The “Tesco-isation” of Charity

Some charities, such as the NSPCC, are now run as businesses.

Every Little Helps
While nineteenth century writers like Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley were questioning its institutional morality the law held that it was an offence to be cruel to animals but not to children. Indeed, when the law was eventually changed the first prosecution had to be brought by the RSPCA and to describe the victim as “a small animal” because that – as distinct from “a small child” – was the sole description then recognised in law. Contributing to the impetus for change was the foundation in Liverpool in 1883 and later in London of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which in 1889 became a National Society, with branches across Great Britain and Ireland. It was in that year that the first Act, commonly known as “the children's charter”, passed through Parliament, making child cruelty an arrestable offence, establishing guidelines on the employment of children and – perhaps not so welcome – outlawing begging. Since then the NSPCC (although officially it has a royal charter it has kept the “National” in its title to prevent confusion with the RSPCA) has carried on a persistent struggle in one of the more distressing – and persistent – areas of society.

At present it runs something like 180 local projects working to raise public consciousness about child cruelty, to provide support to families where the stresses of survival may erupt into frustrations which are taken out on the children and to intervene in cases when active abuse has been identified. There is also a telephone helpline and an on-line service offering advice and information. Among its most successful ventures has been the Full Stop campaign, with its harrowing images of neglected and battered children, which raised a total of £250 million during the eight years up to 2007. Overall the NSPCC's income during 2009 was £150 million of which £116 million came from donations.

But this is 2010; British capitalism is in the throes of an historically damaging slump when the financiers and the manipulators who lurk in advertising and public relations are keen to advise anyone they think is in need of their uniquely brilliant recipe for survival. The Tory MP Gerald Howarth has called the NSPCC “completely incompetent” – although this could be his response to their pushing too competently for the reduction of the homosexual age of consent to 16. Not surprisingly Fathers4Justice has chimed in, with accusations of promoting a “portrayal of men as violent abusers” – and has emphasised its point by a brief invasion of the Society's headquarters. Most tellingly, doubts have been expressed about the Full Stop campaign actually being of benefit to any children. Analysts have been picking over the bones of all this and it seems they have diagnosed a need to go with the swing and so have prescribed a new, exciting Brand NSPCC.

The last Chief Executive of the NSPCC was Dame Mary Marsh, who held the job between 2000 and 2009. Before that she was in school headships, including at the then trendy Holland Park in London. During her time at the NSPCC it trebled its income and launched Full Stop. After which, it seemed, she decided to re-invent herself as founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme whose name largely speaks for itself and for its intended role in what Dame Mary calls “the third sector”.

In rather different style she also became a non-executive director of the massive HSBC Bank. Coming after her was Andrew Flanagan, whose experience of organisations like the NSPCC was practically nil. But he brought other prospects for he has a definite pedigree in media and marketing, including ten years as chief executive at Scotland's biggest media firm SMG where he was in charge of the company's takeover of Virgin radio and of Ginger Productions, owned by the allegedly “talented” Chris Evans. Flanagan says at the time he was (unfortunate phrase) “looking for something to get my teeth into” and he found the offer of the top job at the NSPCC “hard to resist”, the meaning of which he is happy to elaborate on: “…Things are going to be a lot tougher… The board felt someone with business skills might be better able to steer it through…there was great enthusiasm (in the NSPCC) and deep passion for the cause but business had perhaps more to offer in terms of in innovation and efficiency”.

Workers who once earned their living at the mothballed Corus steel plant or in the derelict motor factories in the Midlands would have learned the true meaning of that ominous phrase. Those who toil and worry about protecting vulnerable children might not have been so prescient.

It did not take long for the meaning of “innovation and efficiency” to become apparent. Something over 40 NSPCC projects will be closed across the country, including the newest treatment and therapeutic facility in Bath. Another victim will be at Barrow, which was established after local people raised £180,000 to fund a branch there, and where a Face Book – Save Safe NSPCC Barrow – attracted well over 1,000 friends. A joint letter by Flanagan and the NSPCC chairman in the Guardian of 19 February 2010 asserted that the planned closures will allow for new services which will “focus on priority areas of abuse”. One aspect of this “focus” has resulted in the closure of the Society's final salary pension fund, with its attendant threat to the living standards of retired workers. It brings to mind the phrase used by Iain Duncan Smith, ex-Tory leader who recovered from his spell as one of John Major's Eurosceptic “bastards” to take charge of David Cameron's Social Justice Policy Group, that there has to be a process of “Tescoisation” of charity organisations. Which will mean running Child Protection Services as a retail business, keeping a strict eye on costs, competition and prices – and getting rid of redundant workers. Except that there will be no Club Card rebates and that every little will not count.

Which leads us to the matter of redundancy. The word means superfluous, no longer needed. How does this concept fit in with child cruelty? Has the problem reduced so that children are safe enough not to justify any organised support and observation? In December 2007 a NSPCC statement, based on Home Office information, showed that there is no cause for complacency. Although there is some yearly fluctuation in the figures for known incidence of child homicide, the overall rate in England and Wales has stayed roughly similar since the 1970s. Each week one to two children are killed by another person and each week at least one child dies from cruelty. Every ten days in England and Wales one child is killed at the hands of the parents. Among those figures are some of the most horrifying, sickening examples of children dying after prolonged suffering – of repression, neglect and violence. Like Maria Colwell, beaten to death by her stepfather in 1973 – which enforced the recognition of non-accidental injury of children as major social problem. Which did not save Victoria Climbié, battered and starved, in 2001, Peter Connolly in 2007, savagely beaten over a long period and more recently Khyra Ishaq whose parents starved her and her siblings until her death exposed what was happening in that appalling house. After each such tragedy the gutter press wallow in hypocrisy, ministers roll out meticulously worded statements and appoint an enquiry chaired by some superannuated judge or senior civil servant. There is a bulky report which concludes with assurances that “lessons have been learned … measures will be put in place so that this does not happen again“. But “this” does happen again – a fact which suggests that the problem is being viewed from the wrong direction.

An article in the British Journal of General Practice for 1 September 2008, written by Jane Roberts, a GP in Easington Co. Durham, the “most deprived ward in the (Primary Care) Trust” reviewed some of the evidence that child cruelty, while not exclusive to any socio-economic group (there are examples of some pretty awful treatment to the children of very rich families) has a perceptible link with poverty. Easington has four times as many children on their child protection register as Durham, the richest ward in the Trust. This local example is typical of the wider situation. A 2008 NSPCC report on child abuse commented that “…most children on child protection registers are from low-income families and the most commonly identified stress factors in all registered cases of child abuse are unemployment and debt, which are closely related to poverty”. The report then quoted a conclusion (which must have been deflating for them) of the University of York's (Living With Hardship 24/7, November 2007), that “…we will not end cruelty to children without ending child poverty”.

But this conclusion, depressing as it is, needs to be seen in proportion. If poverty is the basis of the maltreatment of children, where and to what effect does poverty originate? We have had too many assurances to deal with it, like Blair's florid pledge to lead a government whose “…historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty” to give any weight to them. A great many motivated people devote themselves to palliating, unrewarding work in this field. But poverty is too complex, too staminal; it is the ground where masses of social sickness flourish – brutality to children, crime, alienation, disease…And so it will remain for as long a society is tolerated which rends its people into two opposing classes, based on the privileges or denial of ownership. Every little helps is not enough. The cure of child abuse has to begin with massive historical change.


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