Is Austerity Forcing Charities to Act Like Businesses?

Scott Jowett recalls his experiences working in the voluntary sector in Portsmouth and beyond and asks if the impact of austerity is forcing charities to behave like the private sector.

In 2008, I moved back to Portsmouth from London. I’d been working in Cable Street Studios – a large Victorian factory that, until a fatal shooting, had been home to various nightclubs, music venues, art studios and art collectives. The shooting and closure of the clubs had brought a very sudden halt to a vibrant art and music scene, of which I was very lucky to have been a part. Unfortunately, during my time there I had developed a heroin habit.

When I got back to Portsmouth, the mother of my daughter said I could no longer spend time with her unless I got help. I felt so profoundly broken, I used heroin, but this time, I asked around for help. I found Portsmouth Users Self Help forum, PUSH, which is run by and for people in recovery. They provide peer support and a voice to people in recovery at all levels ‘including planning, provision and policy making’.

PUSH introduced me to Narcotics Anonymous and I was to remain abstinent from mind and mood altering substances for over four years. My relationship with my daughter flourished. I went back to school and earned a first class degree in Sociology whilst working part-time for many voluntary sector services across Hampshire – including in the areas of substance abuse and homelessness, and youth work. I continue to work in the sector to this day, now in the last year of my PhD; and what I’ve seen over the past few years, combined with my personal experiences prompted me to write this article.

Years of austerity has taken a huge toll on the voluntary sector, not just in Portsmouth but across the UK. Cuts to public spending mean the voluntary sector are less reliant on decreasing funding grants from central government, and increasingly reliant on contracts from the NHS and local authorities, both of which have also faced significant cuts. As a result, contracts for voluntary sector services increasingly demand more for less.

As Harry Quilter-Pinner, director of London charity SCT, which works with homeless people in recovery from substance abuse, wrote in the Huffington Post:

As the money available for government contracts shrank and the number of people in need ballooned, voluntary organisations that had moved into state provision faced an increasingly unpalatable choice: shrink rapidly, go bust or continue to grow but by delivering substandard services under ‘austerity contracts’.

The impact of this can be devastating for service providers as they struggle to protect vulnerable people from the impact of reduced budgets. According to NPC research published in May 2017:

Significant numbers of charities are subsidising their public sector contracts. Of those who do deliver public sector contracts, 64% say they use other sources of income to deliver these contracts. 57% report having to turn down contracts because the operational risk is too high.

Smaller service providers have taken a disproportionate impact, with many smaller, local organisations being forced to close as they cannot compete with national charities, or with the increasing amount of corporations now delivering public services, like Serco or G4S.

The impact is devastating not only for service users, but also for staff.

For vulnerable service users, the rise of a ‘contract-culture’ (where service providers periodically change) also means a loss of consistency. Someone who found themselves homeless 10 years ago may not know where to go or what to do if they find themselves homeless today. Someone who wanted to get clean 10 years ago may not know where to go if they had a slip (or worse) and wanted recovery services today.

At the same time, more and more pressure is being placed on frontline staff who are often working in highly stressful environments, and not only working for long hours and low pay, but also not receiving adequate training or support.

In 2015/16, I worked as a relief worker for a voluntary sector organisation in Hampshire. In 2016 the organisation won a large tender to deliver and manage services on behalf of several local authorities in the region, who had banded together to ‘jointly commission’ services, another way in which large cuts to service budgets are often hidden.

From the outset, the organisation was grossly under-staffed. Services were often manned only by part-time staff on zero-hours contracts, who had no time to build a rapport with our clients. They were not trained or supported ‘in-house’ (i.e. by permanent staff) to deal with the severity of the problems that some of the clients lived with.

One night in autumn, I was working a night-shift. I was with another member of staff when a client arrived at our office. He was topless with his face, chest, and stomach covered in blood. He’d tried to scalp himself. I called an ambulance while my colleague spoke to him to assess his frame of mind. This man was known to talk with people that had passed away and today was one of those days. He was distant and incoherent. He’d not been taking his medication and suffered from a plethora of severe mental health issues. He had been labelled with ‘anti-social behaviour disorder’; a condition that mental health services did not deal with, leaving them of no use to us.

The client in question was a big guy, well over 6ft and covered in scars from self-harm. He’d been to prison numerous times for violent offences. His room was on the top floor, three floors up and while I was on the phone to the emergency services he went back there. The emergency services wanted more details about his injury, so I went up to the client’s room to see if he’d speak to them. His door was open, I asked if I could go in and he said yes. I held out the phone and asked if he’d speak to the emergency services.

Suddenly he shouted, ‘I’m not going back inside’, grabbed two blood-stained knives from the sink, raised them above his head and ran at me screaming incoherently. I got to the office just in time to lock the door behind me. The police and ambulance crew arrived soon after.

This was a dramatic incident, and you might expect that a voluntary sector organisation would prioritise making sure that my colleague and I were supported in the aftermath. However, this was not the case.

The reports that my co-worker and I wrote about the incident did not entirely match, in hindsight probably because we had written them up while still in shock. However, the next day I was reprimanded by a senior colleague about the disparity, who also questioned the seriousness of the incident.  I was told that the client ‘wouldn’t really do that sort of thing’, on the basis that other members of staff had worked with him ‘for years’ and had not experienced an incident like this. The events of the night in question were minimised. I was made to feel like a liar who had dealt with a situation ineptly. I became withdrawn. The organisation offered me counselling via a phone-based service but I found the experience too distant and only had one session.

The management team seemed to take the line that the whole incident hadn’t happened and returned the client to the premises where I worked. Disbelieved, discredited and without any psychological support, I began to feel afraid to go to work.

The client was transferred out of the county sometime afterwards, but before he left, there was one more incident. He gave me an envelope marked ‘staff’ as he left the service for the last time. I suspected it was a suicide note and called the police. When they arrived, they asked me to open it and inside was not only a suicide note but an incredibly disturbing image I’m not prepared to describe here.

Afterwards, not one manager asked me if I was okay, if I needed anything, or how I could be supported. 6 months later I accessed a counselling service through the university and began to process the experience.

I no longer work for the same organisation, but I still know several people who do. They tell me where once the service ‘plugged holes’ in provision by using staff on zero-hours contracts, now such ‘relief workers’ are often the ones holding services together. The organisation continues to take on additional contracts in the region.

The impact of austerity is widely discussed and most of us know about the increasing numbers of homeless people, struggling families and dependency on food banks to survive. But I think fewer people are aware of the impact on the charities and voluntary sector organisations delivering our local services.

When we think of untrained, unsupported staff working on zero-hours contracts, we’re more likely to think of huge corporations than services for vulnerable people. Yet in many areas, the impact of austerity means that someone with serious mental health problems may not be able to access the trained expertise they desperately need in moments of crisis, like the incident I’ve described here.

Corporate ethics – or a lack of them – begin to trump philanthropic aims when voluntary sector organisations are facing increasing demand and decreasing budgets, and service providers are asked to provide more and more for less and less. The result? Staff are paid less, aren’t trained well and are not provided with the support they need. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the impact of this on staff:

Staff reductions have increased workloads for remaining staff, limited the time frontline staff can spend on public-facing work, and reduced the number of staff in operational roles (e.g. social work, housing staff, street cleaners). Many members of staff reported feeling stressed due to overwork, job insecurity and reduced morale.

How much blood needs to be on the hands of the architects of austerity before they are held accountable?