Lindsey Poole challenges the advice sector to acknowledge, question and dismantle the structural racism that may be working to exclude vital organisations working for communities experiencing racial inequality from the established networks of support.
In 2019, the advice sector found itself at the centre of a storm on racism in the voluntary sector. Some slides from a Citizens Advice training module were shared on the internet; these presented some crass cultural tropes as ‘barriers’ to working with people from communities experiencing racial inequality. The reaction was strong; the use of such stereotypes not only reinforced attitudes but was also seen as an example of ‘othering’ within the charity sector. The barely hidden assumption was that the audience for training courses is white, problematic clients Black. Citizens Advice reacted swiftly and decisively, issuing a very public apology, clearly embarrassed at the exposure after decades of challenging racism, both within the organisation itself and as experienced by clients.
As the issue played out across the voluntary sector media and on Twitter (#CharitySoWhite
), the commentary took an interesting if rather depressing turn. Rather than vilifying one organisation, the dialogue highlighted the voluntary sector as embedded in the current political-economic system, not separate from it. Staff from ethnic minority backgrounds expressed no surprise and recounted many examples of stereotyping, ‘othering’ and micro-aggressions. As acknowledged in the report Home truths: undoing racism and delivering real diversity in the charity sector
(June 2020) by ACEVO and Voice4Change, racism is an unresolved issue in the voluntary sector and rather than being at the forefront of challenging discrimination, the sector mirrors behaviours and attitudes seen elsewhere. Despite decades of policies aimed at recruiting diversity into the voluntary sector, the staffing profile particularly at the more senior levels is still predominately white.
These are difficult but important messages for the sector and we must reflect on what they mean and, more importantly, what we must now do to change. The Advice Services Alliance has identified a gap in the representation of organisations working with communities experiencing racial inequality at local and strategic levels. Our report, Advising Londoners; an evaluation of the provision of social welfare advice across London
(July 2020), looked at the provision of social welfare advice across London and how this mapped to advice need. One of the most startling findings was that although around 490 separate but networked organisations are actively providing social welfare advice, there are at least another 380 that are also providing advice but are not networked.1This number was established through sampling a subset of the Charity Commission data (London based, Law and Advocacy), which was then checked against the organisation’s website and/or Charity Commission submission to confirm it offers a social welfare advice service as defined in the Advice Quality Standard.
These are mainly small or micro organisations, including community centres, faith groups and cultural organisations, many connected with or embedded in local communities experiencing racial inequality.
These services are providing vital advice to those communities and yet do not have a representative presence in the formal advice sector. As a result, they are excluded from network support and from the opportunity to participate at the strategic level. Without such voices round the table, our knowledge of what ‘access to justice’ means for all parts of the community is incomplete and we miss the deep understanding that experience brings to bare numbers.
Windrush: why representation matters
The Windrush scandal illustrates why representation matters. The advice sector and legal aid immigration lawyers had been long aware of the Home Office ‘hostile environment’ credited for driving these appalling deportation policies. There is a clear policy line back to the Labour administration with some crediting a Labour home secretary with coining the phrase, although it was Theresa May who made it real with the highly visible ‘Go home’ vans
. The vans were abandoned but the narrative and public attitudes shifted, laying the groundwork for increasingly draconian immigration policies. Despite this, the impact lacked visibility to more than a few key advice services.
In crude statistical terms, the number of clients approaching high-street advice services with the Home Office ‘Notice of Deportation’ letters were few and dispersed across agencies around the country. Even though the number potentially affected was high (57,000 Commonwealth migrants had arrived in the UK before 1971
, many of whom would not have the paperwork to establish their legal right to remain), the issue did not coalesce for some time and certainly not before some people with a right to stay had been deported. As Jacqueline McKenzie pointed out in a recent presentation,2Jacqueline McKenzie, director at Centre for Migration Advice and Research and McKenzie Beute and Pope, speaking at the Administrative Justice Council Windrush webinar: ‘Falling through the gaps’, 29 September 2020.
until the separate cases were brought together and given the Windrush tag, the problem lacked proper visibility, each person seen as a unique case; the deportees were the least powerful in our society and the very people who needed access to advice services the most.
Finding a way to harness representation is not straightforward. Giving time is a very big resource ask for any small organisation. Smaller charities took a hard hit with the austerity cuts3See, for example: www.lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk/we-influence/expert-undervalued-and-on-the-frontline.
and as organisations representing communities experiencing racial inequality tend to fall into the small and micro income band, they have experienced significant reductions in funding. Competitive tendering does not work well for those organisations as it favours consortiums or generalist advice provision, while funding linked to a locality can be impossible for geographically dispersed communities. The Advice Services Alliance has heard from organisations who manage reductions in funding by cutting paid staff; they move to a more voluntary basis to keep services open. The fact they still exist is down to the sacrifice and dedication of the staff teams. Finding evidence to support the extent of these cuts is challenging; the last comprehensive survey of the advice sector was in 2015,4Survey of not for profit legal advice providers in England and Wales, Ipsos MORI, Ministry of Justice, 2015.
strengthening our call for the sector itself to compile this data.
The structural conditions within the sector create barriers to participation. Organisations representing communities experiencing racial inequality are overstretched, often poorly resourced, yet most connected with their communities; finding the time, resources or energy to work at a strategic level is very challenging. This work brings no immediate or obvious benefit to the clients in the waiting room and it can be hard to disconnect from the persistent flow of demand when personally known to those seeking help. Larger charities working in immigration law or with refugee communities are more able to attend strategic meetings, although they themselves are now in the government firing line
and immigration law is only one area of these communities’ advice needs.
The impact of COVID-19
As eloquently described in Baroness Lawrence’s recent report,5An avoidable crisis. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. A review by Baroness Doreen Lawrence, 27 October 2020.
the impact of COVID-19 has served to cleave wider the many existing inequalities. Ethnic minorities have suffered higher rates of COVID-19 and have worse health outcomes with higher mortality rates than their white counterparts. An analysis of survival among confirmed COVID-19 cases showed that, after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death when compared with people of White British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between a 10 per cent and 50 per cent higher risk of death when compared with White British people.6Beyond the data: understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups, Public Health England, June 2020, page 4.
This differential is not explained by race or ethnic background alone but rather by the social context for communities experiencing racial inequality: poor housing and/or multi-generational households, low income, underlying health conditions, and high-risk occupations. These high-risk factors for COVID-19 are key problem areas where access to legal aid and advice services can really help.
So the impact of COVID-19 on communities experiencing racial inequality has been the triple whammy: health impact, economic impact and impact on the helping organisations. The same organisations described in Advising Londoners
have also been drastically impacted by the first COVID-19 lockdown and while some have adjusted to remote service delivery, many are struggling even more with the second. In an early piece of COVID-19 research
, the Ubele Initiative found that 87 per cent of surveyed charities helping communities experiencing racial inequality anticipated closure if lockdown lasted more than three months. From the Advice Services Alliance’s records, five of the 18 advice services that have left the Advice Quality Standard since April 2020 were providing services directly to those communities. The cumulative effect of these interrelated impacts is to further widen the resource gap between organisations working with communities experiencing racial inequality and the mainstream advice sector.
Thanks to some excellent support from funders and a successful campaign to locate advice within the COVID-19 recovery, the advice sector has largely stabilised during this turbulent period. The majority of funding only lasts until the end of March 2021 and has been specifically directed towards ‘specialist’ advice organisations. While ‘specialist advice’ includes refugee and immigration services and law centres, the more generalist, local services described above do not meet these criteria. Funding available elsewhere, such as through the National Lottery Community Fund, is limited and competitive. Ensuring such organisations have access to additional support in the future is crucial to address the widening gap.
Working on these issues requires making the most of existing networks and filling the infrastructure gaps where these exist. There are several well-established third sector organisations providing policy, support and representation for those organisations supporting communities experiencing racial inequality, including Voice4Change, Race on the Agenda, the Runnymede Trust and the Ubele Initative. Until the funding ended, AdviceUK supported a Black & Minority Ethnic Advice Network (BAN), which was highly valued by its members and provided an opportunity to engage on social welfare legal issues. Without funding, members of the network found it increasingly difficult to keep meeting. A secure, long-term resource to support such a network of advice organisations would be a tangible commitment to addressing the strategic representation of those organisations.
But this is not just about expecting ethnic minority organisations to take the load for addressing structural problems within the sector. While comprehensive representation within key strategic bodies is important, those with influence need to be prepared to ask hard questions and hear difficult answers. By taking the first steps to address barriers to participation, the advice and access to justice sectors can start to demonstrate our founding principles: to provide a voice for the powerless and challenge issues of structural inequality. We must start today.
1Address racial inequalities in the sector: ‘This is not about choosing between tackling racial injustice and mitigating the impact of COVID-19. The sector should respond with an intersectional approach, taking racial injustices in our society into account, in order to be effective.’
2Acknowledge who holds power: ‘We hold more power as a sector than we admit. It’s time to use that power and to recognise that current models of funding and delivery are struggling, while others which don’t meet our standard metrics are taking the lead.’
3Value lived experience and centre ‘at risk’ communities: ‘Account for the different lived experiences of marginalised communities and prioritise coordinated action to centre them in delivery and funding.’
4Trust the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voluntary sector: ‘To best reach those most impacted by the crisis, we need to work with organisations closest to them. We urge organisations to avoid knee-jerk relief efforts and ensure they have built in the mechanisms to work directly with community leaders.’
5Recognise and support BAME staff and volunteers: ‘BAME employees will be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as they tend to be more junior or on temporary contracts. Senior leadership should account for this, as many employees are at risk of staff cuts and hiring freezes.’