I have just a pleasant and instructive hour at Blackburne House with our Deputy Leader Simon Hughes MP and Claire Dove OBE. I never fail to be inspired by what goes on there and if the place didn’t uplift then the enthusiasm that Claire has for her work is more than enough reason for optimism.
In some ways the work that they do now appears common place even mainstream. But 30 years ago when they first set up their business they were breaking new ground. “Women plumbers – what a joke! Women electricians – they can’t even put a plug on.” Now although there is nowhere near parity between the sexes in such trades women with trade’s qualifications is a normal thing and a woman turning up with a tool box is no longer the source of either surprise or sniggers.
I well remember the type of headlines that were generated some 15 years ago when Blackburne House was refurbished at a cost of £4,000,000. They imposed a code of conduct about behaviour from the contractors. Simple stuff like respect and no page 3 girls on the walls. That brought the familiar charge of lesbians and frustrated, ugly women which might be thought by some these days but rarely expressed.
Having women tradespeople is a real social advantage for those who use them. Many households are led by women – especially elderly ones. The sight of a woman turning up can be a great boost for them and allows them to let people into their homes with greater confidence. The boost in morale is twofold because it also boosts the morale of the person with the job who have proved themselves in unfamiliar fields.
But Blackburne House is more than just manual trades centre. It can help a women in almost all their life cycle and where it cannot help will give booster courses and signpost women to other areas. The Women’s Technology Centre itself is a big social enterprise employing 70+ people and supporting a range of other social enterprises. It had faith in the area. Long before two of the most fashionable restaurants in Liverpool were created in Hope Street WTC moved in and restored a landmark building. Perhaps those restaurants or even LIPA would not have moved in without the courage of those women. Perhaps the area would still be sinking into oblivion as it was then.
Now Claire strides not only onto the regional scene with work outside Liverpool but also on the national scene. 3 years into the job of chair of the Social Enterprise Coalition the concept, if not the practice, of social enterprise is entering the political DNA. There is more talk than action but talking is, at least, a start. Coincidentally, Claire and Simon had already met last week and Claire and the SEC have agreed to help step up social enterprise work in Simon’s Bermondsey constituency.
But far more needs to be done. There is still a lack of awareness of what social enterprises are and can do inside the public sector when contracts are being awarded. Many private companies do not really know how they can incorporate some social enterprise principles into their daily workings. Corporate responsibility is more than just whacking out a few cheques at the end of a year.
I am always careful about not praising the WTC and Claire too much. Claire has one of the most developed bull shit detectors known to man! But I have to say that their work is great, men as well as women could and should learn from them.
I understand from Claire that the Liverpool fairness Commission which she chairs will soon be reporting. I look forward to hearing from them. I doubt that I will agree with everything in it but I have no doubt it will be a great and well thought through piece of work which should goad hoary old politicos like me into new areas of activity to correct the many societal imbalances in our great city.
As a husband of a respected councillor, father of two daughters and a grandpa to one granddaughter I know that a strong future for Liverpool and our Country lies with women moving into at least a position of equality in employment and decision making. Today, at Blackburne House I have seen the future and it works!