Letter on increasing commercialisation of homeless agencies
Letter to Labour Campaign to End Homelessness
The campaign have a launch meeting at our union head office with an invited speaker from the executive of St Mungos Broadway. Unite members in the sector have asked our branch Chair to write to the organisers expressing support for the aims of the campaign along with our concerns about service providers in the sector:
Dear Councillor Sam Stopp
I am writing to welcome the initiative to launch a Labour Campaign to End Homelessness. The Unite housing branch organises workers in homelessness organisations across London as well as housing associations and other housing agencies. We are keen to be involved in campaigning for better services, for social housing, and for an end to austerity. Members in the sector have asked me to bring a number of issues to your attention - I outline them below.
Former St Mungos CEO who recieved a pay off of £160,000
While homelessness and rough sleeping has been rising, funding for vital services has been squeezed. In addition, the process of competitive contracting has led to organisations being restructured with an ever more commercial orientation in order to focus on winning contracts, rather than being needs based. As part of this process homelessness agencies have made repeated attempts to drive down pay and conditions in the sector.
While staff pay and conditions are squeezed no such restraint has been seen on the pay of senior executives; the £160,000 pay off to the former St Mungos Chief Executive at the organisations recent merger with Broadway for example was profoundly abhorrent to staff. One of the first moves by the new executive team was to attempt to cut front line staff pay by 19%. Such changes in the sector are causing real hardship to our members, even pushing them into homelessness themselves in some cases. But it is also important to emphasise that the downgrading of staff and deskilling of frontline roles has a detrimental impact on services.
Employers will often acknowledge the problem to us in negotiations, saying they share our concern at the impact on services but arguing that there is nothing they can do because of the role of the other providers. Collectively this is a deeply irresponsible approach. The heads of homelessness agencies believe that they justify their increasing salaries by winning ‘business’ from each other in a display of misplaced entrepreneurialism. In the process they are undermining the important services our members deliver.
Unite is calling on employers to sign up to a national agreement to protect sector standards. We would urge your campaign to support us in that regard.
In recent years the change of culture in homelessness organisations has resulted in increasing complaints of bullying and harassment from our members in the sector. This ‘robust’ management approach is particularly inappropriate in a sector working with vulnerable clients. It is important to note that a key feature of recent abuse scandals has been an organisational culture that discourages people from speaking out and making criticisms. A particular complaint is that the new set of senior executives use restructuring and contrived “redundancies” to remove staff who they believe are not sufficiently signed up to the new commercial ethos – in St Mungos Broadway they are dismissively referred to by the executive as “blockers”.
Centrepoint Chief Executive Seyi Obakin
The approach to industrial relations taken by many homelessness agencies has become so combative as to be quite bizarre. While we do have union recognition at Centrepoint for example, management has banned Unite officers from speaking to members on Centrepoint premises meaning that we are forced to conduct union business on a clandestine basis.
Helen Giles MBE, the current HR director of St Mungos Broadway, which is by no means the worst employer in the sector, set out her philosophy in the trade press a few years ago. She notes that the big job cuts she foresees will have a positive side – presumably driving out so called “blockers.”
St Mungos HR Director Helen Giles MBE
She observes, “In the meantime, the government’s notion that all the people about to be flung out of public and voluntary services will miraculously become employed in and promote the growth of a newly booming commercial sector is laughable. Get real. A significant proportion are UNEMPLOYABLE (capitals in the original) because they’ve been allowed to get away with murder for years”.
Members point out that part of their role is to counter the idea that victims of the crisis are unemployable. The argument behind the article is wrong and the mode of expression is intemperate, but St Mungos staff tell me that it is as nothing compared to her methods in the workplace. In the same article she complains about an “employment law regime which has pretty much scotched the concept and practice of personal responsibility for anything in the workplace.” Worker protection in UK employment law is amongst the weakest in Europe but apparently still far too much for Ms Giles.
In this context it is not surprising that staff in homeless agencies, both front line workers and operational managers, have asked to me convey to you that they feel unable to speak freely about their concerns in relation to homelessness services. However, it is clear that while in the past homelessness agencies spoke out for their clients and were frequently led by people with a genuine understanding of homelessness this is no longer the case. Any review of homelessness policy will need to look critically the nature of the organisations delivering these vital services.
Paul Kershaw, Chair, Unite LE1111 Housing Workers