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Blackfriars Settlement chair Baroness Wheeler makes House of Lords debut

Baroness Wheeler of Blackfriars made her maiden speech in the House of Lords on Tuesday. She used the occasion to highlight the work of the settlement movement in Southwark.

Margaret Wheeler, director of organisation and staff development for the public service union UNISON, was made a peer in Gordon Brown's resignation honours list earlier this year.

She made her maiden speech in the Lords chamber on Tuesday in a debate about the role of the charitable sector in civil society.

"I chose Blackfriars for my title as it is in the London Borough of Southwark, where I was born and brought up," she said.

"I am a voluntary trustee and chair of a small multiservice provider in Blackfriars, the Blackfriars Settlement.

"The settlement movement began in the late 19th century, when women from the Oxford University colleges founded settlements along the south bank of the Thames to live and work among the poorer families, especially women and children.

"There are six settlements across Southwark, all of them at the heart of their communities, providing vital services and support.

"While a walk along the south bank shows Blackfriars in all its vibrancy, Southwark itself, despite huge regeneration, is still in the bottom 10 of the most deprived London boroughs.

"The settlements are locally unique in that each provides services covering young people, community and mental health, education, older people's services, young people's clubs, drop-in clubs for the mentally ill, befriending schemes for the elderly and isolated, a weekly free legal clinic and literacy, ESOL, job seeking and IT skills training.

"However, as we know and have heard, life is tough and challenging in the voluntary sector.

"In our settlement, 32 whole time equivalent staff, mostly part-time, work across 82 different funding and income streams, taking on additional or reduced hours as funding is secured or contracts are cancelled, or indeed losing their jobs.

"We could not deliver services without our amazing volunteers – more than 100 of them, of all ages and from diverse backgrounds and cultures, many of them former users of our services.

"Most of the language of the debate around the big society assumes that voluntary organisations are a homogenous block – one big group of providers – but they are not.

"Like settlements, they are diverse local organisations, networks and self-help and neighbourhood groups, large and small. They spring from the bottom up to respond to and support local community needs and aspirations.

"They need to work within the framework of good public health, social care and education services, and should not be used as a cut-price answer to service provision."

Although Baroness Wheeler told the Lords that she had chosen Blackfriars for her title because she is from Southwark, her title was gazetted as "Baroness Wheeler of Blackfriars in the City of London".

Blackfriars Settlement recently moved from its Rushworth Street site to a temporary base in Great Suffolk Street as it prepares for a major building project.

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