Expertise and the Voluntary Sector

Session Abstract

The politics of expertise has been firmly established as an explanatory paradigm of the post-1945 voluntary sector (Hilton, McKay, Crowson, Mouhot, 2013). In large part, the explanation derives from the recognition of the interdependencies of the voluntary, statutory and professional sectors.

Working with the third sector has enabled statutory bodies to draw on voluntary agencies’ resources and knowledge of social problems, and these voluntary agencies often hold their privileged position based on this expertise. It is the multivalent and contested nature of expertise within the voluntary sector that this panel will consider in three papers which explore: voluntary women’s groups; the pressure politics of the Child Poverty Action Group and ChildLine. These papers will consider how the relationship between the state and voluntary groups changed over time, in response to the expansions and contractions of the state, new citizen rights and professionalized practice. Moreover, the panel will consider debates about expertise within the voluntary sector as revealing of the shifting calibration of voluntary engagement, its fragmentation and seepage into widening spheres of public and private life since the 1950s. The role of the expert was simultaneously embraced and resisted in each of our case-studies: by the gendered categories of social life, modes of political engagement, and the rise of popular media and therapeutic cultures.

Our examples, focusing respectively on women’s rights, family poverty, and children, complicate established debates about democratic participation. These groups were subject to forms of structural inequalities that require historians to focus upon issues of contested agency, subjectivity and voice. Our papers consider how, in these contexts, voluntary organizations used ‘expertise’ on behalf of the groups they represented to influence public policy and addressed, or failed to address, tensions that arose between those being represented and those that spoke on their behalf.

Session Chair: Chris Moores, University of Birmingham

Paper 1 Abstract: Expertise and the women’s movement in mid-twentieth century Britain

Caitríona Beaumont

Historical narratives suggesting that the women’s movement in Britain lost momentum during the interwar years and in the decades following the Second World War, only to re-emerge in a new and radical form in the late 1960s, have now been well and truly debunked (Caine, 1997, Freeguard, 2004 & Beaumont, 2013 & 2016). New evidence reveals that a diverse range of women’s organisations continued to work for and with women throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and beyond with the shared aim of enhancing the status of women in British society. Not only did women’s organisations survive during these years but they also played an important role in providing government and other bodies with ‘expert’ advice on issues impacting upon women’s lives.

The paper will explore the role of traditional housewives’ associations, for example the Mothers’ Union, the Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guilds, as ‘experts’ in mid-twentieth century Britain. The paper will consider a number of key questions: why were these women’s groups called upon to offer expert opinion on a range of issues for example housing, health care, maternity services, divorce law reform and consumer standards? What impact did their recommendations have on social policy at this time? How did the professionalization of the voluntary sector and the emergence of the Welfare State in the late 1940s challenge the ‘expertise’ of voluntary women’s groups? What impact did a loss of expertise have in terms of their aims, memberships and activities? How successful were these groups in lobbying and campaigning on behalf of women if their role as ‘experts’ had been undermined?

The paper seeks to provide some initial answers to these questions by exploring the role of housewives’ associations in public life in mid-twentieth century Britain. The aim of the paper is to shed further light on the value of the role of ‘expert’ to voluntary women’s groups and how these groups used their ‘expert’ role to legitimate their right to speak out on behalf of women in Britain these years.

Paper 2 Abstract (c.300 words): The pressure group expert, CPAG in the 1970s and 1980s

Ruth Davidson

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has been seen as a leading example of the ‘poverty’ pressure groups founded in the 1960s. A number of organisations sprang up in this period in response to the increasing evidence that gaps in welfare provision were leading to unacceptable levels of poverty amongst some sections of the population, notably the elderly and large families. From its inception CPAG was to be a lobby, using ‘expert’ research to argue for policy change with government and Whitehall. This Fabian strategy was explicitly non-partisan and nationally focussed. Given the social policy expertise of CPAG’s founding members, personal links with the Labour party and an ability to draw on wider public support this approach seemed both appropriate and to have the potential to achieve the Group’s goals.

However, as the organisation grew and the political context shifted this expert approach was increasingly questioned. There were many challenges: the unwillingness of governments to respond to CPAG’s policy prescriptions; increasing inequality; scepticism about income maintenance solutions to social issues; and the impact of social movements with a more community-based approach. These led to some within CPAG arguing against the non-partisan policy-led expert approach. The tensions this caused CPAG were not unique to CPAG, as Tanya Evans has noted they affected many similar groups.

The poverty pressure group model has been much analysed and has its proponents and its critics. This paper will explore some of the issues that have been raised using the recently released CPAG archive. The views of those who worked, joined and led the organisation will be used to assess how they perceived the successes and limitations CPAG’s strategy. The paper will then offer some thoughts on the importance of the ‘expert’ in poverty policy formation.

Paper 3 Abstract (c.300 words): ChildLine, democracy and expertise in 1980s and 1990s Britain

Eve Colpus, University of Southampton

In 2016 ChildLine celebrated its 30-year anniversary. When it was launched in 1986 as a free telephone helpline, ChildLine was, self-consciously, a vehicle for children to voice their own concerns, a new marker on the landscape of children’s charities, and a tool to raise awareness about child abuse.

This paper treats ChildLine, largely unstudied by historians, as a prism onto attitudes towards the expert in 1980s and 1990s Britain that might suggest ways into understanding what Jeremy Gilbert has defined as the post-1970 post-democratic era. Esther Rantzen, the well-known television personality, founded ChildLine based upon evidence of a national questionnaire about adults’ experiences of child abuse and neglect, and in dialogue with (in her words) ‘experts’ who formed an advisory board. In one respect ChildLine exemplified the social embeddedness of the social sciences and of the professionalized sectors of social work, medicine and psychiatry. But there were tensions. Following the initial demand for the service, ChildLine used volunteers to staff the phone lines, though this was criticized by some social workers. The distinction between volunteers and professionals would be complicated further by the later currency of child protection policy as ‘everybody’s business’.

An additional tension existed between ChildLine’s position in relation to the rise of therapeutic cultures and the discourse of consumer rights. ChildLine had its roots in the investigative journalism of the BBC consumer affairs programme, That’s Life!, and reflected a wider trend, reaching beyond ‘Thatcherism’, that saw, for example, medical patients discussed as consumers. In its lobbying work in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. child witnesses in the courts), the organization stressed the value of listening to children telling their own stories.

ChildLine’s founding praxis was ‘speaking with the voice of the child’: this paper considers the shifting emphases upon expertise and experience and various sorts of agency in ChildLine’s work in the 1980s and 1990s, and considers how that instability throws light on Britain’s late-twentieth century democracy.