Lunch with... Mario Ambrosi
PRCA director general Francis Ingham tucks in with Anchor public affairs chief Mario Ambrosi at Shepherd’s restaurant.
Normally, my PAN lunches in Shepherds are with agency heads. So it was a rare treat to meet up with the co-chairman of PRCA’s Not-For-Profit Group. Mario Ambrosi is also the head of policy and communications at England's largest not-for-profit provider of housing and care for older people, Anchor .
First off, I ask Mario to explain what Anchor’s main activities are. He tells me:
"We run retirement housing that you can rent, and retirement housing that you can buy. The other side of the business is care homes. We have about 130 now. We deal a great deal with local government, as a lot of our customers rely on housing benefit. Actually, we have a property just 200 yards away from here."
And yes, if you’re an attention-to-detail reader, you’ll have spotted something - Mario’s organisation deals in tangible assets, rather than just ideas and people. So what does the political scene means for him right now?
"Uncertainty is the big thing -on every level. We’ve been lobbying for a long time for changes to the way that the social care fund system works. During the last Parliament, there was talk of capping people’s care costs. But it didn’t come to anything, and our worry is that it’s been shelved, possibly forever."
From care costs, we move onto housing and the impact of measures such the introduction of the right to buy and the cap on housing benefit. And one word keeps emerging from Mario's lips.
"We have uncertainty around social care funding; we have uncertainty about right to buy, because we don’t know the detail of what that’s going to look like, or when it’s going to happen; and we have uncertainty about the impact of the cap on housing benefit. You throw Brexit into the mix, and its potential impact on house prices, and there’s a hell of a lot of uncertainty out there at the minute."
Which certainly sounds pretty challenging. Mario does, though see a silver lining.
"The big positive for us is that people are living longer, and living independently for longer, and living healthier lives for longer, so demand for our services has never been stronger, and will only increase."
Speaking of longevity, I inquire if the prospect of a long period of Tory government delivers anything of use to Anchor.
"I suppose we do have greater clarity, in terms of direction of travel. I suppose that is helpful. What we want to get across is how we can save money for the state, and how our role in society is an economic positive. If you look at the social care sector overall, the number of people employed far exceeds that in the NHS."
I ask if they engage with Labour and the Lib Dems. Mario says yes - although not so much at party conferences.
"There are a lot of people in the Lords of all political persuasions who are remarkably well-informed. So we find we have plenty of friends there. And yes, we engage with all parties, absolutely.... I haven’t been to the party conferences for a couple of years. And I don’t think I’ve missed anything. it’s quite good fun, don’t get me wrong, and it’s great to chat in a bar with journalists and politicians obviously. But it’s a bit of a cattle market and if I were a Minister or a Shadow Minister, I’d question the value of me sitting there as a conveyor belt of interested parties bent my ear.
We switch from Mario’s day job to his role as co-chairman of the PRCA Not-For-Profit Group. What's on the agenda?
"I think there’s a question about how not-for-profits are perceived by all Governments - it’s not just an issue with the current one. the not-for-profit sector is so enormously diverse and has changed a lot in recent years, partly because there’s less money around, and party because of mergers. The need for charities to be more commercial has been beneficial, but has caused tensions."
I ask if charities are getting a fair deal at the moment? They seem to be coming in for a lot of media and political criticism.
"I remember an old hack telling me that news is what people don’t want you to write. Anything else is just advertising. And that really stuck with me. So I’m not going to complain about negative stories. But I do think that there isn’t enough of a balance showing the positive stuff that charities do. One of the difficulties is trying to get a unified voice for a charitable sector that is actually massively, massively diverse. It’s very difficult to try and get across the message that charities are diverse, and that it’s wrong to tar them all with the same brush, or indeed to lump them all into the same bucket."
And recent proposed changes to how charities can campaign?
"We’ve done some good work here as part of the not-for-profit group, and I think we’ve been quite successful in lobbying for change. The main issue is that the level of attention that the proposed restrictions on how charities could campaign -for objectives that are entirely within their proper remit- received, caused nervousness. If you’re a relatively small charity; if you’re not entirely clear what it means; then your default position is not to say anything. That’s the problem."
And having spoken with a fair few charities within PRCA membership, there’s definitely been a chilling effect - but one lessened by Mario’s robust campaigning work.
And then the usual, final question. Something Mario is happy for readers to know about him…..
"I’m working on a children’s novel at the moment. And it has a PR theme actually. I probably shouldn’t say too much about what it’s about…. But if there are any publishers out there, you know where I am."
Shellfish Broth and Shepherd’s Pie
White Pudding and Shepherd’s Pie