Should charities be responsible for society’s most vulnerable?

Hina Bokhari

London Assembly Member for Londonwide

My father, Nawazish Bokhari, known as ‘Naz’, was Britain’s first Muslim headteacher and inspirational in many ways. When he passed away, my family were inundated with letters from people recalling how Dad had helped them. As kids, our father was always busy, and we just presumed he was working. It was only after his death that we came to realise the impact he had on so many lives through his mentoring and charity work.

To honour our dad’s work and legacy, my brother and I started the Naz Legacy Foundation, a mentoring enterprise dedicated to inspiring young people from diverse backgrounds to achieve their potential. In 2014, the Foundation won the Big Society Award, the scheme set up by David Cameron as prime minister to recognise community work in the UK which demonstrated his government’s Big Society initiative.

We were thrilled to win the award, but I remember thinking, “Is this about the government saying they want charities to do more for the most vulnerable?” Since then, we’ve seen successive governments try to shift that responsibility onto charities. But shouldn’t the approach be bottom-up? Charities should be informing the government of the day about what is happening on the ground in communities and proposing the solutions required. It can’t just be about charities raising money from the public and doing projects which should be covered by the government.

Today, the challenge for charities is to be heard by government. It means that organisations are having to become campaigners to ensure action is taken. When we set up the Foundation, we wanted to continue my dad’s legacy, not necessarily become campaigners – we just wanted to help people. And, if anything, the role of the government should be to make this easier for charities.

I have loved more than anything how the charity my family set up has made a difference to young people. A few years ago, Naz Legacy Foundation began organising interfaith iftars. When we first did it, no one else had done it before. At those events, you would get a lot of kids from different backgrounds mixing. At first, these kids would be wary of each other because of their own prejudices and pre-conceived notions. But having a moment where they all sat and talked meant they became friends. That was meaningful. That’s how charities really do make the difference; changing lives because of the human connections you only get through civil society.

If charities are to fulfil their full potential for society, there needs to be radical change in government. At present, government departments will come up with an idea for solving a problem, but there needs to more interaction with those who are impacted by the decisions made. They need to be listening to people on the ground with lived experience of the problems they are trying to address. Each department in government should be linked with the relevant charities and provide relevant funds.

As a charity leader, you are beset by the constant fear of not having enough money. Fundraising is getting more and more difficult – with charities being forced to fight over similar funds. How do you do something that’s not been done before in order to get people to donate? What do people with money think about the fact charities have to basically beg for money? We need someone in government dedicated to philanthropy who can support the sector with fundraising. Looking for donors and building relationships takes a long time.

It does seem society is becoming more reliant on charities and less on the government for support. Through my work as the London Assembly Chair of Economy, I have been leading an investigation on food insecurity. What I have been personally affected by is the realisation that there is no safety net. Food banks are having to offer a place for companionship, for debt advice, for warmth. I don’t understand how food banks that were supposed to be there in an emergency have become something that people can’t survive without. The increase in food banks must be an indicator of increasing government failure.

It was because of the rise in food bank use and the failure of government initiatives, such as Universal Credit, that I decided to put forward a motion in the London Assembly calling for a universal basic income (UBI) trial in London. There are so many barriers to people getting the help they need; these barriers can be administrative, or because someone lives in the wrong area, or because they speak a different language. There is always something stopping people getting the help they need. People have told me, again and again, how they feel as if the systems in place are deliberately hard to navigate. Isn’t it time to remove those barriers?

In a society where the government no longer provides the social safety net to catch those who fall through the cracks, it cannot just be left to the charity sector to plug these gaps. A trial of UBI in London could demonstrate a different way of dealing with increasing inequality in society. At the very least, we would find out how it impacts people and whether such a policy works. Our most vulnerable should not be charity reliant, so there must be a better way.