In an open letter to David Cameron on the Big Society, David Robinson, Chief Executive of Community Links, said:
“Our most desperate need now is to maintain those essential services for the most vulnerable which will never be self sustaining . . .it is the public funding of this provision that marks out our economy as that of a civilised and compassionate society.”
Robinson, a long-time supporter of the government’s Big Society project, has warned that the cuts could doom the Big Society to failure.
In the following piece, Esmé Madill tells of small charities that make a huge difference to some of the most vulnerable, and whose existence is imperilled by the cuts.
‘What has Shpresa Programme done for you?’ I ask Flutra, an elfin 10-year-old with red hair and flashing green eyes.
‘I now read my poetry with passion,’ she declares and runs off to play a complex dare game with my youngest daughter, throwing over her shoulder, ‘. . . oh and I danced at the O2 Arena’.
Flutra is one of two hundred Albanian refugee children at Shpresa. Like so many of them, she is high-achieving, proud to be British and Albanian, with a confidence and sense of purpose rarely seen in children so young.
Another member of the dance group, 16-year-old Flora, says, ‘At Shpresa we learn about our culture and about the community we are living in now. We learn to feel proud of ourselves but we also learn we need to give something back - to be active citizens’.
Life was not always like this. Flutra’s and Flora’s mothers arrived in the UK as asylum seekers from war-torn Kosovo, with no possessions, no English and no hope.
‘I just stayed in my flat,’ says Flutra’s mum, Besi. ‘I was too frightened to go outside, too frightened to talk to anyone, I just cleaned and cleaned and cried.’
The women found Shpresa. ‘It changed my life, you know, really changed it’, says Besi, who now speaks fluent English and works as a teaching assistant in her local school.
East London-based Shpresa Programme, founded by an asylum seeker, has an amazing record. Women who are now accountants, translators, teachers, teaching assistants and charity workers all arrived at Shpresa exiled and isolated and left months or years later with a conviction that they have something to give and a determination to contribute to the life of their local community.
The programme always received precious little government funding. Now it receives none. Charitable Trusts are under unbelievable pressure – seeking to keep afloat the many charities whose government funding has ceased. Not the big charities of the Big Society – but many of the hundreds of thousands of charities run by a few paid staff and an army of committed volunteers, run on a few thousand pounds a year, sums too small to make up a banker’s monthly salary.
‘I am going to be a lawyer or a designer or a singer,’ says Flutra proudly. ‘I know I can ‘cos Shpresa will help me get there.’
I hope she is right. I hope Shpresa survives. But the future is uncertain indeed when even a former ardent government supporter like David Robinson feels moved to send David Cameron a letter of appeal, and warns that planned government cuts could wipe out many projects like Shpresa, making a mockery of Cameron’s Big Society.
Ann Byrne, Chief Executive of the Women’s Therapy Centre in West London, calls to tell me that they are losing £95,000 in statutory funding this year. The WTC works with hundreds of women, including those who have been trafficked and who have survived severe physical and emotional abuse.
As one of their users told me, ‘I will never be healed, never, but coming here each week I find a space where someone can listen to me and where I am safe.’ For women who have experienced rape and who have survived a journey into exile few of us could contemplate, the WTC is a life-saver.
Ann has already made deep cuts. ‘You just can’t provide quality services on a shoe string,’ she says quietly. Where else would these women go for support? The Big Society has no answer.
Closer to home, the little refugee project I volunteer for is struggling to cope with a cut in funding and increasing numbers of destitute families. On Christmas Eve, as we distribute food hampers like Dickensian throw-backs, my 12-year-old daughter glares at me.
‘Thought you said we were the fifth richest country in the world – that is just stupid. A rich country can’t leave people to live like that.’ I try to explain that people in Britain without citizenship have fewer rights and must rely on charities. ‘But all the charities you work for are being cut aren’t they?’ she says. ‘So what is going to happen then? Huh?’
I am not an idiot. I don’t expect work supporting the most vulnerable people in this country to be valued in the way we value bankers. But cutting these services — and harsher cuts are still to come — means cutting off hope and throwing away knowledge and skills that have been accumulated over decades.
Those of us who already enjoy citizenship and a voice are going to suffer. I try not to think about the lives of those who have come here to seek sanctuary and whose only hope lies in projects like the Shpresa Programme, the WTC and other tiny under or unfunded initiatives run by volunteers.
As Robinson said in his letter to Cameron, “….it is the public funding of this provision that marks out our economy as that of a civilised and compassionate society.”