Thursday, 28 October 2010


I have been thinking a lot about fairness this week seeing as the Coalition Government places such emphasis on it to justify decisions about welfare benefits in the Comprehensive Spending Review. My guess is the idea of fairness is 'hard-wired' into family life as we grow up - if there is a cake for tea everyone will want their fair share! Hasn't every child complained 'It's Not Fair!' at some point meaning they feel victim to some injustice? But I am not sure that 'Fairness' is an absolute concept in itself, I think it is more the means by which a social value is measured?

As far as I can see there are at least two models of 'fairness' in our society and we seem happy to use both at the same time, even though they contradict each other. On the one hand is the 'hunter' model - I am the hunter, through my own skill, daring and courage I kill the beast; am I not entitled to as much of the meat as I chose for myself? Anything left over can be shared with the others. And on the other hand is the 'mutual' model - we can all be the victim of bad luck, illness or accident may strike at any time through no fault of our own but when it does we can rely on the group to help us recover. The first finds it's expression in banker's bonuses and the second in the NHS and, until very recently the benefit system. Incidentally the RSA reports research evidence that we all routinely attribute our own success to hard work and talent and the success of others to their good fortune!

I have been worrying why I feel so uncomfortable about the use of 'fairness' to justify public policy. It is because it is not clear which model we are talking about in which context - applying the 'hunter' model in the context of NHS would logically mean complete privatisation of all healthcare; everyone would have to look after and pay for their own medical care.

The benefit system was set up on the presumption that some members of our society would have bad luck - sickness which prevented you from working or losing your job. It was intended to be a safety net until people got back on their feet, actually this was called the 'Social Contract' by a previous Conservative administration. However the Coalition Government is presenting a view that a large proportion of people in receipt of benefits are not unlucky at all, instead we are led to believe (probably on the back of focus group discussions) that they are feckless, lazy and 'sponging' off the rest of us. The idea of 'Fairness' in this context depends on whether you accept the premise that people are generally feckless or alternatively you believe they are unlucky. I think if we actually understood the lives of the worst off in our society we would find it is misfortune, bad luck that is almost always the root cause of their circumstances.

So for me the issue is not really 'fairness' at all, it is a question of social justice - whether we want a society in which everyone's dignity is respected and effort is rewarded but 'from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.'

Friday, 22 October 2010


The long awaited Comprehensive Spending Review was announced on Wednesday and doubtless much cleverer people than I will write about it at length over the coming days and weeks. The real shock is not the likely impact on local public spending (Local Authorities) but the axe taken to the benefit system. What if families cannot find work yet their benefits are reduced after 12 months out of work; and it seems they could also lose their home when housing benefits are also reduced? The changes in housing benefit will also have a huge impact on young people and abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance will mean far fewer will be able to afford to continue in education.

The CSR announcement is headlines, the details will follow in the coming weeks; for example of special interest to Children North East are the proposals for Sure Start Children's Centres and early intervention with families. Local Authorities will also be waiting for details before they can work out exactly how much money they will be getting from different Government Departments, then they will need to decide how to allocate it to meet local priorities. It will not be until February or even March before they are in a position to allocate money for contracted out services or grants to voluntary organisations.

Our AGM and quarterly Board meeting took place at WEYES last night. Life Members and senior managers are invited to the AGM as well as our Trustees. We launched our Impact Report for 2010 at the AGM. I am pleased with this, it is a change from the usual 'Annual Review' and much more focussed to demonstrate the difference we make for children, young people and families. We took the advice of 'New Philanthropy Capital' a think tank and consultancy to help funders and charites achieve greater impact. In August they published a paper 'Proving Your Worth to Whitehall' which recommended charities submit themselves to the same 9 testing questions posed by the Treasury to Government Departments during the Comprehensive Spending Review, so we did and the answers are in our Impact Report.

The Impact Report is organised into three themes - affirming family relationships; giving children and young people opportunities that raise aspirations; and encouraging community engagement. I think this makes more sense than the traditional 'service areas' after all no one outside Children North East cares how we organise ourselves internally, they want to know what difference we make. The Impact Report is being distributed during the next couple of weeks and will be on our website soon.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

WEYES images and Comprehensive Spending Review

Thnaks again to _space architecture and management who have made a short video made of images of the WEYES project from the start back in January when Tim Healy and Denise Welch did a photo shoot for the papers, to the open day last week when nearly 100 people came to see what had been achieved. You can see it on You Tube.

We are waiting on the Comprehensive Spending Review next week when the Coalition Govenment will announce the budget for the next 3 years for each Ministry. Hopefully there will be some 'headline' messages such as proposals for Children's Centres. However it is likely to be a few weeks before all the details emerge. Local Authorities get money from several different Government Departments so they will not know for a few weeks either exactly how much money they will be getting. Of course they also raise money from the Council Tax, Business Rates, car park charges and reserves, in fact only about half comes from central government.

When Local Authorities do find out exactly how much money they will have the next step is for them to decide their own priorities taking into account what they can afford. They will also have to decide what services they need and whether these are best provided by the Local Authority or the private sector or voluntary organisations like Children North East.

We hope that some of the things we already do for Local Authorities (such as supporting families in homeless accommodation to get them into proper tenancies) will continue, however it is likely Local Authorities will try to persuade us to do them for less money. And of course some things will not continue. My guess it could easily be February or even March before that last question begins to be answered. So the announcement on 20th October is just the beginning of uncertainty which could go on until April or longer next year.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Saying thank you, an inspirational story and how big is Big Society?

Last Tuesday afternoon we invited the many people who helped us to rebuild the WEYES project building and interested local people to come an view the building. We wanted to say thank you to everyone by showing them what they had helped to achieve. We were delighted that nearly 100 people came to view the building and join us in a small celebration. I am really pleased that so many visitors told us we had created a place that young people can be proud of, which tells them that they are valued. This is what we set out to do and why Children North East has invested in the project.

Councillor Dipu Ahad, one of the local councillors introduced himself to me during the afternoon. He is a young man who was one of the original group of local young people consulted as to what the WEYES project should be like even before it started. This would have been about 13 years ago. He remembered the group visited other youth projects before deciding that what was needed was am 'Enquiry Service' where young people could drop in and ask about any sort of issues. Later when WEYES first opened Dipu was a volunteer helping to run the project. He said it was that experience that got him interested in youth work. He trained and worked as a youth worker in Gateshead for a while which is where he got interested in politics and was elected to serve in Elswick ward in 2007. Dipu said he felt an obligation to help 'pull up' other Asian young people into politics as well. We invited him to meet the Newcastle Youth Councillors whom I am sure would be very interested to talk to him.

I was hopeful that David Cameron would use the Conservative Party conference to explain what he means by the 'Big Society'. Having heard his speech yesterday I am disappointed. By linking the 'Big Society' to 'Fairness' it is less 'big-hearted' society and more 'mean-minded' society. The Conservatives seem to be saying that if you work hard and look after your own that gives you the right to judge whether other people deserve assistance or not. Surely fairness is about looking after the people who don't get the breaks, not bolstering up those who can take care of themselves? Doubtless there will a lot more discussion about this in the coing weeks.