When business and the state co-opt ‘independent’ civil society

How can charities and community organisations provide effective advocacy when they are agents of the state or partners in business?

The new year brought with it Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s new strategy for combating reoffending: privatisation of the probation service. Britain has moved one step closer to a corporate justice system and some charities have helped pave the way.

Like this, for example: In 2006 the outsourcing giant Serco formed a “pioneering alliance” with two charities, Turning Point and Rainer, that had sprung from progressive beginnings. Turning Point started in the sixties as the Camberwell Alcohol Project. Rainer began in 1876 with a gift of five shillings from London printer Frederic Rainer to fund missionaries to help people who had fallen into crime. Serco put that history to good use in publicity material promoting the business alliance, quoting Rainer chief executive Joyce Moseley: "As the organisation that founded the probation service it seems natural for us to do this sort of work.”

Within four years Serco, Turning Point and Catch22 (formed by the merger of Rainer and Crime Concern) were signing a £415 million contract to run a new London prison. Last year Serco, in partnership with the London Probation Trust, won the UK’s first privatised probation contract, supervising offenders doing unpaid work. That £35 million piece of business is part of the UK public services market which Serco tells investors is “an attractive market offering significant growth opportunities”.

In 2007 Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his government wanted Third Sector organisations to be “free to access the funding or advice they need in a way that suits them.” He said: “We are investing in small grant schemes and endowing communities to allow local people to make decisions locally”. The government was consulting “social enterprises, credit unions, mutuals and cooperatives, young people’s organisations, faith groups, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and other equalities groups”. Gordon Brown went on to affirm that “the Government and the third sector work in partnership to improve society, sustain the environment and establish new forms of enterprise”.

Labour went on to set up ‘the Compact’ between government and the voluntary sector, which was relaunched by the coalition in 2011. The head of Compact, Phil Hope, described the policy as improving “choice and competition to identify and address underperformance”, employing the market rationale which views greater competition as an incentive for organisations to become more efficient. This was facilitated through standardisation of Third Sector organisations, such as the government’s ‘Eight Principles of Good Commissioning’, one of which is to “seek to ensure long-term contracts and risk sharing wherever appropriate as ways of achieving efficiency and effectiveness”.

In 2006, Gordon Brown brought in the Third Sector to help run certain parts of the Criminal Justice System’s probation services for the first time. The Social Market Foundation — Prospect Magazine's Think Tank of the Year in 2012 — noted that reoffending rates of 60 per cent combined with “high-profile cases such as the murder of investment banker John Monkton committed under probation supervision have added to the pressure for rapid improvements.” This had led to “an attempt at rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority and the victim”.

The Social Market Foundation supported the commercialisation of the Third Sector, affirming that improvements to the Criminal Justice System required, among other things, “tough and rigorous sentences for offenders” and “improving contestability and competition within the corrections market”.

One reason the state is keen to use the Third Sector is that, as The Social Market Foundation point out, they are “able to reach groups and individuals that other organisations often find hard to reach, such as young people, offenders from a black or ethnic minority background, drug users and  offenders with mental health problems”.

The Foundation goes on to recommend that Third Sector organisations, in order to win contracts, “replace some of their volunteers with more professional staff, therefore distancing themselves from their usual way of working”, in order, again, to improve efficiency.

One high-profile example of this is the partnership between Barnardo’s, security company G4S, and the UK Border Agency, in the management of families detained following the rejection of their claims for asylum, in ‘Cedars’ a new facility branded as ‘pre-departure accommodation’. Although not a community organisation as such, Barnardo’s set a tone for the relationship the ‘Third Sector’ was to have with the security arm of the state. The immigration minister at the time, Damian Green, said that Cedars would “have an entirely different look and feel to an immigration removal centre”.

In partnering with the Third Sector, the government is therefore able to continue engaging in punitive measures for marginalised individuals and families (such as rejected asylum seekers) or groups in society (such as young and minority ethnic people), but now in the context of organisations that traditionally provide welfare or help run political campaigns alongside these groups.

Showing remarkable foresight into the encroachment of the state into Black-led civil society, Sivanadandan, of the Institute of Race Relations, said in 1983 that state-funding of civil society was “destroying… the self-reliance and community cohesion that we had built up in the 1960s”. Through the control of how civil society groups spent money and utilised other resources, Sivanandan saw anti-racist movements being co-opted into “a parallel power structure for black people, separate development, bantustans — a strategy to keep race issues from contaminating class issues”. Diluting radical politics helped the state shift the political agenda of those sections of civil society most struggling for resources.

Today, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner, asks “how organisations can retain the independence to be fiercely critical of government policy where necessary if a significant stream of funding comes from government, and particularly if they are directly involved in helping to implement that policy”. Barnardo’s claim to be seeking to reduce the abuse that takes place in detention, but anti-racist movements in the UK question the legitimacy of state security and detention, campaigning for detention to end, and keeping the system under scrutiny.

Similarly, many anti-racist activists have been absorbed into institutions which work closely with government. Organisations which confronted state-racism head-on, particularly around issues relating to immigration legislation, employment, school exclusion and the criminal justice system, were incorporated into organisations like the Commission for Racial Equality (later absorbed into what become the Equality and Human Rights Commission).

Within this institutional setting, the state was able to ensure that key issues on racial equality, such as Black deaths in custody, school exclusion and incarceration, were interpreted by Trevor Philips, a man who claimed that institutional racism in policing is no more despite overwhelming evidence in the levels of police Stop and Searches, lengths of sentences and number of deaths in police custody. Philips has since retired, the commission’s overwhelmingly white board is having its power eroded, and cuts are being made to staff who are, on the whole, very much alienated from the grass-roots organisations on the ground who are challenging state-racism in their communities.

Professionalising anti-racist campaigns in this manner has nothing to do with addressing the issues at hand, but rather created an illusion of progress, where fancy titles and glossy policy papers supplant community-led organising.

Sivanandan describes this shift in the anti-racist struggle in the UK as “the riposte of the class-collaborationist Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan who sought in ethnic pluralism to undermine the underlying class aspect of black struggle and black politics”. This professionalization therefore transforms grass-roots organising into a profession, in which certain organisers can climb the social-economic hierarchy, and issues are taken on if they are likely to be ‘high impact’, thus increasing media coverage, affecting policy in a gentle way and increasing the likelihood of attracting further funding.

To date, grass-roots community organisations with no funding such as the United Friends and Families Coalition are still campaigning for an independent inquiry into deaths in custody. Recently, some progress has been made by the Justice for Sean Rigg Campaign. Sean Rigg, a physically fit 40-year-old African Caribbean man from South London, died on the floor of a police cell. Police claimed the CCTV cameras were faulty. It was only due to the family's and other activists' persistence that the Police and IPCC allowed his family to view his body, and the injuries to his forehead and the side of his face which they had failed to previously mention. Since then, CCTV footage has emerged and, after years of campaigning, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been forced to conduct an ‘independent enquiry’ into themselves, led by Dr Silvia Casale, former president of both the European and UN committees for the prevention of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.

Among civil society and community organisations that have maintained their independence are the Newham Monitoring Project (NMP). Although it has been operating for over 30 years, many of its participants are still volunteers, and engage with issues of racism and Islamophobia at the grass-roots level.

During the 2012 Olympic Games in East London, spaces in which young Black people lived and spent their time were being privatised. Many young Black people have suffered physical attacks from police, and so over 50 community volunteers received free training from a sympathetic law firm, Irvine Thanvi Naras, based just round the corner in Stratford. The training helped activists to monitor police and engage with young people in the area as to how they could defend themselves from police harassment.

Activists used ‘bustcards’ to advise people of their rights and what to do when police power is being abused. They helped the young people to video incidents of unlawful stop and search which might be used to take up cases against individual officers. Helping to instil confidence and understanding that the police and the state are not all-powerful, and to challenge these powers in a constructive and organised manner, are important ways of addressing the imbalance within community-police relations.

Newham Monitoring Project’s direct, powerful and hands-on approach, which acknowledges the police as a problem, is a world away from state-led strategies of identifying young Black people as the problem. The aim is to organise and empower the community, rather than deploying punitive measures against ethnic minorities and young people, who are traditionally ‘hard to reach’. Newham Monitoring Project understand the way in which institutional racism and Islamophobia intersect with poverty, unemployment and the disenfranchisement of young people in privatised and policed spaces during the Olympics. New forms of inequality meant a new form of organising emerged in order to engage with issues of police brutality, harassment and racism.

Following the 2011 riots in England, Tottenham Defence Campaign, first formed in 1985 following the Broadwater Farm Riots, re-formed in order to defend young people in the area from the police. Similarly to Newham Monitoring Project, volunteer organisers from the area received free legal training, and approached young people on local estates with methods for defending themselves against wrongful stops, searches, arrests and raids, in addition to participating in demonstrations, such as the annual march against deaths in custody. This approach contrasts with that of UKBA and Barnardo’s, which seeks to facilitate damage limitation in what many activists sees as wrongful detention, rather than attempting to equip young people with the tools to resist the state. It is in this context that self-organisation has taken place in communities, reflecting a new community organisations model.

While Barnardo’s insist that their role in child detention is to “ensure that staff are trained to safeguard children and treat these families with the dignity and respect they deserve”, it is with their implicit support for detention that many civil society organisations take issue. They view retaining a family which has committed no crime, and administering their ejection from the country, no matter how smooth that ejection may be, as a fundamental injustice, to be eliminated, not facilitated. Organisations which attempt to satisfy both state and people can rarely keep promises to communities who find themselves at odds with state policy. These broken promises are often the compromises these new professional advocates and organisers are now willing to make, in exchange for increased access to government and other institutional bodies.

The organisations that have remained critical and community-led in their approach, rather than attempting to affect policy from within institutions, deploy power and influence through democratic participation from the viewpoint of citizens, social groups and communities. Community organisations can therefore equip themselves and the people they serve with intellectual, legal and organising tools that flow from the critical analysis and political commitments that formed them. It is this ability to remain sovereign, and therefore hold consistent politics, while adapting to the changing political landscapes, that makes true community organisations so compelling, influential and so vital to the health of our democracy.