Manchester Step Change - Learning From Year 1

October 1, 2022
Step Change
Monica Reeves
Posted by
Monica Reeves

The Greater Manchester Step Change Consortium. First steps: What we have learned from the past year of collaborative working.

Read time: 5 minutes

In April 2021, ten asylum support organisations and an Experts by Experience group launched the Greater Manchester Step Change Consortium with a purpose to develop a joined-up and collaborative ecosystem of support for refugees and people seeking asylum across Greater Manchester. 

Our collective vision is that refugees and people seeking asylum in the Greater Manchester area can access high quality support regardless of their postcode, make informed decisions, and are equipped with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to embrace their new lives here in the UK.

In order to achieve this, we designed a programme that includes:

  • Developing place-based ‘support hubs’ in every borough of Greater Manchester
  • Delivering specialist services including immigration legal advice, housing & support, asylum support rights & advocacy and activities to connect with the wider community
  • Working on development projects including digital inclusion, employability support and leadership development
  • Building relationships with regional and local policy actors and decision makers to ensure the voices of those with lived experience of forced migration are at the heart of responses.

We are now facing a radically different UK context than when the project started, including the crisis in Afghanistan and Ukraine, a significant hardening of UK policy with the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and national cost of living crisis which will inevitably most negatively affect those most vulnerable in our society. Despite these difficult circumstances, the consortium has still seen successes in our work and laid some strong foundations for collaborative working across going forward. 

So what have we achieved in this first year?

The delivery and development of 8 place-based hubs 

8 ‘support hubs’ are operational and there are plans in place to set up two new hubs. Additionally, the Hub development working group which brings together all hub leads has developed a ‘hub minimum offer’ that stipulates the minimum services that a Hub should either provide or be able to signpost in terms of key services. This is a key development as it is a step towards establishing consistency of service provision across the GM area which is a core goal of the consortium.

Hubs Operational: 

  • Rochdale
  • Oldham
  • Tameside (BRC)
  • Bury (BRC and Eagles Wing)
  • Wigan and Leigh (SWAP)
  • Salford (Revive) 
  • Manchester (MRSN and Rainbow Haven) 

Planned/in progress hubs: 

  • Bolton (BRASS)
  • Stockport (led by Sector 3 in partnership with other local organisations)

Joint advocacy and a strong, collective voice across GM

We have seen an impressive local advocacy response and a strong, collective voice across GM in response to the now passed Nationality and Borders Act 2022. We saw:

  • A joint statement from 56 organisations and groups across Greater Manchester, coordinated by Asylum Matters
  • Greater Manchester political leaders subsequently calling for an urgent review of the Bill

This response will form an important basis for our work going forward to contest the most problematic elements of the now passed Nationality and Borders Act 2022.

Collaborative response in an Afghan hotel

In response to the Afghan crisis of Autumn 2021, alongside the wider Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) response, consortium partners Manchester City of Sanctuary (MCoS), Manchester Refugee Support Network (MRSN) and Revive developed support activities to be delivered in a Manchester Afghan hotel including sourcing material goods, psycho-social support and other activities for hotel residents. All of those who participated reported an increase in their mental wellbeing. 

As our first experience of responding collaboratively to a new crisis, this was a really valuable experience in learning how to swiftly pool resources, coordinate a response and develop a stronger collective voice on key issues in the asylum sector such as accommodation.

What have we learnt?

Building collaborative structures takes time

In discussion with one partner, they articulated the challenge of building collaborative responses, in combination with developing their own services:

“The value of this consortium is both for the opportunity to consolidate our own services and what they do well, as much as it's about connecting to others and what they do well. Working together to achieve this goal, which includes development of individual services as well as developing region-wide responses and clear referral pathways takes time.” 

In addition to the challenge of strengthening collaboration amongst partner organisation, the setup and integration of an Experts by Experience group has taken time. GREAT (Greater Manchester Refugees and Asylum Seekers together) are made up of twelve volunteers with lived experience of forced migration with representation from across the Consortium organisations. They are at the heart of the Step Change Consortium and inform programme design and delivery as well as contributing to local advocacy.  

In order for the group’s participation and input to the consortium to be meaningful, it has required thorough processes including recruitment, onboarding, developing policies and structures for engagement. It also takes time to build relationships across the consortium, develop priority areas for engagement and ensure the group, who are voluntary, are gaining the experience and benefits that they want from the opportunity as well as contributing to the consortium. 

So far, the group has been involved in multiple campaigns activities, and identified key areas of the programme to support including around digital inclusion, housing and homelessness and employability and education. 

To support the building of collaborative structures, we continue to setup ways to ensure the sharing of information and regular communication, some of these include:

The importance of regularly consulting with those with lived experience

In April 2022, we gathered feedback from all partners and groups of service users to review individual services and ensure we are collectively moving towards more joined support across asylum services in Greater Manchester.

This confirmed some of our existing priorities were still correct including a focus on: digital inclusion, employability and the need for increased legal advice. It also confirmed the importance of employing staff and volunteers with lived experience of forced migration.

However there were new areas that were deemed important that needed more focus, including:

  • Ensuring visibility of services so service users can access them as early as possible
  • Wanting the voluntary sector to work more closely to influence statutory provision
  • The importance of having clear complaints and reporting processes in place so service users can report when they have received poor support.

This confirmed the importance of adaptation and ongoing development within large systems change projects, and to make the most of the breadth of knowledge and experience within the partnership: to regularly make time to touch base on our priorities and plans and make room for adaptation and change within the programme.

Hub development will require different approaches depending on borough

To develop sustainable, place-based services to support people where they live, we need to be open to different ways of working, including hybrid models of services. As mentioned, it’s a core part of our work to ensure the equitable quality of and access to services across GM. In some boroughs this already has strong foundations, whereas in others it is taking time to develop what this looks like and in some cases there are hybrid models with multiple organisations together. This has developed our collective understanding of collaborative working, and drawing on the strengths and knowledge of various service providers in specific boroughs of GM.

What challenges are we facing?

Whilst the asylum and refugee support sector is one that is familiar with crisis response, the scale of challenges we have seen in the last two years has been especially difficult. 

Covid 19

The impact of Covid on the physical and mental health of many across the UK has been well-documented, especially of those most marginalised. It has also caused increased isolation, and disconnection from key services for service users, especially for those with digital inclusion challenges.

Afghan and Ukraine Crises

The impacts of the Afghan and Ukraine crises have increased the demand on Consortium services and have also put strain on local services who are responding to the localised implementation of government responses - for example in relation to dispersal or accommodation provision. 

Hostile political environment

In addition, we have seen an increasingly hostile external political environment, which has ultimately led to the passing of the nationality and borders or ‘anti-refugee’ laws in April 2022.

Staff and volunteer wellbeing

Collectively, staff and volunteers at all levels have reported feeling relentless pressure and a ‘fighting fires’ mentality, which often works to favour more reactive responses making it challenging to engage in development work. In year two of the programme, we are working on potential responses to the issue of staff and volunteer wellbeing.

Whilst these circumstances are generally out of our control, funders who support long term and flexible funding for the sector, and local authorities and decision makers that work closely with voluntary sector organisations to ensure localised responses to the implementation of various responses will ensure we are working collaboratively to address these challenges as best we can.

Where next?

We are positive about the changes we have managed to make and the direction we are going in to ensure our vision of collaborative and joined up asylum support in Greater Manchester. 

Informed by service users and those with lived experience of forced migration, we are confident in the adaptations we need to make to the programme and where our focus should be - though we see this as an ongoing, iterative process.

Going forward into 2023 and beyond, we will: 

  • Continue to develop the place based hub model across Greater Manchester, ensuring a minimum offer of support can be provided, and will share and develop best practice on specific and key areas such as employability
  • Continue to strengthen our advocacy response, with priorities around challenging the Nationality and Borders Act, Lift the Ban campaign on asylum seekers’ right to work and accommodation provision
  • Continue to develop our relationships with GMCA, RSMP and Manchester City Council to ensure we work together to improve asylum support across Greater Manchester
  • Continue with scoping work on accommodation providers and legal pathways. We will also develop work around highlighted issues in the sector - for example around wellbeing, response to hate crime, digital inclusion and leadership in the asylum sector. We would welcome involvement of other Greater Manchester VSO’s in these development areas

We are also keen to start connecting with other asylum support organisations in Greater Manchester. If you are interested in connecting with the consortium you can find further information on our website here, or feel free to contact the programme manager, Monica Reeves monicar@refugee-action.org.uk.

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