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Enemies of Enterprise

I am a generally tolerant person. It’s useful in this profession of social work and my broadly tolerant nature has served me well throughout my life. I would like to think I don’t make enemies often.

Apparently though, Cameron has declared war on the ‘Enemies of Enterprise’.  I think as a public servant I might come into his broad sweep of his judgement as an ‘enemy’ although I hardly fall into his vision of a ‘bureaucrat’ – not that you’d believe that if you saw the amount of forms and pieces of paper on my desk  but I digress, apart from having unfortunate ‘Star Trek’ related flashbacks (should I admit to that?!) I can see where he was heading with his speech to the Conservative Party Spring Conference.

Klingon portrait Photo Patries71@flickr

These ‘enemies of enterprise’ are bureaucrats, you know, the ‘back office staff’ that the government seems to eager to get rid of who put red tape in the paths of energetic and well-meaning dynamic small businesses who want to build competitive practice into the public sector.

I’ll let Cameron’s own words explain how he sees these groups of enemies (as quoted in the New Statesman).

So I can announce today that we are taking on the enemies of enterprise.The bureaucrats in government departments who concoct those ridiculous rules and regulations that make life impossible, particularly for small firms.The town hall officials who take forever with those planning decisions that can be make or break for a business – and the investment and jobs that go with it.The public sector procurement managers who think that the answer to everything is a big contract with a big business and who shut out millions of Britain’s small and medium sized companies from a massive potential market.

Incidently, I do recommend Danny Blanchflower’s article in the New Statesman and was particularly scathing of Cameron.

I also though, want to look at some of the words and criticism that Cameron employs in relation to the only sector that I know and that is the adult care sector.

I have as little time for ill-conceived large contracts as anyone. Actually, no, scratch that, I have possibly even less time for large contracts than most because I have seen the quality of care provision take a nosedive as local authority procurement is detached from service delivery. But Cameron needs to look at what he and his government are doing.

The reason the large contracts have been established is because they can deliver with economies of scale, the lowest prices. No, price should not be the only consideration in quality provision but if anything by forcing increasing financial strain on the local authorities, he and his government is making things worse – not better.

Councils are paying less to providers because they can. I was at a small and incredibly well run residential home last week that warmed the cockles of my heart. This was a good quality, small provider. I met the owner of the home and she had two other homes. The staff team were  happy and the residents were delighted. But she told me the local authorities had decided to reduce the payments they were making to her for the same type of placements and she had no choice  but to agree.  She wondered aloud if it was worth continuing in the job as she was ‘taking a loss’ on some residents by providing them with higher support than the local authority was paying for.

These are exactly the types of providers and care homes that will be affected by a further layer of complexity and bureaucracy that the government are introducing through their ‘so-called’ Excellence Ratings for Care Homes that I wrote about last week. How does this marry with Cameron’s vision of the enemies of enterprise circling to swoop and pick off small providers. It is the government and politicians who have proved themselves to tick all the boxes that Cameron has highlighted to favour large providers over small businesses.

I’m not saying that necessarily throwing money at private companies at the answer but by painting ‘evil bureaucrats’ and ‘back office staff’ in the civil service and local government as ‘enemies of enterprise’ fails to understand or appreciate the role that central government policy and funding has had in creating these systems which rely on large companies (which, incidently, fund the Conservative Party).

And just briefly I want to come to the ‘town hall officials who take forever with planning decisions’ because out of work in my own home, I’ve been involved with opposing a planning decision regarding the placement of a restaurant below my flat. The delay related to something called ‘consultation with residents’. Actually, collectively in the block I lived we did successfully oppose the conversation of the shop to a restaurant – you know, maybe that’s ‘big society’ but it did take time to organise people to oppose and if you shorten the length of consultation periods you may well infringe of the rights of individuals to oppose unfavourable planning applications.

I wonder what Cameron actually knows about small business, enterprise or the work that goes on in the civil service and local government? I suspect little because if he did he would see the contradictions in his different policy statements.

Possibly he wants to deliver a message and forgets that what he says contradicts with other decisions and statements the government is making. Perhaps if he is so opposed to ‘enemies of enterprise’ he should also tackle the places of large businesses to wholesale scoop up large sections of the soon-to-be contracted out NHS services at the expense of individual providers and small GP practices who will be forced, again through the potential savings through economies of scale, to use the services of larger companies.

As Blanchflower says in the New Statesman, Cameron forgets about potentially alienating even further public sector workers by his somewhat comical and misinformed rhetoric, but that doesn’t seem to stop him.

As for me, I’m off back to my Klingon spaceship to arm myself in combat against the Enterprise. …

Making Work Pay – Thoughts on the Welfare Reform Bill

Iain Duncan Smith, British politician and form...

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Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith unveiled his ‘flagship’ welfare reform bill amid much nodding and clapping on the part of the government. He was, he declared, going to end the ‘benefit culture’ and ensure that work pays.

There is something disconcerting  in the tone of IDS’ statement. It seems obvious to assume that work should be something that is a default option but I still find it hard to understand the emphasis on ‘the feckless’ and ‘the idle’.

To try and shame and insult people into work when there is no work to be had seems particularly callous.

I don’t have any moral problems with the changes to a universal benefit type system incidently. The current system does need reform and there are always changes and improvements that can be made but there are a couple of elements of this Bill that I feel particularly strongly about.

As anyone who has worked alongside me can confirm, knowledge of benefits is not my forte’. We have a team in the council (for the moment, very likely to be cut) to whom we refer people who we feel might not be getting as much as they should. Note that, because it’s crucial and absolutely shapes my ‘real life’ knowledge of benefits. That’s PEOPLE WHO ARE UNDERCLAIMING.

And yes, there are many whom I have come across over the years.

But back to the main points of the Bill announced – the BBC list the main changes as being

  • A single universal credit to come into force in 2013
  • Tax changes to enable people to keep more income
  • Changes to the disability living allowance
  • More details of the back-to-work programme
  • Those refusing to work facing a maximum three-year loss of benefits
  • Annual benefit cap of about £26,000 per family
  • Review of sickness absence levels

The first two elements are fairly  uncontroversial.

Changes to the disability living allowance

Changes in the disability living allowance is anything but.  publication of changes in the DLA and referring to the Personal Independence Payment (PiP)  in the Part 4 of the Welfare Reform Bill seems to run counter intuitively to the fact that the actual DLA consultation ends today – you know, the day AFTER the publication of this bill. I wonder how much there actually is to consult on.

There is a little subsection about ‘persons of pensionable age’ which confirms their exclusion (as is currently the case) but I read it as meaning that there will be a change in that currently if you receive DLA prior to 65 (or equivalent pensionable age) you continue to receive DLA (Which is higher than the ‘over 65’ benefit ( Attendance Allowance). It seems that this will stop and all PiP will stop at pensionable age (which, of course, will be above 65 in the future).

This will mean a potential significant disadvantage to those who are disabled prior to their pensionable age.

DLA will also be removed from those who are not resident in the UK which I assume will affect some of those who currently claim within the EU. That has been taken away.

I am not expert at reading legislation but that’s how I  have read it. There are few details but then again, the consultation on the change between the DLA and the PiP is still in progress as this Bill has been published.

More details of the back-to-work programme

There are going to be four categories of ‘work related activity’ specified  required of claimants who are unemployed.

Work focused interview requirement, Work preparation requirement, Work search requirement and work availability requirement. I won’t go into the details of these because they are available on the DWP website.

More interesting, I found to be the four groups of people and what would be required of them in order to be paid their universal credit.

So there would be those with:-

‘No work-related requirement’

This will be applied if the claimant ‘has limited capacity for work’ – which is yet to be determined – probably by a private company like ATOS. If they have ‘regular and substantial’ caring responsibilities for ‘a severely disabled person’. I have only to listen to the government spokespeople and wonder about definitions.  If they are the main carer for a child under 1 or meet ‘other conditions’ which are not specified but obviously given the framing of the legislation some flexibility.

‘A work focused interview requirement only’

This is specified for a main carer of a child between 1 and 3.

‘A work preparation and interview requirement’

This is specified both for carers of children aged 4-5 as well as others who may have limits to their ability to work.  This is the part, that, for example, includes a ‘health assessment’.  It also includes taking part in employment programmes.

‘All work-related requirements’

Fairly self evident and that’s everyone else.

Those refusing to work facing a maximum three-year loss of benefits

Sanctions are to be imposed if the work-related requirements are not met.  These are set out in 26(1) (chap 2) of the Bill.

So basically if someone fails to apply for a specific vacancy that might be suitable (lots of scope for interpretation here), doesn’t take up a specific job offered or is sacked (because of misconduct) or resigns from a job – ‘with no good reason’.

Currently sanctions apply in some of these cases but the main difference is the length of time that they may apply.

I do wonder who this is meant to punish and am concerned particularly about the effect it may have on children who are dependent on their parents for income.

Annual benefit cap of about £26,000 per family

The benefit cap remains associated with a family rather than listed per individual. I wonder if this links with Mr Duncan Smith and his ilks’ promotion of marriage..

Personally, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of a specific benefit cap because families come in all sizes and with many different needs. Yes, disability benefits are going to be excluded from the cap but it is important to remember that disability benefits are going to be reduced substantially (at least 20%) in any case.

As a Londoner, living in one of the highest cost cities in the world, it also doesn’t make sense to me that a blanket cap be placed nationally with no thought to the different costs of living in different areas. I’m not saying that £26,000 isn’t a fair whack. Of course it is, the figure is based on national average earnings, but, and this is a bit but, we are not all uniform in our needs and costs.

A definite benefit cap seems more about deterring some of the front page stories in the Daily Mail about ‘scroungers’ rather than a real chance to get to grips with defining and working on need.

Review of sickness absence levels

Cameron and his proxy Iain Duncan Smith, also announced a ‘war on sick note Britain’.

I suppose this is the relation to ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) which is replaced the previous ‘Incapacity Benefit’ and is given to claimants who are unable to work due to illness or disability.

(Note – DLA is NOT an out of work benefit – it is non-means tested and it given in relation to meeting additional costs related to the disability itself – hence it allows a lot of people to continue to work – it’s a bit of a red herring to stick it in with all of the work-related benefits here).

For ESA, the government are reducing the people that a contributory (generally higher) rate is paid to one year only. This will significantly affect people who have long term illnesses and disabilities.

The ESA claimants who are in the work-related stream will be subject to the same work-related requirements as detailed above.

I have no doubt that there are many details that I’ve missed. This is just a precursory glance at the Bill and some of the writing around it this morning.

While there are elements that need to change the focus on a deserving and undeserving claimant does not credit to our society.

The victimisation and ostracisation of people who cannot work or cannot find work particularly in a climate of rising unemployment creates the potential of a much larger underclass and people who feel they have no stake in the future.

It doesn’t help that the cabinet that introduce this legisalation is very much one of privilege that have never known and understood hardship and the desperation that comes from not being able to find work when you really do want and need to.

No, they can buy their own children internships..

This creates more of a dichotomous state.

Us v Them

Rich v Poor

Deserving v Undeserving

There has to be a better way to live than to punish, force and shame people into work.

Cameron and Multiculturalism

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

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Firstly, apologies that I’m a little late to this but I wasn’t around at the weekend to comment.

Cameron made a speech on Saturday in Munich was an attempt to echo Merkel’s speech in October where

She said the so-called “multikulti” concept – where people would “live side-by-side” happily – did not work, and immigrants needed to do more to integrate – including learning German.

The full text of Cameron’s speech is on the New Statesman site.

It’s useful to actually read the text as opposed to the commentary to get the ideas behind what Cameron was trying to say. There seems to have been a lot of interpretation of what he might have meant.

This was a speech in the context of fighting terrorism (thats fairly uncontroversially  ‘a good thing’).

Cameron, for example, said

It’s important to stress that terrorism is not linked exclusively to any one religion or ethnic group.

The UK still faces threats from dissident republicans.

But with the rest of the speech he wholly refers to Islam and Muslim extremists. He isn’t really broadening the debate very much apart from that one sentence.  Yes, he makes the right noises about not equating the religion of Islam with terrorism but he does seem to relate increasing extremism to a loss of identity that may be caused by more disparate communities existing side by side.

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.

So when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them.But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.The failure of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone they don’t want to is a case in point.

This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared.All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless.And the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology.

For sure, they don’t turn into terrorists overnight.

What we see is a process of radicalisation.

I know it’s a long quotation from his speech but I think it is the crucial argument that he is making.

He claims that it is the lack of an over-arching ‘British’ identity that has led to alienation and in turn, the radicalisation of a group of ‘young Muslims’.

I have a lot of problems with this assertion to be honest. I am a Londoner and I have lived for almost all my life in London– I have also lived in a country which is arguably more monocultural than the UK  (Italy) which immediately puts me in a different sphere of existence than David Cameron (Berkshire, Eton, Oxford).

Consensus is the way to create community rather than ostracisation.

Tackling inequity, racism and religious intolerance is a way to create community.

Making immigrants, no, scratch that, making EVERYONE feel that they have a stake in the community and the environment in which they live is the way to create community.

Targeting ‘a doctrine of state multiculturalism’ (the language is very negative for a start) and blaming that for ‘home-grown’ terrorists seems to be a facile argument designed to play into the increasingly dangerous ‘Daily Mail leader writer’ school of populism at the expense of any understanding of what might be happening or trying to analyse any of the issues below the surface.

Maybe it is the alienation in the mainstream communities that needs to be tackled.

I know it’s been commented on frequently but the fact that the English Defence League, an odious and divisive group set on castigating and demonstrating against Islam (no, it isn’t just ‘extremists’ as they claim) had a rally on the same day as Cameron’s speech led some of them to feel vindicated which is both sickening and irresponsible on the part of Cameron. Maybe he had no control over the timing but he could have explicitly condemned the EDL. He didn’t.

Thanks to Wikipedia, I was led to an article in the Guardian,  last year about the EDL – worth reading and reflecting on in the light of Mr Cameron’s speech.

A strangely relevant part jumped out at me

For Matthew Goodwin, an academic who specialises in far-right politics at Manchester University, this is a crucial difference between the EDL and previous far-right street movements.

“The reason why the EDL’s adoption of Islamophobia is particularly significant is that unlike the 1970s, when the National Front was embracing antisemitism, there are now sections of the media and the British establishment that are relatively sympathetic towards Islamophobia,” says Goodwin. “It is not difficult to look through the media and find quite hostile views towards Islam and Muslims. That is fundamentally different to the 1970s, when very few newspapers or politicians were endorsing the NF’s antisemitic message.”

“The point for your average voter is that if they see the EDL marching through their streets shouting about how the neighbourhood is about to be swamped by Muslims or how the UK is going to be Islamified by 2040, they are also receiving these cues from other sections of British society … the message of the EDL may well be legitimised if that continues.”

And this is Cameron’s message from his speech.

It seems odd that he is so happy to back faith schools in the context of his speech.

He can’t get away from the fact that he has targeted Islam specifically. The headlines will be filling in the gaps.

This was not a brave speech. It was a cowardly one that pandered to far more dangerous societal views. Far braver it would have been to take actions to improve the living environments of those who feel cut off from society through racism – open and institutional and by tackling poverty in the inner cities where a lot of immigrant communities live.

Far braver to openly confront and condemn the EDL. And the right-wing press that has created a dangerously high level of ‘us and them’ politics.

Maybe it is the attitudes of our society that creates the alienation rather than the embracing of different cultures, religions and backgrounds.

I notice that Cameron also said

So they (apologists for ‘multiculturalism) point to the poverty that so many Muslims live in and say: get rid of this injustice and the terrorism will end.

But this ignores that fact that many of those found guilty of terrorist offences in the UK have been graduates, and often middle class.

I think Cameron has completely forgotten that sometimes, ok, not in his sphere of existence, middle class people want to demonstrate and act against perceived and real injustices happening not just to themselves but to others less fortunate who have not had the same opportunities. And hard though it might be for Cameron to understand – you can actually grow up in poverty and be a graduate. The two things aren’t (yet) mutually exclusive.

When I lived in Italy in a society that very much promotes the mono-culture, there was far more explicit racism present than I have noticed in the UK. ‘Other’, ‘difference’ was not a positive.

It was not a better society.  People from other religious, cultural and ethnic groups were openly scorned. Look at the mainstreaming of the ‘Lega Nord’ if you want to see the dangers of moving away from open multiculturalism.

I doubt Cameron understands multiculturalism because he, his class, and the people around him have only gained their information and advice from ‘people like them’.

He castigates intolerance within Islam but does nothing to even mention or acknowledge the invidious nature of the march in Luton happening on the same day. He could easily have criticised it. He didn’t.

The richness that diversity brings to our cities and our country is not something that has a dark responsibility for terrorism.

Alienation of diverse groups may lead to extremism – I’m not a sociologist and haven’t read any significant research for a while – but increasing marginalisation by highlighting one religious group as responsible for ‘home-grown’ terrorism – while ignoring the issues such as faith schools – which he could easily challenge -  seems to be exacerbating the problem.

I love my city. I wrote previously about why I loved London. I love living and working around different communities that are able to live side by side, just as my ancestors, immigrants themselves, were accepted when they arrived.

This speech has just given a whole swathe of ‘middle England’ a chance to step on the EDL’s agenda.

It has to be challenged. Challenged hard and challenged frequently.

It is anti-racism, anti-discrimination, anti-oppression and equality of opportunity that will eradicate ‘home grown’ terrorism.

Not the elimination of multiculturalism.

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.

Respite, Disability and Personal Budgets.

Rivan Vincent has been prominent in the news over the last day or so.  She has a six year old daughter, Celyn, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and epilepsy. In the face of additional respite services being denied to her, she expressed her frustration on a Mumsnet forum stating she had asked social services to take her daughter into care because she could not cope anymore.

From this forum post, a campaign was generated which has led to coverage in many national papers.  The Mail, The Guardian, The Telegraph, the Mirror, The Independent,  – they all cover the story.

All, quite rightly broadening the debate to concentrate on the wider issue of access to respite for those who care for people (particularly children) with disabilities has had welcome ‘column space’ in the news agenda.

I really hope that Ms Vincent does receive the additional support she needs and it is possible she will due to the intervention of the Prime Minister in her case.

What I hope, far more, is that the debate is continued and that it is not only Ms Vincent, and not only the carers of children with disabilities that benefit from this flash of publicity.

I am concerned that the government have batted back criticism of their promises to promote respite by claiming that they are pushing extra money into these services.

An extra £800m apparently. Not ring-fenced. Going to local authorities. So in effect, it is money that is going to be swallowed up with other care costs and the government can claim the moral high ground – but pushing an additional £800 million into respite care while taking hundreds of millions of pounds from local authorities in other areas doesn’t really cut mustard, so to speak.

I wonder how long it will take for the government to blame local authorities for not providing care services. Not too long.

The Telegraph leader which urges us not to blame Downing Street for these matters

South Gloucestershire council, not Downing Street, has declined Mrs Vincent’s request. No doubt its social services budget has been cut – but is there no money to be saved elsewhere? The council’s website is heavy with the jargon of environmentalism and diversity. Perhaps its “equalities team” could be slimmed down to free up money for Celyn. And perhaps other local authorities should start dismantling similar initiatives before cutting front-line services and putting the blame on the Government.

So we see the rub. It is the council that is spending things on anything that isn’t ‘front-line’ that is ‘to blame’ for the current situation.

For me, it’s important this opportunity isn’t lost to create more interest and focus on the role that carers play not just carers of children with disabilities but all carers. If the government really wanted to help more broadly, they could look at the insult which is Carers Allowance. That would put more money in the hands of carers.

The problem is that for every Celyn who has public focus, there are hundreds of thousands who don’t have the same media access and spotlight. Saying that it is important that this becomes and remains an issue in the public consciousness.

The fact is, it comes down to money. Better care costs.

It also seems almost woefully ironic that in the face of cuts to Disability Living Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance, the government seems to have found a conscience for disabled children.

Cameron would be as good to remember that children grow up and continue to need support and continue to face higher costs of living than people who do not have disabilities.

-

There’s an article on the  Guardian’s website from the mother of a disabled child, who writes, in the context of her frustration about the process of assessment by social workers

Instead of strangers with clipboards, the first stage in an assessment could be made by the disabled person themselves. My daughter could have been asked to keep a detailed diary of what she did and what she needed help with. It needn’t be written down; it could be recorded or dictated. This would allow her to paint a rich portrait of her teenage life, which includes going out to see The King’s Speech with friends, as well as someone helping her on and off the toilet.

This baffled me because that is exactly what is and has been happening through the roll out of personal budgets and self-assessment questionnaires. People DO write their own assessments now. They shouldn’t need to be written. They can be recorded, drawn, dictated – that is what we were promised in theory.  This is exactly what the Putting People First agenda should be doing and encouraging – instead of generating a whole new pile of forms.

This week I had to have a couple of support plans for users of  Personal Budgets approved. They were both for older adults with dementia who unfortunately were not able to take as full a role in the decision process as would be ideal due to a lack of understanding, however, I spoke extensively to family members and gained a good feel for the situations at hand and provided advice as to what I felt might be useful.

Family members while involved felt confused by some of the details so I tried to simplify as much as I could.

Infuriated by the paperwork, I pushed my ‘forms’ to one side and wrote out the support plan that we had discussed extensively on just a plain piece of paper. I was frustrated by the level of repetition that was expected of me.

After all, I remember training I had been on about wonderfully creative support plans and all the nodding and smiling about that’s what we should be using. Let’s work in new ways and break out of local authority mentality.

I took my ‘new style’ paperwork which involved just free form writing. No questions answered.  No exposition about what could or could not be done.  My manager thought I was having a joke with her and I responded, no, I hadn’t filled out ‘x’ form or ‘y’ form. This was the support plan that I was presenting.  They nodded and agreed.  Then told me to copy out all the information into one of the local authority forms.

I did because if I hadn’t the services might not have been provided in the same way and to be honest, it didn’t take me too long but it is indicative of the type of way that people have been working for so long.  This happened to me two days ago.

Local authorities have had lots of ring-fenced money to promote the shift to personal budgets. I think some of the focus and project management has been aimed at wasting as much of that money as possible.

We are left with systems that are barely shadows of what they could have been. Sure, they work fantastically for some people but the rest have to pick up the dregs that are left behind.

-

Hopeful thoughts  for the day.

a) It’s Friday

b) Ms Vincent’s desperation and plight will lead to greater insight and better services for all disabled adults and children and their carers.

Changes in the NHS – initial thoughts

NHS logo

Image via Wikipedia

I’ll write more about the government proposals to reform the NHS after the Health and SOCIAL CARE Bill is published tomorrow. Oh yes, did anyone pick up that slight subtlety there that it is supposedly covering social care as well as health.. sneakily hidden in.. er.. the title of the bill. You wouldn’t have thought it.

But I shouldn’t be too cynical. That’s just the way that social care has and will roll.

The BBC have a great ‘simple guide’ to the reforms and what they may mean.

Most of my reservations are about the introduction of GP-led commissioning – so I’ll focus on that today.

I know it’s presented as being about more choice and more efficient services – but, as I’ve said before, when the Tories introduced the so-called needs-led agenda of the NHS and Community Care Act in 1990, the talk was about improving efficiency, cutting costs and providing more choice – hmm, those words seem familiar.

What were we left with?

Centrally commissioned services that led to ‘bidding wars’ and reverse auctions so that the company that could provide the service at the lowest cost would ‘win’ the contract. No choice – perhaps less choice as the cheapest options had to be sought regardless of quality.

Why does no-one look to the lessons that should have been learnt from the care sector? I know, there are some wonderful services out there and I don’t want to be dismissive but I feel strongly about the introduction of ‘the market’ to the care sector and I feel equally strongly about the potential failure of ‘the market’ in the health sector.

The US is hardly a glowing example of an efficient and cost-effective health care system after all.

I am not sure I buy into this ‘choice above all’ agenda. Choice is always going to be limited by cost. On a personal level, I live in one of the most deprived areas of the country. I don’t ‘know my GP by his name’. I don’t even necessarily trust the practice.  My current GP practice was ‘taken over’ by the PCT (Primary Care Trust)  for a while because of poor management and a few… financial shenanigans that led to all the doctors in the practice being dismissed. That’s a pretty big deal.

I wonder how a similar scenario would ‘play out’ in the ‘new world’ – where there is no PCT to ‘take over’. But Lansley and Cameron probably haven’t considered those kinds of scenarios. I just hope they remember that we don’t all have local village practices that we’ve been with for years and where everyone knows us and smiles at us in the street.

There are some of us living in very poor areas where some of the chronic health problems that are linked to poverty will very obviously and quite rightly take priority.

So would I get the same treatment for a more minor ailment and a lower priority ‘condition’ as someone in Knightsbridge? I’m not convinced.

Even less convinced because it won’t be my GP who is commissioning – it will be a private company that is hired by my GP. It will likely be the same people who worked in the PCT re-employed by companies like Care UK (a coincidence that they bankrolled Lansley’s private office?).  So it’s likely to be the same people, doing the same job (probably for less money) but for the benefit of shareholders rather than the public purse.

I don’t want to be a grumpy naysayer. I want the NHS to work and to work better.

I am worried though.

I await the publication of the Health and Social Care Bill with trepidation.

I  have reconfiguration fatigue already. The amount of  money my Trust must have spent on change, and more change and even more change and then some more adjustments to that change would probably fund another ward. Or have retained one of the few that have closed.

I want ideas that work. I want a system that works. I am just very sceptical. Perhaps it is up to the government to prove me wrong. I hope I am wrong.

Future

Yesterday, I wrote specifically about my reactions to the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) without a lot of reference to other commentators. This was intentional as I wanted to spew out my initial thoughts pretty much freeform.

Today some of the dust has settled and a lot more commentary has been shaped and published and I wanted to focus more solidly on the way in which I see the developments and announcements specifically in the areas that I know most about and what impact I see the changes in social work in particular.

My experience is wholly in adult services. I started my working life in the voluntary sector working with adults with learning disabilities. Post-qualification, I have worked with adults with physical disabilities of working age as well as older adults and am currently placed within mental health services so I will focus on the areas I know, possibly to the detriment of children’s’ services but, of course, I welcome comments from those with more experience in that area.

The most notable and obvious/immediate change will be the reduction in funding for local authorities and the removal of ring-fencing. Community Care carries a statement by Paul Burstow, explaining that

“There is no justification for local authorities to slash and burn or for local authorities to tighten eligibility as far as the settlement goes.”

He points to the additional £1 billion to be focused on social care – remember, the other £1 billion is coming from the NHS budget.

However the removal of ringfencing and the costs of an ageing population make this a very vacuous statement. Last night, on Channel 4 News, the Leader of Westminster Council said he would be raising the criteria – tightening eligibility criteria (see the link at 3.37).

The removal of ringfencing of budgets and the massive hit that local authorities will be taking will mean that the bare minimum of services will be provided. Anyone who thinks these stories about wonderfully creative individual budgets will be sorely fooled. Charges for services will increase. Directly provided services will disappear by the wayside.

I’m not overly hopeful.

As for the place of social work departments, I refer to the beginning of the clip above.

Westminster and Lambeth are looking at merging services and departments across neighbouring borough. It’s happening across London. That’s where the job cuts will come in and social services will not be as ‘immune’ as we thought we might be.

The problem is that cuts have already been made. Any further cuts are absolutely at the front-line.

The stigmatisation of disabled adults continues. The Independent Living Fund is on its last legs. Many disabled adults rely heavily on this money to provide for a better quality of life that would have been provided solely depending on local authority’s increasingly tightening criteria. I think this can’t go without a fight as this is A LOT of support for some of the most dependent adults who are able to gain measures of independence through this scheme is looking like it will be lost.

I wrote about changes to the ESA  (Employment and Support Allowance) yesterday and it reflects the perfidious nature of the cuts and a wholesale stigmatisation of disability and inability to work (which the government seems to want to link with unwillingness to work).

Perhaps one of the more staggeringly mealy-mouthed changes was the removal of DLA mobility from people who are in residential care. These really are the most dependent people.

I can’t say it any better than this Bendygirl at Benefit Scrounging Scum.

I urge you to go and watch the video message she has recorded for David Cameron in response to this.

Additional costs, if the standard of life for those with this benefit is to be maintained, will be pushed to local authorities by profit-making care homes and it doesn’t look like they’ll be any funding to plug this gap. This is callous in the extreme.

And finally housing.

Housing, housing. It sometimes feels like it is the bane of my life. Housing issues affect everyone in social services – adults and children alike. Housing always comes up. Poor housing = poor outcomes.

Where is the housing going to come from? Capital spending will be down. Councils will be able to charge more for new tenancies but that will be taken out of housing benefit which will be subject to the ‘benefits cap’. A fully subsidised rent on housing benefit would therefore leave more of the ‘capped income’ for other living expenses  but if housing is going to take out a larger chunk of this ‘capped amount’  because of higher rents – it is giving with one hand and taking away with another (housing benefits would be claimed for the higher rates of rent) but it would also decrease the amount of ‘universal benefit’ allowed to meet the cap.

So the effect I see within the local authority I work in? Pooled services, job losses, higher work pressures, higher caseloads, fewer resources, pushing more to informal carers and that’s if I have a job.

But it isn’t me that I’m concerned about. It is the nature of the NHS and the welfare state in this country and the social fabric and general tenets of social justice that I see being torn apart.

We must hold this government to account and keep fighting for the social justice that brought us into this profession in the first place.

This is why social workers must politicise. We cannot remain neutral as these changes take place. We are obliged to stand by a code of practice and we need to advocate and speak on behalf of those who rely on us for support.

Perhaps the profession’s failing has been its willingness to stand idle as the changes in social policy crept up on us. We need a voice, we need to shout and we need to vocalise some of the voices that can’t be heard so clearly.

Fairness

Yesterday Cameron spoke to the Conservative Party Conference wrapping up what seems like an interminable conference season. I can’t say that there was anything ‘different’ in the speech nor anything earth-shattering.

The speech started by talking about ‘new politics’ – gone is the tribalism of the old party system but then, rather bafflingly or perhaps obviously, he went on to a full scale attack on the Labour government.

He played on a rhetoric of ‘fairness’ that he seems to want to overshadow the cuts that will be forthcoming. I have no problem with child benefit being cut, by the way, but there is a very strong hint of a return to the dichotomy of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor and coming from a descendent of King William IV married to the daughter of a baronet, he is moving into increasingly dangerous ground.

He said

Fairness means giving people what they deserve – and what people deserve depends on how they behave.

If you really cannot work, we’ll look after you.

But if you can work, but refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.

What people deserve depends on how they behave? Really? And who is the arbiter of this behaviour? My concern is that this judgement will be made by the readers of the Daily Mail as that is the true constituency that Cameron is playing to.

If you can work, but refuse to work – yes, we can see the inherent ‘unfairness’ of that but what about the not having work because THERE IS NO WORK? And what exactly does ‘refuse to work’ mean? Who will decide what refusal is? Is refusal not taking a job in the next town? Is refusal not taking a job that doesn’t  use one’s qualifications?

There are a lot of questions to be answered.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no time for people who might be wilfully deceptive on their applications for state benefits but I continue to believe that that is a very tiny minority. As for those who are claiming what they are entitled to, sure the methods of entitlement may be and possibly are wrong but these people ARE NOT CRIMINALS and they are repeatedly targeted as being the most evil influence  on our society.

We, in our comfortable and safe ‘employed’ status can chortle merrily at ‘chavs’ but it doesn’t take much to redraw the lines of the haves and have-nots and for those ‘safe and comfortable’ jobs to melt away.

Of course, the further removed you are from the baseline, the more likely it is that you will laugh harder at the weak jokes made by the government.

One of the things I am grateful for in my job (while I still have it!) is that I work with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Mental illness strikes across lines of race, class, culture and language. Age also affects all groups of all types of people equally.

I see fairness and unfairness up very close on a day to day basis. Mostly I see unfairness. I see nothing, absolutely nothing in this government’s agenda that will tackle this unfairness. The last government didn’t do much better though.

But the one thing I am most sceptical about is Cameron’s promise to protect the NHS. The White Paper is more likely to destroy it and whoever buys into his guff about services in the NHS not being cut clearly has no experience of working within it.

Yesterday we had another meeting in our office about cuts. I can’t go into the details. We are already a few staff down and can’t recruit but other cuts are being made on the services we can directly provide. Money is being pulled from directly provided services and pushed into personal budgets. This will have a horrendous impact on some of the most needy people I work with because personal budgets work best for the people who shout the loudest.

I grew increasingly angry during the meeting about the direct services that were being cut because I know the people who use them and benefit from them. People who don’t want to access personal budgets that they would be entirely entitled to because they ‘don’t want to make a fuss’ or they ‘don’t want to scrounge from the state’.

Mr Cameron, members of the Conservative Party – by stigmatising people who claim, by talking about deserving and undeserving poor, you are putting off elderly, vulnerable people who are ABSOLUTELY ENTITLED to support from claiming precisely what they have worked hard for and are able to claim.

The damage of the rhetoric is not that it will ‘guilt’ people who are mis-claiming, it won’t. It will draw applause from us hard-working ‘entitled’ middle classes who don’t want anyone to have anything they ‘don’t work for’ – entirely forgetting about the structural discrimination which exists in our society and it will also shame those who need our help into not asking for it.

I have spent so much time over the last ten years begging people to accept services and benefits they are wholly entitled to to apply for them than I ever have come across anyone getting things they are not entitled to.

That is the effect of this talk. That is what I’d like the government to have an appreciation of.

This is pretty rhetoric. But it is also very very damaging to the social fabric of a country and a society that I care very deeply about.

On Welfare Reform

It’s easy to say that things need to be different as regards the welfare payment structure in the UK. Anyone could say it and to be honest, the system and the ways in which is it used and most of all the intricate complexities of the system beg for changes.

So Cameron has got through the easy part there. Reform is overdue.

The details however remain forthcoming. A ‘universal benefit’ of overarching status that will encompass current Jobseekers Allowance, Council Tax Benefit, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Tax Credits of various types – but, quite rightly, not Disability Living Allowance which will remain separate – will be merged into one type of system which will, apparently reward additional work undertaken rather than penalise it.

Well, it’s hard to criticise the idea but to use a well-worn cliche’ the devil will be in the detail.

The one thing that is frightening me about this system – although to be fair – it isn’t this system in particular, is the reliance on a fantasy ‘new computer system’ that will ‘just be able to work everything out’. Hmm. Heard that one before.

As for changes in universal benefits such as child benefit, winter fuel allowance, free bus passes – I have no issue with those being more tightly controlled.

There are a couple of difficulties with the agenda that is being presented though apart from the ‘fantasy perfect computer system’ that will know everything.

Firstly, to push people back to work there have to be jobs to push people into.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the government and the right wing press have pushed an agenda and a narrative of ‘benefit cheats’ and ‘malingerers’ into the public perception. This is no doubt going to be a precursor to cuts.

We are, by nature a rather selfish society, looking to our own pockets before the needs of the citizen as a whole. If we see our  next door neighbour who SEEMS to be doing very well on benefits with a nice new plasma TV, we will moan and groan ad infinitum about the base unfairness of it all.

The truth is that no-one knows what is happening in someone elses’ life and household, the choices they might be making and the invisible disabilities they might be facing – but we all seem to become omnipotent when we are able to judge or compare what we, the perfect tax-paying citizen might be doing in comparison.

The Guardian quote Iain Duncan Smith as saying

there is “something fundamentally wrong” with a system that pays 5 million people not to work while immigrants come in to do jobs those on benefit reject: “You’re just replacing one group of unwilling workers with another group of willing workers. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

I think this is generally a dangerous narrative and one that needs to be explored and questioned much more fully. There is an assumption that the ‘system’ is paying 5 million people not to work. I’d challenge that assumption. Of that 5 million, I assume that almost all are desperate to find good, dignified employment. Someone does not claim Jobseeker’s Allowance because they don’t WANT to work but because they cannot find work.

Knowing personally a few people who have had to claim, I think that trying to make an assumption that these people are ‘rejecting jobs’ that are then taken by immigrants plays (unsurprisingly) into the narrative of the Daily Mail and the Sun. This needs to be challenged. The job centre system needs to be reformed but as long as we treat people who don’t have jobs as quasi-criminals rather than individuals with skills that can be utilised in different ways, we will perpetuate the ‘us and them’ system.

Forcing people into jobs that have no match with their skill-set does not build an effective and strong economy.

There is also an underhand ‘blame’ of immigrants ‘coming in and taking ‘our’ jobs’ that is perfidious in the extreme. Many of these ‘jobs’ that are being ‘stolen’ are taken by citizens of member states of the European Union. It may not be that British people are unwilling to take the jobs but more than our culture values different types of jobs differently or that we do not train sufficiently in certain skill areas.

Helpfully, the Guardian also relates that

Cameron also promised today that unemployed people who refuse work would face tougher benefit sanctions, but gave no details.

That’s a really useful statement, Mr Cameron – but with no details, it is completely valueless.

At the moment, it sounds like empty crowd-pleasing rhetoric and a kick at people who are unable to find work – not because they are ‘being picky’ but because the manufacturing and industrial base of this country was torn apart by the previous Conservative government in the 1980s and because the global credit crash has affected the worldwide economy.

Cameron has picked an easy target and uses crowd-pleasing words. That makes me nervous.

Disenfranchised

Over the weekend, I found myself embroiled in a couple of political discussions with friends. The Guardian has come out for the Lib Dems and the Independent is promoting ‘tactical voting’ namely ‘anything to keep the Conservatives out’.

I have to admit some sympathy to this line. I find David Cameron a bit creepy – I know there isn’t much analysis in that statement but also am old enough to be terrified of the damage that was done by the last Conservative administration.

I do though, live in one of the safest Labour seats in the country. I checked on Ladbrokes and, seriously, the odds of Labour winning are… 1/100. Seriously. That’s safe.  There is not  much tactical voting to be done here. I was never going to vote Conservative anyway, but then again, nor were barely any of my co-habitants in this constituency either. Indeed, the Tories have put up a ‘youthful’ candidate who knows damned well he hasn’t the slightly chance to get ‘experience’. No doubt, he’ll be rewarded with a marginal seat at the very least in a decade or so..

One of my discussions was with a friend who is a strong Labour man. He was trying to convince me, as I said I was going to vote Lib Dem.

I explained my predicament of living in an absolutely rock solid Labour seat with no hope of any movement even with the highest of swings.

‘You might as well vote Labour then’, he replied.

But I see it differently. I  feel aggrieved that my vote counts for so little. My experience of the election has not been taking place at a local level. I have had no ‘knocks on the door’ even though I had a few lines prepared for the sitting MP at the very least.

I’ve had a few leaflets through the door, but noone has been on my local high street canvassing for votes. The local MP has been engaged in ‘more marginal’ seats as there was ‘no point’ canvassing among his own electorate as it is a given that there will be no political changes in this part of London.

More than anything, that convinces me of a need to change. Fear of hung parliaments is an engendered fear by the establishment.

I would heartily vote tactically but there are  no tactics to be played here. It’s just not as much fun during an election when you know your vote is not going to make a blind bit of difference – except perhaps, when the ‘popular vote’ graphics are displayed to show how disproportionate some of the systems can be.

And so, after a long weekend, we move into the last week of the election. I feel a need for change,

I just don’t want Cameron at the head of it.

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