Norwood welcomes new government coalition

The family charity’s chief executive is overseeing a changing approach.


Launching Norwood's three-year strategy this week, chief executive Norma Brier says the charity has "nothing to fear" from the policies of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration.

Mrs Brier was unsurprised by the new government's plans to cut welfare costs by encouraging volunteering. Eight-hundred volunteers help 1,200 staff to deliver Norwood's 120 support services to 7,000 children, families and adults.

"The government just can't go on funding this huge benefit bill," she said. "Their plan is to stop the dependence cycle. We knew this was coming." However, meetings with ministers were needed to guarantee that Norwood's voice was heard.

"I think the Conservatives want to rely far more on the voluntary sector," she observed. "If they want to do that, which we welcome, there will have to be an arrangement of how that happens. They are pushing for people to do things on a voluntary basis but they have to be suitable.

"The truth is that volunteers are wonderful but they don't do certain aspects of work the professional, skilled, highly paid people are needed for.

£2m was slashed from last year’s budget

"Although it's early days, they will have to enter into discussions with organisations like ours to talk about how we will work together."

Norwood would also "work to get some commitment from the government to ensure benefits stay for a certain period of time to ensure people are settled before taking them away".

The charity's three-year programme focuses predominantly on adult services and moving towards a more supported-living model, in line with government goals to cut back on expensive residential care.

Although some service users will remain in homes, many will move into their own houses with care provided when needed. "The aim is to increase independence," Mrs Brier said. "It's not about cost-cutting, it's about moving people on."

Another initiative is creating more jobs for service users, with the establishment of a workhub earlier this year, providing training and guidance to 75 people. "So many people with disabilities want to work and don't want to be trapped in the benefit cycle." Children's provision is also being transformed with a re-evaluation of its services.

"We have more than 100 families receiving regular support in Hertfordshire and hundreds come to groups we run," she reported. "As young families move into the area, the services are burgeoning."

Services in areas of falling Jewish population - for example Redbridge - would be reviewed. "We have to be prudent and recognise demographic changes." Norwood intends to leave its current Redbridge base on the King Solomon High School site to share premises with Jewish Care.

With education provision a major issue, Norwood has teamed up with JCoSS - the cross-community secondary school opening in Barnet in September - to offer 50 places to pupils with autistic disorders. "This is a real breakthrough because it's saying that people with disabilities can be accepted in a mainstream environment."

In common with other charities, the financial downturn has taken its toll on Norwood. Last year, £2 million was slashed from the budget and there were 10 redundancies, a freeze on pay rises and new tighter contracts for employees: "A painful blow but one our staff accepted."

The bulk of Norwood's annual £34 million income comes from central or local government - £23 million according to the unaudited figures for the year which ended in March. There was £10 million from fundraising and £1 million from other sources. Voluntary income was £13 million in 2007/08 and the charity attributes the £3 million fall partly to a substantial downturn in corporate fundraising.

The charity market "is so competitive now. We need to work more closely with other charities to make sure we don't duplicate. I try to arrange meetings with sister organisations like Kisharon and Jewish Care. We have to assure the Jewish community that we are spending money wisely.

"Every time a new organisation arises, there is a new chief executive and new secretary. The question is: How different are we?" A possible solution would be "using one administrating office rather than five or 10. We're happy to explore that."

Mrs Brier has been Norwood's chief executive since 1996, having led the merger of Norwood and the Ravens-wood Foundation, where she was executive director.

"When I started this work, the thing that struck me was how hidden disability was within the Jewish community. The stigma was so great. In the Orthodox community there was a fear of shidduchim being affected and in the less Orthodox community it was a fear of how the child would be perceived and treated.

"In the 1980s I spent time going to long-stay hospitals and was amazed at how many hundreds of Jewish people there were in these stark, unstimulating environments. I tried to get Jewish people out of these hospitals and build services in the community.

"Throughout the years, what has been most gratifying has been to see those with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, becoming part of the community and it's exemplary in the way it reaches out to include them. This is heartwarming.

"People with learning disabilities are capable of far more than people think."

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