Are well-meaning but politically naïve charities unwittingly helping the government to dismantle the welfare state?
Ekklesia has been examining  the new emerging relationship between (faith based) charities and Government since 2006. Prior to the last general election I talked to a woman who worked for a faith-based charity, and as she described her work I was extremely impressed and very humbled. As we ended our conversation I mentioned the forthcoming election, and was dismayed to hear her enthuse about David Cameron’s Big Society, which was then becoming his trademark idea.
She genuinely believed that if the Conservatives won she would be able to work in partnership with them to do even more for her clients. She was obviously unaware of the background of the Shadow Cabinet, how they modelled themselves on right wing American Republicans, who were hostile to universal healthcare and the welfare state, and displayed harsh attitudes to the poor .
At the time I did not feel it appropriate to challenge her views, and now regret that. I think many charities went down that path, were taken in by the idea of the Big Society, and are now finding that they are being used to help implement a savage programme of austerity motivated not by economic necessity but by ideology.
During the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations it was revealed  that unemployed people had been bussed into London in the early hours of the morning, told to sleep under a bridge, and then expected to act as stewards for little or no pay. A charity was involved in this, providing work experience.
It is certainly now reasonable to ask the charitable sector to reassess its relationship with the government and its programmes, and to express a hope that they will not give their highly-prized seal of approval to policies that denigrate the unemployed.
Charities who work with and for sick and disabled people may also have unwittingly played into the hands of the government. Take cancer patients as an example: until recently the word cancer was spoken in hushed tones of dread, so cancer charities worked to break the taboo. They were very successful, and their marvellous fund-raising efforts have improved the prospects for many patients.
But when fund-raising becomes professional, sophisticated marketing strategies may be adopted, and every marketing man knows that, with the possible exception of starving children in Africa or abused children in the UK, negative images do not make successful campaigns. Over the years the portrayal of cancer patients has become increasingly positive: we rarely see images of the many patients who are in hospital or at home dealing with the sometimes devastating effects of chemotherapy.
All this positivity in the portrayal of illness or disability may have helped the government with its welfare reforms. It feeds the notion that there is hardly any condition, no matter how severe, that can prevent a person from working, and the inference that those who aren’t working are using their illness to freeload off the taxpayer. We are now in the position that people with terminal cancer can be forced to do unpaid work or lose their benefits .
Happily some charities have not been so naïve. When Farrukh Husain, director of the Migrants Resource Centre, was approached to provide free labour for the controversial company A4e, he described the practice as “gross exploitation of the voluntary sector” .
Neil Bateman, of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers has said, "Compulsory, unpaid work may worsen some people's health, with the consequences of the DWP's savings being passed on to the NHS at greater cost.
"If jobs are there to be done, people should get the rate for the job, instead of being part of a growing, publicly funded, unpaid workforce which, apart from being immoral, actually destroys paid jobs."
People working in the charitable sector should reconsider their involvement with these government programmes, not just in the interests of their clients but out of consideration for all unemployed people. If people can be forced to work without pay, won’t the demand for paid employees be reduced?
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.