More than a bus pass is needed to secure employment

(BSMG – Liban Obsiye) Most asylum seekers in the UK are generally happy to receive the right to remain and live in the UK in some form or other from a very target driven Home Office, which has the dual contradictory role of protecting UK borders as well assessing individual claims for asylum. However, instead of waking up to a benefits feast at the expense of the indigenous British hardworking general population, if you read your misinformed right wing papers that is, they open their eyes confused and destitute. Where they do find employment, they are a net contributor to the UK economy and do some of the most undesirable yet necessary jobs in Britain such as cleaning.

Some support is available for a few lucky asylum seekers in the UK, but not all. And even with their successful immigration applications, things do not get any better for most quickly. Many of the new citizens have barriers to integration that they cannot tackle on their own. They rarely speak the language, have no real local contacts to help them, and most do not even think beyond the asylum process because it is so stressful. Accessing support requires planning, language skills, friendship networks and a caring support system which aims to direct those new to the process in the right direction.

The mantra of community cohesion was justifiable at a time when there were widely available free language classes in local colleges as well as financial, not just moral and political, support for the work of the charities that assist these disadvantaged groups. Whether all of these charities were effective or not is another matter, but what is unquestionable is that these informal support structures were a life line for successful asylum seekers and immigrants as far as service support, information and access were concerned. Now, due to lack of funding, despite the intense political interest in their work, charities and support groups are closing their doors because even operating with volunteers is becoming expensive. This is because, even with volunteers as manpower, they need to pay rents and operational related costs such as gas, electricity and water. What little funding there is from local and central government is been swallowed up whole by the new bureaucrats who come in the form of the larger national charitable organisations. The smaller ethnic niche community led groups, which are able to connect with and genuinely support migrants, cannot compete and the key service needs of new immigrants are left to the new service providers from wherever who are unable to relate to those they are funded to assist out of poverty and effectively integrate into wider society. For a government so committed to personalisation, what they have missed is that the smaller niche charities offer just this because it is as much about the service as those delivering it.

Both New Labour and the current Coalition government are promoting work as the most reliable route out of poverty and social exclusion. In many ways it is. Meaningful work provides people with an income, lifelong skills, friends and an element of pride. It can make them economically prosperous and socially engaged. The news that the near one million unemployed people will be able to receive free bus passes from January to aid them in their job searches is only common sense and can hardly be hailed as ground breaking even by tight-fisted Conservatives and their “moral” Liberal partners.

The work programme was initially a great idea as it was always going to be more productive than work seekers sitting in front of uninterested employment advisors employed by the DWP in one of their dingy offices in every locality around the nation. The early promise of the diversification of service providers was a revolution in public service delivery as finally it appeared as though those on the real front line were to be given the opportunity to replace the bureaucratic structures that had failed work seekers for many decades. However, this was just a fantasy. Little did we know the bureaucrats were to be replaced by enormous private sector contractors who, in many cases, just sub-contracted to smaller groups further limiting the money available for supporting work seekers.

The work programme is a great idea but it needs to be branded better. Those on the work programme are stigmatised as lazy and dishonest. This is punitive and counterproductive as the purpose of the scheme and welfare in general, ought to be to support and not bully and degrade those most in need in society. Under the scheme, those who do not know the language are given ESOL courses, provided they are actively seeking work, in house or from one of the local community providers. The main issue with this is that the classes are short and taught in an unimaginative way which most people do not understand. They also do not connect language with the greater need for co-ordinating skills and emotional and social wellbeing. It is as though the person is helped in small portions when they need a holistic service to overcome key barriers to employment and integration.

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with many amazing charities and in almost all I saw the kind of innovations that would make the highly paid consultants of the McKinsey Group humble. It is this and the hope that one day these innovative groups will truly be recognised for their success and brought into the public service mainstream that has kept me in this field. A snapshot of the great and absolutely necessary holistic support provided by many local charities and service providers around the country is demonstrated by the operations of Ashley Community Housing in Bristol.

Ashley Community Housing (ACH) is a not for profit voluntary organisation – which is a member organisation of Bristol Somali Forum. ACH’s main purpose is to provide safe, secure and comfortable housing together with appropriate support services to homeless vulnerable adults and families living in Bristol.  The tenants are diverse and all require support with securing employment among other things. However, this is done alongside language support, IT training and encouragement which enables tenants to be able to write parts or a full CV. They also are given employability skills and education in Foreign languages such as Somali by support workers and then taken to job fairs to be able to see what is on offer locally and to meet potential employers.

This may not sound unique in anyway but when working with tenants with multiple disadvantages, who need more than just a bus pass from the local Jobcentre, it is crucial to establish a bond and prove to them that you are working in their best interest. It is also these steps that increase their confidence, self-belief and determination to do more for themselves.

ACH tenants have full access to the organisations professional and multi-disciplinary networks and it is in collaboration with these that many of them have been able to receive free courses in security, customer services, starting a business and construction. Furthermore, working with key statutory, voluntary and business partners, ACH is developing and hoping to introduce new courses and skills training to further enhance tenant’s employment prospects.

ACH tenants have always been at the centre of setting the agenda when it comes to service planning and support delivery. The services always reflect what they need to progress into full independence and social integration. As such there are regular meetings between service users and management, and every property has a house representative. This democratisation helps the organisation listen and be responsive to tenant needs. This high level involvement is not limited to just the organisation, but to the wider arena of politics too.

In the last local Council and Mayoral elections in Bristol, ACH organised, in conjunction with Bristol Somali Forum, political debates involving key candidates. This gave their tenants the opportunity to participate and make their concerns clear to the future of Bristol’s political leadership. These activities are important to empowerment and integration for tenants – many of whom have come from nations with little or no history of democracy.

Supporting disadvantaged people in to work, whether they be disabled, refugees or the long term working class unemployed, requires more than a large stick with an out of date rotting carrot. It needs a holistic approach that recognises individual uniqueness, and is able to turn this into an asset and not view it as a burden. Personalisation, and not the current standardisation that is failing work seekers, is desperately required.  The best way to make work pay is to make it available long term, and then provide work seekers with the matching skills and support needed to successfully apply and retain it. However, this requires the political maturity to invest for the long term and not seek quick results to boost poll ratings.

Liban Obsiye is a Director of Ashley Community Housing, Bristol. The above is his personal opinion. He welcomes comments from readers and those individuals and organisations that are doing similar work.        @Libanobsiye (Twitter).

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