The words, written by someone with experience of volunteering, referred to the vital work of London-based charity the Octavia Foundation. In full, the handwritten postcard read: “No-one should ever have to feel like they are not worth helping and Octavia does such a good job of making sure that doesn’t happen.”
The event was Octavia’s annual volunteer awards, honouring some of the 250 local people who have given their time to others through the charity over the last year. Actor Tamsin Greig presented awards to those who support work with local people affected by ill health, social isolation, unemployment or poverty.
The foundation works in one of the most affluent parts of the capital, but there is much for the charity to do in the pockets of deprivation that also exist.
I helped judge the charity’s awards, reading some incredible testimonies from people who benefit from the help of volunteers.
Delia Jones, who volunteers as a befriender for example, was highly commended. Delia was nominated by Richard, who she visits and who was involved in a serious car accident almost 40 years ago – both are pictured above.
Richard’s mother Joyce Turner, 95, who also nominated Delia, explained: “What Delia does for Richard is vital. He will tell Delia what kind of book he wants, as we have a lot of different kinds and we arrange them alphabetically so she can find them. Delia seems exactly right, and we love her visits because it gives Richard such pleasure to see her. The importance of her visit every week is that he only goes out three times a week, and if its raining or bad weather, she is the only thing that he looks forward to. She never lets us down and we can trust her.”
With welfare cuts and a squeeze on public sector funding, many support services are under threat so the work of volunteers is vital in helping society’s most vulnerable people. Some of the most innovative ideas – and inspiring, unsung heroes – are found in small, community-based projects that often don’t get the attention they deserve. The recent Octavia awards are an opportunity to put that right and focus on the important work carried out in local areas.
Women in Croxteth, Liverpool, discuss the impact of cuts on communities, part of the research for the new book, Austerity Bites
Do you know what austerity really means?
Here’s a definition from the Collins Dictionary, as quoted in Mary O’Hara’s commanding new book on the subject, Austerity Bites: “…difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce the budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure: a period of austerity/austerity measures.”
But that literal definition, and the words of politicians using the rhetoric of austerity to mask the harsh impact of public spending cuts, conveys nothing of the human cost of the unprecedented reform of the welfare state.
Austerity Bites redresses that imbalance. I don’t usually do reviews on this site, but this timely book demands attention.
Reading this book means you join the award-winning journalist O’Hara in her “journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK”. Based on a 12-month trip around the country meeting diverse people affected by cuts as reforms were introduced in 2012 and 2013, O’Hara gives a platform to untold stories of hardship.
O’Hara’s book suggests, “austerity” has become an acceptable rhetoric, one that glosses over the harsh impact of welfare reform – as in “cuts hurt but in the age of austerity, what else can we do?” The creeping normalisation of food poverty and food banks, as explored in this book, is shameful.
While an intricate explanation is given of the political and economic context, it is the lives of those whose voices are rarely given a platform – the homeless, the disabled, the young among them – that are the focus here.
Crisscrossing the country, the picture is one of political classes living in a “bubble” untouched by the harsh reality of life on the front line of Austerity UK; a massive chasm between the people suffering from the impact of cuts and abolition of vital benefits and the people making the decisions to abolish that support.
People talk of “breaking point”, “existing not living”, their “desperate situation”; the book does much to explode the myth of benefit Britain. A fairly comprehensive catalogue of unfairness is chronicled in Austerity Bites – the disabled, for example, are shown to be bearing the brunt of cuts, the vulnerable are made more vulnerable and the poorer become poorer.
As one man, Dec, who O’Hara meets on a Luton estate tells the author: “Do I deserve better? Do other people deserve better? I think they do.”
Unsettling, but vital, reading, this book lays bare the real, true story of austerity.
More than one million people with learning disabilities are eligible to vote – so why are they ignored by politicians?
My interview with Gary Bourlet in today’s Guardian explains how the veteran disability campaigner wants to give people like himself, with learning disabilities, a greater voice and presence so they feature in places other than “secret footage on Panorama”, referring to Winterbourne View, where the abuse of patients with learning disabilities was exposed by the BBC in 2011. To this end, he has set up People First England, to encourage adults with learning disabilities, rather than care professionals, to participate in politics and appear on TV and radio discussing stories that affect them.
“We want people speaking for themselves about issues that concern them, rather than the professionals,” he says. “We want greater powers to be seen, to vote, to be included, have the same opportunities in social life, education and employment as everyone else.” Bourlet, 55, has launched the user-led charity with disability rights activist Kaliya Franklin.
Today is the last day of Real Bread Maker Week, not too high profile as far as awareness weeks go, but it seemed an opportune moment to share a one minute video of the best real bread maker I know – my sister Raana.
Spliced together with not much time (but a lot of warmth and a fair sprinkling of my sister’s sense of humour), we hope it leaves you with at least one of four things:
1. A clear impression that my talents do not lie in shooting video
2. An understanding that my sister – and her fellow bakers – are damn good at what they do (and why shouldn’t they be?)
3. A smile
4. A hunger for (organic, wholesome, additive-free, made with skill) freshly baked bread
The bread maker week that ends today, run by the food and farming charity Sustain, champions “real” bakers’ “rightful place at the hearts of our local communities” and encourages people bake or buy real bread from local, independent bakeries. Just like my sister’s (she bakes a mean chocolate brownie too; if you’re passing by Ringwood, go taste…).
Hazrat Bilal from Narshingdi, Bangladesh, has been blind since birth, but it was only in 2008 at the age of 33, with support from Bangladeshi charity Action for Blind Children, that he was officially registered as permanently disabled. That led to more support from services for the visually impaired; Hazrat got to know other people with sight problems and began to gain confidence.
The 39-year-old now runs his own grocery shop and has helped form a self-help group. It was only after help from the local charity, a partner of international charity Sightsavers, that his life was transformed but if more international development and aid plans were disability-inclusive, there would be many more stories like Hazrat’s.
One billion people all over the world – 15 per cent of the population – have a disability, according to the World Health Organisation. Of that total, 80 per cent live in developing countries.
The report’s recommendations echoes some of the actions outlined in international charity Sightsavers’ Put Us in the Picture campaign. Launched last year, the campaign calls on policymakers and politicians to include disabled people in international aid and development plans, highlighting the links between disability and poverty.
Specifically, the campaign says the government must ensure people with disabilities participate in, and benefit from, international development programmes and must talk, listen to and work with people with disabilities and their families. It also argues that DFID staff should be trained to include people with disabilities in their work.
You can support the Put Us in the Picture campaign here or follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #InThePicture
How blurred are the lines between work and leisure, thanks to the impact of technology on our working lives? Does anyone still really work only an eight hour day? And what about the rising numbers of self-employed people in our changing economy?
These are among the questions prompted by a new exhibition about the world of work, Time & Motion: Redefining working life, from FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and the Royal College of Art’s Creative Exchange Hub.
The show uses art and archive materials to look at everything from clocking on at the factory gates to remote, online ways of working.
Among the varied works is a piece from Cohen van Balen about mass-manufacturing, 75 Watt. The video commission focuses on a product with no useful purpose (apart from to choreograph a dance performed by the labourers making it).
My experience proves the benefits of volunteering for people with autism. I was born in 1959 and diagnosed with autism in 1963, at age four. I was one of Sybil Elgar’s first pupils at her progressive school. She was a pioneer in autism and helped develop my language and communication skills.
I then attended a local primary school in Edinburgh, where my mother and I moved, and a mainstream secondary school in London when we moved back to England in 1972. Art was my strongest subject (I passed several O Levels) and I studied furnishing design and textiles at the London College of Furniture. I got a diploma in art and design. I took more courses after that at a local art college and learned things like etching and print making. My most recent works are computer generated greetings cards (see the website).
Following a traumatic event in 2008, I developed severe depression and anxiety . After some time attending a psychiatric unit, social services support and help from my GP, a social worker suggested volunteering and I was put in touch with Volunteer Centre Camden.
It was through the volunteer centre that I started working at the Holy Cross Centre Trust in July 2011. It is a secular organisation in King’s Cross, London, which supports mental health recovery as well as homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers.
I hadn’t volunteered before although I’d had some experience of work. The place where I worked previously was a company providing unpaid employment for people with mental health issues and was run as a social service. The aim was to manufacture and distribute large volumes of greeting cards to the mass market but I wasn’t happy there. The tasks I was involved in were printing and packing greeting cards and using Photoshop on a computer for designing cards for later use and batch production.
I did not get satisfaction there as I was mostly restricted to printing other people’s designs and this did not allow me to express my own ideas. Their bias was to produce Christmas cards and my inspiration for designs comes from many sources which are irrelevant for Christmas. The repetitive tasks were soul-destroying.
But at the Holy Cross where I am now, my role is to help and encourage people to draw and paint, also to set up and tidy the art materials. I work noon to 3pm. Everyone is kind and friendly and there is a positive buzz to the place. Not only is helping out so satisfying and rewarding, it helps me to gain significantly in confidence and the thrill of feeling respected and valued as part of a team is fantastically liberating. I have made many friends and can see myself thriving there well in the future.
Suitable volunteering should be open to more autistic people as the skills required such as attention to detail, reliability or some special talents are well suited to the autistic trait and may prove to be great assets for the workplace. On their part autistic people can benefit from mixing and socialising with people of different nationalities and backgrounds and feeling respected and valued. To me the regular routines, the structure to the week and the sense of purpose in society are most satisfying.
Autistic people may encounter some difficulties. For example, travelling on public transport, especially long distances, or unintentional and misinterpreted challenging behaviour may cause problems. But with foresight, awareness about autism, guidance and the right support I see no reason why autistic people should not be accepted and be very successful doing voluntary work. I am quite sure that, giving the right conditions, volunteering can be “autism friendly”.
The fact I am high functioning autistic has presented no problems in my volunteering. One of the benefits of working there is that it has a knock-on effect on my closeness, love and affection towards members of the family. I now feel so optimistic about the future. Socialising now comes with ease. I am thrilled with life!
I’ve never thought of my sister, above, as a saleswoman – she can be engaging, encouraging, persuasive and talkative, but she’s never actually sold me anything other than an idea (usually about what film to watch; invariably a Bond movie).
So my family and I were impressed – and proud – to see Raana in marketing mode (above, resplendent with pot for raffle ticket cash) for the first time on Saturday (scroll down for a gallery of snapshots).
Raana, along with some of her peers, formed a veritable raffle mafia – but not only was parting with cash in a good cause, it was impossible to say no when the ticket sellers assured you “this one’s a winner!” (this was clearly a sales spiel – neither I nor anyone in my family won a single thing…).
The open day in the Lantern’s grounds – with flowers, plants and fruit and veg in early autumnal bloom, stalls, food and live music – marked the opening of a new house, Silver Birches, for adults with learning disabilities. The day was also a celebration of the charity merger between the Lantern and Seahorses. Seahorses is four-star holiday accommodation on the Isle of Wight run by, with and for people with disabilities (as well as for those without) – a B&B with a bonus, as I explained in a recent Guardian piece.
From the fruit, vegetables and plants on sale and display to the bakery produce and the range of arts and crafts including pottery and woodwork, the day showcased the talents of a creative and inspiring group of people. And one of them, running from stall to stall with a book of pink tickets and a broad smile, refusing to stop to chat to me (“I’m busy! I’m working!”), was my saleswoman of a sister.
Talking to my eight-year-old daughter about the fact I was going to blog about our day with Raana, she immediately suggested a title for the story. It’s so neat and accurate, I think it rounds off the post and sums up the event perfectly: The Lantern Stars.
Under the proposals, victims of miscarriages of justice like Gerry Conlon, one of the Guilford Four, or Mark Neary, who fought his local council’s decision to send his son into care 300 miles away from home, would never have brought their cases before the courts.
Legal aid, and the individual’s right to challenge authority and unfair decisions is a bedrock of the British legal system, often described as “the envy of the world“. Dismantle that foundation, and, as the people and families I spoke to for today’s piece make clear, you increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions and greater unrest among the prison population, and you give the authorities carte blanche to bring in sweeping changes (to welfare, for example) with impunity.
The government’s Transforming Legal Aid proposals include new competitive tendering of solicitors’ contracts and a fixed fee system which, say lawyers, will preclude many from bidding for work and force them out of the market. The government will also prevent prisoners from using legal aid to challenge their treatment inside (see the words of ex-offender Leroy Skeete in the Guardian piece to see what effect this could have) and a new residency test will withhold legal aid from trafficking victims or those recently arrived in the UK who suffer domestic abuse.
Justice secretary Chris Grayling is due to give evidence this morning to the justice select committee regarding the price competitive tendering proposals in his Transforming Legal Aid consultation.
As reported, Grayling has said in a statement: “I have always been clear this is a genuine consultation and I will continue to listen to views.” (He may listen – but will he act on what he hears?) He may be dropping his plans to remove defendants’ rights to choose their own solicitor but, while the safeguarding of choice is welcome, that choice is useless if the pool from which to chose dries up. In addition, if the system is so restricted under the changes that would-be claimants don’t get permission to launch appeal cases anyway, they won’t even get as far as having to make a choice.
Below are two more testimonies which explain just what a difference legal aid makes – and what would happen if the changes go through:
Blessing (not her real name), 36, a domestic worker from Nigeria:
“My employers hadn’t paid me properly, or paid any tax, for the nine months I worked for them. I was paid £250 a month and worked seven days a week. I never had rest days or fixed hours. They called me to work at any time. I normally started working at 7am and would work until after 11pm as my employers would return home late and expect me to cook for them.
During the day I looked after their children and cooked and cleaned. At the weekends I also had to clean my employers’ business. It was hard work and I had no life of my own.
Legal aid helped me to go to court for an employment tribunal and win. I won my claim to be paid the national minimum wage for my work.
Without legal aid I wouldn’t have got anything. I didn’t know how to help myself. I didn’t know about my rights in the UK until I went to Kalayaan, which advises migrant domestic workers. They explained my rights to me and were able to find me a lawyer to take my case.
My case shows that domestic work is real work and that work in a private household should have proper hours and be fairly paid – like any work.
The proposed residency test under the legal aid changes will stop people like me from getting help [the proposals mean applicants need to be lawfully resident in the UK and to have lived here continuously for at least a year at some stage]. This is on top of new immigration rules that mean domestic workers are given a tied migrant domestic worker visa, the rules of which also makes getting help impossible [the visa means migrant domestic staff in private households cannot change employer or stay longer than six months].
Employers will be able to treat these workers however they like as they will know that they won’t be able to challenge any mistreatment. Many are not paid at all for many months work in the UK. With no legal aid they won’t be able to do anything about this.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive Inclusion London, a pan-London Deaf and disabled peoples organisation:
“Disabled people need access to justice now more than ever.
Entitlements to independent living and social care are being dismantled and reduced and the right to challenge is through judicial review – and that, to all intents and purposes, is going to be removed [the reforms make it harder to bring a judicial review].
Increasingly, local authorities are – in order to make budgets work – squeezing individual care packages…it’s only when a disabled person’s legal aid lawyer threatens the local authority with action, do we see them carrying out statutory duties.
It’s less likely that public bodies will be held to account [under the reforms] and in this climate of frenzied cuts, that’s more important than ever. Judicial review is a key challenge to ensure that public bodies meet their duties under the Equalities Act and due regard is paid to vulnerable groups.
Without legal aid funded judicial reviews, the recent work capability assessment and bedroom tax policies wouldn’t have been challenged.
We’ll have a huge percentage of the population without redress, and that is a dangerous system to be in.”
*Previous posts on legal aid can be found here and here
There’ll be more from the bakers of Camphill on this blog in the next week or so – they really are an inspiring, welcoming and talented bunch of people and work in what has to be one of the buzziest bakeries I’ve ever been to (listen to the audio slideshow – especially my sister’s numerous interjections – and you’ll see what I mean..).
For now, however, the slideshow photographs and the words of the bakers themselves speak volumes and do a better job than I could in a long piece of writing to reflect the bakery’s ethos and prove why schemes like this are so vital. Plus they make the most amazing things so, I’d like leave the last word to my sister, “ahhh the whiff of that bread!”