Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



  80. Do you or do you not understand devolution? I would like to ask Mr Nall and Lady Toulson as well because your board has taken a very important decision on behalf of the most vulnerable group of people in Wales and I would like an answer to my question, please.
  (Mr Sparks) Chairman, I do not think I can answer the question. If I say yes I will be told I do not understand; if I say no, it will be taken as proof I do not understand. The question is impossible.

  Chairman: You said that you would not understand it as much as somebody living in Wales and I think we would accept that.

Chris Ruane

  81. Lady Toulson said that she was brought in as chair to implement the decision that had already been made. I would have thought the job of a good chair is to show leadership and careful stewardship, not to rubber stamp what I believe is a wrong decision. She mentioned it in her letter to Ann Jones. She said, "Your anger and outrage are wholly understandable but perhaps you should know that I only took over the chairmanship of the Society after the board decision had been reached. My remit has been to implement it forthwith." Surely what she is doing by saying this was not her responsibility is a Pontius Pilate. She is washing her hands of the whole affair. Perhaps a more modern day comparison is that she was only obeying orders.
  (Lady Toulson) I am very sad that you are using language like this in a distressing situation. For a volunteer of an independent charity to be accused of being somewhat like Pontius Pilate is very regrettable language.

  82. Indeed.
  (Lady Toulson) I was invited to be chairman of the Children's Society. I had no awareness whatsoever of the difficulties Wales was facing when I took on the job. I did ask what the major issues were that the Society was facing. I did not know about the situation in Wales. The board made a majority decision for me to put this decision in place. I took over from Bishop Jim Barton and was asked to do that. That is what I have done. On the understanding of the board, there was no alternative route to follow and I therefore took instructions from the management and together we have moved forward from there.
  (Mr Sparks) Paragraph four of this says that a decision to withdraw was taken because it is the only option available. The board itself discussed a range of options which would involve doing nothing in Wales, which would have involved saving a further £1 million in England, reducing the work in Wales by half which would mean saving a further £500,000 in England or the decision which it took. What this paper says is that the board concluded it was the only option available. In terms of the cuts that were made the £5.1 million includes a closure of a further 26 projects in England in addition to nine in England the previous year. The view that we took on the advice of our director for children and young people was that we could not make any more cuts in England without destabilising the work in England as well. It may not be proportionate to the population, but it was a view taken regarding the whole range of our work across England and Wales.

Mrs Williams

  83. It was more convenient to amputate Wales from your plans completely.
  (Mr Nall) I think that is a misrepresentation. If I may speak to the financial realities for a moment, firstly, we are not the British government. We cannot work in an even handed way right across the United Kingdom. We only work in England and Wales. We wish to be an effective voice for change for the condition of children and young people. Wales has rightly in my view embarked on the path of separate nationhood. You want effective partners in that country. That means we need to have, as a charity to be an effective influencing voice in Wales, sufficient practice to draw worthwhile conclusions about the state of childhood in Wales. My understanding of the decision is that by reducing our work we would have ended up with such a small base of work that we could not have provided that influencing role. Indeed, my understanding from staff is that it was the integration of the way we work with various groups of children in Wales that gives us a powerful influencing message. I was intrigued to hear that echoed in some of the remarks made by ministers recently. When it came to cutting 1.4 million or so, which is what the contribution out of the Society's central funds to Wales is at the moment, that is over one third of our planned deficit for the year on ten per cent of our work. Given that we could not maintain influence, the financial imperative drove us to close Wales. I understand there is a great deal of anger. I understand, particularly for a country that is embarking on nationhood, to have a long established partner pull out is very disappointing and the Society in cutting its work would have had to cut work from children and young people wherever it chose to make closures. In this case, that effect is concentrated in Wales but I repeat we are not the British government. We cannot be, on the resources we have on our remit, representative in all geographical areas of the United Kingdom.


  84. You are the Children's Society of England and Wales at the moment so you were committed to serving the children of Wales. I do not, and I am sure my colleagues do not, believe this argument that because we have somehow devolved you now do not have any remit to act as a pressure group within Wales because you do not have enough judgment about how children in Wales operate. Children are children, wherever they are. A programme in Yorkshire would have as much application to Wales as a project in Pontypridd. The fact is you could have as much pressure in Wales as now if you cut throughout England and Wales to the level that you need to cut.
  (Mr Nall) Within your own remark you have encapsulated the decision. I am not qualified to make the decision about the influencing side of our work. I am rehearsing for you the arguments as I understand them. On that rehearsal, to me, they make sense. You may quarrel with that argument. I am afraid I am not the appropriate person to have that argument with. There are deprived pockets of children and young people around the United Kingdom, in the north east of England and elsewhere, for instance. In terms of learning from our project work, we will gain that learning there rather than in Wales. It is a matter of deep regret that it is Wales that is closing.

  85. There is a certain amount of schizophrenia on behalf of the Children's Society here. Are you a body that works for children or are you a pressure group? It seems to me you do not seem to know what you are.
  (Mr Nall) We do both and the reason is that is the most powerful way to gain the information to inform our influencing.
  (Mr Sparks) I do not think the Society has any doubt about what it is doing. It is not a pressure group in the sense that we write policy papers and do lobbying. Equally, it is not an organisation which just works with children. We believe that those two things have to go together. I think a number of the major children's charities equally see the need both to do the direct work and to do the influencing and policy work together.
  (Mr Nall) The Society has been reviewing its reserves and what contribution it could make to an organisation that is ongoing, but we keep coming up again and again with the same problem of viability in the future in Wales. I understand that staff are looking to present a business plan to a group including the Welsh Assembly later this week but the core issue is: if it is costing us 1.4 million a year and we cannot afford it, we cannot do it; who is going to pick up that bill? You may say that we can reorganise the work and reduce that bill. You are still looking at about £1 million. Mrs Williams, I understand your passion on this topic but are you offering £1 million a year, or for a two or three year transitional period, while fund raising income grows, to fill that gap? That for me is the financial reality.

  86. Perhaps if your organisation had consulted the Welsh Assembly or other bodies within Wales, you might have found a way forward and maybe there is still an opportunity to do that. I still think that there is a certain lack of consideration here for the fund raising that has taken place in Wales. You are happy to cut Wales off but there has been fund raising. It may not have looked a huge amount but it was a great deal for the people in Wales to give.
  (Mr Nall) Obviously, we are delighted by all support that we receive. My major concern is how we can achieve a smooth transfer of those fund raising activities within Wales to some successor bodies. The Archbishop has set up a fund understandably but the interim impact is that income that would have been coming to the Children's Society—and the Children's Society does spend substantially more in Wales than it raises in Wales from central funds; that is the reason for the 1.4 million a year contribution from central funds—is increasing that burden. We would very much like to work with the Archbishop to ensure smooth handling of fund raising activities in Wales.

Adam Price

  87. If I understand your reasoning correctly, the decision in relation to the three options, the three options being making all of the savings in England, reducing the work in Wales by half or closing all of the work in Wales, to go for the last option, which is pulling out of Wales completely, was partly driven by the need to protect your influencing role in England because you get a sufficient level of activity in order to support that influencing role. Do you not think that your influencing role has been very seriously damaged by the political fall-out from the decision to pull out of Wales? Should you not be revisiting that decision because if the rationale is correct that what you were keen to do was to protect your role in influencing policy, from where I am sitting, the prestige of the organisation has been very seriously drawn into question by this. Surely the best way of protecting your influencing role and enhancing it now would be to revisit this decision?
  (Mr Sparks) I have no evidence at the moment that our influencing work in England has been affected. On the question of revisiting, the board met last week.
  (Lady Toulson) We met and we revisited it in some depth. We consulted two members of staff from Wales and two young people. Apart from Reverend Glover, the vote was taken not to alter the decision that we made in October.

  88. This issue has been raised in Prime Minister's questions recently by my Honourable friend and clearly you are not going to be in a strong position to provide lessons in terms of children's policy in any part of the United Kingdom when you are not prepared to revisit this decision. I am trying to be helpful here because I think you need to think through the long term implications of the decision you have taken in relation to Wales.
  (Mr Sparks) I do not know what I can say helpfully in response to that other than what Lady Toulson has said, that the trustees revisited the decision last Friday and decided not to change it.
  (Lady Toulson) It has been made clear to us by management that were we to make the cuts in England, instead of in Wales, and keep Wales open for business the Society would implode. There is no future for the Society at all if we do not pursue the route that we have chosen. We have been to see the charity commissioners and they have given us great comfort. I have not personally been but Mr Sparks and Mr Nall have been. As an independent charity, our objects are to fulfil what is stated in our Memorandum and Articles and act for the best interests of the beneficiaries. In taking the course that we are taking, that is exactly what we shall be doing. As a result of the meeting which Mr Sparks can tell you more about, we have a categoric reassurance on that point.

Mr Caton

  89. What evidence did management present to the trustees last Friday to make the case that activities in England will implode if the burden were shared more fairly? In the last minute submission we have, "Continuing in Wales would have made both countries unstable." What is the justification for this? Where is the evidence that it is going to have this cataclysmic effect?
  (Mr Sparks) The evidence was presented not last Friday but in October. It was the judgment of our director for children and young people which we discussed with her in some detail. It has to be a judgment. It is not a financial, mathematical calculation. It is a judgment of a manager about the impact of making further closures in England.

  90. How do you get this implosion? I do not understand this. Your projects mostly stand on their own. They will be doing the valuable work they are doing. Are we talking about the political influence? Is that what you feel will implode?
  (Mr Sparks) I do not think you can separate the two as if they were two things that you do. What we have in England, as we had in Wales, is a range of work which is concerned with various programmes on which we are both doing work and also exercising influence. The view was that to reduce those programmes to smaller sizes—a programme being a collection of projects across the whole of England or England and Wales—would make those programmes unsustainable so they would cease to have the impact not only locally but nationally as well.

  91. I remind you of what the Chairman said, which I think is very true. I think your approach of building influence on good project work is right but that influence can be built on good project work in England and Wales and influence both the United Kingdom government and the National Assembly for Wales. I am sure if something is relevant and appropriate and you are showing cutting edge ways forward for helping children either in England or Wales then both the governments are going to listen. They are not going to judge that there are 15 projects in England; therefore, we are going to have to take a bit more notice of them. They have got three or four in Wales; therefore, we are not that interested. I do not think it is going to work like that. I think the whole basis of your decision may be rather blunt and wrong headed.
  (Mr Sparks) I think there is an issue about the volume of practice you need to support the issues and arguments that you are making. A concrete example at the moment is a major piece of work going on at the Social Exclusion Unit about young people on the streets. We have had huge influence on that because we have committed resources to a number of projects over a long period of time and the associated research. Without the practice and the research, we would not have had the impact. That is the view that we are taking about the different programmes at work, about how much practice you need in order to have the experience, the knowledge of what is happening, the research and the influence together. It is a judgment about what you need in order to achieve that. They were the judgments that were made.

  92. Do you believe that that experience and knowledge have to come from one geographical area to influence a particular policy area? I would suggest that that is not the case. Take street homelessness as an example. I know the National Assembly has been influenced by work that has been done in England and similarly the British government has been influenced by work that has been done in Wales.
  (Mr Sparks) Yes, there is an overlap that comes from linking up what the Assembly is doing and what the Westminster government is doing. This judgment was about the choices we had to make about our resources and where we could make those cuts in a way that enabled the organisation to continue to be viable.
  (Mr Nall) You make some very sensible points and it is refreshing to air these points but there are some practical matters that do come into play. For instance, if you are to service two nations, you will need two influencing functions. You will need an extra policy officer or two in Wales; you will need the resources required to service Welsh language policy; you will need a critical base for projects, as we have already heard. The Society's trustees' remit is to provide the maximum possible benefit to children and young people. By making a choice to close work in Wales, we deal with a very high level of expenditure as has already been noted and you maximise the number of children and young people you are able to work with within that resource. I would put the question back to this Committee: these kind of issues, in terms of financial constraints, are not unique to charities alone. They also apply to commercial businesses. We came as close as I would wish to go on the reserves front and we have made this very hard decision. Trustees are required by the Charity Commission to make these hard decisions from time to time. We regret making the decision. Given some of the costs imposed on organisations in working in Wales, what policy changes can you make within Wales to reduce those costs? From my perspective, I am afraid it does come down to pounds and pence.


  93. You mentioned the Welsh language. You are excluding Welsh speaking children from the good that your Society is doing.
  (Mr Sparks) Yes. I very much regret that.

  Chairman: I am delighted you regret it but I do not think you regret it quite as much as the rest of us here. You asked us a question but frankly, if you think you are going to have influence with any political body, you are talking to politicians now and you are not doing very well at it.

Mrs Williams

  94. I want to come back to consultation. You say: "the Archbishop of Wales was informed orally . . . of the possibility of this outcome . . . in sufficient time for him to discuss this with his Bishops at one of their regular meetings and for him to make written representations to the trustees before they made their decision." The principal officer of the Council for Mission and Ministry, who made a submission to us on behalf of the Archbishop, told us: "The . . . Archbishop of Wales was a president of the Children's Society of the Church of England and the church in Wales and, as such, should have been consulted in some way prior to the decision of the trustees of the Society to withdraw from work in Wales." Was the Archbishop consulted properly or not?
  (Revd Mr Glover) I was told two weeks before the meeting that there was a possibility that the work in Wales would end. The Bench of Bishops in Wales meets regularly and I was going to speak to them about a child protection matter anyway so I was able within that fortnight to speak to the Bench of Bishops, including the Archbishop. This was just a few days before the trustees' meeting and they were shocked. They did not believe what I was telling them. It is true that the Archbishop was able to respond and did write a letter to the trustees that was presented at the trustees' meeting when the decision was taken, but he was given very little time.

  95. Lady Toulson, you mentioned earlier, when we were talking about the job description of a certain person, about being a practising Christian. What do you think of this lack of consultation as the chair?
  (Lady Toulson) I was talking about fund raising. I was trying to explain in some way why there might have been some delay in appointing the appropriate person. That was the reference of my remark to being a practising Christian.

  96. I am talking about the Archbishop for Wales, a very key, senior figure in Wales and a practising Christian.
  (Mr Sparks) May I add to what Mr Glover has said. I rang the Archbishop on the 9 October and he wrote back to me on what must have been the 8 October [sic][2], the Monday, and he wrote this as the opening in his letter: "Thank you very much for our conversation on Monday. We had a discussion at the Bench this week, and I was urged to write and express our common mind about the proposals that will be considered by the Society." So what I wrote in that note is correct. The second paragraph begins: "There was some feeling, I must say, about the idea of total withdrawal being put to the Society without any consultation with the Church in Wales." So I understand the Archbishop knows as he was spoken to and had an opportunity to respond, but does not feel that he was consulted.

  97. So would you agree with the Committee that the Archbishop was not properly consulted?
  (Mr Sparks) What I would say was that the Archbishop does not feel that he was properly consulted. Our General Purposes Committee suggested that I spoke both to Mr Glover and come back to the Archbishop so that they would have some information. It is quite clear that the Archbishop did not feel that he was properly consulted.

  98. And things have developed since, as we know, Chairman. It seems from recent public statements that we have seen, and I regret from the Church in Wales, for instance, their press notices on this subject, as well as the Archbishop's submission to us, that relations indeed between the Society and the Church in Wales are somewhat strained at the moment. The Archbishop has resigned as the President of the Society. Are you concerned that your decision has provoked such a strong reaction from the Church?
  (Mr Sparks) Naturally after the decision had been made, Lady Toulson and I went to see the Archbishop and at that first meeting when we told him that the Trustee Board had made that decision, I said that I understood that he would be in a position where I anticipated that he would resign as President because we would no longer be in Wales. Of course we knew this was a decision which, it was clear from his letter, both he and the Bench of Bishops would be very unhappy with and did not want the Society to make.

  99. I am astounded, really I am. Can I take it a step further. Is there a danger that this will place a strain on your relations with the Church of England and with the wider Anglican Communion?
  (Mr Sparks) Well, I met the Archbishop of Canterbury last week to discuss this issue and others with him. I do not have any evidence that it is putting a strain on our relationship with the Church of England.
  (Lady Toulson) I have received a warm and personal letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury two days ago showing great pain and understanding for the decision we have reached and giving support for it in the light of the facts and figures that we faced as an independent charity.

2   The letter is dated 12 October and it arrived at the Children's Society on 15 October. Back

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