Let's end 2017 with a thumbs up

Our CEO Rob Owen sets out his hopes for 2017

Just before Christmas, a picture in the Evening Standard accompanying a review on 2016 showed a person hiding under the duvet with a middle finger pointing up at the world. It chimes with the view amongst pundits that 2016 is best forgotten. A year of great surprises and division. It’s now up to us all to find solutions that will make our society stronger rather than more fractured.

2016 was not all bad for St Giles Trust. Thanks to the introduction of Reform Prisons we were able to extend our award-winning Peer Advisor Programme into HMP Wandsworth meaning prisoners in this busy London prison are able to gain skills and qualifications as advice workers whilst helping other prisoners. Support from The Big Lottery Fund meant we were able to further develop our network of Peer Hubs helping people overcome any barriers holding them back from accessing employment and training opportunities.

But 2016 did bring desperation and worry to many of the people who rely on our services. Welfare reforms continued to have cruel consequences for our core client group, those that are all too often the most financially excluded in our society – and ex-offenders are well represented in this group. Lack of affordable accommodation – an ongoing problem – is still having a disastrous effect on many people desperately needing a second chance and trying to get their lives on track.

An analysis of the work of our teams for last year has shown that advice on helping people out of poverty has been a growing area – in fact this accounted for 62% of the work of our prison-based teams. Unfortunately, these problems will remain with us in 2017.

The help we offer is basic common sense but hugely impactful on the individuals concerned. Things such as helping people work out a budget, finding what financial assistance they might be entitled to and helping people open a bank or credit union account. And this help comes from our Peer Advisors – people who are on the same level as prisoners – rather than someone who does not have that first-hand insight. Coming out of prison and getting a new life started requires an incredible level of tenacity, know-how and focus – often on a budget of £40 to last a fortnight.

By helping people with these problems in prison, we can help them have the best chance of successfully resettling into the community, preventing them becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime.

This year, we will be in an even better position to help our clients move their lives forward through incorporating the Royal London Society’s fund into St Giles Trust. It will give small grants to serving prisoners and ex-offenders to help them advance their employment goals. This very practical form of assistance with things like work clothes, fees for courses to help people find work in construction and on the railways can have life-changing results for the people we support – and wider society as a result.

Today, the Prime Minister has launched her vision of a ‘shared society’ – one in which all of us as individuals respect the responsibilities we have to one another to address social injustice. Whilst wholly welcomed, a plan and resources are needed to achieve this vision. It will be interesting to see how these take shape during the year.

Criss Jami, the US Philosopher said “The role of the genius is not to complicate the simple but to simplify the complicated.” A step-by-step approach will eventually chip away at the wider, more systemic problems inherent in our welfare system and cushion their impact on some of the most disadvantaged among us.

Who knows, by the end of this year the Evening Standard might carry a picture of a person under a duvet with a thumbs up rather than a finger? Let’s all hope so.

Rob Owen OBE
Chief Executive of St Giles Trust