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Social work activist recognised for holding civic leaders to account over wellbeing of young people

BASW member Eddie O'Hara, founder of All Birmingham's Children, was awarded an BEM in the New Year Honours...

Eddie O'Hara

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 10 January, 2022

A social worker and activist who set up a charity calling on civic leaders to do more to improve the lives of children in his city was among those receiving the Queen’s New Year Honours.

Eddie O’Hara, founder of All Birmingham’s Children (ABC), was awarded a British Empire Medal for his work with the charity and more than 30 years working in children’s services.

The award comes just before publication of his book – Birmingham’s Children: A Tale of Two Cities – highlighting the contrasting fortunes of Birmingham’s young.

The campaigning charity plans to send the book to all civic, business, educational and community leaders in the city as part of a mission to hold them to account.

Eddie co-founded the charity out of a growing sense of outrage at persistently high levels of child poverty and soaring use of food banks in Britain's second biggest city which is due to host the Commonwealth Games this year.

He says: “I can’t understand why we are spending so much money on the Commonwealth Games when 32-54 per cent of our children are living in poverty and many of the city’s much-needed public services are decaying.

“For some children and families, life is relatively fantastic. The city is becoming wealthier year-on-year. But year-on-year the amount of people who are poor, disempowered and don’t get access to things is also growing.”

The idea behind ABC was to work with civic and community leaders to make Birmingham a more child-friendly place. But despite initial interest, Eddie says he has come up against a lack of political will, vested interests and what he describes as lingering Victorian concepts of “deserving and undeserving poor”.

In the foreword to his book, he writes: “We naively thought living and working in a city which has more children and young people than any other city in Europe that our calls for the promotion of the best needs of all children would continue to be welcomed and promoted by all those with an interest in the city and all of its children. How wrong we were!”

Instead, he says, the charity - which amongst other things calls on local politicians to publicly publish an audit of what they have done to support children every year – was increasingly shunned.

“What shocked me and continues to shock me is the siege mentality from some of our leaders. That there exists a stranglehold which the main political parties have over debates which are about wanting to win elections and arguing with each other, rather than governing a city for the benefit of all. That process takes up a lot of time and mostly results in not a lot happening.”

Eddie believes part of the problem is due to a cosy cohort of people at the top tables preventing the voice of the most marginalised from being heard.

“Early on it became apparent when I was meeting with some people from the Children’s Hospital, the Children’s Society, clinical commissioning groups, the Children’s Trust and schools’ trusts that many of these chief executives sit on a number of citywide boards. Their roles are generally to say to the council leaders what the council leaders want to hear - ‘this is what we have done’. Whereas our leaders need to be saying to them ‘this is what we want you to do’.

“There are vested reputational interests in not being negative about the services the city provides. The city’s senior managers are earning anywhere between £60,000 and £200,000, their children will generally go to relatively well-resourced state or private schools. It’s not their children I am talking about – they are the children who get the best out of the city. I am talking about the hundreds of thousands of struggling families and their children, which is a much more thorny and political conversation to have.

“In many ways it is a moral campaign. I think as a community we are still treading the well-worn Victorian path of viewing poor people as being ‘feckless’ and ‘underserving’.”

Eddie underlines this in his book with statistics showing Birmingham City Council’s spending on children’s social care fell 73 per cent, accounting for inflation, from £584 million in 2010 to £203 million in 2021.

Despite his activism focusing on Birmingham as the city of his birth and due to it having the youngest population in Europe, Eddie says similar issues are replicated across the UK.

A Liverpool councillor this week warned of thousands of children sleeping on floors and sofas or sharing beds with family members due to poverty in the city which has seen a 63 per cent cut to its budget since 1963.

And a study published just before Christmas suggests an extra 10,356 children entered care between 2015 and 2020 due to increased poverty levels in England.

Eddie sees a lack of urgency in tackling growing inequality as part of a "neoliberal narrative" that took root in the 1980s throughout the Western world. “It is the normalising of the neoliberal narrative of taking care of yourself and your own family which is deeply worrying. If you are a leader and you don’t understand there is a direct correlation between the wellbeing of your own family and the families of others then there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

Birmingham’s Children: A Tale of Two Cities highlights statistics showing the use of food banks has grown by 500 per cent in the city over the last five years.

It quotes the American social activist Dorothy Day who said: “We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”

This, in essence, is what Eddie has set out to do with ABC: to prick the conscience of civic leaders. The charity also presents a list of 31 solutions for improving the life for children in Birmingham, outlined in the book.

Its challenge to the city’s leaders is to meet with the public and discuss these solutions.

Until then, says Eddie, the charity will continue to be “an irritating itch on the city’s backside”.

“ABC is a little campaign we don’t have the strength and the resources to take this work forward on our own. But we are very happy to talk, engage and support any leaders who are. If on the other hand the city leaders don’t take this forward, we will continue to be an itch until they do!”

See here for more social workers recognised in the New Year Honours list