The Big Hire: Edel Harris, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap

'The social care sector needs transformation. Mencap provides a very strong voice and a big stage on which to inspire change'

Edel Harris
Edel Harris

The Person

Edel Harris has considerable experience of the public and voluntary sectors – and of staying at organisations for long periods. Her first job was as an officer in the Metropolitan Police, before she moved to Scotland to work for NHS Grampian for eight years.

She then served another eight years as deputy chief executive of the social enterprise Aberdeen Foyer, which supports formerly homeless people. She began her current role as chief executive of Cornerstone, one of Scotland’s largest social care charities, in 2008.

Harris, a keen outdoor swimmer and Aberdeen Football Club supporter, is also a former director of the Aberdeen FC Community Trust, former chair of the Scottish government’s Social Investment Fund and a board member of the Robertson Trust, which awards £16m in grants annually. She has an honorary doctorate from Robert Gordon University for her contribution to charity and business in Scotland.

Married with two grown-up sons, one of whom has a learning disability, Harris plans to buy a flat in London and return to Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire regularly at weekends.

Derek Lewis, chair of Mencap, says: "Her experience and insights will be invaluable, especially those from her 11 years as chief executive of Cornerstone, where she has pioneered transformational changes in the way people with learning disabilities are supported."

Mencap has said her salary will be in line with comparable jobs in the sector. Jan Tregelles, the current chief executive, was paid £164,353 in the year to 31 March 2018, according to its latest accounts.

The Charity

Mencap is one of Britain’s biggest charities. Its latest accounts show that it had 8,530 staff and generated record income of £203.7m in the financial year to 31 March 2018, compared with £191.9m in the previous year. Contracts to provide services accounted for £171.3m of this.

But it has operated under considerable financial uncertainty in recent years, thanks to the continuing legal dispute over back-payment of sleep-in care workers. This threatened to cost Mencap £20m until the Court of Appeal ruled in its favour last year. However, the trade union Unison applied to appeal the decision and in February the Supreme Court granted its wish, which Tregelles said "plunges the care sector back into uncertainty". The case is set to be heard in February.

"This situation is caused by government failure," Harris told Third Sector. "It should be stepping up to sort it out rather than a charity and a union going to court."

The Challenge

Harris is due to start in late January at a key time: not only is the sleep-in care workers row rumbling on, but Mencap is also coming to the end of a five-year strategy, known as the Big Plan.

The departing Tregelles has worked at the charity for 22 years and became chief executive in 2013. Harris is a fresh face, but familiar with many of the challenges thanks to her time at Cornerstone. "The UK social care sector needs some attention and transformation, and Mencap provides a very strong voice and a big stage on which to inspire change," she said.

She plans to spend her first 90 days "getting out and meeting people and learning" before focusing on a new strategic plan. Trade unions might be wary of her appointment: Cornerstone derecognised Unison during her time as chief executive. Mencap doesn’t do collective bargaining, but Harris says: "There are individuals with union membership and I respect that – I’m a union member myself. I’m passionate about colleagues having an effective voice in the workplace."

Next year presents a rare fundraising opportunity because Mencap has been chosen as the official partner of the 2020 London Marathon on 26 April. It has set a fundraising target of £1.5m. Harris, however, will resist the urge to pound the streets herself. "I’m more of a swimmer than a runner," she says.

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