The charity Shelter was founded 1966 in response to the television play ‘Cathy Come Home’. The powerful drama brought to a head widespread anger about Britain’s housing crisis. Now the play’s director, Ken Loach, is backing a series of strikes by Shelter workers – the first took place yesterday - over plans to make them work longer hours for the same pay.
Shelter, like many voluntary sector charities, is increasingly dependent on contracts from the state to sustain its finances. With the government demanding more for less, Shelter tore up existing staff contracts and provoked an unprecedented strike in the process.
Shelter’s chief executive Adam Sampson responded to Loach’s call for people to stop donating to the charity by saying it was there to serve homeless people, not its staff. Using corporate-style, cost-driven arguments, Sampson says it is the customer that counts. However, Sampson fails to explain how it can deliver the same, or even a better, service with fewer staff working for longer hours. Perhaps charities with advice lines like Shelter’s could consider outsourcing to Mumbai?
One in seven children in Britain are growing up in bad housing, and thousands of homeless households are stuck in temporary accommodation. Last month, the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) said repossessions rose by 21% in 2007 to 27,100 homes, the highest figure since 1999. That figure is going to rise dramatically in 2008, as people find it impossible to pay their mortgages. Meanwhile, the number of new housing associations homes being built plummeted by 43% in London last year. Shelter’s services have never been needed more. It isn’t Sampson who is going to be on the other end of a phone helping people find ways to rehouse their families.
As charities have been drawn into signing contracts with the state – either central or local government – they have become increasingly subject to the harsh rules of the market. Those who commission contracts are out to get services as cheaply as they can, with quality certainly not the main consideration.
Perversely, the more that charities are co-opted into the delivery of services at the lowest cost, the quicker their ability to support the neediest people is diminished. Being tied into these contracts also makes it virtually impossible for charities to criticise and campaign vigorously against the government and local authorities. In the end, the sector is voluntarily super-exploiting its own workers and effectively subsidising the state, losing any semblance of independence in the process.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual Almanac found that there are 2.6 charities per thousand of the population in prospering suburbs, compared to 1.6 charities per thousand in suburbs that are “constrained by circumstances”. It also shows that there are 2.2 charities per thousand in multicultural communities, compared to 1 charity per thousand in blue collar communities. Working with people who really need support is too tough, too expensive. In New Labour’s market state the veneer of concern for deprived communities hides an abandonment of whole areas of the country.
As Britain plunges into recession, with fuel and food price inflation already pushing families to the brink, there is an urgent need for not-for-profit organisations who will break free of the state. Once independent of the status quo, they could work alongside communities to challenge the economic structures responsible for homelessness, poverty and neglect. Shelter's strikers could help kick-start just such a campaign.