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The Policy Ask with Jabeer Butt: “Unless you have a safe place to live, everything else falls apart”

The charity CEO on supporting parents, working for structural change and making tomorrow better than today.

By Spotlight

Jabeer Butt is the chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation, a charity that works on understanding and promoting race equality. He arrived in the UK as a child with his parents and siblings, after Uganda’s South Asian community was expelled by the dictator Idi Amin. He went on to study at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University), then worked in local government before joining the Race Equality Foundation. The body traces its origins to the 1980s, when a group of social workers started a Race Equality Unit at the National Institute for Social Work before going on to create their own organisation.  

How do you start your working day?

Shouting at the Today programme has become a regular part of the morning. It used to be, pre-Covid-19, that I would leave by 7am, so I’d miss the most challenging part. But nowadays I’m working from home, so I get to listen to it all the way up to 9am.

Normally, it’s just trying to plan what’s going to happen over the next day or so. Inevitably, it’s also trying to look across the next week to just make sure that things that need to be prepared for later on are addressed as well.

What has been your career high?

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The biggest would be the work we have done around parenting. The foundation runs the Strengthening Family, Strengthening Communities programme, and it’s quite clear that for a significant number of parents that have attended it has added to their – and their children’s – strengths and their ability to bring up their children. The programme aims to make parents not only resilient but also, hopefully, to get them to take up the opportunities that are on offer to them. This is without deluding people into thinking that other structures don’t need to change. They do, but at least it makes parents understand that they do have control, they do have agency, and that they can do things that are supportive for their children and ensure a better life.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

The 2010 election and its aftermath were a real challenge for us. I grew up and worked initially under a government that was very sceptical about racial equality. The period between 1997 and 2010 provided real opportunities to make progress. That largely ended in 2010 and I fear this notion of wedge politics has identified racial equality as a particular area that can be used to divide and rule.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

I’m always amazed by people who have these big plans – and they know what they want to do in five years’ time or ten years’ time – or by what they’ve done by the age of 40. I never had some big vision. What I was always quite clear about was that I didn’t want to do anything that was just for the sake of earning money. It had to be about trying to make the world, or at least my part of the world, a better place. That’s what keeps me going. I think, while it would be good to have a big plan, it is still sufficient to say: “Well, let’s make it a better place tomorrow than it is today.”

Which political figure inspires you, and why?

Nelson Mandela’s approach – not only to his relationships around him but also to the importance of politics in bringing about real and sustainable change – has always been something that’s stuck in my head. My impression of him was that he rarely promoted his own welfare or well-being or his own interests above those of others. And it’s always been a clear demonstration that politics should be about service rather than self-aggrandisement.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right? 

It’s really very, very, very difficult to say. I think with the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine there are many pluses to it and many strands to it. But whether that’s a UK government policy or not I think is going to be up for debate.

The Josh MacAlister review of children’s social care went further than I had originally thought it would do. However, the government still has shied away from implementing some of the real changes that are going to make a difference.

And what policy should the government ditch?

What we’ve seen is that the market has come to dominate the way public services are provided. Wherever you look the market has taken over. And we continue to fail to see the problem with it. Children’s services are just that latest demonstration: private providers are making eye-watering amounts of profits, at the same time as residential care for children is in dire straits. MacAlister’s report clearly identifies how poor that provision is. Yet those private providers are making incredible profits alongside burdening the system with huge amounts of debt, which means that any serious attempt to address it is going to be faced with huge costs in meeting the cost of those debts.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The Canadian approach to education where collaboration between schools is what’s encouraged seems to lead to better attainment across the board, including among the poorest students. I can’t help but think that models that emphasise collaboration, as opposed to competition, is what we need.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

We need to implement a significant and long-term social house building programme. Unless you have a safe, warm and affordable place to live, everything else falls apart. When you think about making the most of educational opportunities, if you can’t do your homework, if you’re not sure about where you’re going to be resting your head tonight, if your parents and your family are constantly struggling to pay the rent, it undermines everything.

We know poor housing is associated with poor physical health, as well as poor mental health. We know a lack of affordable housing means that you can’t take up jobs or jobs that are better paid. What we need is massive growth in social housing for it to have a significant impact.

[ See also: The Policy Ask with Cat Hobbs: “It turns out my mum was right all along – it’s all about balance” ]

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