Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Retirement rant.

I am just starting to complete my last week working in Higher Education. Whilst the official state retirement age is a little way off. I have been given the opportunity to volunteer for redundancy and to go early. In my case it is a most welcome change. However, I am aware that there are a lot of people with many years before state retirement who are fretting about their future and prospects. But there is no need to worry - if you loose your job you will have more time for Big Society volunteering!

By the luck of life's lottery draw, I was born at a time when prowess at school dictated your future. Graduating at a time when jobs were plentiful. Labour was at an all-time premium. Opportunity was seemingly a right. Living at a time when conscription was a thing of the past. Wars were of no direct consequence and the permissive society was a birth right.

Contrasting with my father, who was a (Bevin boy) coal miner and my families sole provider. My life has been one of few cares, abundant opportunity and no particular hardships endured. I should be happy with my lot and I am. That's not to say that it has been a life of rose petals and ambrosia. I have had a share of hard work. Albeit carried out in a series of buildings with a refectory. Whilst my father did his underground, without natural light, no toilets and a lunch that was usually eaten with dirty hands.

Times change, the hopes and aspirations of my mother and father for all of their children was fulfilled, to a certain extent.  For the most part the boys did OK and the girls had slightly more "difficult" route but everyone got there in the end. Being as I was the much delayed baby of the family. Born when my siblings were all self sufficient in most things. Therefore, I had the all embracing attention of mother during my formative years.

Mother was a thwarted academic, life did not provide the opportunity for her, that I was to experience. So I was the centre of her attention in all things. I was able to read and write before starting school. A love of books was built into me that still burns bright even now. Nothing was too much trouble and I have much to be grateful to her for. More than anything else, I can remember my graduation, I could see the joy in her face and the sadness in her eyes. Joy that her "baby" had fulfilled one of her ambitions but at the same time realising her sadness at her own missed opportunity.

Now, I look around at what was then and compare with what is now. More educational opportunity for everyone - but now it is at a price. I always thought that providing higher education free was investing in my and everyone else's future. I think university fees is a stupid idea and ultimately will be a regrettable course of action. It will bring back the us and them mentality - Building a class barrier between those who have and those who have not the benefit of the wherewithal. Alienating a whole generation of students and want-to-be non students alike.

I have listened to the weasel words of many MP's who in the main eagerly snatched the very opportunity of a free University Education. Now, they are seemingly singing the praises of the new fee paying system.  Its the same people who are bigging up this Big Society nonsense to "create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will take power away from politicians and give it to people."  Hands up all those like me who remember the fiasco of the MP's expenses debacle. Now just try and convince me that the same MP's are going to give up the dream of power and hand it to the likes of me and you. The problem is the very idea that a Big Society can be decided in a vacuum from the rest of Westminster!
The essence of the Big Society that you don't actually have government programmes any more. You've got to do it for yourself. It's a whole new mindset and a different way of looking at the waterways.

Its the same story with the waterways. Now we are starting to hear the jingoistic phrases like "voluntary sector" or "the third sector" given as the new way forward. There is not a snowball in hells chance of this happening in a positive way, the waterways have been under funded for years. They have also been mismanaged for years, because those at the top have been systematically ignoring the voices of the people. The same people who use and love the inland waterways. The same people that are now expected to volunteer their services. Volunteering BW employees onto the redundancy scrap heap.

Now its the "Big Society" turn of the waterways. There will be  much acclaim made. However, the canals will continue much as in previous years. Pushed headlong down the slippery slope. So as a charity, the new brave world of the waterways in the third sector will be able to accept donations. So is there an incentive for philanthropy? The current gift aid scheme is already very generous to charities and donors alike. If a banker gives a million pounds today they will get back a tax credit of £375,000 so assuming they are paying quite a lot of tax the £1m donation will only cost them £625,000 and the charity with the Gif Aid top up will actually get £1.25m. In reality that £1m donation costs the government £595k of lost taxable revenue.  Whoops, I wonder how long that leak will remain unplugged.

So whats the latest about charity donations? A report from the Cass Business School and University of Bristol says 0.4 per cent of household spending went to charity in 2008, as in 1988. Households give the same share of their spending to charity now as they did 20 years ago, according to the  new report.

The New State of Donations: three decades of household giving to charity 1978-2008 The report uses data from the Office of National Statistics’ Living Costs and Food survey. It says that in 2008 households gave an average of 0.4 per cent of their spending to charity - exactly the same as in 1988. Poorer donors are more generous than richer donors in terms of the proportion of their budget they give to charity, the report says.

Sarah Smith, professor of economics at Bristol University and one of the report’s authors, said the relative stability of charitable giving was both good and bad news for the voluntary sector. "It means that charities can rely on donors, even in times of recession," she said. "But it also indicates the huge scale of the challenge in raising the level of donations." She said that changes since the 1980s, such as increases in the generosity of tax relief and the professionalisation of fundraising, might have prevented donations from falling, but that there was little evidence they had brought about a step change in how much people give.

After all of the investment in fundraising etc that has taken place you would surely hope that a figure like this would have at least risen a little bit in the last 20 years.It shows just how stagnant this behaviour is amongst the public.

So what future lies ahead for a plan based on the belief that "smaller budgets and a smaller workforce will improve the infrastructure!" 75% of charities get no public funding and if left to the public only the popular causes would get funded. Causes like cancer, children and animals there is nothing wrong with that - they are all deserving causes. However, try selling canals and river infrastructure to the public as a charity for donation and it doesn't stand a chance.

There are also barriers to volunteering

After a recent ruling by three judges that a Citizens Advice Bureau volunteer is not covered by employment law because he/she did not have a contract of employment and was not paid. He/she did not qualify for protection under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the associated European Framework Directive. The decision was welcomed by the Association of Volunteer Managers.  If the appeal had been allowed, they argued, it would potentially have created a huge financial burden for many charities and deterred them from taking on volunteers.

Paul Michell, the barrister who successfully represented the CAB, recognises that the outcome does not leave a satisfactory state of affairs. "If volunteers are not protected under employment and occupation directives, then how are they protected?" he said after the case. "That is the next question."

Rob Jackson, director of development and innovation at VE, said it was pleased with the Court of Appeal's decision. "We don't think volunteering is the same as paid work," he says. "Making it so would create another set of problems. It would put up barriers to volunteering when we're trying to encourage more of it."

Kate Bowgett,  Association of Volunteer Managers, also thinks the appeal court got it right. Volunteers she says, "don't exist legally".
Mark Restall, a consultant on volunteer management and author of Volunteers and the Law, agrees with Bowgett. "A few years ago I would have said volunteers needed a better defined status," he says. "But now I feel that the status quo is better. At the moment it's based on mutual trust, and any legal changes would risk making it something different - almost a sub-category of employment." Restall also cautions against anything that might look to an employment tribunal like a contract or a form of payment. "They will look at whether something of value has been offered or exchanged," he says. "This can be anything over and above direct reimbursement for expenses." He says that even giving volunteers a flat rate to cover potential expenses or offering them perks such as discounts at a charity shop could be seen as payment. "The problem is that we don't know for sure about lots of issues, but we only ever do when it comes up in a tribunal case, and there's only been a small number of them".

The appellant in the CAB case in the appeal court did not have a contract with the CAB, but she had been given a volunteer agreement. This was described in court as "binding in honour only ... and not a contract of employment or legally binding".

Victoria Willson, a solicitor at Levenes Employment, which specialises in the third sector, says that such a document or a letter can be helpful. "It should say that they are a volunteer. It shouldn't be too prescriptive, though. Make it clear that the arrangements do not impose any obligations to do the volunteering and avoid using employment law terminology - for example, 'disciplinary' and 'grievances'."

As for the name change for British Waterways you could call it the "sink or swim" charity.

Please mind your head, beware of low flying BW porcine avionics.


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