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Small and independent: local charity works best

19 May 2010

Small church charities are well placed to meet needs, but will the new government back them, asks Bob Holman

DURING the past decade, the vol­untary sector has experienced signific­ant changes. Of the 23,000 larger charities, most now depend mainly on state funding, in the form of contracts to run services specified by govern­ment. Nick Seddon, a research fellow at Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, says in a withering attack that they have lost their independence, and should lose their charitable status (Who Cares? Civitas, 2007).

The recession has hit smaller charities particularly hard, as local authorities withdraw grants, having less to give. A study by the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations examined 108 small charities, and concluded that ten per cent were “being forced to wind up or under serious threat of closure”. About half of the organisations studied were “negatively affected” by the recession.

Many churches serve their com­munity by providing social and material services. For example, the Message Trust in Manchester sup­ports Christians who move into deprived areas to take part in projects, which must be owned by a local church. I went to Failsworth in Greater Manchester, where two part-time youth workers were backed by 13 volunteers. They engaged with 250 teenagers, some of whom went on to attend the church. I spoke with two policemen who were enthusiastic about improvements to the neigh­bourhood.

Dave Wiles was on probation for drug-dealing when I first met him. After becoming a Christian, he trained as a community worker, and is now leader of a Christian agency, the Frontier Youth Trust, which en­gages with hard-to-reach young people (his book, Stories from the Edge, Lion, 2010, gives accounts of this).

In one of the Trust’s projects, a street worker established regular meetings with a 19-year-old drug-taking prostitute. The young woman went to prison, and later the worker visited her in hospital, and prayed with her, and the friend­ship deepened. There is no magical ending, but, as the worker put it: “She knew we were there for her.”

Such examples are important for two reasons. First, most of these churches and projects are not reliant on state funding. I belong to Easterhouse Baptist Church in Glasgow, which has recently opened an extension costing £300,000. It is used by both the church and the community, but not one penny came from statutory sources. Activities are led by the minister and part-time youth worker, with other volunteers. They will not suddenly fold because of a cut in outside funding.

Second, this kind of voluntary effort is independent of state direc­tion. I have studied the plight of asylum-seekers whose applications have been rejected, and who yet refused to return home to im­prisonment and torture. Most were not entitled to statutory benefits. The only agencies able to help the estimated 26,000 des­titute people in this position were those whose funds did not come from public sources. Christian projects were prominent.

One church gave special attention to women who had fled from rape and assault. In Newcastle upon Tyne, I went to a church hall that dis­tributed food and clothes. I spoke with a woman who had been im­prisoned, and had escaped. She wept as she told me that she had become a prostitute in order to buy food. In Manchester, two Christians run an agency in a church hall. It is unusual in that it has houses where destitute asylum-seekers can stay.

Too often, churches are judged by declining Sunday attendances. This ignores their community involve­ment. Research by Glasgow Churches Action suggested that they attract 2.5 million non-worship attendances a year in Glasgow alone. These include traditional lunch-clubs for older people and toddler groups, as well as services for homeless people and drug-users.

IN THE new Coalition Government, it is significant that Iain Duncan Smith is the Minister for Work and Pensions. I met him when, as leader of the Conservative Party, he visited voluntary projects in Easterhouse, Glasgow. On losing the leadership, he set up the excellent Centre for Social Justice, and devoted himself to the cause of those at the bottom end of society.

His main task now will be to reduce unemployment. In keeping with Conservative statements, he will finance voluntary bodies to develop personal relationships with the workless to equip them with skills and to help them find jobs (Com­ment, 14 May). But which voluntary bodies?

Mr Duncan Smith has noted that “The voluntary sector appears to be undergoing ‘Tescoisation’, with a small minority of large charities be­coming ever more dominant.” None the less, he will award them contracts, as only they can take on large numbers.

This leaves questions about two distinct areas. First, the financial squeeze may force him to shut down exist­ing statutory work with the un­employed, despite good results.

Second, there are the locally run community groups, including Chris­tian organisations, for which Mr Duncan Smith has expressed admira­tion. Their projects do not fit easily into government short-term con­tracts. Their strength is that they are in the hands of residents, who are prepared to work for years with vulnerable people, who later become paid staff members. As Mr Duncan Smith once conceded, they require small but long-term grants, not con­tracts.

I am not decrying the vital con­tribu­tion of universal state ser­vices. But I would argue that small local charities are best equipped to meet neighbourhood needs.

Mr Duncan Smith is the right man for the job. But the huge pro­posed cuts to public services could increase unemployment and make the task of the voluntary bodies even more difficult. Moreover, these charities will join the protests if growing numbers of workless are punished for not getting a job by the withdrawal of benefits — as has been proposed by the Conservatives. Mr Duncan Smith could find himself in con­flict with both the charities whom he is hiring and with the unemployed.

Bob Holman is a former Professor of Social Policy at Bath University, and the author of Keir Hardie (Lion Hudson, 2010).

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