The government has quietly announced a U-turn on a controversial proposal to withdraw funding from organisations which work for only one ethnic group and not across groups.
The draft proposal issued by Hazel Blears in February 2008 suggested that funding (both governmental and private) be re-focused specifically towards organisations which complied with the government’s community cohesion agenda.
Controversially, the guidelines implicitly suggested that groups which were formed along single ethnic or religious lines were separatist in their nature and thus at odds with the community cohesion agenda. These groups faced withdrawal of funding unless they could demonstrate that their services reached other groups as well.
Guidelines already used to cut funding
There is evidence that the draft guidelines were already being used to justify the withdrawal of funding from some groups. Last year in west London, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) had their funding cut by Ealing Council. The decision was overturned when SBS took Ealing Council to court, winning a major victory when the High Court found that the council failed to pay proper regard to equality legislation.
SBS, which provides services for BME women suffering from domestic violence, had argued that their specialist services were needed not only to counter language difficulties and specific cultural pressures, but also because mainstream services were not reaching these women.
Third sector sounds alarm bell over proposals
Following a consultation process in which some ninety-eight responses were received by the Communities and Local Government department, Hazel Blears announced in December 2008 that the guidelines would not be issued after all.
The consultation respondents included national and community organisations, a large proportion representing a single ethnic group. Organisations representing asylum seekers and refugees and campaigning on gender and sexual orientation issues also submitted comments.
Many respondents to the consultation had argued that the guidelines promoted cohesion at the expense of equality and that the threatened realignment of funding strategies would actually damage communities.
In particular, they noted that ‘single identity groups’ played a vital role in empowering communities who were often marginalised and excluded from the mainstream. These groups ‘were all seen to be crucial to achieving equality of opportunity which, in turn, was crucial to cohesion’.
Other groups worried that the guidelines implied that ‘single identity groups’ were divisive and that they allowed members of a community to exist in a ‘comfort zone’ without engaging with the wider community.
U-turn welcomed by campaigning groups
The government’s U-turn included an acknowledgment of the importance that ‘single identity groups’ played in encouraging cohesion and that national guidelines were not appropriate when local context was so variable.
Kevin Curley, chief executive of local infrastructure group NAVCA (National Association for Voluntary and Community Action), said: ‘This change of policy is good news for everyone who believes that it is right to fund BME organisations to provide specialist services. This is both the best way to tackle inequality and also ensure help gets to disadvantaged people.’
Jenny Bourne, of the Institute of Race Relations, said: ‘We have always argued that it is not how groups are constituted that matters but whether they are ethnically-focused and inward looking or whether they tackle a social issue. What a group does is more important than what it is. Hopefully, the government is coming round to that view.’
Read an IRR News story on: The baby and the bath water: community cohesion and the funding crisis
Read an IRR News story on: Victory for Southall Black Sisters