We handed over our podcast reins one more time to Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, and Tessy Ojo, CEO of The Diana Award, for a miniseries that will discuss what privilege and anti-racism mean for the charity sector and the role of charity leaders in facilitating a shift of power both in our sector and more widely.
If you missed the previous episodes, catch up here
In this episode, Polly and Tessy talk to Stephen Hale, former CEO of Refugee Action and chief architect at Climate Catalyst, about the importance of being an optimistic leader, not falling into traps when telling stories and fighting for social justice, and sustaining momentum.
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I’m a hopeful person because it feels like the best way to live. (…) surrounding yourself with anger and negative touchpoints around things that are happening around us is hard to hold. (…) there’s definitely opportunity to look at things that way. But I think it’s harder to hold. I think it’s more motivating and more energising and draws more people in if we can talk about the difference you’re making and the change you’re making in the journey that we’re going on, how things will be better if we do this, if we tackle these issues together.Stephen Hale
Tessy Ojo 00:01
Hi, I’m Tessy Ojo. I’m Chief Executive of the Diana Award.
Polly Neate 00:05
Hello, I’m Polly Neate and I’m Chief Executive of Shelter.
Tessy Ojo 00:09
And together, we are hosting a mini series on the word privilege.
Tessy Ojo 00:19
We’re back, this is our second episode of our mini podcast with myself Tessy Ojo and Polly. And today we are really pleased to have a special guest. Stephen, welcome. Tell us who you are, please.
Stephen Hale 00:33
Thank you very much. So, I’m Stephen Hale, really pleased to be with you, to have this conversation. For the past six years, I have been the chief executive of Refugee Action, a UK charity that supports refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, and works with them to defend their rights, which are under considerable attack. I’ve very recently finished that role. So I’m now working on international climate change.
Tessy Ojo 00:58
I’m just gonna kick off with my first question. So you know that this podcast is all about privilege. And one of the things that Polly and I love to find out from people is, how do you use your privilege as a leader, whether yourself personally or your organisation to make change happen? How, also one of the things we’re increasingly aware of that this is not going to be a quick win. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon marathon, and it’s a slow process, but how do we how do we go on this journey? So I just, this is just an open question to you just talk to us a little bit about how you use your privilege as a leader to make change happen?
Stephen Hale 01:38
Well, before I sort of answer as a leader, let me say something, you know, personally about privilege, which is that, you know, I have lived a life of extraordinary opportunity. My dad was in the British Council, I lived abroad for most of my young life. I was then like many young kids deposited in boarding school. So I had the benefit of a, you know, international experience and insight, and also, obviously, a public school education. And I’ve come from a stable family. I’m a white man, clearly, you know, there are many layers to my privilege, I think the language of privilege is something that’s now becoming mainstream in conversation. But I will say that throughout my life, I have felt always felt, you know, an incredible awareness. Just even when I was a teenager, I remember people talking about the accident of birth, you know, that the one thing that is truly transformational to your prospects, as a human being on this planet, is where you’re born, and to whom. I do feel that’s always kind of been with me part of my identity, part of my understanding of the world in which I live. I have a sort of pinboard next to me in this office. And there’s a piece of paper that I wrote in February 1996, 25 years ago, and there’s sort of two lines, you know, about the responsibility that I have, because of the injustice that there is in the world. And because of the the opportunities that I’ve had. So I do feel that I had an awareness of this, really, throughout my life for whatever reason, before I knew necessarily the language that we now use sometimes to talk about these issues….
Polly Neate 03:15
Did your parents… just to pick up on that just for a minute, because I’m very… did your parents encouraged you in that? Because I, too, came from a very privileged background. But people I know who share my background, are not always aware of their privilege, actually, at all, otherwise, we would be living in a completely different society wouldn’t we? And a much better one. My dad always used to say you’re not special, you’re just lucky. And he would always be really, make us aware of the unearned privilege that we had. That’s not to say that, God, I’ve had to learn that over and over and over again, we still remind myself of it continually. But I just wondered with you, you know, were you sort of similarly brought up to at least have some inkling of the responsibilities that went with that privilege? Or did you kind of work that out? All by yourself?
Stephen Hale 04:18
My parents weren’t born in the same situation, you know, so that my parents didn’t go go to university. So therefore, they brought me up, saying, oh, wow, we can go on this holiday. I never did this when I was a kid. Oh, wow. We can do this. When I was a kid, you know, the toilet was at the bottom of the garden. So I think they held a recognition of their own journey and progress and the opportunities they now had. So there was a lot of that kind of kind of conversation. And again, you know, if you go to… I went to the British school in Islamabad, you know, that was a primary school and, you know, my parents met and got married in Nigeria. So when you live in different countries, you do obviously, you cannot be on aware of the extraordinary wealth and comfort in which you’re living by comparison to people around you. I mean, that’s just impossible. I say it’s impossible, of course (inaudible) but certainly I have a searing effect on me for sure.
Tessy Ojo 05:16
That’s really interesting. I think Polly and I explored this even I think one of the earlier series as well around recognition of your own personal privilege, and how you almost pass that on to your children to help them understand that with this privilege, comes responsibilities. I suppose, bringing that back towards a sector leader, and for you maybe can bring back to that question is, how do we… knowing what you know, knowing that there’s privilege and there’s injustice, how do we use that platform to create change? How have you used that platform to create change?
Stephen Hale 05:52
There are so many dimensions to it, you know, and of course, one dimension to it is to say, welI, I know the world is unjust. And I’m going to look for opportunities to use my skills and my experience and my privilege to counter that injustice. That’s a choice we make about what we do with our with our time. But obviously, that’s not about, once you’ve made that choice, you then sort of move to the next set of questions around how you play that role, and how you carry that recognition and that understanding into whatever organisation that you’re working in. And like everybody else, I hold extraordinary humility in thinking about that, I guess the thing I would say is, each of us has got to find our own place in that and each organisation has got to find their place in it. For Refugee Action, so the place that, you know, I’ve been working out for many years, the most tangible way in which we’ve addressed that privilege is that we’ve thought, obviously, to counter the extraordinary lack of power and agency, which people have who are trapped in the asylum system, whose rights aren’t respected, who are banned from working or living on five pound 40 a day. And so thinking about both the work that we do, but also trying to centre empowerment, in the way that we go about that. And trying to recognise that the role we play as an organisation is not simply the support we give to people in a practical sense, whether it’s advice, or financial support, or whatever. But it’s how we empower them, how we build their agency, how we recognise them as people, strengthen them to be their own advocate. So that’s the most obvious way in which our organisation is responding to the chronic lack of power, which which exists for the people for whom, you know, for whom we are there to serve.
Tessy Ojo 06:07
That’s really interesting. There’s a couple of things you’ve said there about empower and build agency. One of the things I think Polly and I had talked about recently, is there’s a sense of denial around privilege. You know, a lot of people would say, actually, I’m not privileged, I have struggled all of my life, you have just described your own parents who have worked incredibly hard all of their lives to provide the life that they gave to you guys. What do you say to that? Because I think it’s quite obvious that when you see, you can just take a snapshot of what’s happening now, a female is is killed. And it’s obviously that crime is done by a man and suddenly you get (not) all men trending on Twitter. How do we come to a place where we understand our own privilege? Because if we don’t come to that, almost the ability, the sense of knowing that we need to empower and build agency will just never happen. So how do we as a society even just come to a place that to understand that we all have some degree of privilege?
Polly Neate 08:53
Just building on that question, do you think that charity sector leaders have a particular responsibility to play a role in that national conversation if you like?
Stephen Hale 09:11
I have a deeply ingrained tendency to look optimistically at any situation. So let me first say that there is more conversation going on about privilege, surely, then there has been; and more recognition of privilege than there has been by comparison to previous times. We should take some hope from that. Secondly, I think that there are also many traps in how we take that conversation to the next level, because we are unfortunately, in a situation where large parts of government, large parts of the media, want to trap us in a narrative where they are absolutely denying for instance of, you know, of structural racism as a concept and wanting to take us back not forward. I read, Marina Hyde’s columns are always, you know, very searing. But there’s one thing she wrote this week saying in the latest bill, which is before parliament, you could get longer in jail by tearing down a statue, then you could for attacking a woman, right? So on the one hand, as I said, I hold on to that optimism about the fact that we are having this conversation more. But also, we’ve got to find ways to draw more people into this conversation without getting caught in traps, which I do think are being laid for us.
Polly Neate 10:28
So I found that the whole, the government really focusing on, obviously as a response to Black Lives Matter, stopping people from tearing down statues, ie, visibly, we’re evaluating our Imperial heritage. At the same time, as you know, we’re seeing #NotAllMen coming up and, and everything that is reactive, Sara Everard’s murder, that those two, the juxtaposition of those two things I feel for us as a sector, it’s also no coincidence that, you know, charities are being criticised for getting into sort of cultural debate, so nothing to do with their core purpose. When to me, I feel that to talk about women’s position in society, to reevaluate imperialism and our heritage as a country, and to actively promote anti racism. those are core to Shelter’s purpose, actually. And I just wondered what your response was to that, whether you think… Because Refugee Action, you’re absolutely at the sharp end aren’t you, of institutional and systemic racism, in a way as we are in housing. How do you feel about that, as a leader and your need, personally, to have a voice on those issues?
Stephen Hale 11:52
Well, let’s close out the piece around the politics of it and how as charity eaders we respond to it. And then I’ll come to the (inaudible) actually. So I think in relation to the politics, I mean, you said it’s not an accident that charities are being caught in this issue. I mean, you are very, very right, it is not an accident. I mean, we’ve got the cultural secretary, hauling in heritage bodies, to tell them how they should behave, and how they should research and communicate their own history. I mean, that is not an accident. But that is again, a trap that is being set, a political play that is being made. In a way there’s absolutely about taking us backwards around those issues, and around understanding our history. I think though, it is really important for us… again, this is just basic communication and campaign strategy, not to be caught in those traps. But to work out the stories that we want to tell, and the messages that we want to amplify. I can certainly say that in relation to our work at Refugee Action, there’s a story that the Home Secretary wants to tell about refugees and asylum seekers, and it’s deeply regressive, deeply inhumane. And we are not going to be caught in a trap purely of reacting to that, we’re going to tell a different story, because we need to demonstrate that there is broad support, mainstream support for a compassionate asylum system, which recognises all the people have been through and you know, build support for Britain being a welcoming and a humane country. And we can’t win the argument by responding to her narrative because it is deeply poisoned. So I think we’ve got to have the confidence to tell our own stories, not trapped in these plays that are being made by various people in government and in the media. I think, to come to Refugee Action, I’m really proud of the journey that the organisation went on over the past few years, not from the outset of my time as chief executive to be really clear about that. But in the second half, perhaps, because we really did seek to centre in our strategy and our work, a commitment to shifting power to refugees and people seeking asylum. We work through what we thought that meant, we took advice from other organisations, have been trying to do that from within the sector and outside. And we have saw, of course, to diversify our board. Also our staff team, but most fundamentally to shift power and the way that we make decisions, in how we operate, to build independent groups of people seeking asylum to connect with different parts of the organisation to influence them, but then also, now more at a governance level. So I’m really proud of that journey. Obviously, there is a long way to go. But I think it’s been incredible to see how that has built and what incredible leaders emerge from that process. People who are still trapped in that asylum system are hugely influential in our organisation and beyond. So I’m proud of that work. But I’m not proud of our failure to tackle issues of structural racism prior to 2020. So there’s an intersection obviously, between those two issues, but they’re very different issues. Right. So we focus very much on building the proportion of our staff who have been through the asylum process, who have refugee status. But we didn’t focus on the experience of people who are born non white in the UK, and we didn’t look at, we didn’t consistently look at the issues that face our clients through the lens of structural racism. And we should have done. So for instance, time and time and time again, people who engage with the NHS who are asylum seekers are not offered interpreting. And we’ve advocated on that, we’ve campaigned on that, we deal with, obviously, case by case, but we’ve also dealt with it at a systemic level. We’ve never, we never, in the past, we wouldn’t have called that out for what it is, which is systemic racism, we were working on issues that had a racist dimension, we were not understanding them in that way.
Polly Neate 15:50
I think we’ve been in the same place actually, that we… and about other dimensions of inequality as well, actually. But just naming it for what it is, I feel is so important in all of our causes, right across the sector, is really important to name the racism within the housing system. And and actually the fact that when we talk about homeless families, what we actually mean is single mothers, women and their children, and within that disproportionately women of colour and their children, it’s really important, I feel that we name those impacts of systemic racism in all of our causes, right across the sector.
Stephen Hale 16:36
And look, there are 1000 examples, unfortunately, that we could trade. But you know, one would be, again, we have a Home Secretary who’s very passionate about domestic violence, like talks about those issues a lot. Now, we know, obviously the chronic failures and shortage, in funding and solutions and advocacy. But within the asylum system, you try raising the fact that you are a victim of domestic violence in the asylum system. I mean… Yeah, words fail me, really. So there are really, really profound issues, which we’ve been grappling with. But as I said, we haven’t looked at them I think consistently, we definitely didn’t look at them consistently through that lens. And so the journey that we’ve been on over the past year, is to try on the one hand to build confidence and trust in within our staff team, that this is now a conversation we want to have about structural racism, about what it means for the way we deliver services, what it means to do our communications, what it means for our campaigning, but also not to place that burden on people in our staff group. Because you know, we have leadership responsibilities, I’m the chief executive, we have a leadership team, the leader and everything else, and they should be leading on this too. So I’ve been trying to sort of build those take those two sort of directions in parallel. And there’s obviously tension between them, you know, we should be cracking on, we’re in charge. But equally, we need to give confidence and space and voice to people in the organisation to begin to air their experiences and frustrations when we haven’t given them an opportunity to do that in the past.
Tessy Ojo 18:01
Actually, this whole journey allows us to call things the way they are and stop making excuses for the system, the system is structurally racist. And the only way we can fix it is constantly calling out. If we look at, for example, the health care system, this is why you have more people of colour, in the mental health services, or in prison, because of a system that’s not culturally competent. And that’s something we need to fix. I suppose in some ways, Stephen if I’m taking one of the things you said, which I completely agree with is about hope, we have to have hope. Because without hope there is no, we can’t be here. I suppose looking at coming from a hope perspective, what would you say is next for our sector in terms of anti racism? What should we be doing? What should we be… Where should we be going as a sector?
Stephen Hale 18:59
So many organisations are now grappling with these issues, right, with the best of intentions, we are working brilliantly with an organisation called brap that provided training both all our staff also training with our leaders. And you can imagine the organisations like them are now pretty hard to get hold of, because everybody wants to have this conversation with them. And I can only imagine now that feels a bit ironic to them. But anyway, I do think we need to hold on to that positive. But for me, the question should be how do we sustain it? That’s the issue. Because, our society, let’s be honest, goes through these cycles, right? There’s an academic piece of work on this issue, somewhere in this study the issue of attention cycle, people discover an issue. There’s a first phase, people call false euphoria, that they go, Oh, this is a big problem. Something should be done. And then they dip when they realise how complicated it is. But hopefully you pull them through. So I think the question should be asking ourselves is how can we sustain that momentum? And how can we keep our ambitions high as we go on that journey? Because inevitably, oxygen tends to slowly come out of the balloon basically. So we’ve got to do that. And I think, just taking that back down to a very practical level, in terms of the work we’re doing in Refugee Action. One thing that I observed, just used the present tense should be the past, the work, the work we were doing at Refugee Action, is that I feel that the expectations of some of our staff, people who led the working group that was established, were very low. It’s not surprising that they were low. Because we hadn’t gone on this journey. We hadn’t made this commitment. And so when things began to happen, people would say, Oh, it’s great that you’re looking at x or y. And I felt a part of my role as the chief executive to say, it’s not that great, is it? I mean, yeah, we should have been doing this like six years ago. And I’m the chief exec. So everybody needs to be raising their expectations of one another. We as leaders need to giving space to people in our organisations to say, challenge us constructively about where we want to go or unconstructively, there’s a lot of anger that they need to play out. And so we give them that space, and then we challenge ourselves as well. So I think, raising expectations, and thinking about how we sustain this is really important. And I would definitely want to credit the ACEVO in this because they were doing this work before the spring of 2020. And, you know, this does come down to really personal decisions and personal accountability. I remember when the ACEVO statement came out, I remember reading the whole thing, and then thinking, well, we’re doing all this work on shifting power, I’m not going to focus on this right now. We make those decisions. And we need to stop making that kind of decision. So you know, that’s definitely at the end of the day, whether you challenge privilege, whether you challenge racism comes down to really personal decisions about what you choose to put your time into, who you choose to listen to, what conversations you hold, we’ve got to sustain that. That’s the trick and things like the ACEVO statement, organisations like ACEVO can help us to stretch out and say, well, let’s all come back together a year from now. So well, where are we doing? Who’s delivering? You know, so I think that those are the big, those are the challenges. And I do think sector bodies can play a role in making sure we all retain that kind of horizon in terms of our commitment to this.
Tessy Ojo 22:19
You know, I completely agree, I think when we did the first series of the podcast, we thought that’s it, we were going to do them, that’s it. The reason we came back to another three (episodes) is because we recognise that, that if we don’t keep the momentum, we will forget, because that’s how life happens.
Polly Neate 22:35
And that honesty, keeping this honest conversation going between leaders. I thought you were incredibly honest then, Stephen, where you actually talked about a decision that you’ve made, and I can think of ones I’ve made as well, to actively deprioritise this conversation in the past, and to me is about recognising that those decisions have been taken, that we as leaders are accountable for those and to make different decisions and keep making them so that we’re constantly reinforcing this challenge within our organisations, and I would say, within society and the wider sector as well. One thing I wanted to ask you about is, so we keep challenging, we need to keep challenging our own decision making. One of the things that I think a lot of leaders struggle with, is the long term change nature of this, and the fact that as leaders, sometimes we want to find a solution and sort something out, and then be able to go right, I’ve sorted that. But this is absolutely not like that. And I just wondered if you have any experience or kind of ideas about how we deal with that as leaders and how we, how we know we’re on the way, how do we maintain accountability for change, when change is of necessity, long term, and quite complex.
Stephen Hale 24:04
The privilege that we’re discussing and the injustices which that privilege leads to are centuries old. So we’ll be having this conversation, if I can put it that way, you know, when I’m nearly dead and gone. But I do think if I say within Refugee Action, there’s incredible momentum to the work around shifting power. Okay, so I know that’s one aspect of this, that the voices that unlocked, the people whose agency has been has been built do create momentum, and they’re making the charity better in many, many different ways. And they’re also making it a more exciting place to work, like everybody is in a sense empowered and excited by the way in which our organisation has shifted power and is obviously committed to continuing to do so. So in that respect, I wouldn’t say like energy drops off that if you go on that journey, you can also build momentum, but what I’ve already then done is sort of go down one line of inquiry. And I guess that’s the issue with this conversation is that it has so many different potential lines of inquiry, right? So you know, there’ll be periods where people are looking at issues more through a lens of gender, more through a lens of racism, who knows, maybe we’ll be sitting in two years saying we really need to talk about public schools now, like, you know, there are many layers to unravelling privilege. And it would be extraordinary if any organisation was able to consistently advance on all fronts. So we are, there is going to be a certain unevenness to it. But what we’re doing now is potentially kind of reframing, or what this podcast is helping to do too, reframing the breadth that conversations being around about privilege, not just being about one of those issues. That’s a big step.
Tessy Ojo 25:43
Absolutely. I think, for this, I suppose in some way, what we’re trying to keep our foot on the ideology, is that ideology, as long as we keep chipping at it gradually we will, we will unpick the different areas in which those ideologies have manifested. So in the health, in… like you’ve said, it might be around, what, what does our privilege afford us, that maybe doesn’t afford another person and just the constant unravelling of that and like I said at the start, it’s a journey, it’s a marathon. And hopefully, we can pass the baton on to the next generation, and they will have a whole new different set of challenges to unpick, but I think we have, I think I hear what we’re all saying in this conversation is we have a responsibility to keep going. We need to make ourselves accountable, we need to constantly challenge ourselves, and just always raise the expectations of ourselves as leaders to drive change.
Polly Neate 26:44
And maintain that hope that Stephen, you talked about, you know, you said that you’ve got I can’t remember your exact words, but it’s something about basically you’re an optimistic character, that is your personality. And I definitely identify with that. I’m like that as well. And I think that’s, that is really important. Having that hopeful mindset. Because if you have a lot of privilege, then at the very least you’ve got a responsibility to be hopeful and positive. I feel anyway, you know, because a) it’s central to leadership. But also, it’s much easier to be like that, if you have a lot of privilege.
Stephen Hale 27:23
I’m a hopeful person, because it’s feels like the best way to live. I mean, surrounding yourself by anger and negative touch points around things that are happening around us is hard to hold. You know, there’s definitely opportunity to look at look at things that way. But I think it’s harder to hold. I think it’s more motivating and more energising and draws more people in, if we can talk about the difference you’re making and the change you’re making in the journey that we’re going on, how things will be better if we do this, if we tackle these issues together. And I do think we’re having this conversation a lot more. There was an important moment in my career. I worked at Oxfam, the global director of Oxfam was an incredible woman called Winnie Byanyima. And she brought all the sort of top 100 or so people of Oxfam together in Delhi. And she stood in the middle of the room, she looked around and she said, Look, there are too many white men in this room, she said, and the future of Oxfam is less of you. And then she looked around again, she said, Well, to be more specific too many white British men. So she really centred me.
Polly Neate 28:25
She wasn’t scared of being challenging, was she?
Stephen Hale 28:29
She was, he was never scared. She is never scared. She was right.
Tessy Ojo 28:34
One of the stories we like to kind of almost begin to wrap up with is to share any good. I know you’ve given loads of great examples from Refugee (Action). But I wondered if you had any other examples to share, something that’s really exciting. That’s innovative, something that’s really anti racist, that people listening can say, oh, my goodness, I want to do that.
Stephen Hale 29:01
First of all I want to say that one thing we’ve done over in Refugee Action over the past year, which is in relation to how we were empowering people who are in the asylum process to influence the organisation is that we’ve established a steering group that is made up of people that already active in the organisation, they might be acted as campaigners or people trying to influence our services and giving us feedback in particular locations. We supported that group to come together, they elected their own leadership, we’ve invested a little bit of time and money in giving them really strong training, probably, to be honest, had better training on governance than my board. And as a result, they just became incredibly confident and articulate to come into our annual board residential in January and to say, look, this is where we want the organisation to do this is what we want to see you doing so I feel like it’s brought people from across as I said, obviously many nationalities different bits of the country and you know, actually working virtually has helped on that process, I think. And you know, there’s there’s no going back and I think, again, there’s momentum in that because now four of our 10 board members have been through the asylum process that group then joins… Yeah, they’re becoming the majority in that conversation at that moment between the board and the group. So I certainly think, again, all work in progress. And there are many issues it froze up when you’re asking people to commit a lot of time and energy when actually, you can’t reward them, because you’re legally banned from paying them for working right now. So there are loads of issues around it. But I think it has been for everyone involved, really exciting.
Polly Neate 30:29
I love your thing about there’s no going back. Surely that’s what we have to hold as leaders. We have been on a journey over the past year, we should have been on it earlier. I think we all accept that. But now we’ve got to be really clear that there’s no going back.
Tessy Ojo 30:45
Absolutely. I said to someone recently, actually, I think I was in a presentation. And someone said to me, what keeps you awake at night, and I said, I can’t unhear what I’ve heard. We held a campaign that brought young people together, the campaign was called Young and Black. And we did it in partnership with UK Youth. And young black people shared their experiences of being young and black in the UK. One of the words that still haunts me today is a young person who said, being young and black in the UK is a roller coaster, is like a roller coaster. And so in a whole different setting. When someone said to me, what keeps me awake at night, I said, I just cannot unhear that. And that’s the thing that drives me. How can you, having heard what we’ve heard, and if your motivation for being in this sector is to create change, why would you sit back and do nothing? On that note… Do you have any parting words for us?
Stephen Hale 31:44
First, you know, thank you to both of you for this invitation. And for the leadership you’re both showing on this issue and the you know, the insight we’ll be giving people who have listened to these podcasts. I think the last thing I would just say is that having centred this problem at this point, and recognising that, as Polly just said, you know, we could have, should have done it long ago, it’s really important that we sustain momentum. But it’s really important also that we internally, we need to sustain momentum. Externally, we also need to sustain momentum, but also on our terms by telling this story in ways that is going to engage people and work for them, not by jumping into traps, which are being set for us. So if we’re going to build people’s understanding and capacity to have this conversation that has many different dimensions, we need to do it by telling it our way, not by being caught in other people’s.
Polly Neate 32:32
Thank you so much.
Tessy Ojo 32:33
It’s been so lovely. Thank you for sharing your heart with us.
Stephen Hale 32:37
Thank you both.