Category Archives: Poverty

Art for all: the Surrey gallery that targets a hidden need

Blue Figure, print, by Tendai from Feltham youth offender institution.

Leafy and affluent are default shorthands when describing the English county of Surrey, but the council ward of Westborough, Guildford, has the highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the county. Child poverty is high in Westborough, and around a quarter of all female prisoners in the UK are in custody in Surrey, including a number of lifers at HMP Send.

While the cash-strapped Tory-run council recently grabbed headlines with a threat to raise council tax by a huge 15% , this has done little to shed light on the social needs that exist in Surrey.

The issue of how Surrey’s general wealth hides specific pockets of deprivation is outlined in a new report into the social and community impact of Watts Gallery Artists’ Village (WGAV), in Compton, about a 10 minute drive from Westborough.

The gallery, opened in 1904 and dedicated to the work of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts, aims to transform lives through art – “Art for All” (Barack Obama, among others, has cited Watts as an inspiration). The report, Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, describes the overlooked needs. It underlines the organisation’s role, for example, running artist-led workshops with prisoners and young offenders – I’m sharing some of the works here – as well as community projects, schools and and youth organisations.

The Journey, water-based oil on canvas, by Dena from HMP Send.

There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.

Close Up, oil on canvas by Samantha from HMP Send, part of Watts Gallery’s community outreach work.

The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).

As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”

Brighton, mixed media on paper, by Jenny from HMP Send.

More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.

Innovative project redistributes surplus food to needy

Food donated to FoodHub, for distribution to charities and food banks (pic: FoodHub)
Food donated to FoodHub, for distribution to charities and food banks (pic: FoodHub)

Christmas – for some a time of year to overindulge, for others a desperate effort to feed the family.

With a huge rise in the number of people in the UK relying on food banks, a new London project that is making good use of food left behind when people moving house by collecting it and donating it to food banks and charities.

The organisers, a company specialising in overseas moves, explains: “MoveHub and their partners noticed that families were forced to just throw large volumes of food when they moved abroad – due to customs restrictions – and decided that instead, this food should find its way to people who really needed it.”

The project estimates that the food thrown away during moves across the UK could fill 160 supermarket delivery vans each week. While it acknowledges it “can’t reverse food poverty in the UK”, the scheme is an attempt to “contribute to the organisations helping people get back on their feet”.

Among the charities benefitting from FoodHub is homeless charity Centrepoint.

It is estimated that around 3.5m tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK and this latest drive is a welcome addition to schemes like the “community supermarket” plan, under which unwanted supermarket food is already re-distributed to needy families.

* This is the last Social Issue post for 2014 – the blog will be back in January. Thanks to everyone who has read, shared, contributed to, commented on and got in touch over the last 12 months, your support’s very much appreciated.

Tech two: UK charity recycles computers to Africa

African students benefit from the UK's unwanted, recycled computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)
African students benefit from the UK’s unwanted, recycled computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)
Stories of public sector waste and inefficiency are commonplace, not least amid the current climate of cuts and the notion of “doing more with less”. Which is why I was interested to hear of a project in Gloucestershire that collects old computers from police, NHS and other public bodies and charities, gives them a new lease of life and distributes them to African schools.

IT Schools Africa, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, collects old, used machines in the UK, refurbishes them – dismantling them and fixing software problems, for example – before sending them to schools in Africa.

Given the recent news of dodgy tech hardware – and frankly even dodgier tech opinions – it’s a good time to be reminded about IT’s positive impact.

The charity has sent more than 44,000 recycled computers to eight African countries since its launch, allowing an estimated 3m children access to technology. It also delivers technical support and IT teacher training in the schools.

Schools in Africa benefit from the UK's revamped computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)
Schools in Africa benefit from the UK’s revamped computers (pic: IT Schools Africa)

Manufacturing a PC, as the charity points out, consumes 240kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water. So re-using the machines not only benefits young people in Africa, but helps the environment (once the computers have reached the end of the lives in Africa, the charity also recycles the materials and parts).

In the UK, the charity offers work experience to local students and to young people with special educational needs as well as to the long-term unemployed. It works with three prisons – Cardiff, Whitemoor and Winchester – where prisoners work to refurbish computers.

Work experience students working to refurbish computers for Africa  (pic: IT Schools Africa)
Work experience students working to refurbish computers for Africa (pic: IT Schools Africa)

Over the last three year Gloucestershire Constabulary has donated 275 computers, the local NHS Trust 194 computers and charity donors include the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (147 machines), the Order of St Johns Care Trust (208 computers) and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which gave 21 computers.

Private sector firms and individuals are also among those donating machines, and the charity is using its 10 year landmark to renew its fundraising dive, hoping to expand its network of donors and its work with prisons.

Find out more here.

Telling the untold stories of austerity

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.

Development and disability: new report urges action

Hazrat Bilal and family, Bangladesh (pic: Sightsavers)
Hazrat Bilal and family, Bangladesh (pic: Sightsavers)

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.

Despite the fact that one of the eight Millennium Development Goals that world leaders agreed in 2000 was that every child should have a full primary education by 2015, more than a third of the 57 million children worldwide missing out on school have disabilities (see this stunning picture story about blind schoolchildren in Uganda). It seems incredible but disability was not included in the Millennium Development Goals.

Disabilities contribute to global economic, political and social development but it is well documented that development programmes overlook disability issues. That may change if a new report by the International Development Select Committee on disability and development has any impact. Today’s report urges the Department for International Development (DFID) to strengthen its work to include people with disabilities and calls for a focus on disability as a development issue.

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

12 days of Christmas, Social Issue-style

Season’s greetings from The Social Issue – to mark the jollities, here’s a snapshot of some of the upbeat posts and pictures about people, projects and places featured over the last 12 months. This festive pick is by no means the best of the bunch – the inspiring stories below are included as they’re accompanied by some interestin and images and almost fit with a festive carol, if you allow for a little the poetic and numerical licence…

Very huge thanks to the Social Issue’s small band of regular and guest bloggers, all contributors, supporters, readers and everyone who’s got in touch with story ideas and feedback. See you in January.

On the first day of Christmas, the blogosphere brought to me:

A tiger in an art show

Batik Tiger created by a student at specialist autism college, Beechwood

Two JCBs

The Miller Road project, Banbury, where agencies are tackling youth housing and training. Pic: John Alexander

Three fab grans

Hermi, 85: “I don’t really feel like an older woman.”

Four working teens

From antisocial behaviour to force for social good; Buzz Bikes, Wales.

Five(ish) eco tips

Eco hero Phil uses a “smart plug” to monitor domestic energy use

Six(ty) volunteers

Young volunteer with City Corps, Rodney WIlliams

Seven(teen) pairs of wellies

Abandoned festival rubbish, Wales, gets recycled for the homeless, pic credit: Graham Williams

Eight(een-years-old and over) people campaigning

Participants in the Homeless Games, Liverpool

1950s hall revamping

"The kid who talked of burning down the place is now volunteering to paint it."

10 lads a leaping

11-year-olds integrating

Children's al fresco activiites at the Big Life group summer scheme

12(+) painters painting

View from the Southbank of Tower Bridge, Aaron Pilgrim, CoolTan Arts

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Is Paddington the “big society” in action?

Big society in action is how civil society minister Nick Hurd described the award-winning Paddington Development Trust (PDT) which he chose for his first ministerial visit in May 2010. “Residents have real sense of ownership and power,” he enthused on Twitter about the west London regeneration organisation that supports residents to volunteer a total of 5,000 hours through 350 different volunteering opportunities.

But shortly after Hurd’s praise, the organisation was among the first victims of public spending cuts when £350,000 was axed as the government scrapped its neighbourhood programmes. The trust’s chief executive, Neil Johnston, has spent the last year figuring out how to continue its groundbreaking work. Read the rest of my piece for the Guardian’s Society pages here.

No voice for the vulnerable

Can you imagine being so desperate for affordable legal advice that you go on an eight-hour, 300-mile bus trip just to get help? I came across such a case seven years ago; a Welsh man facing eviction from his council-owned cottage when the area was being redeveloped found that the only housing legal aid lawyer willing to take on his case was in West London. So desperate was the man to stay in the cottage he had been born in and so great was his fear of homelessness, he made the trip.

Although this tale is from 2004, it highlights the vital safety net legal aid (when the state pays all or part of the legal costs for those who cannot afford them) provides to society’s most vulnerable. The number of solicitors who carry out legal aid work have been falling in recent years (hence the Welsh man’s 300-mile journey) thanks to uncompetitive pay rates, hours of unpaid work and red tape. But now, under government plans to cut the legal aid budget by £350m, the situation could get worse for those wanting to access affordable legal help. It is estimated that around 500,000 people could lose out on legal advice amid the planned cuts as the government wants to remove clinical negligence, family law, education, non-asylum immigration and housing cases from legal aid’s scope.

Today is Justice for All day, with marches and petitions planned by a coalition of 3,000 charities campaigning against the cuts and you can also oppose the cuts at social action campaign site 38 Degrees.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has also launched Sound Off For Justice, a campaign for alternative reforms that it says will save more than the government’s own proposals and protect legal aid funding. The campaign encourages the public to demand the government reconsider its plans and look at the alternative measures which it says would save £384m in the next 12 months. You can record a voicemail for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke against the cuts here. The campaign is supported by, amongst others, housing charity Shelter, the Refugee Council, lone parent charity Gingerbread and housing association Eaves.

Here’s the campaign’s latest video:

There’s something rotten going on when an endless glut of super-injunctions protect the privacy, reputations and careers of the super-rich but a lone parent, for example, is denied basic access to his children because he simply can’t get the afford the advice.

The cuts: the worst is yet to come

An authoritative analysis in today’s Society Guardian of the deepest spending cuts in a generation, which start from Friday. The special issue inludes some sector by sector breakdowns of savings and job losses, including pieces I contributed to the in-depth coverage.

The cuts – an alternative

For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.

It Cuts Both Ways…The Alternatives from Oonagh Cousins on Vimeo.