‘Break down the hate & bring out the kindness’

Yesterday I was in a packed room in the Houses of Parliament, listening to people talking about poverty. This isn’t unusual: every week legislators and lobbyists get together in panelled rooms over parliamentary tea and cakes to discuss how to put the world to rights. It’s their job.

This, though, was a bit different. We were there for the launch of two reports on the Community Allowance, a scheme to reform the benefits system to encourage long-term unemployed people to learn skills, put those skills to use in their communities, and prepare themselves for work.

The idea is that benefit claimants should be paid a wage for such sessional, part-time work, overseen by local community organisations, without loss of benefit entitlement for a limited period. One of the reports launched yesterday, a study by the new economics foundation, showed that for every pound spent on the Community Allowance, £10.20 worth of social value is created. Even if only one tenth of the expected value is realised, the taxpayer is still quids in.

It has taken the best part of a decade to get this idea to a stage where the government is prepared to give it a try. Even then, they’ve been reluctant: a proposed pilot scheme involving 15 organisations was knocked back to three on the grounds that 15 would be a ‘programme’ rather than a pilot. But, from next April, three community organisations in Portsmouth, Greater Manchester and northeast Lincolnshire will test it out.

The NEF study goes into great detail about how it will work and how the social returns on investment are calculated. It shows, for example, that by creating opportunities for unemployed residents in areas like social care and community learning, there are huge gains for disadvantaged areas and savings for the state: on average, £4,500 spent on Community Allowance for one person would save the taxpayer between £5,000 and £6,000 a year.

The second report brings together a range of leading thinkers, who offer their own take on why the Community Allowance is needed. They include the usual suspects – people like Dame Barbara Stocking of Oxfam and Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. But they also include some people you wouldn’t expect: Tory thinkers like Phillip Blond, and Neil O’Brien, director of the Policy Exchange, who few would label a bleeding-heart liberal.

As importantly, it includes the voices of ordinary people. Palbinder Sarup, a mother living in West Ham, east London, describes her daughter’s experience as a jobseeker.

‘She goes looking for a job day after day. I have to see her getting more and more let down because she feels like she isn’t getting anywhere. As a mother I would like to see her start work and earn her first wage packet.’

Mrs Sarup knows the value of the Community Allowance because she sees the need all around her. Jobs like fixing fences, painting buildings, cleaning graffiti, helping elderly and disabled people are crying out to be done. If local people who are out of work could do them, it could ‘help break down the hate and bring out the kindness in our children we never knew they had’.

Jess Steele, one of the architects of the Community Allowance, was passionate at yesterday’s event about the ‘billions of pounds we spend on welfare every year just to keep people above the gutter’. As the Liberal Democrat peer Archy Kirkwood put it, one of the best things about the Community Allowance is that it ‘changes the paradigm about how people in poverty are seen’. Wouldn’t it be great if a government that has so little to lose could change its own paradigm about people in poverty?


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