Clients hold the aces

To campaign effectively voluntary organisations should quit
London and root themselves in the communities they aim to serve,
writes Bob Holman.

Voluntary agencies boomed in the 19th century and it is
sometimes implied that they maintained an independence from the
state by not taking statutory money and by not taking much interest
in legislation.1 Far from it. The national child care
societies regularly took state money, indeed three-quarters of
children in the main Catholic homes were paid for by public
authorities. Moreover, Dr Barnardo, William Booth, Mary Carpenter
and other leaders frequently lobbied for changes in the law.

During the 20th century, the campaigning role of voluntaries
widened. In our time, the Child Poverty Action Group has grown from
a small committee in an attic to a pressure group known to every
cabinet minister. Peter Townsend, its chairperson for more than two
decades, argues that it put poverty on the political agenda and he
rejoices that it has continued its attacks on government and has
not become like those voluntaries that have softened their
criticisms because “the leaders are trying to cultivate the award
of a knighthood or OBE.”2 The Family Rights Group is
another example of a campaigning voluntary which does not pull its
punches when making the case for preventing children having to be
removed from families.

The national child care societies are not primarily pressure
groups but rather service providers. Their position has often
changed in that their link with statutory bodies has shifted from
accepting fees for individual children to taking on huge contracts
to run services for local authorities. This has not stopped them
lobbying for change. They have brought the obscenities of child
prostitution and youth homelessness to government. In 1994,
Barnardo’s published Richard Wilkinson’s pamphlet Fair Shares,
which criticised central government for increasing inequality.
Conservative ministers were not pleased. However, the existence of
contracts may make the national societies think twice about
hard-hitting campaigns that take to task the local authorities on
which they depend.

I welcome the campaigning role of the national charities.
Perhaps they should be making the public case for the preservation
of old fashioned social work – few other bodies seem prepared to do
so. None the less, I believe that the most effective campaigners
are those who are usually the objects of campaigns -Êpoor
people, vulnerable families, low income residents of deprived

Recently, I attended the annual meeting of Glasgow Braendam
Link, which is a partnership between families disadvantaged by
poverty. It started among families who enjoyed subsidised holidays
at a centre called Braendam, near Stirling. One of its groups meets
at the Fare (Family Action in Rogerfield & Easterhouse) project
with which I am associated. Its emphasis is on members speaking for
themselves. When Harriet Harman visited Glasgow – as minister of
social security – she was lobbied by Braendam Link and Fare members
who were existing on income support. They showed themselves to be
articulate and knowledgeable campaigners. Later they took on
ministers and MSPs at the Scottish parliament. Similarly, pensioner
groups and homeless people are the ones who most powerfully present
the case for reform to government simply because they speak from

Earlier this year, I gave evidence to the House of Commons
social security committee’s investigation of the social fund. I had
compiled 50 cases of families that had approached our project.
Rather smugly, I considered I was telling them about life at the
hard end. In the same session, four recipients of social fund
loans, two of whom came from Glasgow, told the committee what it
was like trying to survive on a poverty income from which weekly
deductions were made to repay loans. Their moving accounts
obviously gripped the committee and were far more effective than
anything I said. My words were second hand, their words were first

I suggest that national voluntary bodies move their headquarters
away from establishment London and into the inner cities and outer
estates so that they are alongside the families for whom they

Further, given that the child care societies are loaded –
agencies with royal patrons and PR departments are not usually on
the breadline – they should direct money to community projects and
user organisations so that they can run their own campaigns.

1 R Whelan, Involuntary Action, Institute of
Economic Affairs, 1999.

2 B Holman, Children’s Champions, Policy
Press, forthcoming.

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