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Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Andrew Lansley was continually challenged by a frequently angry audience during last week’s Question Time debate. The Health and Social Care Bill has been pushed through at break neck speed. I sense a genuine fear of what looks like an increasingly inevitable outcome – a similar experience to that of the DWP’s Work Programme; great promises of a meaningful and modernizing role for the third sector but a reality where a small number of big businesses dominate. After all they are well capitalised, capable of achieving huge economies of scale, too big to fail, and they will of course deliver the efficiencies we all so desire and desperately need. After all, it did work with the energy sector, bus and rail de-regulation didn’t it? No.

Excessive profiteering, as we have seen in all of these areas, occurs when there are too few competitors, not when there are too many. Unfortunately Whitehall often has a very short memory.

A revolution in commissioning was promised by the last government, as it is by the current. Waiting for a great leap forwards in commissioning is likely to be the equivalent of waiting for a gentle and delicate Wayne Rooney to emerge out of the tunnel at Old Trafford. Chris White’s Bill could play an  important role in evolving commissioning but it won’t create the revolution we need all by itself. Strong US style anti-trust laws might help protect against the natural yet damaging monopolies that form when policy and commissioning favours only big business.

What’s more likely to have an impact is the sort of collapse of faith in big business ethics by consumers and more importantly voters that the protests across the world over the weekend suggest is beginning to emerge.  Before last Thursday’s Question Time debate got going there was a fascinating story about the 99% campaign camps set up in US towns and cities. From humble beginnings and a simple gathering on Wall Street, the movement has spread rapidly and appears to be developing rapidly across the UK too. The protesters call it a movement rather than a protest and are calling for a conversation on rampaging social and financial inequality. The campaign is centred on business ethics; excessive profiteering by global companies, business being bailed out by tax payers, avoidance of tax, over-exploitation of our natural resources and our communities.

It’s perhaps captured an underlying public mood – one that is growing, particularly in the developed world. Business has to change the way it operates; the siphoning off of ever-greater profits to a small, exclusive, globally-mobile elite must stop. The protestors argue that governments around the world have been far too complicit in enabling this globalized business culture to grow unchallenged. Now you’ll know from my last blog that I’m in favour of working with corporate partners where a meaningful relationship can be developed but the opportunity to co produce with value-driven businesses tends to be a growing yet still marginal opportunity rather than the norm – particularly within the foggy world of international capital and trading markets.

I’m currently travelling back from a meeting with PM training in Stoke on Trent. They work with around 1000 people each year providing training and high quality apprenticeships. I’ve blogged about them before. They’ve grown from a £2m to a £7m business in a short while. Last year 95% of their trainees (most of whom have faced multiple challenges in their early lives) completed their courses and, most importantly, secured work. It’s an inspiring organisation that continues to buy up private businesses and convert them into social enterprises. They have 42 homework teams providing garden and home maintenance to 5000 households of elderly and disabled people each year. They show exactly what can be done by socially-driven local businesses. In terms of outcomes they are capable of completely outperforming any big corporate and yet they are excluded from a range of government procurement opportunities because of their modest size or because the business case for them acting as sub-contractor-to-prime just doesn’t stack up. A report in the Mail on Sunday shown to me by Will, PM’s Chief Exec exposed how the apprenticeship programme is simply using taxpayers’ cash to provide existing staff within the big supermarkets with training labelled as adult apprenticeships rather than creating new jobs and training opportunities. It said that Asda alone has 25000 taxpayer-supported adult apprenticeships on the go, and not a single new job created as a result. Can’t the big supermarkets afford the cost of their own staff training? Wouldn’t it be better value to invest in the like of PM Training to expand their excellent work – safe in the knowledge that any profit they generate from public money would get reinvested into local communities, job creation and growth?

Is it any wonder people are angry on Question Time and taking to the streets in cities across the world?

Things aren’t changing fast enough and without much more ambitious thinking we know we will end up with more business-as-usual. The localism agenda needs to get a whole lot more radical. Collectively social enterprises must engage with the public and explain that they are part of the economic solution our world and our communities desperately need. Our new ‘Society Profits’ campaign aims to enable social enterprises and their supporters across the UK to do just that. Join our campaign, spread the word and show the angry and frustrated citizens around the world that a new, fairer economy can and will exist if we all collectively demand it. As you know that new economy must be built with social enterprise at its foundations.

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I didn’t want to write about the riots. It seemed somehow too opportunistic but there are things that have been whirring around my mind, disturbing my sleep and creating a growing sense of frustration.  I feel compelled  to start any contribution regarding the riots with the prerequisite condemnation of violence and  and assertion that there can be no excuses. My failure to do so on my Facebook updates led to some pretty angry comments. I naively thought that it went without saying that there are no excuses for such destructive actions – that now said,  we sooner rather than later need to move the debate on. We have to go beyond righteous indignation and the language of feral youth, rubber bullets and army interventions if we are going to change rather than simply contain these destructive types of behaviours. There are causes that are deeply engrained within the society we have created.  We have created in our towns and cities  communities of young people that are hopeless – lacking in hope. A generation that believe that they can only command dignity, self value and the  respect of their peers by what they are able to wear and consume, a generation that has aspiration but no belief in their abilities to achieve the celebrity  lifestyles that are so aggressively marketed to them, represented across our media in magazines, sports pages, advertising, news, film and tv. The traditional mechanisms of achievement – working hard, relevant education and contributing to our communities are no longer perceived to offer the opportunities to succeed in life.  Many that exist within these communities  have a belief that greed is good and taking what you want by whatever means is acceptable, is perhaps the only way to get what we’re told we need. A view that is too frequently endorsed and echoed across society and by adult role models everywhere – everyone’s on the take and so why don’t we just take it. Expenses scandals and the banking crisis have only served to expand and mainstream these notions. Popular television programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den perpetuate the principle that it’s money that matters above all else. Our power to buy and consume defines us and is the only relevant measure of success.

Our political leaders have been complicit in this messaging. Money and the ability to buy what we want whenever we want is all we apparently want. Peter Mandelson was entirely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich, the current administration and indeed the shadow cabinet seem to demonstrate that money is a critical factor in achieving a good education, good prospects, power and success. You’ve probably got more chance of winning the lottery than of ‘making it’ if you’re from a poor background, have useless parents and attend a sink school.  And the evidence is flooding in that cuts are hitting certain people with disproportionate ferocity; the young, the poor and the black communities are not faring well, although they are by no means the only ones that have very nearly lost it all.

When at Sunlight I worked with lots of young people some of whom who would frequently be labelled as ‘chavs’ – a miserable term for young poor people. One young guy, just 17,  had absent parents, no qualifications, a drug, drink and thieving habit and no permanent home. He was heavily criminalised – peddling stolen stuff, drugs and was happy to risk everything by robbing and dealing because in his view he had nothing left to lose and no real opportunity to get what he thought he wanted from life. This lad is now an FA-qualified footie coach and runs 4 weekly football teams. He’s now a responsible father of 2 children and an influential role model, a community leader and a friend to scores of young people in a very challenged, highly deprived community. He plays the role of parent to many. Well he does now, but won’t be able to in just four weeks’ time. The contracts he had through the extended schools programme, his employment through his local development trust, bits of additional funding he sourced through a patchwork of small grants that paid for kits, match fees and transport are all evaporating bit by bit, leading to the closure of the project and the end of his job. The temptation to return to less productive ways of living will not suck my friend back into his old ways but I can’t be so sure that the same is true for those who rely on him.

Today I visited one our members in Harlesden NW London. What Jennifer and her crew at Bang achieve is astonishing, hundreds of young people engaged in projects that meet their individual needs and talents. Jennifer is constantly having to use her creativity to crawl through the hoops and processes that her customers and funders create. It gets in the way of meeting the needs of young people. She and her team are expected to transform lives within the contracted 30 hours of contact which they get. Not 30 hours a week, not 30 hours a month but just 30 hours. That 30 hours of funding is expected to take a frequently cynical, beaten, unmotivated young person lacking in basic skills and develop them into a work-ready, reliable, purposeful person. Jennifer describes many of the young people with whom she works as people born without any known reason for their lives.

It’s easy to feel sad and pessimistic. But Jennifer asked me to do something. She asked that I search for funding that will enable young people from within our most disadvantaged communities to set up their own social enterprises. “If we all work this way in the future then we’ll be alright, if we continue to work like the banks and normal businesses then we won’t,” she says. “The good thing about setting up a social enterprise is that you can’t lose. Even if your business goes under then you still haven’t lost. You’ll have business skills, social skills, connections and you’ll understand you have a purpose and a reason for your life – I set one up  because I knew I couldn’t lose.”

The government needs to be radical – they need to link social and economic policy, we need to move away from business as usual because business as usual has failed our most challenged communities for decades and has more recently shattered our economy for good.  A more balanced and plural economy with social enterprise at its heart will not only radically improve the way public services are delivered but could create the opportunities and most importantly, hope. Opportunity, mobility and hope offer the only real solutions to what the recent violence has highlighted – social dysfunction on a grand scale.

Peter

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So here I am in sunny San Francisco for the  Social Enterprise World Forum. It would be easy to whittle on about the undulating streets ( they are indeed steeper than they ever appear in the films or photos)  or I could paint a literary picture of the Atlantic fog obscuring Alcatraz and the Golden gate bridge. All of these things are very striking and on my first afternoon in the city these are the things that I took in.

But over those first four or five hours in this sunny city there was another impression I was forming, something that little by little, like a creeping migraine, was subtly affecting me.

Barbara is 59, though looks well into her 70’s – she wears a sock puppet on her left hand and holds a Starbucks paper cup in her right.

At 2pm, 5pm and 10pm there she was, right outside my hotel offering to raise a smile for whatever donation was offered.

Of course you can find striking inequality in virtually every developed city in the world but Barbara was not alone. There were many, many more people than I had been used to seeing, perhaps 25 or more within 100m of my hotel entrance; many disabled, mostly black, and all I concluded considerably younger than their years suggested.

It made me recall 10 years ago when things weren’t so different in London. There is still much work to be done, but social enterprises and charities working alongside Government and other initiatives are turning that situation around.

I am in no way suggesting that San Francisco or the USA has a unique problem. On the flight over I began a book called “Unequal Britain” by Pat Thane which documents the rise in inequality over the last 60 years in the UK.  The book  damns our own society and is a further call to action for those committed to social justice. However, here in San Francisco, there seems to be a broadly held opinion from those I’ve met that this level of homelessness and street begging is inevitable, unstoppable collateral damage from a free society.

It made me realise that we in the social enterprise movement have our work cut out for us to show people that there is no reason to be accepting of such daily injustices. There are solutions out there to so many things that too many of us view as unfortunate, maybe, but just the way things are.

Too often social enterprise is seen as an interesting adjunct  to the mainstream way of doing business, something on the periphery, a cheap and effective way of fixing market failures. But perhaps the biggest market failure of under-regulated capitalism is the rampaging and increasing inequalities found across the developed and developing world.  At the world forum we’ll be looking at how we move social enterprise from the margins to the mainstream not just nationally but globally too.

The Forum starts  today so I’ll be sure to report back after day one.

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