Learning disabled residents at an intentional community, Botton Village in North Yorkshire, are unionising to fight their charity Camphill Village Trust (CVT) for the right to keep doing meaningful work and have a family life.
In direct contravention of its founding remit (which was to hold assets for, and provide support to, the Botton Village community) and in a bid to force a more conventional institutional care model instead, CVT is trying to alter the long-established shared living arrangement in residents’ homes, effectively creating a state of learning disabled ‘apartheid’. In addition, it is also making major changes in their workplaces the combination of which will alter the entire ethos of the community.
One of the most distressing elements of this forced segregation is the threat of closure to residents’ workplaces as highly skilled Co-workers, who founded and built the community, have been ‘instructed’ that they will no longer be allowed to run the communal village workshops. Many of the residents are consequentially fearful that replacing their dear friends and colleagues with support workers will leave their work places trivialised, unfriendly, unsafe and unsecure.
In an additional move earlier this spring that caused outrage amongst the overwhelming majority of the learning disabled residents, their families, and the wider community, the Co-workers’ families were served with eviction notices. It seems apparent that CVT intend to replace them with low-paid support workers who will not live with but rather ‘service’ the residents’ needs on a strict shift based system, whilst residing elsewhere. Notably these low-paid support workers will require significant in-work benefits to supplement their income diverting unnecessary public monies into CVT’s coffers, these benefits which are not claimed or required by the vocational volunteer Co-workers (VVCs).
In a show of strong opposition to these changes, 80% of the residents have created and signed a petition calling on the Trust to reverse their controversial plans and revert to their founding principles. Despite delivering their petition to the CVT Trustees at their headquarters, the County Hall at Northallerton, and even to the Prime Minister, the residents believe that their voices and choices are still being ignored.
While campaigners prepare to present their case to the High Court, the residents have looked to Unite to help them protect their way of life. Some 70 Co-workers and residents have formed a Community branch of Unite and are – along with other Unite activists – planning to raise the profile of their struggle and to organise effectively against the changes.
There was a particularly warm Unite welcome for resident Allan Hobson who had been an active union member prior to a traumatic head injury 29 years ago. Allan comments: “I was a union man when I worked for the council for 14 years. It feels important to join up again now because it means we can speak up more. We’re hoping for lots of support from our union friends”.
Resident Gabriel Werth, who sits on the new committee and has lived in Botton for 26 years, said: “I joined the union because I want to make Botton safe. I like the workshops very much, I work in the weavery and the doll-shop. I’m scared that the CVT are going to chuck out the Co-workers and I have been to court about it. I like Botton, I feel like it is my home, it feels like I live with my second family here”.
Eddie Thornton is a former employee of the charity but resigned and became a Co-worker when it became clear no compromise was going to be made with the community. “The residents have been silenced by their charity and let down by their local authority. We hope that by joining a union with a million members that their voices will be amplified to a level that no one can ignore.”
John Coan, Unite, commented: “Unite Community is proud that we have constituted a union branch in Botton. Their ethos of cooperation and community fits exactly with what we are about, and we are offering the residents and their Co-worker friends solidarity in their struggle.”
The forced segregation situation is set against the backdrop of national concern about the treatment of the learning disabled, with the launch of the Green Paper by Norman Lamb ‘No Voice Unheard, No Right Ignored’. In a recent BBC interview Mr Lamb relayed that he felt the learning disabled are being “treated like second-class citizens with decisions being made about them without them being involved and without their families being involved”. This, say campaigners is exactly the treatment being meted out to the learning disabled at Botton Village.
Political support for the Community’s struggle against the enforced changes is growing with concern for the situation expressed by Baroness Hollins in the House of Lords at the start of the month, over 30 MPs of all political colours writing to Ministers to express their concern, and an Early Day Motion raised in Parliament about Botton, and the Minister for Disabled People Mark Harper MP holding an enquiry at another CVT site, The Grange, in his constituency.
As well as nationwide support from sitting MPs, the Action for Botton campaign has also attracted support from the local Labour, Lib Dem, Green and UKIP parliamentary candidates at the forthcoming General Election who attended the last Hustings at Danby Village hall and spoke up in defence of the Co-worker model for the Villagers.
CVT was already under scrutiny in multiple areas with campaigners highlighting serious questions about the way the charity is run including a worrying lack of transparency in its accounts which, in spite of requests, has yet to be clarified; a potential conflict of interest with a director whose own company supplies services to CVT for unidentified remuneration; claims of harassment being made to local Police and pending actions for compensation by former community members who claim to have been bullied out of their roles and communities.
In addition, in February there was a sudden Trustee resignation citing assorted governance issues including concerns relating to the Articles and Memorandum. Finally legal mediation is expected to be taking place in about 6 weeks’ time relating to the High Court claim brought by campaigners, including parents from one community now devoid of Co-workers, over alleged breaches of the charity’s articles resulting in an end to the shared-living model of care.
One can only wonder how CVT’s Chair of Trustees Felicity Chadwick-Histed, also a Partner at Publitas Consulting LLP can continue to ignore the plight of the learning disabled for whom the Trustees are ultimately responsible.