Iain Duncan Smith has a decade-long association with the Centre for Social Justice Awards. The Work and Pensions Secretary talks to HuffPost UK about the awards, the role of faith in social renewal and his plans to change radically the way small charities are funded.
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The Centre for Social Justice Awards are in their 10th year, where did the original idea come from?
I originally set the awards up with the small team that we had. And it was really intended to be part of what the CSJ did. The CSJ was not a ‘think tank’ as such. It did think tank work, but a lot of its ideas were gleaned from small voluntary and charitable groups in the various towns and cities.
“And as we created what we called the Poverty Fighters Alliance, small groups whose voices were never heard, it occurred to us that we should have a chance to showcase some of their work and that’s where the idea for the awards came along.
“I always wanted them to be different from normal awards and that the main difference is that they get money. Originally they got £5,000 and now it’s £10,000 I think. There are two elements to what we are trying to do.
“The first is the award, with somebody really well known making the presentation giving us an opportunity to get coverage in the local paper. Because the more people know about them, the chances are they can get some more donations.
“The second thing is actually most of these small charities they by and large Iive hand to mouth, so giving them £10,000 is quite a lot of money. And it unlocks other funds.
“The whole idea of the awards was it’s not quite like the Oscars, with razzmatazz and all of that. It was really recognition with a view to getting them greater recognition.”
So, this is about CSJ being a ‘do tank’, as much as a ‘think tank’?
This is the bit of the CSJ that people don’t quite know enough about, which is its work with small community groups. They are not political. For the most part these charities are just about doing good. As Secretary of State I have taken a pace back from the CSJ but this is the one area where I say that I can and will stay in touch with. I’ve always been involved with it.
“They all get not just the £10,000 but we do a little film about them. And that little film is quite important because it’s a third element of what they get because they can use that film later as a promotion film, which would otherwise cost them quite a lot of money. The CSJ sends out the team to film the winners to look at what they are doing, to do interviews. That’s something they can put up on their website.
“I actually have always edited those films. That’s the one hands-on bit I do. I’ve always been interested in film. If I’d not done this, I’d have loved to have been editing film. I like seeing how you can get maximum effect by cutting it correctly, getting the right voiceovers and stuff like that. I sit with them and edit them for about three or four hours with the teams and I lock off a chunk of time to do that.”
Do you keep in touch with the winners? And are there any that particularly stand out?
There are lots where I’ve kept in touch, particularly with the drug and alcohol abuse charities, where they are really dealing with people who have reached rock bottom. A number of those we stay in touch. They’ve done really, really well.”
“If you ask me for one that I’ve actually selected, it was about five years ago, it was an overseas award, which we do every now and then if a charity is really interesting.
“My brother in law was working in Mexico. He used to bicycle into [Ciudad] Juarez every day, see all these dead bodies, because it was I think at that stage the most violent city on the planet, with horribly kidnappings amid the drug gangs.
“And in the midst of all that violence and huge drug taking, and you’d find people lying on the street riddled with drugs. There were no social services as we’d understand. There were no mental health institutions. He came across this completely inspiring individual, completely whacky, who had taken over an old convent on the outskirts of the town in the desert and he specialised in taking drug addicts who had severe mental health problems. And they helped treat them, feed them, re-establish them, and try and cure them.
“He [Father Jose Antonio Galvan, founder of the Vision en Accion centre] was a remarkable man. He had been a drug dealer up in Los Angeles and had been expelled from America and had reached rock bottom himself, bumming around in El Paso in Texas.
“And there was a born again preacher in the square in El Paso and he was sitting watching this man. The preacher was talking about how it can all be forgiven and redemption, and this man just felt an incredible anger well up inside him and he went up started an argument and then started a fight with him, hammering the hell out of him. The preacher fought back and eventually got him in an arm lock and starts blessing him. He kind of passes out, comes to in the hospital, with the preacher who had a broken arm. He said when I woke up in the hospital, my whole life had changed. I suddenly realised my life was a waste and I had to do something about it.
“He went off and himself became a qualified preacher, went back to Juarez and decided his mission in life was to save the drug addicts of Juarez. With no money he set up this organisation in the desert.”
“They get shot up regularly by the drug barons because they don’t like them taking drug addicts off the street. But he just saves lives. When you saw that it was just so really inspiring and wonderfully whacky. I sent a team over to film this and I edited it and it was simply the best film I’ve ever done. The point was he got the money. He had a wonderful line which was ‘here we are, mad people looking after mad people’. They said ‘£10,000 is more than you can imagine to us’.”
Vision en Accion is just one of many faith-based charities that the CSJ has helped. But while in the US, faith is part of the natural discourse of politics, it isn’t in the UK. Why is that?
Everywhere it’s a natural discourse. If you go to Italy, nobody would get bothered about faith [being involved]. I think the political class [in Britain] is kind of ridiculous about it, if you ask me. The CSJ is not a faith-based organisation, but I don’t care whether you’re faith-based or not faith-based.
“If what you do is to change lives then you’re welcome. People don’t like the idea of sometimes changing lives and sometimes people converting to faith, that’s been around for thousands of years and I just think sometimes politicians get very wary about it.
“But my simple answer is if you look back in the 19th century and into the early 20th century, who were the organisations that were driving change, whether it was anti-slavery or the ragged school movement? It was faith-based charities. Who was ending the factory hours, who got children off the factory floor? It was again campaigns faith-based.
“There are faith-based organisations and faith itself is an integral part of our lives. We are a much more secular society now in the UK. But it is interesting when an event like Paris or whatever happens, people need to know that there is something else in their lives. And all I say is that for those who make faith their driving force, I have nothing but the highest respect for the work that they do. There are others for whom they just do this because it’s not faith. But there is another faith, their personal faith in other human beings. I don’t mind who it is, or what they do, because if the outcome is lives changed, you just have to admire them.”
Faith groups are often involved in drugs or alcohol abuse charities in particular, why do you think that is?
It’s such an overriding requirement to help other human beings. Drug and alcohol abuse is a very difficult area because just to break somebody with an addiction requires huge and intensive work.
“Philippa [Stroud, the new director of the Centre for Social Justice] herself who is now back at the CSJ, she grew up in a metaphorical sense looking after drug addicts. She worked in Hong Kong taking drug addicts off the streets. She came back and set up a centre working with addicts in Bedford. So I admire anybody that does that kind of stuff. As a politician we often deal in big numbers but the truth is that real life change takes place at a human level.”
Sport seems to be another theme linking some of the charities helped by the awards. The Boxing Academy, winners in 2011, are now a Free School. What do you make of their progress?
We did a report saying that sport has a role to play, particularly for men but also women too, in difficult communities because it gives them an outlet. You talk to any sportsman like Frank Bruno and he will say his life was saved by boxing. I know it’s ironic because some people think boxing is a brutal sport but what Frank Bruno will tell you is he’d have been on the streets committing crime had he not had a skill and somebody got him into a gym and the rest is history. And that’s the case for lots of footballers and so on.
“My point has always been how do you spread that? There’s a really brilliant charity in my area called Gangs Unite, and I’m the patron, with people who were gang members and they get kids out of gangs and they use sport to do it. They have a football team and do other activities.”
Chris Eubank, who’s on I’m A Celebrity on TV right now, has talked about boxing transforming his life. Do you know his story?
I’ve met Chris on a number of occasions. And boxing completely was what turned his life around. Boxing has a particular thing about it because it has always dealt with kids from very poor backgrounds for the most part.
“I used to box many years ago - I wasn’t a great boxer, I wasn’t going to threaten anybody in that sense - but I have boxed. And the thing about boxing training is it’s very disciplined. There is no room in boxing for rebellion, it’s very structured, it’s hard, the training exhausts you, which is important.
“What the boxing charity did was it took kids who were in need of remedial education. It gave them what they wanted which was boxing, but the deal was they did the education and the change was enormous.
“This didn’t come from government, this didn’t come from a politician like me. What always inspires me is people who just made the connection. When you want people to make a change, you’ve got to give them something to hang onto, something to look forward to, so there’s always hope.
“I always remember when I was at Sandhurst many years ago. The course was tough and hard, but you started almost on day one planning for the passing out party at the end. The instructor said you need something at the end to which you can lift your head up and say ‘I’m going to make it to that point’. If you know there’s an end point, there’s a purpose, you can help and inspire young people.”
Some charities in the US and the UK now specialise in projects that place kindergartens next to sheltered housing for the elderly. Have you seen those?
I think they are brilliant. We gave an award to a charity that specialised in getting young people to adopt and be adopted - in a metaphorical sense - by people in this care home. And they visited them and it was quite interesting because the kids themselves had come from families where they didn’t have any grandparent and suddenly they were adopting these people.
“And the older people benefitted enormously, they looked happier, and the young people had someone when they needed advice. It was just breathtaking really. It was reminding everyone really, there’s the knowledge of ages that flows back and forwards, it’s the thing that keeps families together.”
“I’d love to see more of that. I’d love to see schools more engaged in that. Not just in the ones and twos but more. We do live in a society now and it’s very difficult I know, where we put things in boxes. So you're old you go over there and that’s called being in a care home or you’re young and you’re in school and we break things apart.”
Do you think Government can do more to help small charities? Or should it just step back?
I think the biggest change that could come down the road now is the thing we’ve been working on very hard, which is social investment bonds. I think this is going to radically change the relationship between local authorities and local charities and even government.
“What we are saying is rather than be dependent on a local authority or the government that says you will get funding this year and maybe next year, charities will find that a priority changes in the council, they decide to pull the money - it’s always the charities that get the money pulled from them first - and the result is it’s very difficult for them to find replacement funding at that point because they don’t have a lead time.
“We want to expand dramatically here, I’ve talked to lots and lots of people in really good organisations out there. The idea is that if you have a programme that works and quantify what it saves, then you now have the beginnings of a new relationship.
“Say a charity can get kids aged 13 yrs old into earlier, extra remedial education…that has a quantifiable cost saving both to the school and then subsequently, they are less likely to be on benefits. The local authority can create a bond around this and say we want to put this in 20 of our schools. People can invest in this bond…the bond would be tight so it has a period of time, you want to see performance, staged payments by results, targets.
“They will know they will get a return for their investment, that’s underwritten by the local authority or government because they know the return to the government is greater than the return they pay out. So they know there’s a net saving that’s quantifiable and a proportion of that is paid out to the investor.
“This will allow local authorities and charities to work on an equal basis. More importantly it brings people back into contact with the inner city who have never been involved, so you get the successful in the business and finance world suddenly investing in a rehabilitation programme or a remedial education programme. It starts to bring two ends of society together, but more importantly it releases money which is there and there’s lots of it but wouldn’t normally be involved in social renewal.
“I have pushed this like mad in Government. I’m not alone in this by the way, Oliver Lewin is keen. [An ‘Innovation Fund’ with £30m has been piloting the idea for the past two years and has now been adopted by the Cabinet office.]. We are looking now to do much bigger social investment bonds.”
One charity that has hit the headlines lately has been Kids’ Company [whose founder once received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the CSJ]. What do you think has been the impact of the controversy on other charities in the field?
The charitable sector will be the first to tell you that it has made life a bit difficult for them because for whatever reasons people will question how it is you give money to an organisation - and I’m not pre-guessing what happened - and checks and balances may not be done properly.
“The solution to this is the social investment bond because it is structured, you are not giving money to a charity. The charity now stands on its record and you are able to measure that effect as it goes through.
“So I hope eventually to shift over from the basis that charities go cap in hand all the time to local authorities and government to move to the point where a charity with a good programme that change lives and thus saves money now in its own right gets funded and not funded for one year or two years but funded for say five years.
"It makes them more disciplined about what they deliver, not peripherals, or schemes that somebody thought was a great wheeze, just stick to the plan. It makes the local authorities commit to a longer term plan for charities. To my mind, that is the ultimate solution to this issue for charities. There will always be a need for people to give your money to charity that’s a very good and important thing to do, but in terms of real life change I think the SIB process is the best way to use that money.”
What impact would social investment bonds have on the wider issue of charities and the state?
I think there’s an artificial argument that takes place around charities. Everyone loves their local charities, they will talk about them as politicians, and then you get to Parliament and there’s this ‘the state does does this, and it’s our role’.
“The truth is there’s no clear line on this and it’s a case of feeling it forward as you go. There are things that charities do that help, sometimes the state has to step in to do certain things.
“My instinct on this is by and large the State’s a very blunt weapon. Charities are a very focused weapon. A charity knows that it’s trying to save lives in a community of may be 10,000 people. The State deals with communities of maybe 60-plus million. So when we make change and it goes nationwide, quite often it can be quite blunt.
“So charities have a role to play in alerting us to the bluntness of this and also helping us deliver the objective of some of the effect. I don’t think there’s an either/or. I think by and large charities do things government simply can’t do. And to attack charities for waste of money is a bit rich from government.”
Do you personally do any voluntary work?
“My wife’s hugely involved with a charity called Medical Detection Dogs, which by the way I think will radically change the face of cancer detection in making it much earlier and easier, discovering how in laboratory conditions dogs can actually detect cancer much earlier than existing medical tests. It’s a brilliant charity and it’s working with the health department to do proof of concept.”
“So I get a bit involved in some of her work. It’s difficult. I was more involved [with volunteering] before and I hope to be more involved again. But this job tends to be slightly overwhelming.”
You mentioned the demands of the job. Many people remember your trip to Easterhouse in Glasgow [where his thoughts about social renewal began back in 2002, soon after he was forced out as Leader of the Tory party]. Local MP Natalie McGarry has invited you to visit Easterhouse again, so will you go?
I will go up. It’s not just Easterhouse. I’ve had some great friends in places like Gallowgate and others. It’s not easy being in government to be quite frank with you, making some of the decisions you have to make.
“But that notwithstanding, as long as you are hold in your mind and in your heart the idea that what you’re trying to do is to improve lives, then I hope the net effect of what you do at the end of the day does actually work. It’s always nice to visit old friends.”
So you will go then?
I’ve always said that I will go to these places. I think that was a little political that invitation from her [McGarry]. I don’t need invitations to go to various places because I stay in touch with lots of people. They don’t have to worry. I’ve seen people on a number of occasions, and spoken to them, from Easterhouse. There’s a little political device there involved, which we don’t need.”
Finally, there are several CSJ alumni dotted around Government these days. Christian Guy, the former director, is now a No.10 adviser, and others are special advisers. The traffic has been two-way, with former special advisers joining the CSJ. How important are those links?
“To have people in government wasn’t ever the intention of the CSJ so it’s a by-product really. The real intention was quite the opposite, to get young people get them involved in this process and then go out in their new lives, often away from politics but still retain that sense of the importance of charitable work and hopefully change the face of the way industry thinks how they can help charities.
“There are Labour people involved, Frank Field, Graham Allen, it prides itself not being party political. That’s not to say everybody in all parties agrees with it. Some people disagree with it in the Conservative party and quite a lot disagree with it I’m sure in the Labour party.”
And some in the Treasury too?
“There’s a certain amount of truth in that….”
Iain Duncan Smith is the founder of the Centre for Social Justice. The Huffington Post UK is the media partner for the CSJ Awards 2015, which recognise UK charities that display innovation and effectiveness in addressing the root causes of poverty, transforming lives and reversing social breakdown.