Charity chair pledges to track how cuts are affecting poverty levels

Tony Stoller, the new chair of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is driven by a responsibility to side with people in poverty

With all the main political parties hell-bent on refashioning the welfare state to reduce its spiralling costs, by siding with hardworking people (the deserving poor) and labelling anyone else as benefit scroungers (the undeserving), it is reassuring to learn that at least the UK's leading voice in social policy research is not adopting this invidious rhetoric.

In its new strategic plan (pdf), the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) says: "We are independent but we are not neutral: we are on the side of people and places in poverty."

What that means, says Tony Stoller, the foundation's new chair, is to "be an advocate for those communities that bear the burden of poverty".

The foundation, however, is a non-campaigning organisation, so achieving that goal can, he admits, be tricky. "Of all the challenges for the chair, that is the hardest," he says.

"Every trustee from time to time comes across something they think is too important not to make a song and dance about, but you have to pull yourself back and say no. The way we work is trusted; to produce the data, convey the results and expect they will have influence on policy making," he says.

But the foundation tends to build alliances with campaigning organisations that will make a noise about the often worrying findings of JRF-funded research. Its newest friends are the Guardian and the London School of Economics, and it funded their Reading the Riots study – interviews with 270 people who took part in England's summer unrest.

"We don't major in criminal justice, but there is at least a prima facie argument that some or most of those who were rioting felt disadvantaged or alienated from their communities. Helping others to look at this is [therefore] a legitimate part of what we do," Stoller explains. "We spent a weekend thinking should or shouldn't we do it."

For a foundation that prides itself on producing robust, independent research that informs politicians and policymakers alike, how does he feel about being associated with a study largely dismissed by the home secretary, Theresa May, who argued that participants in the August riots were an "unruly mob" who were "thieving, pure and simple"?

"We have to accept that politicians are under enormous pressure to give immediate reactions," Stoller replies diplomatically. "We were careful not to comment until we had hard data about the main themes," he adds.

Tracking cuts

Over the next three years, the foundation will pump £23m into research in three main areas: identifying the root causes of poverty and injustice, supporting communities where anyone can thrive, and planning and developing for an ageing society.

In particular, it will track how the coalition government's public spending cuts are affecting levels of poverty and inequality, and how disadvantaged people are coping, or not; the foundation will help to develop practical solutions to reducing poverty.

Stoller, a former broadcaster, radio regulator and managing director of a John Lewis department store, may seem an unlikely choice to steer the foundation through this territory – behind chief executive Julia Unwin, the very public face of the foundation – but, he says, he brings "a perspective of public life and business life" and has "a passion for evidence-based public policymaking".

Stoller, like the JRF's eponymous founder is a Quaker, driven by a duty to give something back to those less fortunate than himself. "We have to do our best for those people who are least well placed to do it for themselves," he says. "It's a bit of a personal credo."

At times, his concern verges on paternalism, for which he makes no apologies. "If you hear a little of the paternalism that led Joseph Rowntree to create New Earswick [the housing estate in York built for his workers and managers], well, yes, you're right – it's a bit of our tradition we are not ashamed of," he says.

Part of the new strategy looks at ageing in Britain. People growing old with dementia and learning disability have been interviewed for JRF in a bid to better understand the needs of marginalised older people, but research will also examine the implications of demographic changes on the whole population.

"Ageing society suggests older people, but it has implications for all of us and will touch every part of our lives," says Stoller.

The Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) – whose finance committee Stoller joined a decade ago and now also chairs – pioneered lifetime homes at New Earswick, and it plans to develop new extra-care services there, in consultation with local people, to provide a working model of how neighbourhoods can be good places to live for all generations. In addition, it hopes to help make York a dementia-friendly city where everyone from bus drivers to cinema managers understands about how to help residents with the condition.

Stoller's concern for those less fortunate than himself extends to the staff and tenants of the housing trust, which has 2,500 homes and is in the process of building 540 more at Derwenthorpe, on the edge of York. "We want to become an anti-poverty employer by looking at the research we have done in this area and to treat our people that way," says Stoller.

Minimum standard

Of the 800 staff working across the foundation and the housing trust, around 600 are employed in housing activities, the majority as care workers, many on the minimum wage. The trust wants to pay them something called a "minimum income standard" instead. "We don't yet have a final figure, but it will be way above the minimum wage," he says. Similar to the living wage then, which is £8.30 in London and £7.20 outside of the capital and designed to provide every worker and their family with the essentials of life? "Yes, the same sort of thing," he replies. It is being arrived at through extensive research to work out what people think they need to earn to live a decent life in our society. "So it may not be a holiday abroad, but it is the ability to have a week's holiday, or it may not be owning a car, but is the ability to get to an out-of-town shopping centre, for example," says Stoller.

Every low-paid employee should be on this wage over the next three years. For tenants, the trust wants to maximise their income by ensuring staff know how to help them claim the benefits they are entitled to and effectively manage their budgets.

He is also keen for residents to work for the trust and to participate in its business by joining the board or its tenant-operated inspection regime.

Anti-poverty measures

Stoller says the foundation will hope to strengthen support for anti-poverty measures by challenging increasingly negative stereotypes of people in poverty through its research, building alliances, funding a series of films made with people living in poor neighbourhoods and being a provider of housing schemes for people across a range of income levels.

He says: "You shouldn't write off communities because they are poor. There is a strong community spirit. Harnessing and empowering that should be a key part of public policy aims and if that is what is meant by 'big society' then it is right."

He adds: "Sorry, I have been a bit preachy. This excites and challenges me and it gets me going. I wouldn't want to be doing it if it wasn't a passion."

Curriculum vitae

Age 64.

Lives Winchester.

Status Married, two children, five grandchildren.

Education Hendon county grammar school; MA in history and law, LLB in public law, Cambridge University; studying for PhD in classical music on UK radio 1945-1995, Bournemouth University.

Career 2003-06: external relations director, Ofcom; 1995-2003: chief executive, Radio Authority; 1986-95; principal director, John Lewis Partnership (managing director, Tyrrell & Green); 1984-86: senior management training programme, John Lewis Partnership; 1981-84: managing director, Thames Valley Broadcasting; 1978-81: chief executive, Association of Independent Radio Contractors; 1974-79: senior officer, radio division, Independent Broadcasting Authority; 1971-74: marketing manager, Liverpool Daily Post and Echo; 1969-71: graduate trainee, Thomson regional newspapers.

Public life September 2011-present: chair, JRF and JRHT; 2003-10: various JRF trustee positions; member, Competition Commission; editor, The Friends Quarterly.

Books Sounds of Your Life: A History of Independent Radio in the UK.

Interests Radio, music, cricket, sailing.


Alison Benjamin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 'despair' and 'loneliness' of austerity Britain
One London council has begun researching the reality of public spending cuts on vulnerable people, and it's grim

Patrick Butler

17, Jul, 2012 @12:30 PM

Letters: A taxpayers' alliance to promote social justice

Letters: As a citizen who pays income and council tax, VAT and the excise duty on my evening glass of wine, I steam with indignation each time I am used by ministers to justify such draconian measures making people poorer

16, Feb, 2012 @9:00 PM

Article image
Jobcentres have been stripped of all compassion for young people
I work with young homeless people who are being failed by the public services that were set up to support them

Richard Hardwick

09, Sep, 2017 @9:56 AM

Article image
Public service cuts will create 'forgotten Britain', says charity boss
Sir Stephen Bubb says charities report a hardening public attitude to poorer people, resulting in an increasing divide between 'haves' and 'have nots'

Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor

09, May, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Councils' blind gamble with equality
One in five local authorities don't know the impact of cuts to black and minority ethnic community groups

Janet Snell

20, Mar, 2012 @5:15 PM

Article image
Labour's effort to cut child poverty was exceptional
There is no doubt that there is a close link between the increases in financial support for families with children over the past decade and the fall in child poverty

Mike Brewer

12, Jun, 2012 @1:07 PM

Article image
Full force of cuts hits community services | Anna Bawden

Anna Bawden: Vulnerable clients are being put at risk and frontline staff forced to take multiple jobs, a Unison survey finds

Anna Bawden

06, Nov, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
PM says 'no conflict' between fighting poverty and cutting benefits
David Cameron sets out plan to improve life chances of the ‘left behind’, insisting strategy compatible with welfare cuts

Rowena Mason Political correspondent

11, Jan, 2016 @2:43 PM

Article image
Behind Cornwall’s sea and surf: thousands of children living in poverty
Cuts to children’s centres are hitting Cornish families who can’t afford a trip to the nearby beaches, warn charities

Nicola Slawson

24, Aug, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
How to make public services cuts fairer
Our toolkit will allow Newcastle council to more effectively decide which services should be paid for and which should remain free

Chris Brink

24, Jul, 2012 @1:30 PM