Category Archives: philosophy

Fixing the Broken not Healing the Wounded – a wrong-footed Government response

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...

Image via Wikipedia

Our wise leader, David Cameron, clearly being an iconic Philosopher King, spent many days studying the possibly causes for the devastating riots in London and across England. He concluded after much intellectually rigorous pursuit, that the causes of the ‘sickness’ of Britain are – single parents and gangs aka ‘other people’.

Oh well, maybe he didn’t put quite as much thought into his words as I credited him for after all, he’s been toting those policy aims for decades. What more could we expect of him? Complex thought processes and analysis? Don’t be silly, he’s a politician who thrives on sound-bite politics that blames others.

I’m going to share a tiny bit of my own obviously clearly thought through analysis and that is this. There are no ‘easy’ solutions to the endemic problems that created a culture where people feel they can take what they want. This was not about ‘gangs’ although I’m willing to concede that might have been a fraction of one part of a ‘problem’. This is not about single parent families although yes, there may be people who are labelled that way. It seems that when our leaders set about scapegoating some of the voiceless citizens, we are heading for more divisions and damage than healing and unity which is what we really should be seeking. I’m not saying people should not be punished according to the law but they should not have new punishments invented specifically for them just to satisfy the vengence of the middle class who suffered for the first times when Ealing and Clapham burned.

These were Cameron’s words yesterday

Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face … Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback,” Cameron said as he described the violent disorder as a “wake-up call” for Britain.

“Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised.”

Setting out his personal priorities for government the prime minister promised he won’t be “found wanting”: “In my very first act as leader of this party I signalled my personal priority: to mend our broken society. That passion is stronger today than ever.”

There’s a lot here to get our collective heads around. A lot of dangerous assumptions and a clear view into the simplistic mind of someone who is supposed to be a leader and has proved himself beyond inadequate for the task.  The Financial Times for example, explains that these riots happened in a period where crime figures had been falling consistency? A moral breakdown? Perhaps not.

Irresponsibility? Like appointing a press secretary whom you have repeatedly been warned not to appoint and to continue to give him ‘second chances’ when you don’t consider second chances for the person who steals a bottle of water.

Selfishness? Like the MPs who gorged themselves on expense claims.

Behaving as if your choices have no consequences? Oh, well, for this one I have to reference the Iain Duncan Smith story from The Broken of Britain

Now, all those platitudes, we get onto the real meatiness that Cameron is gagging for.

Children without fathers? Excuse me? Does he realise how he stigmatises and chastises all the fine families that are raised by a single parent? Does he really think the presence of a man and a woman in a family unit regardless of whether they actually want to be together (the usual reason that splits take place) will ‘help’ the children? He is a fool and it is a dangerous message. Male or female role models do not have to be parents and unhappy parenting is not a useful environment in any circumstances. Cameron has his ideal of the perfect ‘Chipping Norton’ family just as he has his ideal of the perfect ‘Chipping Norton’ community. It is damagingly false and it seeks to further stigmatise and alienate those who for very many good reasons, do not conform to his traditional family view. Does he refer to families with two mothers or two fathers or single-father families? What about communities with extended friends as support? He is finding it too easy to paint ‘poor people’ with a brush.

Schools without discipline? Again an easy target. How about actually putting money and effort into the schools that exist then rather than trying to hive them off into ‘free schools’.

Reward without effort? Um.. Mr Cameron.. you know, you with the inheritence of millions. Can you tell us exactly what effort you put into the accident of your birth?

Crime without punishment? – Well, I suppose that depends on definitions but an awful lot of crimes seem to be getting some mightily grand punishments at the moment. Unlike the bankers who ravaged the finances of the nation.

Rights without responsibilities? Dangerous stuff here. See, he has been quoting that awfully subversive Human Rights Act. Possibly because he, in his privileged position would never have need to refer to it.

Communities without control? Interesting one. I wonder what exactly he means. Which communities are these? Poor communities? Communities of people with different minority ethnic backgrounds? Gangs? It’s pretty rhetoric and a nice alliteration but it is meaningless.

You see, I don’t believe Britain is ‘broken’. I think she is functioning as well as she can despite the government though. I think the more that the rhetoric fixes on the ‘sick pockets’ and less on the body politic the more she will begin to sicken though.

Cameron’s ‘solution’ to help to fix (note fix not heal)  this country is to bring in Emma Harrison from Action for Employment as a ‘Families Champion’. Really? That’s a bit patronising and it seems to dictate to us as adult citizens what ‘families’ the government approves of and disapproves of but back to Emma Harrison who has built her millions on the back of the government’s ‘Welfare to Work’ programmes. Is this really a call for more private profit-making?

What message does it send about making money off the back of so-called ‘broken families’ and trying to fix them?

For me, Cameron’s heavy-handed and quite frankly ignorant response to the riots is a sign of a far more broken element of British society. The ruling classes and their detached empathy sensors. That has already caused a lot of damage and is likely to cause far more in the future and we need to be wary of it and try and push the agenda towards healing rather than fixing.

Sadness, Sympathy and Self

Sometimes, some days feel filled with sadness. I had one of those days this week. I don’t like to use the word ‘hardened’ but to put it this way, in over 10 years of frontline social work practice in some of the most deprived areas of the country and in the inner city, I’ve seen a fair bit of what society has to throw in terms of crumbs to those who are some of the most vulnerable members of it.

I look at the high rises that skirt around the cities and I see hundreds of lives being lived, families existing and stories being told. Some with hope and pride. Some with desperation and despair. All different, all a part of this community and society we live in. Poverty is real. Despair is real. The two don’t have to go hand in hand though.

I have a strong stomach and don’t bat an eyelid at all sorts of things when I walk into a house. I’ve probably seen worse.

In some ways, human misery is a part of my trade. Not always, of course, because there are the wonderfully reassuring smatterings of hope but difficult social circumstances and social deprivation run a theme through my career.

Although I often emphasis that mental ill-health is certainly no respecter of social class or financial assets, it is sometimes the level of deprivation and the difficulty and shame of poverty that I see that reminds me of the way that this political class intentionally ignores and isolates some members of the community.

Perhaps the most difficult part of  my job is wrapped up in the AMHP (Approved Mental Health Practitioner) role. It is a mirror into my ethical compass and while I enjoy the aspects that were involved in training and the support and development and even community feeling I have with other AMHPs, the process of making a decision about someone’s forced detention in hospital or a forced medication regime is never one that can be taken lightly and I don’t think it is one that should ever be ‘enjoyed’.  It is power, writ large. It is control.

Sometimes people thank you retrospectively for ‘making the right decision for me at the time’ but more likely that isn’t going to happen.

This week, I carried out a Mental Health Act Assessment in a hospital. That is very far from unusual. When I read the background and the circumstances, when I conducted the assessment and made the application for detention, which I did, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness for the action that I had taken and for the life that it predominantly affected.

For obvious reasons  I won’t go into details – anyway, even if I did they would possibly sound fanciful and unrealistic. To people who think that I have a ‘difficult’ job, I would say I  have had a walk-on part among some fine and very strong people who have had to contend with sickness, pain and family circumstances that have rolled all the dice against them in the lottery of life.

And when I sign the papers and write up the report, I don’t forget. I think, I reflect and I try to learn. What could we have done to prevent this situation from having occurred? Sometimes the answer is nothing but sometimes there might have been a different path, a different action or different guidance that might have led to a different outcome.

Sometimes, some days, I just feel overcome with sadness. Sadness at the injustices that are meted out by life, fate and circumstance. Sadness at the way that this society perpetuates and builds on those injustices of circumstance. Sadness at my role my own complacency in accepting that we have created such an unequal and unfair society.

In a community where people who live on state benefits are treated with an intention to humiliate and scorn and where the government not only condones and supports this, it tries to create further barriers between the ‘haves’ (with ‘have’ meaning working tax-payer) and the ‘have-nots’ (meaning those who depend on the state for income) it sickens me as I know that the rhetoric of ‘choice’ and  ‘community capacity building’  are empty words which mean nothing without the world of privilege. By privilege I don’t mean money, necessarily, but include the privilege of having family or friends around, the privilege of being well enough to build up networks of support, the privilege of being a part of a community. There is so much more to privilege that cash assets or income.

Sometimes I want to shout against the system that I am a part of. The social care system in this country is not ‘fair’ – it reeks desperately of unfairness and the pushing of ‘choice’ in very narrow terms onto a wide range of people who in reality have no choice whatsoever further marginalises and discriminates against poverty, incapacity and isolation.

But I continue in my job. I go into work and ‘buy into’ the system. In my own defence, I fight as hard as I can from the inside and I don’t forget the names, the faces and the stories of those whose lives touch mine.

I remember, I note and I learn and sometimes, that just fills me with sadness – but when I stop feeling that sadness, I stop learning, growing and trying to create a better world. One person at a time. In spite of the system I work in and with rather than because of it.

Elaine McDonald, Kensington and Chelsea and Dignity

Yesterday, the High Court ruled in the case of R (on the application of McDonald)  v Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. This was a further appeal by McDonald against a previous decision at a lower court.

Elaine McDonald is 68 year old woman who worked as a ballerina in her younger days. The press seems to be a little fixated on her former career, and she does have a more glamorous background than many who come to rely heavily on social care so perhaps it is no surprise. Ms McDonald suffered from a debilitating stroke in 1999 and had a further fall in 2006 which led to very poor mobility.  Although not medically incontinent, she required assistance to use the commode during the night.  She had been provided with overnight support to meet her assessed needs related to continence during the night however Kensington and Chelsea were suggesting that this need could be met by substituting this assistance with the provision of continence pads during the night which would, by their nature, demand that Ms McDonald remain in these pads until carers could come in the morning and at intervals to ‘change’ her.

sulle punte

frabattista @ flickr

I wasn’t surprised by the decision by the High Court because there are precedents that led the access of local authorities to resources to be a factor in relation to the provision of services.

In my own working experience, it is impossible to access any kind of home care support overnight except in some very specific cases where there is very high need support and even then, it is much much more likely to be provided to younger adults with physical disabilities. I can count on the fingers of one hand the amounts of times I’ve come across local authority funded overnight support in the last 10+ years of practice.

Sometimes I have to take a step back from what I regard as ‘normal’ practice to understand the outrage at this decision. I realise how I become attuned to ‘local authority’ think and ‘budgetary’ think and that’s quite an uncomfortable thought.

We get used to applying different definitions of ‘dignity’ and what is acceptable because we are aware of the thousands of Ms McDonalds that require support and the existence of a  finite resource. So do you support the Ms McDonalds and assist them to provide a fuller and more dignified life at home or do you provide 8 Ms Smiths with respite care over the year. These are the realities of the decisions and it shouldn’t have to be so.

Perhaps that’s why I’m less surprised by the McDonald ruling and less surprised by it.

There are though horrendous inequities in our system of the provision of social care. Where Ms McDonald in Kensington and Chelsea may be receiving a vastly different service from a parallel Ms McDonald in Newham.  I would venture a guess that there are thousands of potentially very similar cases to Ms McDonald bubbling under the surface ‘in the system’ but because they are not ex-Prima ballerinas and don’t have the will, way and means to bring cases and involve solicitors, we will never know about them.

If anything is, quite literally, the ‘dirty secret’ of social care and health care provision particularly for older adults, it is this.

We have different standards of what we class as being ‘dignified’ for ourselves as for others. What might class as dignity to an older adult has less value and invites less spending to an equivalent younger adult with exactly the same care needs. Those who shout loudest get the most – as far as care is concerned and as far as public interest is concerned.  The shame and pity of the ‘personalisation’ agenda and the flawed implementation of personal budgets in social care have exacerbated this problem further rather than provided a channel to allow for a more equitable system of care delivery.

It sometimes feel cruel and harsh, because it is a cruel and harsh system that it perpetuated by discriminatory systems. Would the warehouse-style very large residential and nursing care homes with 100+ beds be acceptable for younger adults with similar care needs? I don’t think so.   I don’t mean to imply that every large care home is bad and every small care home is good. That isn’t the case. It’s about a fundamental reassessment of what is acceptable in the provision of care for older people in our society.

Lucy at The Small Places covers the issue of dignity through caselaw, in an excellent, thorough and educational post.

I make no apology for my less erudite post and thoughts.  The more I work and the more I reflect, the more interplay I see between the basic conceits of ethics and ethical judgement in the role that I play as a part of this system that condones this mealy mouthed interpretation of human rights merely on the basis of cost and resourcing issues.

It is accepted because our society is inherently ageist. We don’t want to think or pay for the care of older people. We care more about our collective inheritances and potential house prices than the more collective thoughts about where the boundaries of an acceptable level of care and dignity lie.

If anything, this has impressed on  me the importance of constant reflection on my practice and my work. I can advocate to an extent, from within the system, for the dignity of those like Ms McDonald and I try to. Some I win and some I lose but as long as I make my voice heard through every step of the process I can help to feed the voices ‘from the front line’ back to the more senior managers.

I make judgements and I am the mouthpiece of the local authority. I am an employee but the second that I become complacent, the  moment I stop reflecting on the effects the decisions I make have and the instant that I join that local authority ‘group think’, I lose my ethical compass and my professional judgement.

I talk a lot about important qualities of social workers and social care workers. Respect, empathy and to that I’d add advocacy. It might not always be seen in the internal battles that we fight, but we have to try to fight so as not to accept a ‘normal’ that is defined on the bank balance sheets of the local authority accountants.

Power, Status and Professionalism

power. to protect.

 

kenyee@flickr

I was ruminating over the post I wrote yesterday about the interplay and interaction between being a social worker and being a foster carer and the one aspect that played on my mind was the differential in ‘status’.

I used to think status and professional status was very important to me as a social worker. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very proud to be a social worker but I think when I was first qualified, I was also proud to be doing ‘something proper’ and recognised.

I had, at this point, in my defence, worked for years in the care sector as a support worker and a care worker. I had had friends and family asking me when I was going to get a ‘proper’ job and tell me that my academic qualifications were ‘underused’ in a minimum wage care job.

And I listened. I began to believe. The process towards my professionalisation was one I was proud of. Sometimes if you do a ‘low status’ job or have no job, society makes assumptions about your general intelligence level so being able to prove that I could make it through a postgraduate course was also an element of pride for me. I liked the idea of ‘having a profession’.

But I wonder if I was too taken by status and if the divides and gaping holes that exist between policy makers and practitioners is because ‘status’ is a bar.

For example, yesterday I had an extensive conversation with the Personal Budgets Implementation Manager about a case I was working on. We made good progress on hopefully working on a more creative option for a service user I’m working with currently.

My colleagues were surprised that a) I had approached this ‘manager’ directly and b) that she  had listened.

I thought about this and my role in perpetuating the divides between policy and practice and how status remains such a predominant factor in blocking conversations from the ‘front line’ to ‘management’.

We are institutionalised both by our employers who determine that ‘conversation’ flows in one direction and by our society where we, as a species seem to be keen to label everything, put labels on everything and want to by our nature, know our place in the societal pyramids of power.

So back now to the foster carer and the social worker. Is the foster carer really on a ‘lower’ rung of the ladder of professionalism than the social worker that they can be ‘looked down on’ by so-called professionals? It can honestly feel that way and taking a step back to look at the way I am ‘dealt’ with when I have my ‘social worker’ hat on as opposed to when I introduce and describe myself as a ‘foster care’ is a glimpse into the different statuses that it is accorded.

Status is afforded because power is present and this is something that overrides the social work profession in whatever capacity it is undertaken. Whether it is in adult care management where it can feel as a practitioner that you are pretty reined in in terms of what care can be provided on financial levels, in the eyes of the service user you are the ‘gatekeeper’ to the mythical goal of ‘provision of care services’.

In Mental Health work there are some obvious legal powers under the Mental Health Act but even in day to day care co-ordination, you become the conduit between the multidisciplinary team and the service user. You decide what is important to feed back, what constitutes a concern or a worry and how situations may be resolved or, if necessary escalated.

And we go into people’s homes. We make appointments. We decide on timings to fit into our busy diaries. Sometimes we even cancel appointments. These are all displays of power. Power isn’t about flexing of muscles, it can be as much about sending a letter or making a phone call suggesting a time to visit. Of course, it has to exist but the important thing is never to forget the power differentials and the way that they change the dynamics between user and provider.

With my last social work student, we spoke a lot about power and I alluded that she should reflect on the power relationship between us as well as the power relationship with service users. I smile and I joke with her but there is an enormous power differential between us that cannot go unacknowledged.

And as a foster carer, I accept that social workers will turn up at any point to see the child I have in placement or to just see the home or to check up on us. That’s fine, it’s understandable and I have no problem whatsoever with that, I know it’s a part of the process and I would feel angry if foster carers were not subject to checks but there is a power differential there and it has to be acknowledged  – even if it is not openly acknowledged.

We can never have an truly equitable ‘status’ because social workers can come and check on me and are responsible for my approval as a foster carer but I can’t wander into their home or even office at will (trust me, I wouldn’t want to!).  I think without acknowledging this power differential or by pretending there is any kind of ‘equal’ status we do both parties a disservice.

Once acknowleged, issues of power can be addressed and considered but if it remains unspoken, they can be levered and used for less positive outcomes and ends.

As for ‘professionalism’ in social work, I think we could go round in circles with this one. Respect is helpful but that is a truism that can pretty much be applied to any sphere of life. Is the respect based on professionalism? Only if the professional is respectful and competent.   An incompetent professional can do far more damage than good and the converse is true for a good professional.

Thinking back to the stories of abuse at Winterbourne View,  we see much more obvious displays of power. The power was held by the care workers and exercised on the patients at Winterbourne. There is something within the care sector where so  much work is done with some who for many reasons may have little power that it can attract people who want to exercise power for the wrong reasons – to augment feelings of self-worth or to bolster failings in other areas of their lives. It is important that the power dynamic is acknowledged and guarded against at all levels and that it never ever becomes something that is taken for granted or played on to make others feel threatened or denigrated.

The status, the qualification, the experience and the practice alone don’t make a ‘good professional’ – it is a mixture of all of them and the way that power is used, acknowledged (internally) and processed that create good practice and good practitioners.

We can often talk about qualities that are important for good social workers and social care workers. I wonder if I’ve mentioned it but for the reasons above, I would put the quality of humility very high. We need to listen and be aware of the inherent power we have. We need to ensure the voices we hear are echoed upwards in our chains of ‘command’. We need to listen to experts of their own situation and the people close to them. Sometimes we have to impose and sometimes we have to say no, but we acting with humility is a rich and exceptional quality and one that makes a good social worker.

Safeguarding Adults Awareness Week

I learnt from my Twitter stream (thanks to Lindsay_Pike) that as well as being Carers’ Week, this week is also ‘Safeguarding Adults Awareness Week’.  I had never come across this as a ‘week’ before so used my carefully honed research skills to type ‘Safeguarding Adults Awareness Week’ into Google to see what it might be about.

There seem to be some local events arranged in Windsor, Kent and a nice sand sculpture in Cornwall as well as other places, it had certainly completely passed me by.

While the very scientific poll undertaken in Rotherham on the site of the councillor who was promoting it says that

76 % of the people surveyed were aware of safeguarding. A similar survey two weeks ago showed 54% recognition. The campaign of posters on the back of buses had been particularly successful.

I wonder if this ‘week’ though is truly ‘national’ and how important awareness is to identification and work to fight against abuse of adults who might be at risk of abuse.

There is a vast chasm between awareness of abuse towards adults and children – for me the division is arbitrary at best. Abuse of a person with knowledge/power/influence towards someone who lacks the ability – cognitive/physical or emotional to guard against it should be tackled regardless of the age of the so-called ‘victim’.

Why should society deal differently with the perpetrator according to the age of the person who is abused if the power differential is equivalent?

This is why I find the divisions and differences between the way that safeguarding is managed in childrens and adults services so different.

There are a lot of assumptions made though in the world of safeguarding. One is that anyone ‘old’ or anyone ‘disabled’ is automatically a s0-called ‘vulnerable’ adult. That isn’t necessarily the case.

But when someone who is at risk of being abused is – the responses from all parties can be patchy.

Perhaps that is why there is a differential in the way that safeguarding is investigated – the determination of being at risk is more straightforward with children because there are clear age boundaries to guide when an action is abuse and when it isn’t.

With adults, it is a value judgement about capacity and power relationships and that loaded word that I can’t quite find a perfect replacement for – vulnerability.

What makes one adult more vulnerable to abuse than another and is there a continuum of vulnerability that can cloud the way investigations are dealt with? In some situations it is brutally clear – Winterbourne View, for example, but when an historically abusive relationship between a husband who is physically violent towards his wife progresses as she develops dementia – at what point does it become an issue for social services to step in?

Between two ‘capacitious’ adults where there are no children involved, this would not be a situation for social services. With a progressive dementia or other vulnerability, it does.

For me, this is a very live issue as I work with a few people who have historically been in abusive relationships and when we intervene and when we are able to intervene becomes a very key judgement in a safeguarding investigation.

The key issues of human autonomy and human rights come into play in so many of the judgements we make regarding decisions of when and how to investigate safeguarding issues and what is and is not a safeguarding issue.

For me, I find I relate much more to the philosophical tenets of rights, responsibilities and ethics as I try and fit together the marginal decisions and the importance that an assessment of capacity can have on the life of another. The ability to reflect on the day to day decisions that might otherwise be taken speedily become more evident and more clear.

I can’t escape of the heavy moral responsibility that I feel in my day to day work. Every decision I make about prioritising, about capacity and in much clearer terms about hospital admissions weigh increasingly with the thought of implication, choice, rights and outcomes.

A thoughtless and unexamined practitioner is a dangerous practitioner.

Sometimes we can choose to overcomplicate and overanalyse but without consideration we can forget the power that we have.

So this week of Safeguarding has more or less passed me by but it is something that I’ll ponder on for much more than a week. I hope that next years’ week, if it exists, has some more thought and coherence behind it (and that it doesn’t coincide with Carers’ Week!).

Passover and the Importance of Freedom

Passover Seder Plate

Image via Wikipedia

Today is the first day of the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach). Although I’m far from religious, I can’t escape the cultural significance of the holiday and the time of year as it is one of the times that links the past recollections of family times with a strong cultural tradition of spending time together and recalling a communal history.

It is traditional for families to spend this time together and the festival itself recalls the Biblical event of the exodus from Egypt and the importance of freedom.  Freedom  though, it is a concept that I’ve spent some time thinking over.

According to Wikipedia (I know full well the dangers of referencing Wikipedia!), Political Freedom is about the

relationship free of oppression or coercion;[ the absence of disabling conditions for a particular group or individual and the fulfilment of enabling conditions; or the absence of economic compulsion

It seems particularly valuable to linger on that definition a while in this days when the government (and opposition) are determined to divide the country into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ camps, into ‘working’ and ‘non-working’ where ‘working’ is good and non-working is bad and creating and extending a culture where we are judged on economic output and ability to earn alone.

Freedom is challenging and breaking the divisions that our government is seeking to create.

The castigation and alienation of immigrants, for example,  when Cameron holds forth debates which link the extension of the ‘benefit culture’ and increasing immigration in the minds of the audience. Blaming the poor seems to be very popular by those in power. That is not freedom. That must be challenged.

For me, that’s the importance of speaking against Cameron’s talk of those who come to this country and his maleficent  linking between immigration and the benefit bill.  He panders to an isolationism that breaks society into discrete sections. Divide and rule.

I find his words hard to compute with my image and idea of what Britishness is. What is it that makes Cameron’s home counties Britishness is so diametrically opposed to my urban Britishness?

Experience and identity, I would wager. I am from immigrant stock but that doesn’t make me feel less British. Should it? I am unsure now.

We have a long way to go to create the idyllic, accepting  and yes, free, British society that I want to live in but I don’t want to live in a country that equates immigration with problems. I want to live in a country which does not criticise on the basis of ability or first language. Integrate, integrate, integrate – we hear. Surely the richness of the nation is the elasticity to accept diversity. I imagine Cameron would feel satisfied looking at ‘someone like me’. I seem integrated, I certainly speak English with an English accent. But I don’t want his approval or his distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants.

I don’t necessarily say there should be no immigration controls at all but I do believe that it is an easy bandwagon to jump on in times of economic hardship. It is a broken record. It is stuck on repeat. Blame immigrants. Blame difference. Blame disability and/or sickness. Blame benefits.

It is a society that has created these systems that needs to be blamed and it is a foolhardy and base politician that plays on these lowest common denominators to pander to a public that feels frightened amidst harder economical times.

But these are dangerous words from Cameron and we would do well to heed them. He does not have an understanding of my Britain, my England, my London where people do come and live from all over the world and are creating communities together. On the one hand he tries to praise communitarianism through his ‘Big Society’ approach but only if it is about Royalist Street Parties?

My Big Society is very different from Cameron’s and the more he speaks the prouder I am of the society that I live in and the more I strive for the society that I want to create. The demonstration on March 26th? That was my society.

The best way to counter these arguments of Cameron’s is to prove that we will not accept the agenda that has been laid down for us and to keep challenging the reactionary views that immigration only causes problems, that people who do not work are idle and that there are distinctions between deserving and undeserving poor.

Freedom is an ethereal concept and while it means different things to many different people my hope for this coming year is that we stand up more as a collective and tell the government and those who claim to know what we want and what is best for us about a society works for us. Freedom is an equal and equitable society.

The world is changing and sometimes we need to take a step back to see how it has changed. We have more opportunities for collective action that might have been possible in the past and have ever new ways of making connections and building links across divides which might otherwise have remained closed. In some ways, I have never been  more optimistic about the possibilities for change that we can hold in our hands.

We just have to seize back the debate and the rhetoric and perhaps that freedom and change can be within our grasp.

So for those celebrating over the next week whether Passover, Easter or the Spring Solstice or for those simply celebrating the days of Spring as they arrive with a hopeful expectation, I hope we can all think about the importance of political freedoms over the next year and all that we can and must do to promote it.

Changing the World

Regional Leadership Forum

Image via Wikipedia

This weekend I met up with a friend of mine whom I first met when I started my MA in Social Work roughly 12 years ago.

Since graduating and qualifying, our careers have taken different but in some ways parallel paths. She works in childrens’ services and currently works in a fostering and adoption team.

We’ve both spent a couple of those years ‘out of the workforce’ for various reasons (travel, family).

When we met, I was trying to persuade her to come to the SWAN event in London next weekend.  We discussed the way some of the idealism that we had had back in the day when we were students had gone and how easy it was to become distracted from the ‘bigger fight’ for social justice on a societal level when you are struggling from day to day in a job where sometimes it’s difficult to see beyond the ‘care and control’.

Some days, at work, it might not feel that we are making a change for the positive but it needs to remain absolutely key to the process of the work and we need to draw on the spirit that took us into this profession in the first place.  With a little bit of prodding and perhaps more importantly, active reflection, we can uncover those roots.

I remember, and we discussed this, how much I wanted the world to change 12 years ago. How much injustice there is and how much more I have seen since qualifying.  Society has a whole lot of changing to be done before my head can rest easy on the pillow at night. It’s just sometimes, at the end of a day when I’ve been rushing around and an preoccupied with primarily ‘fire-fighting’ crises in practice, it’s hard to free up those parts of the brain for the ‘bigger fight’.

This is why it was refreshing to meet and discuss where we are at – a decade later. The political climate has always marginalised the ‘dependent’ but the lines of battle are more sharply drawn  now. The differences are that we have far many more weapons in our arsenal for the ‘fight’ ahead.

On reflection, I was fairly ambitious as a student. If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I wouldn’t be in a management position 10 years after qualifying, I would have been sorely disappointed.  I had struggled hard to get to the point of actually taking the course, it hadn’t been a smooth path – but I was so determined that in some ways I would make a mark and make a difference to more people than those whom I directly worked with.

As it is though, I’m not remotely disappointed. Perhaps I’ve got a better insight into where that management leads and I’m not sure I want to ‘buy into it’. If I thought I couldn’t make a difference for the positive and good, I wouldn’t last in this job. Yes, I need money to survive but there are easier ways of making enough to live on. I’ve got a healthy disrespect for money.

Last week, the National Skills Academy for Social Care initiated a consultation about the role of leadership in adult social care.  I haven’t yet read the Consultation Document but I will. I fully intend to submit a response having worked in adult care for well over 15 years now (gulp, that ages me!)  . For me, leadership and management are absolutely not analogous and it is an important distinction to  make. Management positions don’t make good leaders and good leaders are not by necessity, good managers. If anything, management is a functional role. It has left its inspiration behind it but more of that when I actually read the document.

You see, I feel that we have more ways at our fingertips to lead outside of the management role and that is the way to form opinions, grow roles and make a difference to a wider range of people. Perhaps even to change the world.

Through various ways and means, I am more radical though than I was when I was a student. Perhaps because I have been exposed to more injustice and am more au fait with the systems that create injustices.

I am having something of a reawakening of my radical soul and it is coming back stronger.

I do think I can change the world again. I am returning to my postmodern/social constructionist theoretical bases and it can explain to me – as all good theoretical models should be able to explain – the way that not only the modernist structures and assumptions are breaking up but also the modern modes of communication and perhaps the modern roles of ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ as cohabiting the same identity and space.

Information and the power behind information is fragmenting. Anyone can gain a presence on the web and use the voice piece to find and contact people who might be either of a similar mind or in other similar organisations.

We can organise ourselves without waiting for permission from management.

We can reach larger audiences without having to necessarily shout louder.

And the role of the social worker as advocate can really come into the fore at this point.

To do this though, we, as social workers need to get to grips with new media, new technology and most importantly social media.

There are many more ways to change the world.

I’m still convinced, no, in fact, I’m more convinced I can do it now than I was ten years ago.

Big Society Revisited

I am still having trouble understanding exactly what Cameron means by the ‘Big Society’. I am really trying. I have read up on it on it’s own website and I looked on Wikipedia (doesn’t that count as substantial research?). I attended a debate  last week at LSE (now available as a podcast and highly recommended) but just when I thought I had a grasp of the basic ideas, my thoughts take me down another path.

Liverpool Town Hall

It is about increasing the ‘civic responsibility and civic responsiveness’ of communities. It is about communities taking more control of issues that affect them. It is about volunteerism and increasing social capital.

Or it is about cuts and replacing central and local government responsibilities with people willing to take part and take action.

It can’t just be about active volunteering communities. That is not a new idea.

Perhaps it is about payment for volunteering in different forms – the Japanese idea mooted by Burstow a few months back about helping older people with some care in order to ‘bank hours’ for ones own care in the future.

But there have been forms of time banks for years where someone might offer a hour of gardening in exchange for an hour of French tuition. That isn’t ‘new’.

Is there going to be more government money to promote the rolling out of the State? No.

Is there going to be any additional time to plough into some of the ideas which form the base of the ‘Big Society’ ideal? No.

I see a potential for social work to transform into more a community based profession. We have the potential as social workers. We know the areas we work in and we have a chance to see areas and people who would benefit from both input and volunteerism. Sometimes I wish I had a more ethereal role in building community capital.

One of the roles of my work is what I would see as ‘building systems of support around people who are isolated’ so I might look at what groups exist – self-help as well as more formal day centres and lunch clubs – I look around online as well as off-line groups. Given a little more flexibility to grow and facilitate (and then withdraw, if necessary) from these groups – I can see some worth in the idea of community building.

There is not much scope or time for these roles at the moment.

Earlier this week,  Lord Nat Wei, who drives the Government’s Big Society agenda – ironically reduced the time he was able to spend on the project because he needed to spend his time, well, earning money and being with his family. On a human level that is completely understandable. I couldn’t give three days of my life up for voluntary work – it was, after all, a voluntary post.

But it is an indication of the difficulties that face the promises that have been made about the ‘Big Society’.

As discussed at the debate I attended, Big Society, is in danger due to demographics. Volunteers tend to be middle class and middle aged. There are ‘pet’ projects and charities. No doubt libraries in Surrey will do very well – but what about hostels in Brixton?

As if to emphasise this point, Liverpool, one of the ‘pilot’ areas for ‘Big Society’ pulled out yesterday with the leader of the council saying that when voluntary organisations are having their funding cut by reductions of grants to the council from central government, he is in no position to roll out the programme.

That leaves the pilot in a difficult and untenable place in my view. Liverpool was the ‘test site’ in a poorer, urban area. The other ‘test sites’ are

Eden in Cumbria – which by no means ‘richer’, is a large rural district. Arguably communities in small rural villages will be naturally more cohesive by the nature of geography.  Now, last week, the MP who represents Eden was present at the debate – Rory Stewart. He was an engaging speaker but he seemed very focused on the rights of residents to have more control over planning applications and the building of affordable housing (a key issue in rural areas). Fine. That’s all well and good but it sounded as if these projects were run by the voices that shouted the loudest. That is my concern about the way the projects and the ‘Big Society’ will pan out.

Sutton in London is another test site for the Big Society. Sutton covers leafy suburban areas and the borders between London and Surrey. Sutton is focuses on citizens ‘having a say’ about transport in the borough. Hm. I wonder how that fits with bus services being cut throughout the country. See, we can’t quite get away from the cuts agenda. Sutton fits perfectly into the ‘middle aged middle class’ band of ‘volunteers’ who might have time to attend meetings about which bus service might go where.

In fact, as the website says

Sutton is one of only four local authorities announced as ‘Big Society Communities’ because it’s regarded as having one of the country’s most vibrant communities with a very active voluntary sector, plus a track record of devolving power to our neighbourhoods.

In other words, lets just do what we were doing anyway and call it ‘Big Society’. That’s one way of guaranteeing success, Cameron.

And the last ‘test site’ after the withdrawal of Liverpool?

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Ah, maybe the Queen – an erstwhile resident of the aforementioned borough – wanted a go at ‘Big Society’. Hardly a representative area on income bases and types of community though.

Well, she could certainly pump some additional money in her own local community.

Boys from Eton visiting elderly widows to ‘take tea’. Yes, that might be it.

No, I have it wrong, Big Society isn’t just about volunteering – it is about community groups taking collective action. But it does seem to fall into the ‘middle aged middle class’ demographic again where it is expected that people will have more leisure time to devote to community building.

Reading through the proposals for the Royal Borough, I see some worthy suggestions about residents having greater influence on budgetary decisions and ‘adopting a street, park or library’. See, libraries again. Who is going to adopt the libraries in Toxteth though?

Which brings me to Liverpool. The only ‘test area’ that I personally felt gave the pilot some credibility. The other areas are overwhelmingly mono-cultural. I had to check my figures there regarding Sutton – as a London Borough, but I maintain my position as I found that

the proportion of BME residents living in LB Sutton, at 15.2%, is
significantly lower than for the South West London Sub-Region (27.0%) and for London (33.6 %).

So while the government can point to a pilot project ‘in London’ – Sutton is hardly representative of London or the communities that live therein.

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So maybe I have the Big Society all wrong. Maybe it isn’t about increasing volunteerism per se, as much as increasing participation. The problem is that whichever it is both participation and volunteerism need leisure time and in order for people to engage they need to feel engaged and that this idea – these ideas are ‘for them’.

I don’t want to dismiss all the ideas behind community building and grass-roots activism but this is nothing new and unfortunately the ‘Big Society’ label rests too heavily in the lap of this Conservative led government.

Liverpool was the chance for me to be proved wrong. How things worked in Liverpool would have more relevance to me and the communities I live and work in than how things worked in Sutton.

So the withdrawal of Liverpool from the project is very significant. Much more than the tittering about Lord Nat Wei’s ironic inability to have time to devote to the project.

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I want live in communities that are actively engaged but then, you see, I think I already do. I don’t want to ‘take over’ my local library. It runs very well with professional library staff. As for planning permission – well, everything around here is built up to the max so there aren’t many decisions to be made.

For me, if I were let loose on the project it would be one about increasing social capital and engagement but working in different ways and using social networking but not only that because that would exclude those who don’t have the same access to computer services.

But for now, I see Big Society as pleasing those who shout the loudest. Everyone else and anyone with any issue that might impede their own motivation or participation – be that a disability, a mental illness, a frailty, a lack of time, an alienation from the ‘mainstream’, a language barrier, a cultural barrier – is at risk of being swept along by the wishes of the loudest rather than the majority.

At least local authorities have some kind of democratic mandate regarding the decisions they make. Groups of communities may have no such responsibility.

Just to finish with a quote from Nat Wei’s blog. He says

I have also recently been working on online and other tools to help establish a community of activists who can champion and help create Big Society where they live. More on this will follow in the coming months

And a word to Nat Wei. Isn’t that by definition, ‘top down’.

Where is this community online?

Someone in the comments mentioned that it is a closed site to invitees.

Surely the ideas could be open to a broader forum of any interested party so that concerns and yes, ideas, can be moved beyond those who work in policy planning or are directors of voluntary organisations. Where do I, or those like me, who have been working in communities for years, go with our ideas?

Maybe the Big Society is an opportunity to fragment. Maybe we find our own spaces in the virtual worlds to play out or ideas. Maybe the concept of the Big Society can be linked to the networked world we live in where trying to impose from above will always be doomed to failure.

Maybe, just maybe, we are seeing the Big Society in Egypt.

It uses twitter to network and build alliances and share ideas and it won’t be owned by the government.

Maybe it is grass roots activism which needs to take on the models of a new media but remain inclusive to those who lack access across the digital divide.

The sad thing is that I see a massive role for social work in building a more engaged society, just as the government seem set on destroying it and removing the bases and protections on which our civilised society has stood.

Justice : A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century – a review

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the effects of some of the actions I take, particularly placing some of my work within an ethical and philosophical framework.

Yesterday, I caught ‘Justice : A Citizen’s Guide to the 21st Century’ on BBC4.

It is an absolute joy of a programme and I’d say that it has helped me reframe some of the questions that come to me on a day to day basis.

Michael Sandal, a professor in political philosophy at Harvard University, presents some of the key tenets of some prominent philosophers, Bentham, Kant, Aristotle for example and puts some of the challenges that they presented in their writings but in a modern context.

Philosophy and ethics, as Sandal states at the beginning, does not take place in a lecture hall vacuum of reading dusty texts but it takes place every day with every decision we make.

These tenets of ethics and philosophy affect every decision I make both in a professional and personal basis. When I make decisions about how to spend my time and whether to spend longer at one visit to be later for another. To the decisions relating to compulsory admission to hospital and decisions about ‘best interests’ and where the line for capacity and individual freedoms are drawn – these are all decisions that come to me daily.

As Sandal takes us to different places to discuss some of the concepts that were expounded by these philosophers.

It led me to question myself (almost socratically!)

Do I make the right decisions? Are there right decisions?

Perhaps it is the system that needs to be changed?

How does the state serve the citizen, or perhaps it is the citizen that serves the state – and if so, is there any problem with that?

Does the state protect us? What do we offer to the state in response?

Has the nature of the ‘Social Contract’ Changed?

Mainly there is a question of individual and collective rights.

I love the ideas of creating a context to promote a better way of politics working that moves away from the individual but doesn’t dismiss the individual rights.

It is an excellent programme which I can’t recommend highly enough that left me massive room for reflection. It presents what can appear to be somewhat ethereal concepts as they have become and places them on a practical level. Not just on the nature of my work and my place as a ‘cog in the machine’  but the nature of modern politics and the ethical base and role of politicians.

We can’t rely on politicians to be the vanguard and determiners of what a society should be like but take a role as citizens in creating a world and society in which we want to live, taking action, if necessary to make changes.

I try not to lose the connection with my background as a philosophy graduate but this programme re-instilled and reinvigorated some of my love for debate about ethics (ethics was always one of my favourite courses).

It is part of a season on BBC 4 about ‘Justice’.  I didn’t catch the debate about Justice and the Big Society which was on over the weekend, but I hope to catch it on the iPlayer. There a lot of really interesting programmes coming up. As for this programme, I’d recommend it highly.

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