovative and rely on the best aspects of people, whilst others will be part of a race to the bottom for the sector as employers and for our collective reputation. Either way, the focus is on the sector’s relationship to its community via public services.
• The extent to which Cabinet Office funding will genuinely grow the market is questionable. It won’t create more contracts and may simply be the means to displace one provider with another. For those that might applaud the possibility of a private sector provider being replaced by one of our gang, it will be because of the leverage dragged in (and taken from elsewhere in the community). What was once seen as the sector’s “added value” has become its subsidy to the cost of public service delivery.
• DWP’s definition of vulnerability (used in the consultation) is about individuals rather than geographies and markets, and it ignores local strategies and activities. There’s a nod to equality but no understanding of places, and how places vary; no localism. That’s left to the market, which, where we’re dealing with places typified by market failure, isn’t an adequate answer. It clearly ignores the advice of the report we carried out with New Local Government Network in 2011, Realising Community Wealth, which stated: “Whitehall should do more to understand the social complexities of communities and use that knowledge to better inform policy formation and resource allocation”.
• The focus on sustainability seems misguided. As Richard Caulfield, VSNW’s Chief Executive has stated: “not all that is good is sustainable and not all that is sustainable is good”. There’s two important aspects to consider here. Firstly, should the emphasis be on creating sustainable communities, rather than sustainable charities; on creating sustainable social action, rather than sustainable public service delivery? Secondly, a sustainable market may tend to create dependence in beneficiaries rather than independence. How can this be addressed?

The big gap for us, however, is context and by that I mean: place, place, place. Cabinet Office seems a long way away from specifics, local conversations and local places. This seems like yet another top-down programme full of all the Cabinet Office’s own Open Public Service principles except for decentralisation.

The logic of the fund is that vulnerable people are best helped by high quality services, which are driven by good business models, which are driven by better competition, which is driven by contracting and this works the same everywhere. That’s just not the case and the fund looks like a one-size fits all approach chucking cash into the ether.

We think different places need different answers and, indeed, have different answers.

So what’s our response? We want to propose a different fund that is genuinely about the future strategic direction of the voluntary and community sector. On what basis? We think that in every area, there is at least one serious conversation about the future role of the sector, and we’ve been part of some of those discussions. We know they haven’t been easy conversations but they have been built on negotiation and local context. We would like to know more about those conversations and local plans for the future of the sector, in particular the more positive ones, and based on this evidence, we think that a fund could be proposed that:

1. Is more positive about the sector’s role in a place, and
2. connects to local conversations about the future role of the sector in a place.
We will use the evidence we gather to reply to the Cabinet Office’s consultation (their response deadline is 24th July). And, we will use the evidence gathered to develop a proposal for a new fund, with the aim of encapsulating an offer as well as an ask (which helps to hone concentration), for the future of the sector.

Underpinning our approach is our work on Thriving Places.

If you’d like to take part, please email at or ring me on 07753 147664. I hope to be able to contact at least one person in each area of the North West in the next few weeks and am open to conversations with public sector commissioners too. Please feel free to name names!!

By Daniel Silver, Co-Director, Social Action & Research Foundation

“There has never been less sympathy for people on welfare benefits…Just 19 per cent believe benefits are too low and are causing hardship….It shows that the public now accepts that locking people into the benefits system is not just costly and wasteful: it is also socially destructive and immoral.”
(Daily Telegraph, September 2012)

There is a huge gap between perception and reality that is shaping the wider public debate about the government’s increasingly punitive welfare reform agenda. Research by YouGov showed that the average public perception is that 41% of Britain’s social security budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, when the fact is that just 3% does. The reality simply doesn’t fit with the government’s rhetoric on ‘scroungers’ but the public widely believe it.

We must ask ourselves how this has happened. It is important.

The media clearly have a major responsibility in shaping public attitudes. The BBC3 programme ‘People like Us’ broadcast last year was advertised as depicting ‘real’ life in Harpurhey, north Manchester. However it received strong criticism from local residents, one of whom, Richard Searle described it as: “Jeremy Kyle-style, laugh-at-the-chavs type of television.”

Beyond these sensationalised programmes, the reality is that people who receive social security are people like us – research by the New Policy Institute showed that 40% of all working families with children were receiving benefits in 2012. However the consistent flow of information through the media creates a different perception in the minds of the wider public. Indeed, even people who are on benefits tend to distance themselves from those identified as ‘scroungers.’ Research by Shildrick and MacDonald showed that such dissociation from ‘the poor’ reflects long-running stigma and shame but is given extra force by current forms of ‘scroungerphobia’

Panorama’s “Don’t Cap My Benefits” was the latest in the production line of TV programmes that have focused on people receiving benefits. These programmes are perpetuating powerful myths, which resonate with the government’s welfare reform agenda: that our society is made up of scroungers that don’t deserve social security and life must be made tougher for them as they are a drain on the economy and public purse, and need incentives to work.

This is consistent with a view of the world that blames people for their own poverty.

The influential American political theorist Charles Murray identified an underclass of people who are not “merely poor, but often at the margins of society, unsocialised and often violent.” This focuses on stereotypes that explain poverty not through economic factors and social inequality, but rather as a result of the flawed characteristics of people living in poverty. However, the evidence shows that the majority of people want to work, but are often stuck within a cycle of low-pay and no-pay – forced into ‘welfare dependency’ by the labour market and not due to a particular lifestyle choice.

Imogen Tyler, Co-director of the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, explains how stereotypes and stigmatisation are to be understood through their increasing use as a means of control as inequality rises and social security is eroded. Instead of challenging the government, scapegoats become the main focus of anger from the public. Through recent times, we have seen “refugees transformed into bogus asylum-seekers, unemployed young people into feckless chavs [and] people with disabilities into welfare cheats.” According to Tyler, such classifications of undeserving people “cut deep into popular consciousness, [and] are transformed into symbolic and material scapegoats for the social decomposition effected by market deregulation that has a negative, degrading impact upon us all.”

There is a role for the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in being able to challenge these damaging myths. People living and working in communities that are depicted in such crude (and at times inhuman) ways, know that the realities are very different to that shown to us through television screens and in the newspapers. The VCS has a particularly powerful part to play in supporting people desperately trying to find work, or who are struggling to put food on the table; it provides emergency relief for people who have been sanctioned through an increasingly cruel and irrational system; it works with incredible people who have overcome unbelievable challenges in their lives to succeed in spite of the huge inequalities in our society. Many people in the VCS know that these welfare reforms are socially destructive and immoral.

A journalist once told me that the media are not interested in covering poverty. If they wanted to, they could easily find it. However, these stories must be heard. The voluntary and community sector need to become more annoying and begin to demand attention in different ways – otherwise we could see our collective social security eroded further and further until we simply have no safety net left.

The media do make a difference in shaping public awareness of the realities of welfare reform. They shouldn’t just be left to it.

By Warren Escadale, Policy and Research Manager, Voluntary Sector North West

I hope you’ve had a chance to look at Thriving Places, the campaign we have just launched with The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). For us it represents an important statement about the future direction of the sector and its role in local economies and places. We know that the social and the economic are, in reality, two sides of the same coin (one shinier than the other?) and yet the systems that allow this kind of joined-up thinking and working are rare. We think this needs to change and that this is a good time to make that happen.

There’s a developing debate about what a ‘good economy’ looks like. Leading economists have highlighted the central importance of building human capital and inclusive economies. The Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen makes the case for focussing on human capabilities and the idea that economic growth must be built on social reforms (education, public health) that give people the chance to engage economically. Nancy Folbre is reassessing what should, at least in policy terms, count from an economic perspective (e.g. caring for relatives) while Joseph Stieglitz (another Nobel prize winning economist) makes the cases for how inequality is holding back growth and how trickle-down economics can be seen as a myth (20 minute TedX talk, drawing on his book, The Price of Inequality, 2012). These aren’t isolated statements. A recent Associated Press survey (2013) of 36 US private, corporate and academic economists agreed with Stieglitz. And this comes amid a series of highly significant policy papers and literature reviews conducted by the International Monetary Fund which has been analyzing the impact of income inequality on growth and sustainable growth, in particular:

So, in short, what does this mean? For me, the big lesson from this growing evidence base is something ridiculously grand about the importance, and important interrelationship, of social and economic inclusion. They are two sides of a coin that drives sustainable growth.

It doesn’t take a huge leap to see that the voluntary and community sector should have a crucial role in creating a ‘good local economy’. Thriving Places, which builds on our own and CLES’ work and thinking, identifies three important aspects where the sector’s role needs developing:

  1. The sector is a significant economic actor in its own right. It includes the excluded. It grows where markets fail. It delivers holistic (social and economic) approaches.
  2. The sector can connect the social and the economic. It enriches the lives of workers. It supports entrepreneurial activity. It builds local economic vibrancy and resilience through community institutions and networks. It supports the creation of human and social capital. It can support those far from employment into employment.
  3. The sector can reduce public service demand (eg by mobilising relevant and willing community assets). It mobilises social power and builds self-reliant communities, grows community assets, and supports codesign and coproduction. It can change social norms. It can build self-help, wellbeing and community-resilient models of organisation.

To do this we think we need to more fully demonstrate the sector’s role in a place and community, and how this can be developed (without sleepwalking into job substitution). We need the right evidence, language and resources and we need, as a sector, to be clear about our own collective purpose and role in those places and communities. 

We know the conversations are changing, we know that the public sector is going to see far more cuts (we are not half way with the planned cuts) and increased pressures and we know that the local systems will continue to change. We can see very gradual system change beginning to bring the social and the economic closer together: City Deals, whole-place Community Budgets, new council-driven public health activity drawing on the learning of the Marmot Review into the socio-economic determinants of health inequality and possibly the evaluation of the Lottery’s Wellbeing Programme (2007/2012). Also, there has been the recent development of local EU Strategic and Investment Fund Strategies (2014/20) with their earmarked social (and economic) inclusion remit, and, potentially, the new local Growth Deals currently being negotiated by Local Enterprise Partnerships. 

I looked up NCVO’s advice on how to run an effective campaign. It said identify champions of your cause. I think this campaign is more about making people champions of their own cause – providing the right tools and supporting thinking – but as a small step, I think we should stop saying ‘social inclusion’ when we talk about the role of the voluntary and community sector. In some ways this phrase has lost its meaning. What we really mean is ‘social and economic inclusion’. How about we say that’s our job instead?

By Richard Caulfield, Chief Executive, Voluntary Sector North West

At the beginning of February the Cabinet Office announced where the £4.2million democratic engagement money would be spent. I tweeted them earlier that week asking when we would find out so was delighted to see an announcement made so soon (I’m not suggesting a tweet from myself had such an influence!)

The trouble is the announcement has raised more questions than it answers so let me go back to the beginning. 

On 4th July 2013, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform launched the £4.2 million fund. We then received an email in early August and a deadline was set for 21st August for expressions of interest. Workshops were run and the feedback I had from them was that the government were looking for good local innovative ideas from the sector. There was always an aspect of this fund that suggested local authorities had a part to play but there was significant courting of local voluntary organisations, especially the youth sector.

The bid deadline was short and over the summer months – they had to be submitted by 3rd September. Not particularly good practice but then they wanted the projects up and running quickly as the deadline for delivery is 31st March 2014 (about eight weeks from when the recent winning bids announcement was made).

We received a couple of approaches to be part of partnership bids at VSNW but opted to direct people to more local groups and specialists working with young people. Organisations strapped for cash and resource found time to come together over August to develop real innovation and local solutions to an issue I think we all agree needs tackling. So fast forward six months and organisations had not been informed what had happened to the bids. As far as I know, there had been radio silence until now when the winners have been announced, and there are some surprises. 

Firstly there are only five winners, receiving funding totalling £215,932, who are named. Worthy organisations but notably national – nothing that has a local feel about it except that is, of course, for the catch all ‘shared by local authorities’ in the press release.

Secondly which local authorities will share the funding? Is the other £4m being shared between them all? If so it won’t go far! We need to understand if this split was always the plan. I reckon that if you added up the amount the sector put into in the bidding process for this fund, it is more than the £215k we have benefited from it as a whole and if that was always the size of the pot I don’t think it would have generated the interest it did.

Finally, what troubles me is that this is the Cabinet Office treating the sector shoddily. Cabinet Office, home of the Office for Civil Society, should be at the forefront of good practice with the sector, championing full cost recovery, operating to realistic timescale and being transparent, not letting us down like this.

I would like some basic questions answering by Cabinet Office that would help us understand what has happened here and prevent such things happening again:

  • Why was the funding delayed between September and now?
  • Who has received the other £4million and to do what?
  • How many applications were initially received from the VCS?
  • What was the value of the submissions made by the VCS in total?

Let’s learn from the mistakes made here please and let’s not treat the sector like this again. We need to be able to trust each other and the way this has been handled has not helped build that trust.

By Tessa Willow, Chief Executive, Volunteer Centre Liverpool

…When it’s compulsory activity mandated by Job Centre Plus.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the latest scheme to help people who are unemployed, with mention of ‘compulsory volunteering’ as part of the ‘Help to Work’ programme. DWP do not refer to it as volunteering but others are starting to, which is muddying the waters. These ‘Community Work Placements’ are NOT volunteering as people are not freely choosing to participate in them, but rather will be faced with benefits sanctions if they do not engage in the compulsory placements.

The part of this which does have an element of freedom of choice is whether or not voluntary sector organisations decide to be involved in this scheme as providers of ‘placements’.

Volunteer Centre Liverpool will NOT be having anything to do with this scheme and we cannot tell voluntary organisations whether or not they should get involved. However, we would strongly recommend that if this has come across your desk, or is being suggested to you by others in your organisation (or by DWP / Job Centre Plus) as a potential source of more volunteers, then you should read this recent article on the Guardian website and the comments below it (especially the one by PantherCap), before you make any decisions.

If after reading the article and the subsequent comments, you still think this programme could be a good idea for your organisation then read the information on the requirements of placements providers. You should then ask yourself if, in all good conscience, you could report someone for not turning up or being late, knowing that their benefits will then be stopped.

We would be very interested to hear your views on this – please contact

By Daniel Silver and Amina Lone, The Social Action & Research Foundation

There has been much discussion recently about the issue of in-work poverty in the UK. To have any chance of transforming the lives of people on low pay, we need to reveal the complex dimensions of poverty and make visible that which is often neglected in mainstream debates. Highlighting the high representation of ethnic minorities in low paid work, we must not forget how people from different backgrounds are affected in different ways.

The nature of poverty is changing and today more people living in poverty are working than are out of work. The injustice of low pay is increasing throughout the UK – since 2009 the number of workers earning less than a living wage – the amount considered adequate to achieve a minimum standard of living – has mushroomed, from 3.4 million to 4.8 million. One woman who is supported by Wai Yin Chinese Women Society explains that “my husband and me work six days per week, ten hours per day, just to manage our daily living. We only can work in Chinese restaurants, because we cannot speak English”

Austerity has contributed towards this, but clearly poverty existed before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and there are persistent structural inequalities that reach deep into the heart of our society which need to be dealt with. To have any chance of transforming the lives of people on low pay, we need to reveal the complex dimensions of poverty and make visible that which is often neglected in mainstream debates. One of these complexities is the clear connection between how levels and experiences of poverty are affected by people’s ethnic identities. We can see this through stark facts which show that young black people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared to young white people and almost half of all Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers in the UK earn less than £7 an hour.

Around two-fifths of people from ethnic minorities live in low-income households, twice the rate for white people, although there are also clear variations by ethnic group and gender that must be considered. Furthermore, there are also geographical dimensions to this, as although people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be in income poverty than white British people wherever they live, evidence shows that the extent of the difference is much greater in inner London and the English north and midlands than elsewhere. The evidence is clear, but as Stephen Crossley asks: are ethnic minority workers in low paid jobs hiding in plain sight?

The high representation of ethnic minorities in low-paid work means that those who seek to address the issue of low pay must consider how people from different backgrounds are affected in different ways. At the same time, anti-racism campaigners need to consider the scourge of low-pay more centrally. As local Manchester activist Tony Wright says “It is beyond black and white now, and is also about the colour of money.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is currently undertaking a far-reaching programme to better understand the relationship between ethnicity and poverty which will be published this spring. This has included an in-depth look into a range of issues. For instance, the research showed that social networks can provide an essential safety net, but at the same time can limit people within circles of their own communities, which can serve to reproduce inequalities by providing important access to employment, but that is often restricted into low paid jobs which relied on informal recruitment processes. Research into the relationship between caring and earning reveals the impact of caring for children, disabled children and older relatives that demands more flexible working patterns in order to be able to provide the necessary balance, but can trap people (predominantly women) into low paid and part-time work. Finally, the JRF’s research into the impacts of employer behaviour and the nature of local labour markets clearly provides further evidence which shows that discrimination continues to have an impact on people’s life chances, particularly those on low-pay.

These results point to a complicated picture of poverty and racism in the UK and provide policy-makers and communities with more knowledge on how to change things for the better. The campaign for a living wage is an important strategy for improving the position of low paid workers, but for it to be truly transformational there must also be a consideration of how the labour market currently disadvantages people from ethnic minority backgrounds in terms of trapping them into low paid work.

The JRF’s research shows us the importance of access to good jobs and progression opportunities once people are in work. Within this, the intersecting dimensions of ethnicity and gender must be considered throughout. As Fran Bennett points out: ‘workers who are female, part-time on temporary or casual contracts and working in the private sector are at greater risk of low paid work.’ More secure positions are needed for the many women that are often forced into taking on part-time and low paid work in order manage their caring responsibilities and survive daily life. The very nature of work must change to become more flexible for workers and not just employers, while affordable childcare needs to become more accessible for all communities, particularly those on low pay. Beyond this, more value must be placed upon the role of unwaged caring in our society; anti-poverty strategies have to recognise that employment alone must not be the only approach, as many women rely on access to non-income resources to maintain financial security and are being further exposed by austerity.

The beauty of the Living Wage campaign is the simplicity of its message: that everyone deserves to be paid a wage that can ensure a decent standard of living. But for it to be truly successful, it must not forget the complexity of inequality and poverty that we face in twenty-first century Britain.

By Warren Escadale, Policy & Research Manager, Voluntary Sector North West

George Osborne announced on Monday (6th January) his intention to ‘Finish the Job’. I’d just like to be clear about what this means and how it will affect the North West. 

Just one month ago the chancellor presented the Autumn Statement which, for the first time in this parliament, presented the last section of the path to balanced finances and fiscal prudence. It stated that by 2018/19, we will start paying off the national debt and will be at a prudent, manageable, crisis-free, point in our national finances.

On Monday he said that the goal is to further cut welfare spending and then to cut taxes for “hard-working people” (which was later spun as hard-working low-income families). In short, funding for the very poorest and most in need will be taken away and will be redistributed to tax payers. I think there’s two things to note here. Firstly, it is hard to see how such a tax cut will be targeted in order to particularly benefit low-income families rather than everyone except those that don’t pay enough tax. Even if we think this is a good model of social responsibility, the continued use of the phrase hard-working low-income families needs to be watched and challenged. This is nearly as misleading and belittling as poverty being equated with benefit scrounging. 

Secondly, there are geographical implications to such redistribution. It’s not as simple as north-south, but it does move money away from families and communities affected by poverty and move it to families and communities that are succeeding. Money will move away from individuals and families where markets work poorly and move it to areas blessed by the markets. Simply put, the winners win and the losers lose; the bigger the winner the bigger the win, etc. And this has genuine geographical implications. Without saying it, we’re being asked to endorse, as part of ‘The Job’, a managed-decline-plus plan.

The chancellor went further and essentially described cuts as good in themselves. A small state – which will be back to 1948 levels by 2018 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies – is not necessary but desirable. The chancellor made it clear that fiscal prudence and austerity (previously immovable bedfellows in the national narrative) are not the same thing. 

So when the chancellor says, “Let’s Finish the Job”, we need to make sure we understand what job he means. It’s worth noting that this has even unnerved Iain Duncan-Smith, who today described the plans as “unbalanced”, and a source close to the DWP Secretary of State described the focus on benefit recipients as “hacking at the same people”.

Let’s be clear. We are being asked to commit to a plan that gives up on those that dip below an ever-rising level of poverty. No safety net, no ladders, no ropes, sink or swim – neatly summarised by the news that the last vestiges of the social crisis fund (local authority’s hardship fund for families facing emergencies) is to be abolished. This welfare state lacks the vision of 1948 and is deeply at odds with the British notion of commonwealth that has stood at the heart of our state and national culture for centuries.  This does not reflect my understanding of social responsibility.

In my view, the chancellor’s plan is bad news for struggling families and communities that, despite green shoots elsewhere, may now never recover from the recession should this current economic strategy continue. Now that austerity does not mean fiscal prudence, the debate about the future role of the state in building good economies, intervening in market failure and tackling poverty needs to be challenged and seized. Obviously, this needs to be done in new ways. 

For a calmer summary of the implications of the Autumn Statement 2013 for the welfare state and for economic strategy, please see VSNW’s Briefing #87.  For a less calm vision of how fiscal prudence and austerity are not necessarily the same thing, you can see the economist Dr. Richard D. Wolff talking about the cynical use of “austerity” – it’s conspiratorial and simplistic, but a striking analysis of austerity.

For me, this is now the moment when values about the future, about growth, can once again be discussed as part of the mainstream political debate.  And, I think, a renewed conversation about the role of the voluntary and community sector in relation to the welfare state and economic strategy.