Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Gordon's Tonic

OK, so we all know that it's not really going to happen - but Gordon Brown's suggestion that new immigrants should undertake community work is worthy of discussion.

The thinking is that voluntary work helps to embed people in their wider community; that it is a swift route to a better understanding of our society; that it is good for someone's social life, welfare and mental health. It can also be an approach to improved language and communication skills, to improved career prospects and to personal development across the board.

All of this is unquestionably true. It is true if you are a recently arrived bride from Bangladesh, and no less true if you are an unemployed steelworker from Barnsley or a moderately successful history graduate from Fife. So of course new immigrants, like everyone else, should do some voluntary work. But it is patently absurd that they should have to.

The first flaw with the idea is that becoming a British citizen should make an immigrant more like the rest of us. Placing obligations on one section of society that are not placed on the rest of it has to be divisive. Unless Gordon Brown is going to suggest compulsory community service for everyone in the country, this would quickly become a marker between 'us' and 'them.'

Secondly, there is only one section of the community who currently can be obliged to undertake community service, and that is the criminals. Community service is a form of punishment, underpinned by the principles of reparation - those who have damaged society can be expected to repair the damage they have caused. What message does it send to our new citizens, asking them to repair the damage they have caused simply by arriving in the country? As any economist with a brain will tell you, Britain should be thanking our new immigrants, not punishing them.

Thirdly, the scheme (as described yesterday) draws no divide between people who may have been here for a decade, working in the health service, industry, commerce or even the community and voluntary sector itself; and those who have arrived this month, with no English language skills, no sense of belonging and no security. The truth is that many (maybe the majority) of new British citizens have already immersed themselves deeply in British society and their residential neighbourhoods long before they applied for naturalization.

It also needs to be said that the benefits to the individual of community service often dissolve when he or she stops being a volunteer and becomes a conscript. If you have been sent somewhere you don't want to be, you are unlikely to attain many benefits - the inevitable emotional reaction is to put your head down, shut your mouth and serve your time.

Finally, and most importantly, this suggestion fundamentally misjudges the needs and the problems of the voluntary sector. I have no doubt that when Gordon Brown and his team dreamt up this headlin... sorry, this scheme, they imagined new citizens immersing themselves in the spectacularly varied and inspiring community and voluntary sector. Politicians love visiting imaginative, innovative projects where they see volunteers turning around their own lives and brightening their communities with activism or sport, arts and media programmes. What they usually fail to notice is the extensive (and expensive) work behind the scenes in volunteer support and development. Working with volunteers - especially those with language restrictions or emotional and physical health requirements - is demanding and time-consuming work. Volunteers do not train themselves, do not appraise themselves, do not monitor their own development. Unless you can offer that type of back-up support, all we could do with these citizen-conscripts would be get them to scrub graffiti off walls and clear away shopping trolleys from grotspots. This would deliver none of the intended benefits, while breeding resentment or perhaps outright hostility. Immigrants must not become a convenient army of slave labour.

Politicians (and to be fair, their electorate) often think that all the voluntary sector needs is volunteers - and that if they sent us another million bodies every year we would be eternally grateful. In fact we wouldn't - we'd be overladen, overworked and unable to offer the services that we exist to provide. Around 90% of community and voluntary sector groups are currently desperately short of core funding to pay for the activities they are either committed to or desperate to deliver. Gordon Brown's proposal - unless held up by an unfeasibly large cash injection - would be a disaster for the voluntary sector.

So assuming Gordon Brown is not stupid (whatever else he may be) we can assume this idea will never get further than the flagpole. However it is brutally revealing of current political thinking. Want to solve a problem or make a political gesture without spending money? Shunt it across to the third sector. Want to deliver mental health care or social services on the cheap? Give the contract to a social enterprise. Want to deliver probation services without employing probation workers? Call for the charities The implications of this major trasformation in the British welfare state are only just starting to be discussed.

And I've barely got started yet...

Friday, 23 February 2007

Free Kareem Amer

This has been widely blogged about elsewhere (see here for starters) but just in case you missed it, a blogger and law student in Egypt has been sentenced to four years in prison for insulting Islam and criticising President Mubarak. Details of the case can be found on Amnesty International's campaign page here.

Kareem's own blog is here - it's in Arabic, but his profile is in English and speaks volumes I think:

"I am down to earth Law student; I look forward to help humanity against all form of discriminations. I am currently studying Law in Al Azhar University. I am looking forward to open up my own human rights activists Law firm, which will include other lawyers who share the same views. Our main goal is to defend the rights of Muslim and Arabic women against all form of discrimination and to stop violent crimes committed on a daily basis in these countries ."

Please be grateful for our own freedom to be as offensive, subversive or just plain idiotic as we like. And if you feel so inclined, please make your feelings known to:

The Egyptian Ambassador to the UK; His Excellency Mr Gehad Refaat Madi: email
The Egyptian Government: email
UK Foreign Office, Dr Kim Howells: email

Please make any emails polite, non-confrontational and respectful - otherwise you risk damaging the cause.

This also gives me the excuse to draw your attention to the button at the bottom of this page - please follow the link, put the button on your own page, and help keep expression free across the world.

Thanks for your attention, please pass the info on.


Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Winning the lottery

After an infuriating three-week period of being 'under embargo,' we can now tell the world our news. Old Trafford News has won the lottery! And what's more, we didn't even have to buy a ticket. In their impeccable wisdom, the awards panel at the Big Lottery Fund have agreed to fork out precisely £143,497 to cover the core costs of our project over the next three years. So if you've ever bought a lottery ticket or a scratch card, thank you, I owe you. If you've bought about 144,000 scratchcards lately, then I guess you own me. I'll give you a backie on my bike to the super-casino when it opens.

I'll confess to a modicum of smugness. Just appplying for Lottery funding is an ordeal. It involves two separate application stages; each of which requires you to disentangle a raft of near-impenetrable questions and then answer them with brevity and clarity and supported by externally verifiable quantitative data. Imagine sitting an examination that has been set by Michel Foucault which you know will be marked by a four-year-old.

If you can actually make enough sense of the application form to submit your bid, that's just the beginning. If you get through the initial appraisal, you can expect a telephone interview from an assessor, who will carefully pick apart every sentence of your bid - if you cannot easily explain or justify your claims you're in trouble. Our first interview went on so long that our assessor went hypoglycaemic and needed three days to recover, after which he phoned back to complete the process. The combined calls took nearly two hours.

After that, it really is out of your hands. A mysterious panel of wise men and women meet in an enchanted castle somewhere in Northumberland, looming across a round oak table with incense burning and magical incantations hanging from the walls, to consider the applications and point their imperial thumbs up or down. (Some of the above may not be strictly true.)

On this round of awards, the panel had a budget of £150 million to give away. It sounds like a lot, until you learn that the bids submitted totalled £1.5 billion. For every pound they give away, about ten pounds are refused. We managed to stumble over the finishing line. Many other projects fell at the last hurdle. To put this in perspective, I began the process of applying last May. The decision was made at the end of January. That's about nine months of work and stress, nine months of keeping fingers crossed.

So all our smug celebrations are tinged with sympathy and sadness for other community and voluntary projects who didn't get the money they needed. Many of these will have been excellent and necessary projects, and their failure to win funding means people will lose their jobs, communities will lose resources; life-changing opportunities for those in need will simply never arise. Many of these bids will have been rejected because the people involved just aren't as good at filling in forms, not because they are not brilliant as community development workers, youth workers, sports coaches, mentoring administrators or whatever. The community and voluntary sector is vital to the social fabric and welfare of the nation and in financial terms we are scrabbling around for the scrapings from the barrel. Meanwhile the lottery pot is being raided for the London Olympics - but I'll save that debate for another day.

There's a popular joke within the community sector that the most surefire way of getting money out of the National Lottery is to buy a ticket. So with due apologies to all those who didn't, we bloody won it!


Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Canaries in the Mine

Please pause for a moment and think about 15-year-old Billy Cox, who has just become the third child to be killed in South London within a week. Six months ago, just half a mile from where I now sit, 15-year-old Jessie James was gunned to his death while cycling home from a party in Moss Side. Fatalities around here remain mercifully uncommon, although shootings are anything but. Five days ago the streets were taped off in the middle of the afternoon, just 50 yards from here, after another teenager took a bullet in his leg. Then there are the robbings, the beatings, the sexual assaults. Talk to any child in this area and they will know a friend, schoolmate or relative who has been the victim of violent crime, or indeed who has been the perpetrator of violent crime.

Is it any surprise to learn that our children have it harder than those of any other country in the developed world? According to UNICEF we come 21st out of 21 in terms of material and educational wellbeing; health and safety; family and peer relations; behaviours and risks; and children's own perceptions of wellbeing. The most telling stats are those that come straight out of the mouths of young people themselves: only 40% of British kids believe that their peers are friendly and helpful - around half the figure from the Netherlands or Switzerland.

Of course there is more to the UNICEF report than brutal murders. The vast majority of children in this country do not live in Old Trafford, Moss Side or Peckham. Most children in this country will never hear a gun fired in anger or find their street taped off as a murder scene, and they should not need to feel grateful for this. But it would be foolish to think that the problems faced by young people in small towns and safe suburbia are so different to the problems faced by the youth of the Tamworth Estate in Old Trafford. Children of all backgrounds are growing up with low self-esteem, excess stress, fear of violence, pressure to succeed, pressure to fail. The boy in Moss Side who responds to his circumstances by picking up a gun is really not so different to the girl slicing scar after scar into her arm in suburban Cheshire. The bags of skunk passed around after dark in Seymour Park are no more evil than those slipped into purple blazer pockets at the fee-paying Grammar School down the road. It is all part of the same sad picture. Billy Cox, Jessie James, Michael Dosunmu, James Smartt-Ford - these tragically-starred youngsters found themselves at the sharpest, deadliest edge of modern British childhood. Coming from our poorest, our most hopeless, and yes - our blackest estates, they have been forgotten, written-off, abandoned. Somehow these young people became little more than canaries in a coalmine - totems of a society gone off the rails. Little caged birds - helpless, fragile and ultimately disposable. Shame on us all.

I'm not going to sit here and feed you some easy, bogus solution. I'm not going to rant about the decline of the family or the legacy of the progressive sixties or the avaricious eighties. I'm not going to blame Big Brother or hip hop. There is no single cause for the situation we find ourselves in and no simple cure. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a vendor of snake oil and hidden agendas. Or a Daily Mail columnist. However I would offer one little nugget of opinion for you to chew on - something that may at least make a small difference.

In 1993, Prime Minister John Major said of juvenile crime "sometimes I think we should understand a little less and condemn a little more." Was there ever anything more dangerous said by a politician? Anything more damaging? And the terrifying truth is that this position has been echoed in policy for nearly 15 years. What is an ASBO but an attempt to understand a little less and condemn a little more? The Blairite 'Respect Agenda'? Understanding less, condemning more. Media coverage of feral youth? Understanding less, condemning more. It's so easy, so seductive. So wrong.

I see a lot of young people at Old Trafford News. Some come through the doors as volunteers, with an eye on a future in the media or just for somewhere to go, something to do. Some I meet at schools and youth clubs. Others come to us on referral from the Youth Offending Team, serving the community on the orders of a magistrate. They are a pretty good cross-section of our young people, some bright and cheerful, some sullen and angry, some shy and withdrawn. The boys mostly arrive on their bikes in their caps and hoods, their tracksuit bottoms flapping around expensive Adidas shoes. On their first sessions we sit down and discuss what concerns them, what they might like to contribute to our magazine. The same issues come up again and again: their fears of crime, and guncrime in particular; gang culture; the environment. And one word that comes up again and again - respect. What they want is to be taken seriously, to be listened to, to be cared about by adult society. At some level these young people understand the brutality of their situation - they know that to our wealthy 21st Century civilisation, they are considered little more than a nuisance. They are disposable.

They really don't want to be the canaries in the mine. Can you blame them?

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Just like Switzerland Isn't

Like a nine-year-old at the swimming baths, I appear to have leapt straight in without warning, explanation or introduction. And while it would overstate matters to say I caused a big splash, at least there have been some satisfying ripples. To be honest, I wasn't actually expecting anyone to read this blog for the first few months, so the succession of kind comments after my first entry caught me somewhat off guard. With that in mind, let me explain who I am and exactly what I'm doing here.

If you look to the right - just over there ===> you will see a link to the brand new (and nearly complete) website of Old Trafford News. The magazine celebrates its tenth anniversary this month. We began as a photocopied and folded double side of A3, which the mathematicians among you will recognise as four pages. For the first few years we appeared occasionally, according to available funds and needs, but over the past three years we have established ourselves as a quarterly, full-colour 48pp magazine. I came on board as co-ordinating editor about 15 months ago.

Unlike many community publications we are an independent project - we are not owned or run by the council or a development agency. We are non-profit making (in every possible sense!) so our only obligation is to provide a service to this community.

Old Trafford is a slightly odd place. We're world famous of course - you could go to Boston, Bahrain or Bhutan, tell people you are from Old Trafford and they will say 'aaaah... Bobby Charlton! George Best! Wayne Rooney!' Or occasionally 'aaah... Wasim Akram!' Then there will be a slight pause and the follow-up arrives: 'But do people actually live there?'

Well yes, they do. Somewhere in the region of 40,000 people in fact, depending how you count. For those unfamiliar with Manchester, Old Trafford is a little triangular district that somehow manages to touch borders with Hulme, Moss Side, Whalley Range, Stretford and Salford. Like the Switzerland of Greater Manchester. With less chocolate.And fewer mountains. And no banks. So actually not very like Switzerland at all now I think about it.

Also just like Switzerland isn't, we are a designated area of multiple deprivation. That's a label that official bodies pin on districts. It means we're not just skint, we're sick as well. Officially we're among the 10% most deprived communities in the country. In some ways that's unsurprising. Go for a stroll between the towers of the Tamworth Estate that we call the Seven Sisters, and it matches most of the stereotypes of inner cities: gang-related graffiti; vandalised phoneboxes; burned out cars. There's a similar picture on the Rivers Estate around the corner, an isolated island between the dual carriageway and the canals. Old Trafford has always been a first point of arrival for new immigrant communities. The Irish were here to build the canals 150 years ago, and now we are home to huge numbers of first, second and third generation immigrants from South Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, Hong Kong and more recently, Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

We have our leafier streets too, typical Mancunian redbrick two-up-two-downs in neat little terraced warrens. The house values have doubled over the past couple of years as Chorlton rejects look for an affordable alternative. These cul-de-sacs look attractive enough - unless there's the yellow tape across the street again, a regular reminder of a gun crime problem that neither the authorities nor the community have found a way to contain. Yet.

But no community is quite so easy to pigeonhole. Old Trafford is in demand. Now that New Hulme has reached saturation point for yuppies, the loft apartments are spreading down Stretford Road: whether new-build on wasteland or adapted from empty factories - decorative and expensive body art hiding the scars of industry past. Office blocks and million-pound apartments may soon spread from Salford Quays right through Pomona as the Irwell City Park project comes to life.

It is part of the role of Old Trafford News to bring this diverse community together. To bridge divides, provide opportunities to the excluded and encourage pride in this area for all of us regardless of ethnic origin, income bracket or religion. If you keep an eye on this blog you will read about some of the ways we do this. You'll hear about the articles and features we run to keep the community informed, entertained and occasionally inspired. You'll hear about the volunteers we help and are helped by, the contributions they make, the remarkable stories they have to tell. You'll hear about our partnership work with community groups, mental health service users, schools, young offenders. And you'll catch some of my own opinions about the power and value of community media and the joys and the agonies of working in the voluntary sector. And probably the occasional joke.

And now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Tatty Old Carpet Bag

How very sad. We’re a full month into 2007 and it seems we’re still stuck in the dark ages. Foolish young women mutter in low voices on reality TV shows, only to find their grumbles inflated and exploded across the front pages of the newspapers, as Britain self-flagellates our racist, bullying nature. A descendant of King William IV called David Cameron, raised and educated in the cloistered cultural ghetto of Eton and resident of the cloistered cultural ghetto of Westminster, declares multiculturalism a failure.

Push a button on the remote, and hidden cameras reveal leaders of one faith urging that homosexuals be thrown over cliffs, while on News 24 figureheads of other faiths gather outside Parliament demanding that gay people be kept away from the children, as if they were some kind of parasitic disease.

Meanwhile the latest so called ‘terror raids’ in Birmingham are accompanied by lurid (and so far utterly unverified) media allegations of bloodthirsty savages plotting to abduct and behead their victim.

It almost makes you pine for the good old days of 2006, when the most vexing question facing the nation was not, apparently, how to save the planet from catastrophic climate change or how to find peace and stability in a war-torn world, but rather whether or not a few thousand British Muslim women should be allowed to wear a little strip of fabric over their mouths in the presence of their political masters.

It’s hardly surprising that many people think Britain is coming apart at the seams. For those who aren’t actually living in multicultural Britain, who merely observe it through the columns of the tabloids or drive through it in their 4x4s en route between the City and suburbia, it would seem to be a mess. The funny thing is though, that for those of us on the inside, it’s actually going OK. Really, it is. We can all stop worrying. Perhaps we’re like a tatty old carpet bag. From the outside it may look frayed, battered and one shake away from disintegration, but on the inside it is actually quite comfortable, warm and surprisingly secure.

Our current crop of volunteers at Old Trafford News include people whose ethnic origin is (off the top of my head) Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, West African, Trinidadian, Jamaican, Polish, Irish and of course indigenous Traffordian. The ages range from teenagers to pensioners. We have Christians, Muslims, Hindus, spiritualists and atheists, and political views range from the radical left to the conservative right. We work together well, laugh together often, argue occasionally but rarely with spite. It’s not even difficult.

It’s not just our group either. The centre where we are based is not so much a melting pot as a cultural buffet. Attached to an Anglican church, we are frequented daily by Roman Catholic nuns in habits and devout Muslim women in veils, while every Wednesday West Indian pensioners gather to play bingo and dominos to a reggae accompaniment. Our current magazine cover star is a Brazilian keep-fit instructor, who twice a week leads a class for all women of all races, ages and creeds.

Of course Old Trafford is not some paradise of progressiveness and tolerance. There are racist attitudes here, as everywhere. There are occasional tensions between members of different religions or ethnicities. And there are gangs and crimes and serious social deprivation. But considering there are more than 30 different languages spoken within a couple of square miles, we don’t seem to have too much of a problem understanding each other. By and large we all just get on with our lives and let others get on with theirs.

What a tragedy that the tabloids and politicians seem determined to spoil it for us.