frontline vol. 2 issue 3.
Voluntary Sector Vices and Virtues - Are there any lessons from One Plus ?
The collapse of One Plus in late January reverberated throughout working class communities in the west of Scotland. 600 people were suddenly left without employment and many thousands of parents without child care facilities and training opportunities; others were left without care services. Politicians from the bourgeois parties had little to say: as Rosie Kane commented, if this had been a closure of a factory, there would have been lots of noise; as it was the victims were mostly women — many of them single parents, scattered throughout working class communities from Glasgow and as far afield as the Isle of Arran. The One Plus events have promoted discussion on the Scottish Left about what attitude should be taken by socialists towards voluntary organisations that provide vital services. In this article Colin Turbett explores these themes.
Most of the established voluntary sector in Scotland (Children 1st, Barnardos, Quarriers etc) have their origins in 19th century Christian philanthropy. Organisations traditionally used money donated by the public and wealthy benefactors to provide social services to the poor and disadvantaged. A look round the Heatherbank Museum of Social Work in Glasgow Caledonian University gives an insight into the activities of these Victorian Tom Farmers and Richard Bransons. Whilst some of their works were certainly benign and anticipated modern social work, other aspects were cruel and criminal, such as the sending of displaced children by the boatload to the colonies in virtual slavery (a practice which continued well into the 20th century). The established Churches have also been big on charitable works through their own organisations: in particular the Church of Scotland used to have a huge network of primarily residential establishments, but changes such as de-institutionalisation, means that few are now left and they, like others, have been forced to change with the times. There are also hundreds of other smaller organisations providing a social service of one sort or another within localised communities, which might only employ a few staff. Many of these are funded by the Scottish Executive through their grants system and enjoy a precarious existence, spending a disproportionate amount of time simply putting together the next funding application. As this is being written the Herald newspaper is giving prominence to speculation that new European rules for funding will further threaten smaller organisations that rely on such sources.
One Plus had different origins to many of the other large organisations: born out of the rise of feminism and the campaigns for women's rights of the 1960s and 1970s, it started out as a campaigning group for single parents based in Glasgow. It was fortunate in receiving support from the vast and well-resourced Strathclyde Regional Council (S.R.C.), whose Social Strategy policy included a strong element of welfare rights advocacy, designed to wring whatever was possible out of the state's social security systems. This practice was far ahead of the sometimes reactionary hundred or so Labour councillors who dominated S.R.C. over its twenty year history. The financial support given to single miners during the 1984/85 strike which incurred the wrath of the Tory government was another example of this phenomenon. In other respects, Strathclyde was far from progressive as anyone who worked for it can testify. The money paid out to single miners, for instance, was mostly recovered after the strike. The Tories of course eventually nailed Strathclyde through the local government reorganisation of 1996; designed to establish more and smaller authorities with some gerrymandering of boundaries to try (not very successfully as it happened), to create some Tory safe areas within the Labour heartlands.
One Plus though was on the map, owing its success not to fundraising like other charities, but to successful bidding for grants through S.R.C. from Europe. In return they provided advisory and training services that arguably became more important than the original campaigning objectives. As these activities developed so did One Plus's infrastructure of trainers and managers. Inevitably some sections of the organisation took on the aura of a business competing to provide services for local authorities in the old Strathclyde area. All the other voluntary organisations descended from the old charitable societies have gone the same way, moving from providing large scale institutional care to a variety of other social services. To an extent this was promoted by the creation of the 32 local authorities in 1996 out of the previous regional and district ones: most of the new Councils were simply too small to provide a range of provision themselves, particularly in the very specialist areas of non-statutory service e.g. for the victims of sexual abuse. The Richmond Fellowship, Scottish Association of Mental Health, Quarriers and Enable, have become big providers, and there are many others. Their activities fit also with the marketisation of social services which started in the Thatcher years and, through 'best value', continues to be a mainstay of Labour policy through the 'Third Way' (Blair's political philosophy and strategy from the days of his 1997 election win, which explicitly moved Labour towards being another party of the capitalist market).
Successive governments have tried to stem public expenditure (at the same time as placing ever increasing responsibilities upon local authorities) through the purchase of services rather than their direct provision. It can of course be cheaper to employ staff through agencies: the hourly cost may be higher as these organisations charge a premium for their overheads, but the local authority avoids the responsibility of being the employer. One Plus and the other providers have had to be competitive or they will lose out in the marketplace. Like any employer faced with such competition, the basic rule of capitalism determines that the burden will be passed down to workers, especially those hourly paid sessional staff who provided many of the child care and social care services delivered by One Plus. Although One Plus's intention as a non profit making organisation, was always to offer equity, those in local authorities who arranged the contracts ensured pay was held down to a level that would have been unacceptable within their own workforces. In one such, One Plus sessional care workers received £5.55 per hour whilst their local authority equivalents earned £6.95. Such is the marketplace.
Growth under such circumstances is bound to be precarious. The expansion of One Plus's infrastructure and headquarters staffing was dependant upon continued growth in contracts with local authorities as well as ongoing European funding streams for its campaigning and training activity. It began to go wrong some time ago, and the eventual collapse, first of childcare provider Kid Care before Christmas, and then One Plus itself, in January, was no surprise to those in the know. Pension payments were diverted two years ago and this only came to light when Strathclyde Pension Fund alerted staff. This was known to the majority trade union, the TGWU, but they decided not to make an issue of it for the reasons discussed below. Sadly knowledge of how bad things were getting, and how Peter was being robbed to pay Paul within the organisation, did not extend to most of the workforce, or any of the users. It really was business as usual right up until the announcement of the collapse. Some sections were said to be buoyant — the homecare side of One Plus had a turnover of £2m and is said to have been quite healthy. The volunteer management committee, who had to shoulder the responsibility publicly when things went belly-up, was composed of single parents and activists, including committed socialists. It cannot be assumed that the well- paid senior managers, who actually took the decisions day to day, were telling the management committee exactly what was going on across One Plus. These people, unlike councillors in local authorities to whom senior officials report, recieved no pay or anything other than out of pocket expenses. No kudos or power came their way from what was still at heart a campaigning organisation for single parents.
Progressive or Reactionary?
The voluntary sector is sometimes favoured by progressive elements in social work as an arena for innovative and imaginative practice unfettered by the constraints of the statutory local authority social services departments. That might be the case for a small number of skilled professionals in focussed organisations such as the Women's Support Project in Glasgow, or the Glasgow Association for Mental Health, but the reality for most staff in the voluntary sector is low pay and insecurity. This sector has always been a difficult one for the trade unions to organise in: union membership has not always equated with bargaining power. The precariousness of funding has been transparent enough in most cases to minimise demands over pay and conditions, as was the case with One Plus. One large national organisation, the Richmond Fellowship, is virulently anti-union and talks to staff through its own 'staff committee'. The irony of their users (individuals with mental health problems) recently asking trade unionists to support a very legitimate campaign to raise the levels of therapeutic work earning thresholds (the amount which can be earned before benefits and sickness status are affected) has not been lost on socialists. The Church of Scotland too, has always had a problem with trade union recognition.
A differentiation perhaps has to be made between voluntary organisations, depending on how they see themselves. There are those who, irrespective of their roots, have become experts in particular fields e.g. the Women's Support Project are second to none when it comes to training, advice and campaigning over issues relating to violence against women and children. It might be safe to presume (although impossible within capitalist society!) that if all violence against women stopped, the Women's Support Project would cease to exist. Other organisations have large infrastructures and bureaucracies that have adapted to changing circumstances such as the de-institutionalisation described earlier, rather than just disappear. The 19th century philanthropic organisations that continue to exist are all examples and some have changed their names to fit with modern perceptions and role (e.g. 'Scottish Society for Mentally Handicapped' to 'Enable'. There are now a multitude of other organisations that have been born more recently out of the trends described earlier surrounding the marketisation of social services. The WISE Group exemplify this: according to the their website they are an organisation who get the unemployed back to work; a large body of 'partners' including numerous local authorities and other state agencies are listed, and the sources of funding are European Union. Unlike One Plus, whose website was devoted primarily to information giving and campaigning, the WISE Group site reads like that of any commercial business: there is no ambiguity about their objectives, no reference to the structural causes of unemployment or the reasons why their users find themselves disadvantaged and out of work in the first place. No threat to anyone in power here and it should be no surprise that Scottish Executive ministers like Des McNulty cite the WISE Group in positive contrast to One Plus when commenting in the media on recent events.
What we therefore see is the growth of the voluntary sector taking different forms across the country. Some large providers act like competitors in an open marketplace with local authorities like Glasgow City moving quite cynically between them. The more business-like they are, the more work they get, and the bigger they become. There are also numerous small scale local projects who provide a service to a locality, and then other service specific organisations like Women's Aid, who promote self help along feminist lines and plug particular gaps in statutory provision. One plus seems to have found itself straddling these stools and eventually fell between them as the tensions between being a campaigning organisation and a business-like provider became too much of a strain on funding. One Plus's operations in deprived communities meant that they were dealing with areas of market failure. Their dependence on the European Social Fund when the demands on it had increased substantially with the growth of the European Union, meant uncertainty and unreasonable delay. They could have been helped at the time of the collapse but political decisions were taken at local authority and Scottish Executive level not to do so. The calls of the Scottish Socialist Party for such financial assistance to keep them in operation were entirely correct and the embarrassed squirming of Jack McConnell in Holyrood told its own story. In some areas their services were so important that the local authority had little choice other than to take on the frontline staff themselves in order that services to vulnerable people were not interrupted (this happened on the Isle of Arran). This could have been taken up more vigorously in some other areas as a demand of socialists and trade unionists. The bulk of the staff however were in Glasgow and involved in child care provision where this did not seem to be an option. Ironically the week after the closure the Westminster government announced punitive measures to get single parents back into work. As Ann-Marie Smith, a former One Plus volunteer mentor pointed out in the Scottish Socialist Voice: "Lone Parents want to work, but with decent wages and child care." The type of facility offered by One Plus was crucial to such people for whom the tax credit system forces a choice between clothes, food and childcare.
What then should be the attitude of socialists to the so-called 'voluntary sector'? Clearly the progressive aims of One Plus and other campaigning organisations should be supported. Their critiques of capitalist society may be limited but so are those of most trade unions and we are unequivocal about the importance of our activity in them. When these organisations become businesses competing effectively for work (sometimes against private profit making providers such as in the home care sector), we should be clear about the regressive role this can then play in letting the state off the hook: voluntary sector services are often provided on the cheap with low paid and insecurely employed frontline staff. Workers generally enjoy better pay and conditions when they work for local authorities due to the strength of trade unions and their powerful collective bargaining position. In any circumstance we always side with workers if they find themselves in conflict with their employers, as potentially were the One Plus staff because of the way they were treated. As noted earlier, we have to be careful here: targeting of the One Plus voluntary management committee (which the TGWU official involved did) would have been misplaced, but blaming the senior managers who took the day to day decisions, was certainly legitimate.
The breadth of the voluntary sector and their role as the employer of many thousands of people in Scotland will ensure that the issues surrounding the One Plus collapse will arise again. We have to be careful to tailor our response in each case as ill informed generalised sloganising will not fit with particular situations due to the complexity of the voluntary sector.