Lockdown was a chance for me to try my hand at volunteering; an experience that led me to ask many questions about how social work is provided in the UK. What followed was a series of interviews with various organisations and people on the provision of social care in the UK.
A rough outlook
Three preliminary conclusions help unfold my findings. Firstly, the role of companies remains important in the provision of good, stable pay and work opportunities for employees. They also have a transformative impact on communities. Secondly, the work of government cannot and should not be replaced by charities. But government ought to support local charities with grants and resources. Thirdly, individuals themselves might benefit their communities if they became more involved in them. A change in mindset might help here too, by immersing oneself into different cultural backgrounds and values.
How private companies can contribute
Companies play a huge role in supporting the vulnerable, though not for the reasons we may initially think. When speaking with MP Karen Buck, it was clear that though the work of corporate sustainability initiatives was well- meaning, it remained largely symbolic. In terms of the vast amount of work that is actually needed to support the vulnerable, it is practically negligible. The money raised through taxation and the money needed to support those in need runs in the billions and so, inevitably, government must plug this gap.
Most of the people interviewed agreed that companies were not the best placed to deal with this issue via direct social work. Additionally, as Neil Johnston said, looking at the recession we are facing, companies are increasingly incapable of supporting themselves, let alone their communities. During these tougher periods, they become more reliant on taxpayers to keep them afloat. Consequently, we need to look to government, charity or individuals to help manage this problem.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looked at this issue from a completely different perspective. Instead of focusing on the charity and sustainability work that companies did, they assessed their importance in providing good steady jobs for people. This, they argued, was one of the essential building blocks for a successful national and local area. And it is this that really allows people to look after themselves and others.
The above was further developed upon when speaking with Richard Morris, who spoke about the need for a ‘convergence of the charity and private sector’.
This meant two things:
- Charities should become savvier with their money and be more careful
- Businesses should have more social ambition
Morris also spoke about the rise in social enterprises, which fuse the benefits of innovation and growth from the private sector with the social objective characteristic of charities. This ensures that their social purpose is hardwired into their identity.
Another common idea brought up was that transnational corporations who make billions in profits aren’t paying enough taxes to support the work of the state. This issue of tax avoidance was extremely prominent, as well as that of the importance of companies supporting people. However, everyone still agreed that the role of the state was essential. You cannot merely rely on having a company with a social purpose near you.
The take-away here is that the direct impact of companies’ work through charity donations and other measures is helpful, but not essential. What is essential is the provision of good steady jobs, paying enough taxes, and having more of a social purpose as part of your company’s ethos.
The charity-government ratio
Just what is the correct balance between the charity sector and government for a better future?
Most people agreed that both were essential and compatible with each other in what they were trying to do.
Due to each having their own set of shortcomings and advantages, it was key that they worked together but on different areas. There was a large consensus on the idea that in order to have a perfect government without any gaps in service, we would need to accept paying far higher rates of tax. One solution to this dilemma is to have charities, individuals and companies step in to fill these gaps.
To understand the concept of charities better, we need to split the issue between local community initiatives and larger mutual aids. The difference between these two groups was well put by Dhruv Patel, who explained some of the pros and cons of each.
‘Large organisations have a lot of resources, expertise and experience which can be very effective in tackling many issues on the ground, while smaller, local organisations have real grassroots understanding of the things that matter to people in their communities’.
This helps us to understand why both are complementary and necessary in their work of supporting the vulnerable.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation explained how they viewed the work of local charities and individuals in this task. They emphasised how invaluable it was to have someone who, for example, had experienced homelessness in order to start a charity to help the homeless. Larger organisations cannot understand the local perspective of an issue for a community and so cannot provide the best solution to it.
One the other hand, talking with Neil Johnston also revealed the transformative effect of a larger charity tackling an issue. When groups and people work together cohesively and share information, greater efficiency is achieved and the results go far further.
Moving on to government. Karen Buck spoke about how charities are often better at providing local help than central government, but stressed that it remained important for councils to give support.
Though there was a consensus that the work of national government was immense, essential and mainly beneficial, there was less praise for local councils. Due to many years of cuts in council spending, they simply no longer have the resources to fully provide for their communities.
Grants came up as an apt solution for the inability of local councils to fulfil this obligation. This was also something that the majority of the people interviewed agreed would be beneficial. Dhruv Patel was clear that he saw grants as extremely efficient. Grants help to isolate a certain key area, such as offering gardening for people with dementia, which allows for direct support and improvement.
However, grants are not a comprehensive solution for all areas when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable. Though grants can help deal with local smaller-scale problems, Neil Johnston points out how large societal issues cannot be dealt with effectively through them.
This leads back to the idea of the government facilitating and helping organisations do their work. Nicola Spurr spoke about the need for local government to provide an ‘enabling environment’. This could include offering resources, funding, training and information to ensure charities work well and efficiently when it comes to achieving their common objective.
The essential nature of the work of government was clear. As the Department for Work and Pensions emphasised, the work of the social support system and new furlough scheme means that people can always live and be supported by the government. The system provides full-time and highly trained personnel to help those in need; there is also the NHS and free social housing — infrastructure that could only exist when done on a national scale.
Overall, there was unanimity that on a national scale the work of government is essential, but that charities ought to fill certain inevitable gaps in government policy. The consensus on a local scale was very different. It was generally agreed that due to decreasing tax contributions, grants and local community initiatives, ordinary people had a role in supporting local governments.
The power of individuals
The role of individuals is different to that of government bodies, charities and companies — but complementary.
Nickie Aiken argued that we only need a majority looking out for others and supporting their community for people to feel well looked after. The point being, we don’t need everyone to get involved, but as long as there is a good amount of actively engaged and caring people, communities can flourish.
‘it bring(s) people from different backgrounds together to make London a happier and more unified city’.
People volunteer for so many reasons, ranging from giving back to the community to meeting new people. We should keep in mind when speaking about the work of volunteers that it is a huge financial privilege to be able to give your time away for free.
As Nicola Spurr put it; with a rising elderly demographic who need intensive full-time support, now more than ever, we need well-trained, full-time carers to look after these people.
Of course we cannot expect individuals alone to carry out this role, but they can play a helpful and vital part in less skill-demanding tasks such as food deliveries or prescription pick-ups, which can allow carers to concentrate their efforts on other issues. That this should be the role of citizens in the UK when it comes to supporting the vulnerable, seems to be the consensus from these interviews.
Looking at the role of individuals from another angle, Tim Roca spoke about our function as citizens in a democracy.
This consists of two things:
- Being active, politically informed members who know their leaders
- Extending this activity to the local community.
The first point speaks about how the role of citizens should not be underestimated. We need to engage in democracy, whether it be through our local MP or councillor, to ensure that necessary policies are enacted to improve the situation of those in need. Being engaged citizens in both national and local life is one of the greatest contributions that an individual can give to their democracy.
Secondly, the importance of people getting involved in their communities was something every interviewee agreed on as being imperative in order to move forward. Social objectives need people to come and speak with each other and realise how much they have in common — an important ingredient in the development of community spirit.
Looking out for one’s neighbours was something that many singled out. But the issue that government and charities have is that finding the most vulnerable people is very difficult, time-consuming and costly.
If we take those suffering from mental health issues, social anxiety, disability etc., finding them is something best-suited to neighbours and those living in the community. If community spirit was even stronger in the UK, many more people could receive the urgent help they need.
As individuals, we have an indispensable role to play in supporting those in need. We can tangibly improve what it feels like to live in the UK by supporting social workers, who could then concentrate their efforts on building a more united community.
Of the many findings from this investigation, perhaps the most simple and yet extraordinary one is the value of ‘ordinary’ people to the community.
We would each do well to engage more with those outside of our social bubble and interact with anyone in need. Though clubs, religious groups, sport groups and many other avenues are great, the fact remains that too often those who need help the most don’t leave their homes much and can be too shy to converse with strangers. So, we need to reach out to them in their homes and bring them in.
If we could become more proactive in our communities, the benefits for the vulnerable would be immediate. Many of those currently in difficulty of any kind would be more likely to receive help.