Monday, 10 December 2012

Celebrating NatCen Social Research

I was on the first train from Edinburgh to London this morning and it’s quite a big week ahead. After six and a half years I’m leaving my London based job at NatCen Social Research to look for new opportunities closer to home. So it’s almost the last of more than 500 journeys up and down the East Coast mainline since I started at NatCen in 2006.

It seems an appropriate moment to reflect on doing some memorable work for an inspiring organisation. NatCen Social Research was founded in 1969.  And by undertaking first class quantitative and qualitative research for more than 40 years it’s been making a difference to decision making in Britain ever since.

NatCen's landmark study, the British Social Attitudes survey started in 1983. Two years later in 1985 its ground breaking qualitative research unit was established. Such was the success of the qualitative research unit in embedding qualitative methods in applied social research, it’s since been absorbed back into a larger integrated research function at NatCen. The BSA endures though and is now approaching its 30th anniversary.

Back in the early 1980s I’d just started work in local government. I was a trade union activist campaigning against privatisation and for lesbian and gay rights. I was a young idealist, albeit quite a pragmatic one. I wanted to make the world a better place and social research hadn’t even begun to beckon. I certainly had no sense of its potential to change lives. But nearly 20 years later, by then a full time trade union official, I found myself doing a masters degree in policy research.

It was on that degree course during a qualitative methods module taught by researchers from NatCen that a light got switched on. For the first time I understood how, by understanding the views and experiences of ordinary people’s lives, social research could make a real difference.  

Much to my surprise I decided to switch career tracks and six years later in 2006 I  joined NatCen as a research director in the qualitative research unit. I hadn’t intended to stay quite so long (not least because of the length of the weekly commute) but one thing led to another and I was lucky enough to be appointed to NatCen’s senior management team at the beginning of 2010.

I’ve been involved in some fantastic research at NatCen on everything from car use and volunteering to birth registration and pensions. The common theme has been social inclusion and I can honestly say that the work has been every bit as much about making the world a better place as anything I did as a trade union official.

At NatCen we believe that social research has the power to make life better. That sounds like a lofty claim, but as my earlier blogs for NatCen argue I’ve absolutely no doubt about the democratic power of social research or indeed its potential to be an honest broker in our search for trust at a moment when other traditions and institutions are floundering.

For me the most powerful piece of research I’ve been involved in at NatCen was a programme of work to shed light on a modern day understanding of Joseph Rowntree’s notion of social evils. Though less immediately connected to policy making than many other studies I’ve led, it was powerful because its core purpose was to elicit voices that might otherwise be unheard in the debate.

Amongst others, those were the voices of young offenders, unemployed people, lone parents and homeless people. It was hugely gratifying that David Utting, in a book arising out of the programme full of wise words from the great and the good said that, with no disrespect to them, the voices we’d elicited were as powerful as anything else the book contained.

Last week saw NatCen’s 2012 staff event and the theme of the day was ‘our work matters’. The key note speaker, the BBC’s Home Editor Mark Easton, generously paid tribute to the work we do and spoke powerfully of the crucial role social research has to play in our democracy. Today’s politicians face decisions as difficult as any in my life time. They need robust evidence to inform those decisions. And policy makers and influencers need it to debate options and potential solutions.

Working at NatCen Social Research has been a privilege. I won’t miss the commute but I’ll miss the organisation and the people. I'm proud to have worked here.

Friday, 9 November 2012

One Moment in Time: the other 9/11 and how I fell in love with Berlin

The title of my blog is things that matter to me. And it’s all been quite serious of late. This post in contrast is really just a short story about one of the great loves of my life - Berlin. It’s quite long and a bit niche but here goes.

On the evening of 9th November 1989 I was at a trade union lesbian and gay conference at the Swallow Hotel in Peterborough. It was long before gay marriage was anywhere near the political agenda and the only other guests at the hotel were people attending a big straight wedding with all the trimmings. The juxtaposition was odd for sure. But things were about to get a lot more exciting than that.

Retreating to my room after a very long day of conference shenanigans, I switched on the television. Just as well. The Berlin Wall was falling. I watched in awe as what I still think of as the defining political moment of my lifetime unfolded on the screen in front of me. I was 28 and having joined the Labour Party at university in 1979 I was enjoying what turned out to be a brief sojourn in the Communist Party (I’ve long been back in the Labour fold).

That may seem odd now, but in the 80s the British Communist Party was where some of the most creative political debate on the Left was happening. Marxism Today’s analysis of Thatcherism and how the left might respond to it was as powerful and progressive as anything around at the time. That said, it certainly seemed odd to people in Berlin when I was there just a few weeks later.

By chance I’d planned to visit in December earlier that year to coincide with a trip to Stuttgart for a conference. And so just a few weeks after the fall of the Wall I travelled to Berlin on a sleeper train from Stuttgart. I vividly remember being rudely woken by East German border guards in the middle of the night, demanding to know where I was going.

It was exceptionally cold and had been for much of the previous month. In the early morning light as the train approached its destination East Berliners were making their way to work in the snow. I mused that it was now too late to defect. And as I arrived at Zoo station in West Berlin a stranger whom I asked for directions said to me ‘It’s warm here now’.

It was the beginning of one of the most memorable trips of my life and a love affair which still endures. There were so many moments like that encounter which sound like clich├ęs 23 years later. But they really did happen, including hearing the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls on a tinny radio on a tram up the Prenzlauer Allee in East Berlin a few days later.

I’ve been to Berlin countless times since and the footfall and imaginings of that trip have stayed with me ever since. Most extraordinary was the visceral sense that though almost everything (except the Wall itself) looked the same as it had done just a few weeks earlier, in fact nothing would ever be the same again.

Whatever my political sympathies then and now, the fall of the Wall was an inspirational, necessary and ultimately unstoppable moment. And it was a great stroke of luck and a real privilege to be there at that time. Ten years later I was there again, on one of my many visits, for the tenth anniversary celebrations. The political giants of the ’89 era in Europe, Kohl, Gorbachev, Bush senior and Thatcher herself were all there as thousands crammed into the streets in the shadow of the Brandenberg Gate, one of the most potent symbols of a divided and but now reunited Berlin.

The razzmatazz on that night in 1999 was something to behold. But it didn’t feel quite enough and I went in search of something more nuanced and authentic. I found it at a much smaller more ad hoc event at Bornholmer Strasse. This was the street where ten years earlier an elderly couple had almost accidentally been allowed to cross the border early on the evening of 9th November 1989. Their crossing was one of a chain of events that a few hours later resulted in the iconic scenes of the Wall being smashed that we all remember.

It had been on Bernauer Strasee, just a few streets away, that Ida Siekmann became the first casualty of the wall when she jumped from her third floor apartment at no. 48 on 22nd August 1961 just after the Wall was built. Nine more people are known to have died trying to escape in the area of the Bernauer Strassee in the ensuing 28 years.

And so on 9th November 1999, I found myself a silent observer at Bornholmer Strasse amidst a celebration of no more than a couple of hundred people. A temporary portacabin bar was serving drinks and snacks. And a jazz band was playing accompanied by a woman with a fantastic voice who very movingly sang One Moment in Time. All around me small groups and couples were remembering, enjoying their own private celebrations with a bottle, a dance, an embrace and a handshake. It took me right back. It was the place to be that night.

Berlin has continued, just as it had done in the days before the Wall and the war, to reinvent itself. I still imagine the Wall when I’m there and though hardly any of it remains (the subject of a lot of debate in the city) you can still trace its path. If you haven’t been to Berlin, make sure you do. And go to Bernauer Strasse where a small but complete section of the Wall (outer and inner with the death strip in between) still stands. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

How adoption has changed and why it matters more than ever

Last Sunday I went along to Scottish Adoption’s Family Fun Day in Edinburgh. As chair Scottish Adoption's board it was an important reminder to me of the importance of us staying connected with adoptive families, children and young people.

Adoption has been under a lot of scrutiny lately. That’s quite right. Like any other sector we need to continuously improve. But there’s much to celebrate too. At Scottish Adoption for example we’re about to launch a new DVD on contact, a critical thing to get right for everyone involved in the adoption process.

As I came away I reflected on how much has changed since I was adopted back in the early 60s. My story was typical of its time: a child born out of wedlock. Staying with my birth mother wasn’t the done thing. I was adopted, with the minimum of process by today’s standards, by parents who thought they were unable to have children.

Luckily for me I got a soft landing. My adoptive parents introduced adoption to me earlier than I can really remember. I had been ‘chosen’.  And it wasn’t until my early 30s that I started to want to piece things together and set off on a journey to find out more. But that’s another story.

Being adopted back then was like pressing a reset button. Nothing that had happened before really counted. It was left in a mysterious box. I had an adoption certificate, not a birth certificate. There was no further contact with my birth family and all I knew was that I was from a Catholic family in Scotland.

Adoption meant being cut adrift, without the anchor you’d been born with or even an imprint of it.  Your new anchor was your adoptive family; end of. Every adoption story is different of course and whether and how much any of this really mattered varied a lot, not just for individuals but at different stages of the life course.

These days your new adoptive family is still the new anchor, but the old anchor isn’t forgotten. Life story books and contact arrangements mean that pressing the rest button is very different. Creating permanence no longer involves putting the past in that mysterious box.

The circumstances in which children are adopted now are very different too. Back then babies like me were adopted largely because of the attitudes of the day rather than the inability of our mothers to care for us. For many of them it was a heartbreaking story of enforced separation just because being a single mother wasn’t socially (or for some morally) acceptable.

Now kids are adopted, not just as babies, but right through the early years of childhood, because it simply isn’t possible or safe to leave them in their birth families. Drug and alcohol addiction, physical and sexual abuse may all be part of the story.

Back then adoption was deemed necessary even though it wasn’t necessarily in the child’s best interests. Now it often really is necessary even though parents may want to keep their children and sometimes those children may want to stay.

And while back then children were adopted because single parenthood wasn't acceptable, adoption has come full circle and it’s accepted that single people can adopt. In fact thanks to a huge change in attitudes it’s also accepted that same sex couples, older people and others can offer loving and stable homes too.

So a lot has changed. The biggest thing to strike me on Sunday was so many adoptive parents with their adopted children in one place. It was clear that they value the support they can give each other; and that Scottish Adoption matters to them long after a child has been adopted. There were adopted young people there too, another crucial facet of the after adoption work we do.

National Adoption Week’s slogan is ‘Rule yourself in’. The need for people to come forward to adopt has never been greater. So whatever your circumstances, if you’re reading this and wondering if you could adopt, get in touch with Scottish Adoption or another agency. BAAF and AdoptionUK can help you find one in your area. Ruling yourself in could make a big difference to a child's life.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Orgreave: the evidence is out but the truth was always known

Earlier this week a BBC Inside Out programme claimed that police officers were told what to write in their statements, following clashes at the Orgreave coke works. Labour is now calling for an inquiry into claims that South Yorkshire Police manipulated evidence during the miners' strike in 1984. The shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the Commons the issue needed to be investigated.

The news reminded me of one particular day during that strike. One that has stayed with me ever since. During the strike I was branch secretary of NALGO at Westminster City Council. They were heady days. The now disgraced Shirley Porter was leader of the council. Just across the water. Ken Livingstone was running the GLC. 

Like many trade union branches we twinned with an NUM branch during the strike as a focus for our fundraising efforts to support striking miners and their families. In the summer of 1984 we twinned with Carcroft NUM near Doncaster in what is now Ed Miliband’s constituency.

The rest of this blog is an article, ‘They want us there today’, written by Tim Taylor (a NALGO fellow branch officer) and me following a visit to Yorkshire to forge relations with our twin NUM branch. It was published in Westminster NALGO’s branch magazine, State of the Union, in September 1984. And it describes what happened when we found ourselves on a mass picket at Gascoigne Wood near Selby the day after the first Yorkshire miner had returned to work.

Inside Out reminded me of the day and the article. For anyone who was there at the time, the revelations about allegedly falsified police accounts will come as no surprise at all. The real story of what happened has been there all along in the accounts of those who took part in the strike. And those like me who bore witness to it. 

‘They want us there today’ by Tim Taylor and Chris Creegan, State of the Union, Westminster NALGO, September 1984

The report that follows is an account of what happened when we were taken to a mass picket during our visit to a mining community in South Yorkshire. We wanted to view for ourselves the actions of miners and police on the picket lines so much talked about in the news. Quotes are from miners we met on the day.

We were staying with a miner’s family in the Brodsworth area just outside Doncaster. Having reported along with local striking miners to the welfare we were driven to Gascoigne Wood colliery near Selby where the previous day the first Yorkshire miner to break the strike had returned to work. ‘They want us there today’, commented our driver as we asked whether the police were likely to prevent us from reaching the colliery. On arrival we were met by hundreds of miners keen to indicate that support for the strike was still strong.

‘It’s as much a display of solidarity as anything else and God, we need that now.’

We were instructed to move towards the pit gates and joined maybe 2000 other pickets in a field adjacent to the colliery road, which was occupied by a line of police several thousand strong.

‘This pit has been democratically closed by those who work there. There’s all this talk of the ‘right to work’ but you don’t get this lot down (the police) when MacGregor shuts a pit, to defend our right to work.’ 

As we stood in anticipation, local union officials moved through the crowd urging pickets to remain calm. 

‘This isn’t exactly what I’d call fun. We’ve been beaten and punched and kicked and it’s bloody cold.’ 

The situation did remain peaceful until police ‘thoughtlessly’ rushed two vans towards the pit gates. Pickets thinking (wrongly) that this was the man’s return to work, surged forward in an attempt to block the road. As scuffles broke out and truncheons were drawn, police were heard to say ‘take your pickets now’. 

‘This bloke going in today, I don’t blame him. We’ve all suffered and for some I suppose it just gets too much. But he’s still a scab and he’s letting everyone down – himself, his community, his kids…’ 

The situation soon calmed and by about 11.00am miners began to drift off, anxious to avoid further clashes but satisfied that their presence had been felt. ‘Coming in? With you lot here? You must be joking’ said a superintendent as we walked away. 

Pickets were soon reflecting on the morning’s events. Many of the older pickets were critical of others’ hot headed response to the police. They were conscious of having been used and sure of what the press would have to say.

‘Mindless hooligans’, ‘mindless horror’, ‘mindless violence’ said the Express. They all got it wrong. We saw the police charge first and pickets act only in defence. Maybe they had been right – they had wanted us there that day.