Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why Shelter faces storm

IT is over forty years since millions of people in Britain were shocked into awareness of social reality by a television drama about one woman and her children. It was called 'Cathy Come Home', and depicted the nightmare of poor people desperately trying to find and keep a roof over their heads, in one of the world's richest cities.

Cathy set new standards in TV drama realism and it gave a boost to the housing charity Shelter that was formed soon after, combining help with campaigning so that it did not give politicians an excuse to dodge responsibility, but tried to inform and set their agenda.
How well it succeeded, as authorities accepted the need for a safety net, but failed, as housing as a social need was forgotten in the Thatcherite rush to suck people into the property game, was discussed on the anniversary.

Nowadays the BBC is better-known for endless programmes about buying and selling property than hard-hitting social dramas. Of late if we have heard the words "working class" used on the box they have been prefixed by the words "white", at once patronising us and promoting a political agenda in which we fight each other for attention and scarce resources, rather than asking why there's a shortage or whether they are just over-priced. That might lead to us upsetting the property racket, and that would never do.

Shelter too, once the favourite good cause of the educated young as they moved from student revolt to respectability but retained a conscience, is losing or has already lost its halo. A few months ago Ken Loach, who took the camera out of the studio and the social issues into our homes, starting something when he directed 'Cathy', announced that he was boycotting Shelter. A lot of people, including unions, who have given their respect and support to the housing charity, may follow his lead. They fear Shelter is moving away from its social aims, and don't like the uncharitable way it is treating its staff.

The charity employs some 850 staff, about 60 per cent of whom are members of the TGWU Unite. In March they held their first ever strike, and they took further strike action the other day. Shelter workers are dedicated people, They don't expect the big salaries earned by some of their old college chums who went to work in business, the fat cat city bonuses awarded by firms that do well out of the housing market (or even to directors of banks that lost money speculating in ill-judged mortgages). But just because they chose to work for a charity doesn't mean they can afford to be one. Today's charities are big business, Shelter disposes of some £49 million a year, and the staff are not Victorian do-gooders from wealthy families, dabbling as a hobby with the poor, they are full-time professionals, and they too have families to keep, rents or mortgages to pay.

Shelter staff are not in dispute because they want big money or shorter hours. They are having to strike because they are battling to stay where they are. Under a plan introduced last year Shelter frontline staff have been downgraded, suffering pay cuts of around £3,000 a year.
The charity also wants to abolish its incremental pay scheme, so anyone who is on the lowest pay now can look forward to no improvement no matter how long they stay. No wonder the union says that the 30 to 40 staff who have already been downgraded would number more if it had not been that people have left the job. To add to this bleak picture, Shelter wants to increase working hours by what amounts to three weeks a year - with no increase in pay.

The way things are going some Shelter staff fear they could end up needing the kind of services they are supposed to provide. The Guardian instanced a worker who was given a choice - work the extra hours, which would mean having to spend more on childcare, or lose £2,000 a year. "One worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of dismissal, said: 'I'm the main breadwinner in my household and am living in a one-bedroom flat with two children. If I have to pay for more childcare, it's going to be very difficult to pay the mortgage and see my kids.'"

Shelter bosses say the changes are necessary so Shelter can compete with such major private-sector companies as Capita - itself set up to take on work which the civil service has farmed out - in providing legal aid contracts. Chief executive Adam Sampson emailed all Shelter employees informing them: 'Those who decide that they are not prepared to work under the new arrangements will, with regret, be issued with notices of dismissal".

Sampson says the public give Shelter money to help the poor and homeless, not to pay Shelter staff. This is rich, coming from one of the charity's top tax bracket earners, who gets an estimated 25% more than the heads of other big homelessness charities. Shelter wants to make staff redundant, yet it has found the money to hire well-paid business consultants (not unlike our cash-strapped NHS) and spent £750,000 on refurbishing its head office. We won't know whether the generous public will approve such spending, since the charity does not give supporters any say in the way it is run.

Shelter's battle with its workforce is part of a wider picture, of charities becoming more like private businesses at the same time as competing with each other and with commercial companies to win contracts to do the government's work, by offering to do it on the cheap.
At the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils AGM last weekend,while we were waiting for our guest speaker from the Shelter workers, a Barnet trade unionist updated us on the Fremantle care workers dispute. Fremantle is a 'charity' that took over residential care homes previously run by Barnet council, and last year terminated staff contracts, re-engaging them at up to a third less pay,

Besides reducing workers' pay and conditions, and making out that people ought to be prepared to put up with it for the sake of "charity", the handover to the 'voluntary sector' enables national and local government to evade questions of democracy and accountability. We might also guess that previously concerned and campaigning charities which could embarrass those in power may be less inclined to do so if they are intent in keeping in the government's good books. Especially when top executives become attached to bigger rewards and perks. Virtue may be its own reward "but you realise if we are to attract and keep senior executives of this calibre we must pay a competitive salary" - while competing to keep the lower-paid staff wages down.

Donations made payable to Shelter Strike Fund can be sent to Shelter Stewards, c/o 48, Swindon Close, Gorton, Manchester M18 8JQ. You can also invite a speaker.

Messages of support to shelterstewards@googlemail.com

Protests can be sent to adam_sampson@shelter.org.uk

Two Early Day Motions that you can ask MPs or MSPs to sign:
Westminster EDM - no.1016 Shelter and its staff.
Scottish EDM no.S3M01475 Solidarity with Shelter Workers

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