Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: March, 2016

Welcome to Whitehall, Steve: some advice on your new job

Dear Secretary of State,

I always enjoy visiting Wales. Whether climbing Cader Idris or making my way along Offas Dyke, I receive a warm welcome and generous hospitality. I imagine you have packed your bags for Whitehall with some regrets.

But Steve, if I may be as bold, what a great opportunity has unexpectedly opened up for you on your appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Will you complete the long march of your predecessor across the mountains  to  welfare reform or will you step back and strike out in a new direction?

Will you follow Michael Gove’s example at the Department of Justice? He has torn up just about every measure introduced by his predecessor, Chris Grayling, such as the reforms of legal aid, the controversial criminal court charges and the madcap ban on books in prisons. Michael Gove has rehabilitated himself in the process. What does he say to Grayling when they sit together on Brexit platforms?

Iain Duncan Smith’s alleged life mission was to introduce the Universal Credit scheme. This followed a much publicised trip to visit poor people in Glasgow in 2002, when he discovered compassion and set up a think tank for social justice. It might be best not to go out too much Steve if you want to be objective in cutting the welfare budget.

In particular, don’t visit food banks. IDS refused to have anything to do with the body that runs them. This will be difficult as foodbanks are now well established in every town around the land. The Trussell Trust claims that the cuts and delays in benefits have been responsible for the huge increase in people depending on hand outs. Over one million people received three day food packages last year.

Perhaps your predecessor meant well. The idea of his great scheme was to reduce a number of benefits to one single payment but he couldn’t see it wasn’t working. Don’t take my word for it. Paul Spicker, Professor of Public Policy at Robert Gordon University said, ”I am flummoxed Universal Credit has lasted as long as it has given the repeated failures of implementation. Will the government say this is a policy mistake?”

According to Prof John Seddon, the centralised computer driven way of delivering Universal Credit is not suitable for such a complicated benefit. He says it would be both better and cheaper see claimants face to face.

The introduction of Universal Credit is running at least two years behind schedule and £13bn over budget. It was only introduced in Northumberland last month ( Like Wales, we have splendid beaches and mineshafts. You’d feel at home.)

It is only available so far to the most straightforward of claimants. Although the roll out started in 2013, only 175,505 people were claiming Universal Credit by last December.  By all accounts it is deeply unpopular with staff at the Job Centres. Why not visit a few offices this week and ask questions?

Duncan Smith said in his resignation letter that he was “incredibly proud” of his welfare reforms but, in my personal view, they have deliberately made the lives of claimants much more difficult in a concerted attempt to reduce the benefits bill. Too much stick and not enough carrot.  Ideology not compassion.

The unemployed ( a word removed from the lexicon) are expected to be constantly seeking work whether or not jobs are available. They face financial penalties if they fail to meet up to expectations. Sickness claimants all face examinations. Young mothers are expected to return to work after a year. The self employed have to jump through endless hoops. Payments are made monthly in arrears. This is no way to treat people in this way. There is time for you to think again.

You will need a steadfast Welsh heart to fight battles around the Cabinet table but there are reasons to be hopeful. Although the Chancellor has pulled countless rabbits out of the hat on budget day like sugar tax and saving breaks for yuppies, the small print has always included further reductions in local authority budgets and the benefit bill.

It has been depressing to realise that no one votes for welfare anymore.  The Daily Mail has turned the perception of claimants into scroungers. You know better.

It has been embarrassing to me, as someone a few years older than you, that pensioners have been exempt from cuts and that the working age claimants have been hit so hard. Claimants may not “vote for us”, as IDS put it, but pensioners do.

The disability lobby did a brilliant job last week exposing MPs who voted to reduce benefits for the sick and disabled by £30 a week whilst claiming all sorts of parliamentary allowances. Your name is mentioned among them. Your record on gay rights is deplorable too.

But cometh the hour cometh the man, Steve. Here is your chance to redeem yourself and your party. Providing you win the referendum, you will have time to turn this around. We are all with you because, of course, we are all in this together.

published in Newcastle Journal Tues 22nd March





Stop knocking charities William

Public trust and confidence in charities has taken a knocking, according to William Shawcross, Chairman of the Charity Commission, outspoken writer and authorised biographer of the Queen Mother.

Trust is what makes the world go round. I dine at the all the restaurants recommended by The Secret Diner and believe the doctor when she tells me that the advantages of statins far outweigh the disadvantages. Trust me, she says, and keep taking the tablets.

Of course, I have to make a judgement but life is so much easier if you trust people. The diamond market in New York used to work entirely on a handshake. Expensive gems were exchanged without any paperwork because the dealers all trusted each other’s word. It may have helped that they all belonged to a close knit Jewish community.

So why did  William Shawcross get on  a public platform last week and allege that we are losing trust in charities? Research by Charities Aid Foundation shows that  over half of us still regard charities as trustworthy even though the ratings fell by 20% last year.

There are three and a half reasons for his conclusion. The first is the sad case of Olive Cooke, aged 92, Britain’s oldest and longest serving poppy seller who fell to her death in the Avon Gorge after apparently being “overwhelmed and distressed” at the numbers of begging letters she received from charities. New standards of practice are  coming into force as a result even though Mrs Cooke’s  family has repeatedly denied that she was driven to suicide by charity appeals.

William Shawcross says charities should stop “hounding” their donors and decries the way some are adopting the “sharp practices of industry.” In the days when I worked as a fundraiser, I  signed the letters and stuck the envelopes of annual appeals to supporters because I was taught that existing donors are the most likely future donors.

Charities raise £10bn from a generous public every year out of a total £71bn income. With reducing grants government grants, they  increasingly rely on  the proverbial collecting tin in its various manifestations. VONNE warned last week that European funding for the third sector will be lost if we Brexit.

The second reason why we may be losing trust in charities is the spectacular and highly publicised collapse of the charity Kids Company last year. The flamboyant Chief Executive, Camila Batmanghelidjh was defiant in front of the Public Accounts Committee but its report was far more critical of the trustees for failing to provide oversight and the government ministers for pouring in  £30m of public money  against civil servants advice.

Camilla fell from grace faster than Fred the Shred. As a former Chief Executive, I have a sneaking admiration for the way she walked out of Downing St with a bulging wallet. Chief Executives are expected to go all out to get support for their charity. The grey haired men and women on the Board are there to keep them in check.

When the nouveau energy firm Five Quarters shut up shop in Newcastle a few days ago, there was much sympathy for Chief Executive, Harry Bradbury. His downfall was also largely due to the withdrawal of government grants. Businesses fail from time to time but charities are supposed to rise above such slings and arrows of public fortune.

The third reason why charities are losing support is the claim from the Daily Mail that charity bosses are paid far too much. After a spectacularly successful year, the Chief Executive of ‘Which’  took home £340,000 and a share in the £2m bonus pool.  This is an exception. Third sector pay averages 25 % less than comparable pay in the private sector. There is a homespun belief that charities should really be run entirely by volunteers and no one should be paid anything at all.

It is equally fanciful to expect charities to be good just because they do good. Indeed, there are those who argue that charities do more  harm than good or, at best, do no good at all.  There is no  no reason to trust charities regardless of their work or to grant them that much more respect than a  car salesman.

It costs as much to train one guide dog as to cure blindness of 700 people in a developing country. Where do you put your bucks? There is no harm in evaluating your chosen cause carefully.

And the final half a reason why William Shawcross may be drawing attention to loss of confidence is that the Charity Commission, which regulates 165,00 charities of all shapes and sizes, has lost half its funding in recent years. The days of the searching but supportive inspection by the man from the Commission are long gone. Charity leaders are now calling for the Commission’s finances to be protected and I would even support Shawcross’s controversial idea that larger charities should pay a registration fee.

We live with a government that does not like regulation in any form but then gets outraged if anything goes wrong and hits the tabloids.  The trouble is that regulation can never replace trust.  They are polar opposites.

To my mind, we should accept that things occasionally go wrong in charities just like anywhere else; that business brains are not just the preserve of people in business and hope that William Shawcross, the Daily Mail and everyone else stops knocking charities. The vast majority work over the odds and do a good job.

published in the Newcastle Journal on Tues 8th June