Weathering the Storm

By Shantele Janes, Director of Cheshire Halton & Warrington Race and Equality Centre

I’m not an optimist, but even I was hoping that in 2014 we might have some respite from the seemingly unending talk of ‘austerity measures’. No such luck I’m afraid with January heralding Mr Osborne’s news that ‘the job is not even half done’. More cuts he says are needed and the majority of these will come from yet another slice off of the welfare budget; as if it hasn’t been decimated already...This month we have also had the lawyers strike in protest of the slashes in legal aid budgets and Michael Mansfield QC, one of our most well respected human rights lawyers speaking out about the closure of his chambers as a direct result of the cuts to legal aid.
The problem that I and many others like me have with the cuts, is the disproportionate impact they are having on the most vulnerable in society; the poor, the disabled, the elderly, ethnic minority communities, the list goes on and on. Those groups of people traditionally have less of a voice than the rest of society anyway; now they are being practically gagged. Not only are they facing the brunt of the cuts, their ability to fight back is being severely impeded too. Justice will soon be only available to those who can afford it.
As voluntary sector organisations we have long been the ones who filled the gap. We have been the ones who have the links into communities; we advise and support them and advocate for the most vulnerable. But the sector is being hit hard by the cuts. Reductions in welfare benefits, changes to the system and increased unemployment has created an increasing demand for the services we provide, but we are being expected to produce the goods on less funding that we had previously. Many organisations have had no choice but to shut their doors, leaving vulnerable people doubly disadvantaged in this economic climate.
As the CEO of an equality charity I can tell you we face the same problems, with the added complication that our cause is not popular. Equality and human rights are not viewed positively in this time of austerity. If you read any of the popular press you must have noticed the headline grabbers that seem to lay all our economic problems firmly at the feet of immigration. This month we had the changes to controls on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. If you believed the news there was about to be a wave of mass immigration to take advantage of our ‘overgenerous’ benefits system. Facebook was littered with comments that could only be described as a lean to the far right. In fact in the first two weeks of January only 24 Romanians came to the UK – a far cry from the mass immigration suggested by the press. Unfortunately however, there are few of us left to hold the media and others to account for the damage they are doing to community cohesion; few of us  left to stand up against the injustice’s that are taking place; few of us left to challenge the incorrect information that abounds in a spurious attempt to detract the general population from the real issues.
But against all odds we are still here; still fighting. So on the flip side is there anything positive I can say about the impact of the cuts? No, with all good conscience I can’t. But what I can say is that like the sense of community that you often hear about in the war years; despite the terrible climate we are all working in, there is a deep commitment from all the sector to protecting vital services and doing the best despite the odds to support their client base. We are all working differently than before; we’ve had to adapt. That doesn’t make it better, but we’ve had to cut our cloth accordingly. We have lost very skilled staff, and we will probably lose more. But we are working with other voluntary sector more than ever, we are being more creative in our use of funds and we are trying new ways to deliver services. Let’s hope we can hold on long enough to weather the storm.