Small voluntary organisations deliver big returns

I dislike the use of celebrities to boost charitable events. Like the royals, their wealth and lifestyles reinforce inequalities. Recently, I was at a gathering where Patsy Palmer, former star of Eastenders, took the mike to make an award to a voluntary group which helped people with alcohol problems. She spoke movingly about how she suffered from heavy drinking in her youth. This was a celebrity who talked from experience.

The occasion was the annual awards to small voluntary bodies by the Conservative Party’s Centre for Social Justice. Its leader, Iain Duncan Smith, has become a critic of the multi-million pound voluntaries and likens them to retail chain TesAdco, in that they are getting richer with little concern that poor projects are getting poorer. The object of the awards is to give recognition to those at the hard end.

I met Heather Keates, whose family got in a mess through her debts. Once she resolved them, she established a debt counselling service in a church which has spread to 35 centres with 400 trained volunteers who help more than 1,000 clients a year. Most do get out of debt and the volunteers continue to support them to ensure that the debt cycle does not start again. All this on an expenditure of £12,000 a year.

Open Doors came into being when Plymouth became a dispersal centre for asylum seekers. The project has taught English to 240 of them and, in return, some of them teach newcomers.

The ever-open doors, child care facilities and social events have brought together those from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds who now support each other.

Then there was Kalayaan, which serves migrant domestic workers, mainly from south Asia and Africa, who work for well-to-do families. Often they are paid less than the minimum wage and are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Kalayaan’s three staff have offered expert guidance on health and legal rights to 3,000 users. When workers flee for their own safety, they help them find new posts. I talked with young women who have found courage by being with others like themselves. Kalayaan is run on a shoestring budget of £120,000 a year.

Other agencies receiving awards were counselling male survivors of sexual abuse, enabling people with mental ill-health to find work, giving self-respect back to drug and alcohol users, training and accommodating young people with learning difficulties, setting up a flourishing centre on an estate – and more.

The common thread is that they convey values such as equality, self-sacrifice, a willingness to be alongside those in greatest need. They express the foundations of the good society.

There is a strange paradox. Labour established the welfare state. Now a New Labour government is encouraging the national voluntaries to contract for services in order to take them away from the welfare state. Conservatives used to preen themselves as committee members of top charities. Now the likes of Iain Duncan Smith speak up for small voluntaries and locally run projects and are urging David Cameron to find the means of giving them statutory grants; money not sufficient to undermine their independence and creativity, but enough to ensure some financial stability.

In September, I am debating with Duncan Smith at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference. I am proposing the motion: “There can be no such thing as Tory social justice.”

My case is that capitalism – and, if you question whether Conservatives are still capitalists (look how many greedily take incomes as directors of private companies) – always undermines equality, which is the essence of social justice.

But I can’t help admiring Duncan Smith’s determination to back capable but neglected small causes.

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow


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