Analysis: Why the Age Concern rebels chose not to join Age UK

They feel the merged charity is too 'top-down and centralised'

Helena Herklots, services director, Age UK
Helena Herklots, services director, Age UK

Shortly after the boards of Age Concern England and Help the Aged announced they were merging, senior figures shrugged off suggestions that some local Age Concerns would not join.

"I don't think it's going to happen," Catherine McLoughlin, chair of ACE, told Third Sector in 2008. She estimated that 95 per cent would support the merger, even though Age Concern Birmingham had warned her some might prefer to keep their names and form a new organisation.

Jo Connell, chair of Help the Aged, was equally convinced of the support. "Even those who are not sure about the name change will come," she said. "I can't see why they would not."

Age UK was formed the following year and the 320 local Age Concerns were given until the end of last month to decide whether or not to sign brand partnership agreements. Just over half have done so.

At a parliamentary reception two days before the deadline, some of the malcontents launched a new trading venture called advant-Age, which will sell insurance, funeral plans and stairlifts to older people, in competition with Age UK.

Age Concerns in Birmingham, Liverpool & Sefton, Cardiff and Hampshire are among 19 organisations supporting the move, which was hailed by them as a "declaration of independence".

Competing charities

The creation of advant-Age appears to have undermined one of the main reasons for the £8.1m merger: that the needs of older people were not best served by competing charities.

So why have so few Age Concerns signed up? The rebels insist they had little choice. "We would, in effect, have become a branch of Age UK," says Chris Perry, director of Age Concern Hampshire.

Tracey Morgan, chief executive, Age Concern Slough & Berkshire EastTracey Morgan, chief executive of Age Concern Slough & Berkshire East, a founding partner of advant-Age, says for many it became a local versus national issue.

"Our ethos has not changed," she says. "They have become too centralised. It seems strange at a time when the government is talking about the big society and devolving power that Age UK is doing this. It is top-down; we are bottom-up."

MPs supporting advant-Age, including the Home Secretary Theresa May, the former charities minister Fiona Mactaggart and the shadow Welsh secretary Peter Hain, all stressed they wanted to support local charities.

May, in whose Maidenhead constituency Morgan's charity is located, says: "Local charities are at the heart of the big society and I hope that this new chapter for our local Age Concern will be successful."

Control

Helena Herklots, services director at Age UK, denies it is attempting to seize control. "It's about doing more collectively for older people," she says.

Herklots says she is happy with the number of brand partners and expects many of the remaining ones, which have yet to pledge support to Age UK or advant-Age, will choose to become Friends of Age UK - a less onerous agreement that allows them to maintain their Age Concern names providing they make it clear they are part of Age UK.

"Local Age Concerns will still be rooted in their communities," she says. "But by working together we are all stronger than we would be on our own."

Gareth Evans, chief officer of Age UK Bolton, describes his charity's relationship with Age UK as "a partnership of equals".

He says those supporting advant-Age are "very much in the minority" and doesn't expect a trading war.

"We've all worked together long enough for the good of older people," he says. "I don't think we will have that kind of silly rivalry."

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