Environment Agency officer and ‘volunteering legend’ receives MBE

Charan Sekhon, a UNISON branch welfare and equalities officer, received the award for over two decades of charitable works

Charan Sekhon collects his MBE from King Charles at Windsor Castle
Images: Charan Sekhon MBE/Twitter

UNISON member, Charan Sekhon – dubbed a ‘Bedford volunteering legend’ by a local newspaper, collected his MBE at Windsor Castle, last week.

He had been awarded the honour in the New Year Honours List 2022, for services to charity, diversity, the environment and his work through COVID-19.

Now working as a senior environment officer, Charan has given 23 years of service to the East Anglian Environment Agency (EA), and, on top of that, has been heavily involved in local and international charitable endeavours over those years.

In his ‘day job’, Charan deals with improving environmental awareness among businesses and communities, as well as environmental regulatory compliance, audits and enforcement. An active UNISON member since he joined the agency, he is currently the branch welfare officer and equality co-ordinator.

The Cabinet Office listed the official reasons why Charan was awarded with an MBE as his contributions to diversity, environment, charity and COVID-19 support work.

Two threads through these areas of work are diversity and equality. During his time working for the EA, he has undertaken various projects on the issues. These include creating more fair and inclusive workplaces, providing input in creating transparent policies and monitoring systems, and leading a community engagement campaign for East Anglia that promotes the EA as an employer among ethnic minority communities.

On the latter initiative, Charan says: “As a result of one very focussed campaign, the application rate [of people from ethnic minority communities applying to EA jobs] went from around 2% to nearly 10%”.

Charan Sekhon collects his MBE from King Charles at Windsor Castle

Charity work

Charan also has an impressive, extensive and eclectic CV of charity work over the last 25+ years since he came to the UK.

He played an integral role in setting up the first Sikh place of worship in Kempston, Bedfordshire, then serving voluntarily for nearly 15 years on the temple management committee, as well as having the unpaid roles of city and parish councillor for nearly two decades.

He has also fundraised for numerous charities, from Macmillan Cancer Support to running the London Marathon for Papworth Trust Cambridge, a charity which provides training and employment opportunities to people with disabilities.

His work with charities eventually led Charan to set up a group which, in 2016, founded the charity SEVA Trust UK. SEVA stands for ‘Social Education Voluntary Association’ but ‘seva’ is also a Punjabi and Hindi word which translates to ‘selfless service’. At the same time, he set up a parallel charity in India, called SEVA Trust UK (India).

Charan outlines the key objectives of the charities as: “Education, environment, health and social welfare, in both countries.

“We are helping students and families from disadvantaged backgrounds and promoting free health awareness and yoga classes, as well as raising awareness on environmental issues.”

When discussing what motivates him to do so much charity work, he says: “I come from a very humble background myself. I have seen all the hardships, especially the lack of access to quality education in rural and remote communities. I was very fortunate to be able to do my education back in India as well as here, but I wanted to give something back to the communities, based on my own experiences.”

A particular focus of the charities are skill-development programmes – helping people to generate skills that enable them to live independent, fulfilling lives. In India, this, in part, takes the form of providing women from rural backgrounds with the skills and knowledge to set up their own small-scale businesses.

“It’s exactly the same here,” he continues. “We are working with disadvantaged communities, with parents on minimum wage and, in one project I’m really proud of, providing free laptops to disadvantaged children in Bedford.”

Charan also emphasises UNISON’s involvement in supporting SEVA, calling it “instrumental” through providing grants to support projects in India as well as in the UK. “Through COVID we actually worked with the UNISON officers to set up food hubs in Bedford and Luton, we helped a lot of low-income and frontline NHS workers, their families and international students, who needed help or were isolating. We were delivering free food to doorsteps over a number of months.”

A special memory

On receiving his MBE, Mr Sekhon says he’s “honoured and humbled to have been nominated”. Speaking of the moment he received the award from King Charles, Charan comments on how personal and special it felt, that rather than just another person in a line to have their moment, the King took interest in the particulars of his work, and that the memory will stay with him for the rest of his life.

Apart from receiving his MBE, Charan was also one of the Environment Agency members who went out on strike on 18 January this year. Speaking about the strike he said: “It’s about fairness for everyone, this is what UNISON stands for.

“It’s a very, very challenging job to protect and enhance the environment, we have frontline staff who are out there in the freezing cold, dealing with pollution incidents and making sure properties are protected from flooding – these people deserve fair pay.”

“There has been a squeeze on all public sector pay, but the EA has been hit particularly hard.”

Charan’s commitment to ‘seva’ – selfless service – is evident in his  reasoning here. “I am not striking just for myself, I’m on a relatively senior grade, it’s about each and every worker who does an amazing job, they do a lot of work outside office hours, incident officers on call 24/7. This is for everyone’s rights, everyone’s pay.

“We all love our jobs, frontline officers absolutely love their job, they are really, really proud to work for the EA, but at the same time we are just looking for fairness.

“We were very pleased, on the Environment Agency picket lines [in January], that there were many senior managers coming out in their own time to say hello and show support. There wasn’t any resentment. I believe, in principle, everyone agrees that the action taken by UNISON is right.”

As a mark of his character, at the end of the conversation, Charan adds that: “I am really grateful to my family, EA and UNISON colleagues and all the volunteers of SEVA Trust for their amazing support. But with this recognition, I feel my responsibility has doubled, tripled. This will only motivate me to go further. I’m going to carry on as long as I am able.”

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