Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Rethinking dependency

I spoke at Capita's welfare reform conference a couple of weeks ago, on the subject of "engaging the third sector in back to work programmes". The audience were a mix of people from local councils and private employment providers. Here's an excerpt:

"I’d like to offer a contribution to the conversation that we’ve been having today about the role of the third sector in Back to Work programmes, with a case study and some reflections which I hope will help you with your work.

It comes from our experience of working with small community groups which work with few resources in deprived neighbourhoods, and how we’ve managed to get them involved in supporting people to overcome barriers and get paid work. I guess in policy terms, you could characterise it as an example of where the Work Programme meets the Big Society – although our work predates either.

Our work to date has been fantastically successful – we’ve met and exceeded targets for getting people into work, won awards for partnership working and reached the people who need help most. 40% of the people who have been helped were out of work for more than three years before they got help from the local community groups in our network. And of the eight providers in our network, five had never been involved in providing employment support before – so they’ve developed their capacity to help people into work in the future.

But before I describe how we set up and developed this network, I just wanted to say a word about this notion of “dependency”. We hear government ministers talk about a “dependency culture”, and about “people sitting at home on out of work benefits”. We’ve heard this kind of language for a quarter of a century. I think these attitudes need to be chaned if the Work Programme is going to work.

I work with more than 300 community groups in our locality. The overwhelming majority of these are dependent - indeed are proud to be dependent - on the contribution of volunteers who receive out of work benefits. Their commitment and hard work helps to deliver the services and build the relations which make small community groups so effective at helping people when they need it most.

I think we need to get away from the ideas and values that treat unemployed people as “customers”, or as a kind of “social problem”. Community groups working at the grassroots think of them instead as valued volunteers, friends and neighbours. I believe that one of the great benefits of engaging the third sector in delivering back to work programmes is that it is a way of accessing the skills and talents of the people that our groups depend on and serve.

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