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Garry Jones's Blog

Tue 4 May 2021

It’s About Race (ism)

I have been pondering over when to write something about Racism and Discrimination for a while. This month I have run out of other subjects so I have to face up to it, it’s now!

My uncertainty comes from a few places. Probably at root cause is me being a white, middle class, not quite middle aged, male. This makes me awkward, as I will explain below when it comes to anything relating to equalities as I have little to no direct experience of prejudice and am the main demographic benefitting from privilege on most counts. Secondly, I live in Staffordshire, where accounts vary slightly but perhaps 98% of people are white. Thirdly, it’s a subject that seems unavoidably to trigger very strong reactions from people, and whilst I don’t generally avoid controversy or speaking out, I’m not so clear in my mind as to what purpose, seeking a strong reaction can be applied to, in this case; usually when I poke a hornet’s nest I have in mind whom or what I want them to sting! Nevertheless, it is a subject that we have been grappling with at Support Staffordshire, and as a sector leadership body we need to start sharing our thoughts. Its also a subject that is triggering some worrying actions from political and supposedly apolitical leaders close to our sector, currently on a largely national stage, but for how long before that turns local?

So, within Support Staffordshire. We have made a start, and I do not claim much more. We have formed a small and voluntary group of staff and trustees who have started to look at the subject, with a focus on ‘disrupting racism’ as we have termed it. Its not that we don’t care about other equalities issues, we do, but we wanted to really focus on this so overdue to be consigned to history, form of prejudice. We have sought some external training, in our case from The Diversity Trust, and aim to build on this with some more bespoke advice and action planning in the coming month. We also plan to start spreading the work at an upcoming all staff day. We have added to our staff handbook to give more direct, explicit and unequivocal support to staff, encouraging them to challenge racist and discriminatory behaviour with the organisation’s backing, including microaggressions – the best example being: ‘so where are you from originally?’ a polite question targeted at a non-white person with the perhaps unintended but completely discriminatory undertone, saying, ‘you’re not one of us are you’… I admit I might have done this myself. And indeed, this is probably the biggest thing we have been doing, understanding more about the issue, about our own , inherent, learnt, unintentional racism. We have learnt a little about our white privilege and how from the age of perhaps 3, we have all been conditioned to behave in racist ways. Not to overtly abuse or discriminate but everyday things, almost all white people do that undermine, demean, reduce and diminish non-white people. One on its own, probably nothing, but experienced all day, everyday by our Black, Asian, Chinese, Arabic and more, friends, colleagues and neighbours have made their lives so much harder on average than ours. This too, is a lesson, nobody is saying your challenges as a white person haven’t been tough, that you haven’t had it hard, but boy, would it have been tougher if you had also not been white. So, this is one reason I do, and perhaps always will, find the subject a tough one, but I must face that anxiety and so must you. We need to get over our whiteness, stumble if we must, make mistakes, but with the unwavering aim of passing down to the next generation a less racist society than the one we were born into, because this challenge will be a generational one.

And before someone says racism isn’t a problem in Staffordshire. I say, then why do so few non-white people appear to wish to move here, or manage to move here if they do want to, or manage to stay here and prosper, if they can? Just asking.

Now, the nationals. A few weeks ago The Charity Commission finally agreed that the National Trust had done nothing wrong after a lengthy investigation of its own review of the Trust’s historical links to slavery and colonialism – to sum up, all the old buildings and old stuff it owns and displays have quite strong links to colonialism and slaves and as such racism and abuse. The National Trust, and I think they are brilliant for this, decided to start that conversation and throw open the truth through its displays and education programmes. The Charity Commission investigated whether this was straying beyond its charitable remit and becoming overly politicised due to the number of complaints they had received… yet this number was revealed to be just a handful. Thus, the Commission have never adequately explained what prompted the investigation in the first place. More recently, a group of Conservative MPs have lobbied the Charity Commission to investigate and come down hard on the charity, the Runnymede Trust for what they described as its ‘worthless, weird and woke’ ideas when it dared to publicly criticise the recent government Sewell, Race report, which had concluded that the UK no longer experienced structural racism. Both are examples of politicians, one explicit and one behind closed doors, trying to pressurise the sector away from addressing the highly political, but also highly charitable work of equalities. I truly hope (and believe actually) that no such pressure would ever arise from local politicians and I for one will speak out openly if any local MPs leap on that bandwagon. More than that, I am hoping that the local elections this week might throw up one of the most diverse group of local politicians we have ever seen, and that this will be reflected in the arising leaderships of local councils, and thus in their decisions and future plans… time will tell.

I have a feeling I’ll be writing on this subject again now I’ve broken my duck.

 

Filed under: Support Staffordshire  

Thu 1 Apr 2021

The local elections are in a month’s time and it will be one of the biggest local democratic processes ever, because its two years’ worth of elections in one. Locally this means the Staffordshire Commissioner election (Police, Crime and Fire – I always thinks its odd that crime is in this title?), plus all out county councillor elections postponed from 2020 plus many district councillors. So some of us will end up with 3 ‘new’ representatives in the corridors of power. Now, I am going to tell you exactly how to vote! Cue big intake of breath…

Ok, calm down, I am about to be very political, but not party political. And this is a good time to remind you all that you CAN and SHOULD be political too. Its your duty to have a view on the things that impact the residents you work with. Please get off the fence. Also, its legally absolutely proper to be political, as long as you don’t get party political. Charity rules outline that you cannot use charity funds, resources or platforms/status to advocate for a particular Political Party. Generally this means steering clear of endorsing a specific candidate and not affiliating too much with the policies of one party such that it begins to look like you only support them. However its ok to give an opinion on individual policies of individual candidates and to support individual candidates’ stances on specific issues – especially where those issues are directly linked to your charity’s purpose.

I won’t go into detail here on the truly awful Lobbying Act which means that if you are going to spend any significant funds on lobbying prospective politicians or for/against their political causes, in close proximity to an actual election, you have to register and jump through various bureaucratic hoops, even where those causes are and have always been your charity’s purpose. Its bad legislation that some have promised to repeal, but you do currently need to be aware of it, if thinking about actively lobbying.

No, what I want to do here is to tell you to vote local.

It is so tempting at local election time to vote based on your perceptions of national politics, to either support Boris for the wonderful job he has done during the pandemic or to give him a kicking for the terrible job he has done during the pandemic. Truth is, your local vote changes very little about national politics; you are better to wait for the general election. But your local vote does change who runs local services and how they are run: children’s services, social care, police, bins and grass cutting (plus so much more).

So my ask of you is to vote for the candidates who appear to be the most locally connected. The ones who are present all year round. The ones who take the time to engage with and listen to residents. The ones who are part of community groups and charities. The ones who get involved in community problems and themselves help find solutions. Please don’t vote for the ones who turn up at election time only, who live miles away from the places they are standing to represent, who comment on everything but help solve nothing, who have no real lived experience of the issues your community is facing.

I don’t really care if you vote Blue, Red, Yellow, Green, Purple or Rainbow. But PLEASE VOTE LOCAL.

Garry

 

Garry Jones

Chief Executive

@SuSChief

Tue 2 Mar 2021

In January I wrote a blog that exalted the complexity and variety of our sector, in which I challenged the powers that be, not to tinker with things they don’t fully understand. Last month I talked Rainforests and Zoos as metaphors for our sector and how we can be (mis)treated by commissioners of public services in particular. This month I must continue the theme, but will keep it short in the hope that you might take the action I propose at the close.

One of the most frustrating and frequently disappointing parts of my role is to challenge when we perceive that competitive tender processes have gone awry. A recent example that has hit very hard has left me pondering the root causes of these scenarios. Is it the inexperience of commissioners? Yes to some degree, they often move on or up before the next tender comes around, leaving few cases of the same commissioner working on the same/similar commission more than once. Yet the engagement and consultation processes ought to compensate for this, and in some instances they do although practice is highly variable. Is it that the rules that govern procurement of public services get in the way? Again, I would have to conclude the answer is yes, both the commissioner/provider dichotomy that limits dialogue and makes it all highly transactional, plus the all too frequent risk aversion and misinterpretation of rules that can go hand in hand. Local provision is the most common casualty of this factor, with procurement officers convinced that anything ‘local’ can not be given credit for fear of being seen as unfair to national providers… even when the service specification lays out the need for these localisms?!?! IS it the process by which we can challenge what we perceive as poor decisions? Again, a definite yes, particularly the apparently all encompassing ‘commercial sensitivity’ clause which perversely protects the economic interests of one successful provider over the public service interests of all service users.

However, what I must conclude is not that this part or that needs to be tweaked or rewritten, not that commissioners or bidders need to be better educated. Rather that the system as a whole is completely unfit for purpose. A system designed to buy the best loo roll, or even PPE (how well has that been working?) just isn’t the same system that is best for investing in person-centred services, for which there is a limited ‘marketplace’ and into which many other stakeholders may be contributing in a myriad of ways. If you needed 12 other providers to come forward and supply complementary services or advice or engagement with the best loo roll maker, in order to get the best out of your loo roll, then you wouldn’t make it a competition would you? Why do that where there are several other stakeholders that are truly needed to make the best of your person-centred service, be that for children in poverty, frail elderly, ex-offenders or unpaid carers?

So, here is the ask – right now, Central Government is re-writing the rules on Public Sector Procurement, and I am sorry to say they have made a massive missed opportunity out of it thus far.

Please can I ask you to spend just 10 minutes writing to your local MP about the post-Brexit Procurement Green Paper which in its current format won’t do anything to help our sector to help communities in the recovery from Covid-19. You can find our more here. Perhaps like me, it wasn’t on your radar or if it was it sat in the ‘boring’ pile? However, my recent wakeup call has changed that, so even if you haven’t time to fully engage in all the detail – please write to your MP and tell them your own example of competitive tendering gone wrong, and just ask them to make the case for a re-write, bearing in mind person centred services are not loo roll.

 

Garry

Garry Jones, Chief Exectutive, Support Staffordshire

@SuSChief

Fri 5 Feb 2021

We often hear about the fragility of natural habitats or ecosystems, such as rainforests, which gives us the impression that by comparison to our man made world, these wild places are some how sub-standard, teetering on a precipice, where at any moment they could collapse. Sometimes the motivation for such descriptions comes from those who probably should know better, those who are actually trying to shock us into action to support these places, or at least to give money to their organisation in the name of ‘saving the rainforest’. Anyone with any ecological training or knowledge knows this is bunkum.

Rainforests and other complex ecosystems (savannahs, coral-reefs, even good old British Forests, in fact all large natural ecosystems) are actually extremely resilient and strong. It is self-evident that rainforests must be very tough, for they have survived the most horrific assaults upon them by humanity, from logging and hunting to pollution and fossil fuel driven climate change. Their survival is precisely because of there complexity, not in spite of it. They depend not on any one individual, and rarely on any one species or family/genus (group) of species, but on an intricate, superbly complex and interwoven network of species all of whom hold dependencies for and upon others within the ecosystem. This is characterised as making them fragile or weak, unable to stand on their own two feet, but in fact it’s the very reason that the system doesn’t collapse when it is disrupted, even when that disruption becomes extremely destructive. Alas, that pressure is now, all too often, becoming so pervasive and extensive that collapses are being observed; for even a system that is inherently self-protective and regenerating can’t keep going forever in the face of unrelenting power.

By this point you may well be checking the title of this blog, website or e-news piece to check what you are reading. And whilst I do have a background in biology, I must now turn to what this all has to do with the voluntary and community sector. First I note unusually, I am using that phrase, rather than including social enterprise under the acronym VCSE. This is really because social enterprise is to a degree in its infancy and as such I personally don’t feel confident that what I am about to say can be guaranteed to hold true for SE in the same way I think it does for V&C (though instinctively I think it will). So here is my claim: The Voluntary and Community Sector is a Rainforest – its complexity is its strength. Again we often hear commentary, that we are hard to understand, difficult to navigate, even harder to work with. We hear that we are unsustainable, too dependent on government funding or ‘grants’ (assumed to be negative) or worse still ‘hand outs’. And yes we are sometimes said to be weak and fragile, at risk, unreliable. I have to say that most of this generally comes from statutory organisations, rather than business (except the handouts bit, where it is assumed we haven’t really earned those funds in the way a ‘proper’ business does – but I will leave that myth for another day). And in this we can perhaps understand the partial and ill-judged perspective, as by comparison to the state funded, tax-guaranteed income and legislatively agreed institutions of the state, any one VC organisation does look rather puny and vulnerable.

And so the metaphor stands – any one organisation perhaps, but a sector, a system, a network of support, interwoven with other organisations, formal and informal, integrated and rooted with service users, beneficiaries, patients, residents – its not fragile at all – its sustainable, its resilient, its bloody marvellous. And it’s a fact: the Voluntary and Community Sector is not the third sector, it’s the first. It existed way before the state, by several hundred years at the least. And no political whim or power grab can sweep it aside unlike what may befall statutory bodies from time to time. In all likelihood it pre-dates the private/business sector too. Mutual cooperation, driven by good purpose, facilitated by exchange of resources but with people and progress and fairness and inclusion at its heart. Like I say, it’s a Rainforest.

And so, to take the metaphor just one further step. Public Sector Commissioning treats the sector not like a Rainforest but like a Zoo. It chooses which individual species, even individual specimens of species, that it is going to support. It even makes them perform a merry dance to justify why they are worthy of being included in the Zoo (you know you’ve walked straight past whole sections of more enlightened zoos where ecologically important but dull animals are either asleep, brown or hiding – they tend not to last when the Marketing Director has their say). It sucks them out of their ecosystem, forces them to live in unnatural conditions, eat the food they choose to feed them, perform at pre-arranged visitor times… anyway you get the general idea.

My point is, Commissioning is on the whole a bit like poaching, when it should be more like conservation. It should treat the sector like the Rainforest it is and all its intent and purpose should be turned to supporting, restoring and even increasing complexity and relationships, because these are the things that ensure any ecosystem flourishes. If Commissioners really do want communities full of self-supporting networks, independent mutual aid, services funded from multiple sources, supporting all members of a community, they must change and they must support the ecosystem above all else. Zoos are controlled and you know exactly what you’ve got, you can measure it, photograph it, literally stick it on a T-shirt, but whatever amount of marketing it will only ever be a poor imitation of the real thing and like real zoos, state commissioned services are totally dependent on their ‘wild’ counterparts. Without the Rainforest, ultimately there are no Zoos, so Commissioners, please become conservationists and leave your zookeeper fantasies behind, because if you don’t change your ways then one day when your Zoo has run its course and you turn to check on the natural habitats that must now suffice, they may no longer exist.

Garry

Garry Jones, Chief Exectutive, Support Staffordshire

@SuSChief

Support Staffordshire logo

Fri 5 Feb 2021

Support Staffordshire are delighted to announce the publication of their first comprehensive State of the Sector report.

The report shows the local sector has a turnover of more than £112M, employs almost 8,000 people, and engages over 50,000 volunteers worth another £90M.

To see the full report go to our website here.

Tue 5 Jan 2021

Happy New Year and welcome to this our first new look E-bulletin of the year, now focussed upon news, jobs and features – with our other ‘member support’ bulletin coming separately around the 25th of the month instead.

I hope that our members, partners and supporters got a rest over the Christmas break, spent some precious time with loved ones and feel at least a little renewed for the year ahead. With developments over recent days its not going to be an easy start and the VCSE sector will once again continue to play its key role supporting children and families struggling to meet the challenge of school closures and income insecurity, young people doing their best to keep positive as their mental wellbeing is rocked time and again by changes to their freedoms and education, older people anxious about leaving home at all, people who are unwell, disabled or otherwise vulnerable, cut off from their usual support networks of family and friends, those still in need of urgent affordable transport options, and those speaking up for others whose own voice is quiet or ignored.

And those using their creativity to break down social distance and return it to what it is, just physical distance, through art, befriending, nature and more. To those supporting people with learning disabilities, difficulties and autism, dementia, and sensory impairment where all this is even more incomprehensible and frightening. To those offering counselling and bereavement support for those who have suffered the greatest loss. To all those supporting carers, who continue to put their loved ones needs above their own on a daily basis. To the food banks, churches, parish groups and community organisations sharing food and supplies with the most vulnerable. To those supporting victims of domestic abuse to escape their perpetrators and rebuild their lives, whilst often losing their only ‘safe’ havens of home. To those getting folks off the streets, out of insecure housing, and others into drug and alcohol support schemes.

To the outdoor and open space groups keeping our now essential green spaces accessible in time when nature is one of the few things we can rely upon for connection and calm. To the community facilities whether in emergency use or being kept going until we can use them to renew our community connections again. To the organisations supporting already marginalised and seldom listened to groups, those tackling hate crime, supporting veterans and supporting diversity and freedom of expression for all.

Every day of every year these volunteers and employees, trustees (and most of their often overlooked family and friends in support), work to make life better, in some cases bearable, for all of us. If they were all to stop for one day, only then might we truly understand what our hidden sector does. But we won’t, we will keep going, so my New Year Resolution Request is to those who hold power and decision makers – those who have the ability to support, financially or otherwise, and the power to withdraw support, or even hinder or cripple these efforts…

Tinker at your peril, for do you truly understand what you are tinkering with?

 

Garry

Garry Jones, Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

@SuSChief

Tue 15 Dec 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure that most people will on the whole be rather glad to see the back of 2020 and with a vaccination programme rolling out over the next several months there is now a solution in touching distance to this otherwise intractable crisis.

Many of us will have lost loved ones during 2020 and I want to pay tribute to all of the wider VCSE family of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent who have experienced loss this year. Your loved ones should be remembered for all they have done either within their communities, our wider voluntary sector or to support you in your own endeavours.

For those who can, I am sure we will want to remember to pick up the phone to those who aren’t lucky enough to be surrounded by family, a little bit extra this Christmas, in place of all those mad dash visits to friends and relatives.

We have made the hard decision to not take advantage of the Christmas relaxation window in our household despite a yearning to let Nannies and Grandads see the kids and vice versa. It is of course a personal choice, but we have agreed that with light at the end of the tunnel, a crisp winter walk in the lovely Staffordshire countryside will do for now and help to ensure we truly put Covid behind us in 2021.

May I wish you all a peaceful and safe Christmas period and a happy, healthy and at the right time, a more sociable 2021.

Garry

Garry Jones, Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

Fri 13 Nov 2020

I’ve been in a few meetings recently where people have used a phrase approximating to ‘X group have been the worst affected by Covid’ quickly followed by something like ‘…so they should get more resources’.

I wince every time, for two reasons:

  1. Rarely have I heard ‘older people’  in this context. I assume this is because so many older people are judged to be sat at home quite safely? That they have not suffered from lack of education or work? However, if we follow the basic evidence no other category can really make even the slightest claim for having been worst hit beyond older people – 45,000 people aged over 65 have died from Covid-19 in the UK– 90% of deaths. End of conversation but!
  2. Far more importantly, this sort of competition for the ‘worse hit’ is a futile and unhelpful narrative – I implore anyone who is stuttering on the verge of using it to have a rethink.

I would argue, not since the second world war, has a public health or social issue been so widespread in its impact upon our communities of all demographics, either through direct ill health or indirect restrictions on our lives or through the mental wellbeing and emotional distress it continues to cause. And yet we have seen the largest surge in neighbourliness, mutual support, care and kindness for our fellow citizen, often strangers, in post-war times. We can take heart that behind the busyness and anonymity of modern Britain, lies a hitherto untapped humanity that many had thought was part of history. I am sure everyone wants to see this continue in whatever way it can, and in the VCSE sector I have seen new, renewed and strengthened partnerships by far outweigh any tensions that such a crisis might reasonably have caused. Let’s not allow competition for resources to disrupt this local collaboration, even when national funders might inadvertently contribute to it.

And let’s keep the narrative kind and collaborative too, not divisive and competitive.

My preschool children miss their grandparents and our parents miss their grandchildren – who is worse hit by this is a nonsense conversation.

Garry

 

Garry Jones, Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

Thu 15 Oct 2020

Last month I promised to give you an update on our Team Staffordshire meeting with MPs which finally happened on 29 September. You can view our follow up letter here which outlines our proposed next steps. We had good discussions with those MPs in attendance, particularly Theo Clarke (MP for Stafford) and Jo Gideon (MP for Stoke Central)  as well as the convening MP, Aaron Bell (MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme). Jonathan Gullis (MP for Stoke North & Kidsgrove) also attended the meeting. A number of other MPs sent representatives to listen in to the conversation. Taking into account communication received during the lockdown this means all MPs, except Gavin Williamson (MP for South Staffordshire and Secretary of State for Education) have been in contact with me either as chair of Team Staffordshire or directly as Chief Executive of Support Staffordshire in recent months; I guess he is a busy man.

As can be seen from the letter, we view this as the start of what we hope will be more regular dialogue with our elected representatives. The relationship between the VCSE sector and central government has variously been described as strained, broken and one of mutual disinterest in recent years. This is in a small way a sliver of light that the relationship can be fixed. We have committed to produce an initial proposal of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent VCSE ‘asks’ which we believe we can formulate based on experience to date. Not because we don’t want to consult you, our members, further (and we will if this proves to be a fruitful route), but rather because we know you all have a lot on in your day to day at the moment and we want to go back to MPs in a timely way to keep up the momentum. That said, if there is a burning issue you think needs to be included then feel free to email me and I will see how we can work it into our thoughts. Take it as read that fairer funding and commissioning will be in there.

Our response will need to be clear and realistic if our elected members are to come together and advocate it on our behalf to their otherwise engaged, and ever more distant, ministerial colleagues. Yet the scale and scope of our sector and the challenges it faces is potentially huge, never more so than in current times. I can’t help thinking that mutual understanding and respect lies at the heart of what is a necessary foundation stone. Government has shown time and again during the pandemic that it thinks it knows best, imposing national solutions that are then implemented on a spectrum from incompleteness through to incompetence. And its own reaction to this tends to be to seek to control even more – if only we could just control everything then everything would be under control!

This is of course utter folly.

In truth, VCSE organisations, along with many colleagues in local government and even to some extent local NHS providers, feel misunderstood, ignored and mistrusted by those who hold power and make decisions in Whitehall. The tiniest silver lining in the Covid cloud is that more, and more senior, people are now willing to say so. There is little sign yet that central government is listening to this line of thought, let alone considering seriously any policies that might genuinely reverse the command and control mantra. However, we can hope (and vote in due course) and establishing lines of regular communication through our back bench MPs in particular is a crucial piece of the puzzle; indeed, something that ought to be mandatory for all MPs!

We will keep you posted on progress.

Garry Jones | Chief Executive | Support Staffordshire

@SuSChief

Mon 14 Sep 2020

The weather this week can’t seem to decide if it’s going back to summer or moving onto a crisp cold autumn. It remains a funny time for us all – just as many plan returns to work, so the national picture has shifted and returned us to greater restrictions.  You could be forgiven for feeling despondent and confused. If you are unsure what to do about your group’s plans, or still struggling with remote/digital options, then please get in touch, we are here to help and support you – even if that just means listening.

Two weeks today I and a couple of Team Staffordshire  colleagues finally have our slot with Staffordshire’s MPs. We have discussed all manner of items that we could readily discuss with them, but with just half an hour on the agenda we are keen to keep it focussed. We will be asking them what they are personally going to do to ensure the heightened awareness of the voluntary sector’s important role is maintained and mainstreamed (so any of you who are reading, there you go, you have a heads up). We will let you know who attended and what they said in the October E-news.

In the meantime here are three other IMPORTANT things to do in September:

  1. Start drawing up your ideas to apply for up to £2,500 from the new #DoingOurBit Community Grant Scheme – this new investment from Staffordshire County Council is for any VCSE organisation that helps vulnerable people stay connected and independent – we have worked with the council to make this as painless as possible and will let you know the application route as soon as we have it! (And just for clarity, yes this is on top of the People Helping People Fund - the one you apply for via your local Cllr).
  2. Do our Survey – we are continuing to advocate for more local investments and to shape our support around what you need – click here to tell us how things are for you right now.
  3. Know a mutual aid or neighbourhood support group that isn’t sure what to do next? Encourage them to access our support for ‘Good Neighbours’ and we can help them to consider their options, scale back, re-organise or establish something for the longer term.

Take care all, Garry

Filed under: Support Staffordshire