It is easy to criticise Ministers for getting things wrong, however the challenge is how to persuade them to put right ideas which have a good basis and could be relatively easily adjusted. One example of this is an approach by the DWP, led by Amber Rudd and the Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton. On 3rd December the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) which is led by Sarah announced that it was:
“setting up a regional stakeholder network which is intended to bring the views of disabled people and local disabled organisations across England closer to government. The regional stakeholder network will create face-to-face forums for local organisations and individuals in 9 regions across England. These will provide a channel for disabled people and their organisations to share their views and experiences about policies and services that affect them and will complement stakeholder relationships that already exist across government.”
According to Wikipedia Sarah once worked for American Express, a company that encourages staff to get involved in local charities. Wikipedia also states that Sarah worked for Age Concern in the 1990s and due to its structure at the time she will recall the challenge for the voluntary and community sector when local groups are asked to make meaningful contributions to Government bodies. Sitting in meetings with MPs or Councillors along with Civil Servants, and often businesses, when everyone else in the room is well paid and the voluntary sector representatives are expected to attend at personal expense is deeply disturbing and puts those people under great pressure when their views are needed. Indeed that is the reason why MPs and Councillors are paid for the work they do and some very large charities that are run by people from a strong political background even pay their own Trustees!
Thanks to John Pring from the Disability News Service for pointing out that these regional networks will be financed to meet once a year and the Chairs of each of the nine groups are not to be able to receive any more than their expenses even though they will need to carry out a lot of work outside of the annual meetings including regular meetings with Sarah Newton.
Given that any MPs who meet with these groups are paid the equivalent of £290 a day it seems reasonable for the network Chairs to receive at least this much for the days they attend meetings with Sarah so there is some equality in the room.
It is suggested that if the groups choose to meet more frequently than once a year that they will need to fund the meetings themselves! However by not meeting frequently, it is hard for people to gain confidence and trust with the rest of the group to share their ideas. As Sarah will know, the Charity Commission expects Trustees to meet at least 4 times a year and whilst these groups are not Trustees their role is just as vital for society as a whole so it seems sensible for the Government to fund more regular meetings.
The size and geography and transport infrastructure of some of the 9 regions such as the South West, North West, Wales and Scotland and even the South East will add many hours to any meetings so perhaps all of the charities that attend should be granted funds for the time spent by their workers or volunteers at every meeting.
So Sarah and Amber, please reorganise the way you intend to set up these regional stakeholder networks. Why not learn from previous initiatives such as the regional charity networks that were formed to engage with regional development agencies and assemblies set up by Major and then Blair in the 1990s. I was part of the stakeholder network across the South East from 2002 to 2010 called Raise and many of the people are still around. These groups included disability charities at the time and they had formed their own networks. It clearly makes no sense for you to reform wheels that worked well nearly a decade ago without learning from what was needed.