Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:18 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 1:18 pm, 8th September 2016

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on securing this important debate and for the clarity and conviction with which it was introduced. It is wide-ranging in its scope but, like others, I propose to speak in support of the role that charities can play in a democracy, and explain how they can reach the parts which government sometimes cannot. I do this by sharing the story of one particular charity, NOAH Enterprise—New Opportunities And Horizons—of which I am privileged to be a trustee, as recorded in the register of interests.

I offer the description of its activities as evidence of the need to promote the importance of charities’ campaigning as well as their role in service delivery at the sharp end. I join those who argue for the rejection of barriers that place restrictions on charities, preventing them imparting their experience and pressing policy and funding issues on government, central or local, if for no other reason than that it would otherwise be a tragic waste of their experience and learning, often gained in the most difficult circumstances. It would be letting down the very people who these charities exist to serve.

NOAH is a charity that, out of Christian conviction, seeks to support the most disadvantaged members of the local community, particularly those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse or sleep rough, who have fallen into poverty, or who are otherwise marginalised and socially excluded. It endeavours to do this in a number of ways, but fundamentally by a holistic offering of services. It offers street outreach, persuading people to engage with the services on offer, including welfare—essentially food, clothing and personal hygiene—access to a GP surgery, mobile dentistry and a mental health clinic. It will seek accommodation for its clients and give advice on budgeting. It will further provide basic training in life and vocational skills and can provide work experience. Part of this activity is funded from a social enterprise involving furniture restoration, as well as from traditional charity shops. This enables work experience to be offered in such ways as warehousing, drivers’ assistance, woodworking, administration and retailing.

To give all this some context, in the year to 31 March 2016 there were 486 accepted referrals of people who needed help of one sort or another, while 22,000 distinct outreach visits were made and 6,426 breakfasts were served as well as some 17,000 lunches. There were also 484 people enrolled on courses at the new NOAH Academy, with 71 reaching employment. Moreover, it can claim numerous active partnerships with a range of statutory and third sector agencies, churches and community groups. It has also had the benefit of volunteers—around 300 a month at the current level—who support the operations in a variety of ways. This might be in furniture recycling, cooking for the day centre or working to provide food in the evening.

For NOAH, this level of support is vital to its continued existence. The motivation for the volunteers might be varied but many undoubtedly develop an understanding of the challenges of the most disadvantaged, which encourages them to give a voice to those without one. Many become unofficial champions of NOAH, spreading the word and building the support network—campaigning about what NOAH does and what needs to change. In a sense, they are like the “Games Makers”: for them, it is a chance to matter. NOAH has also been the recipient of the CSR efforts of a number of corporates, large and small, to the mutual benefit of all. This has been a two-way process whereby a few corporates have taken work placements.

The focus of NOAH is to assist and support the poorest in a journey out of destitution and towards a sustainable future. As the NCVO says, it addresses the causes of social problems and not just their effects. Its approach is to provide a pathway from living on the street to temporary accommodation and daycare, through to settled accommodation, training, work experience and preparation for employment—and then into employment. This pathway can be joined at any point. For individuals on that journey, there is the benefit of its components being delivered under the one trusted umbrella of NOAH, much of it delivered on behalf of the state but not by the state.

As with many charities, the era of austerity has meant pressure on its finances, particularly from statutory sources and at a time when needs are greatest. However, its income sources last year included grants from statutory bodies for programmes such as Single Persons Homeless, the street drinkers project and Jobcentre Plus. Continuity remains a difficulty. Thirty-one foreign nationals were repatriated at their request last year, through a fund financed by Luton Borough Council. It also continues to get support from the Irish Government under their Emigrant Support Programme, which has been commendably sustained despite the recent recession.

Although there are, reasonably, always grant conditions, so far as I am aware nothing has yet emerged which prevents the charity raising public awareness and campaigning, particularly on poverty and homelessness. NOAH’s second annual conference took place in February with the theme of working together to address poverty in Bedfordshire. It was focused on statutory and third sector decision-makers in the county.

If I had to summarise NOAH’s benefits as an example of what a locally based charity can deliver and why it should be encouraged, I would list that it is driven by a clear and consistent vision; that it might be buffeted from time to time by the policy and funding swings of the statutory sector, and may have to adapt sometimes, but its focus is clear; that it can join things up in a manner which we know that government, local and national, finds difficult; that it is anchored in the community through its many partnerships and participation in local life, and through its proactive and articulate chief executive; and that it has the capacity to build trust among its service users and the wider community. It can reach the most excluded in our community, to offer hope, and seeks to recognise the fundamental dignity and worth of every individual.