London – Some thoughts and hopes

I didn’t sleep  much last night. Or the night before. Or the night before that. My city is burning. There is a tangible fear in the air. I’m not above it because I feel it and I see it.

I don’t want to listen to politicians being parachuted in (when they finally arrive back in the country) to talk about mindless violence and talking to ‘community leaders’.  ‘Community leaders’ who are self-appointed and seem to want to polarise and divide rather than come together and heal.

Don’t speak to community leaders, come and speak to me. Come and speak to people like me who just want to find ways for sense and our voice to be heard. I’m just as much a part of this community as ‘church leaders’. Why are they credited with greater access to the ‘influential’.

I want people who live here and love this city to find ways to heal her and pull her together. I don’t want the same ‘community leaders’ speaking to the same ‘politicians’ trying to build up their own special interests and agendas.

I want to shout and scream and rage at all those who seem hell-bent on destruction but this is a symptom not a cause.

This is and never was about race. This is about age and belonging. How can you care for a society when society cares nothing for you?

This is a disaffected youth who are devoid of a moral compass because our society values goods and monetary worth over basic humanity. This is what has been learnt. The ‘establishment’ doesn’t work for you but against you. You take what you can.

Perhaps though, these awful scenes and desperate situations will provide an opportunity to build a better society for everyone and to reach out to disaffected youth and marginalised people.

Maybe, this will be the way to build a real, true community and to build a better London.

I love this city. I was born here. It’s my home. It has its rough and smooth.  But it is a good place and it is filled with good people. There are enough of us here to force a triumph for the good.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Looking ahead to 2011

I’m almost reluctant to write up my thoughts for the coming year and it is a battle to contain my more pessimistic urges.  I wrote this post and sat on it for a while because it came across as too depressing.

I try to be as optimistic as I can in my day to day life. As even if optimism/pessimism make no difference on actual outcomes, at least I’ll go down happier if I think positive!

I’m finding it really hard to find much positive to say about my thoughts for 2011 though.

Cuts

That’s an easy theme. No doubt that it will be the main background through which 2011 is played politically both nationally and locally. In my personal and professional life.

As we turn increasingly into a fire-fighting, crisis management service there will be less, if any, space for preventative work. The government and the local authority won’t headline this because it goes against every piece of evidence about long-term savings but the savagery of the cuts will affect those who just come in below the ‘life or death’ bandings.

Protests

Again, this is barely a prediction. Protests and rallies have already been called. They will be increasingly well-attended. I fully intend to participate myself. As people realise their actual tax credits decrease their real income, there will be a wider anger directed towards the government and the poor political process that has served us so badly.

Care Funding

Yes, the next commission will report. It will benefit most those who have the most to lose. Poor people who might have to sell the houses that they own to pay for the care that costs a significant amount of money. Inheritances will be preserved. What that does to the quality and support for those that don’t have, well, we’ll see. I’ve tried being positive, now I’m just cynical. The government have an agenda to protect their own political classes. They have no desire whatsoever to produce a more equitable scheme of funding. No political party does – which is why these consultations have dragged on for so long.

‘Big Society’

Big Society will be discussed and debated. And will be shown up for the sham that it is in the face of funding being withdrawn from voluntary organisations. It will be an opportunity for private enterprise to ‘invest’ in communities. Youth centres  sponsored by McDonalds. Libraries sponsored by BP.

Social Work

The College of Social Work comes into formal existence this year. It has already made some kind of deal with Unison for union membership. I expect it will merge with BASW (British Association of Social Workers) too. I hope so anyway. It will continue to be run by academics, managers and retired social workers because no-one on the ‘front line’ will have any time to be involved in the processes and committee upon committee will be attended by professional ‘consultants’ who may once have been social workers but remain so far removed from actual client contact that they will have no idea about whom they allege to speak for.

I remain hopeful that there will be some kind of positive outcome.

 

They’ll be more scandals, more appalling practice and more horrified ‘Daily Mail’ stories. No interest whatsoever will be shown in any of the good work that is done every day. Again and again.

 

Social Media

This is a new one for me. Twitter become much more of a key network for me. I love it for so many reasons but mostly because it gives me more of a character than just a blog does. I love some of the conversations that I’ve been able to have with people whom I would never have had the opportunity with engaging with on any other forum.  Local authorities are increasingly involving themselves in micro-blogging. I’m surprised that there is less in terms of standard blogging as far as government is concerned. It remains the domain generally of individuals and local politicians rather than local officials on behalf of the organisation for whom they work rather than as individuals.

If I really knew what what happen in this sphere, I’d make a fortune but in the meantime I’ll say that there will be more online consultations and more discussion and debate. And more blogs,  podcasts and debates which involve users and carers. It’s a great opportunity and could potentially increase voices sometimes lost in the political process.

NHS

Efficiency savings. Ha. Real growth in spending. Ha. We are losing services hand over fist and the government is able to get away with this kind of whitewash. It will continue and services will struggle.  I’ll have to move on from this subject because it really does fill me with fear just thinking about it too much.

And some more local predictions for me and my team

Reconfiguration

Yes, it’s coming. Another one. I think the third now in just over 2 years but this one is a big one and it’s going to affect not only our team but the entire Trust. Changes have already started and it’ll be the main theme for the year as jobs are lost and downgraded. More staff leave through the so-called ‘natural wastage’ and aren’t replaced.  It seems there may be a change in the way the AMHP service is arranged locally as well. I try to ignore rumours and whisperings and let all the possible plans go over my head somewhat until anything is confirmed.

I’m lucky in the sense that I genuinely love my job. I was talking about it to a colleague yesterday who asked me if I was looking for other jobs and I honestly don’t think I could work for a better team with better managers/consultants/colleagues etc. That’s a pretty special place to be and while I couldn’t, hand on heart, say I love the work I do every day, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. In my dreams when I win the lottery, I still work, just part-time!

Training

I hope to take another student social worker on this year. I might look into possibilities of being an off-site practice teacher though as it was a real struggle with workloads to manage having a student in the team. Of course, it didn’t particularly help that I needed to go into hospital the last time I had a student.  I also worry a little that the lack of staff in the team might lead to managers seeking to push additional work towards a student.  The local authority training budgets have been slashed so I don’t think I’ll be able to continue with the Higher Specialist Award in Practice Education (which is my longer term goal.. ) this year or probably for the next few years as quite rightly any funding should be focussed on those who have not accessed training and if there’s one thing I have been doing of late, it is accessing any training available.

Blog

One time in particular I was very close to closing this blog down. I even set up a parallel non-related one as a kind of outlet to keep me going and give me something to write about in the expectation that I would stop writing about work-related things. Anonymity can be a burden at times.  It was just a little too hard to completely let go. I would say it’s about 50/50 as to whether I’m around next year to reflect on these predictions at all. I do enjoy writing though and sharing my thoughts about issues as they arise. I hope to continue that whether published or not. It really does help me with my self-reflection and maintaining my interest and connection with current affairs.

I don’t really stick to resolutions but I do want to read and participate more widely in the blogging communities. I was better at it last year and this year have become more insular due to time and health mostly but I want to re-engage more over the next year.

And I have a suspicion that when I do write, it will be a lot more political in tone which leads to..

 

Social Action

One of my resolutions last year was to be more involved in Unison and BASW, seeing as I pay the subs. This year, I’m particularly going to focus on Unison – the issues and general themes of cuts, cuts and more cuts go far beyond social work specifically. This year I also attended an event put on by SWAN (Social Work Action Network) and it really got me fired up. I hope to go to more of their events. I really want this government to know how much their cuts are hurting and whom they are hurting. I find the injustice in the focus of the cuts and the ‘blame’ narrative sickening. I feel I have to push against it at every angle. I can see myself getting far more involved politically on  many levels.

There is a lot to fight for.

 

And I hope there is not even one single day of sickness that I take to make up for last year (yes, I feel unnecessarily guilty.. ).

Finally, I hope that everyone has a hopeful and positive year ahead. It won’t be easy but that’s why it needs more effort than ever before.
Fireworks #1

Happy New Year.

Pondering Big Society

CPP_Conservative_party_344

Image by conservativeparty via Flickr

I doubt I’m the only person to be a little baffled by the concept of the ‘big society’. Having spent a considerable amount of time both as a volunteer and then working for a voluntary organisation I have and do absolutely support, accept and promote the idea of social engagement and creating a better place to live in. I want to create a better country to live in though not only a better community to live in. The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive and should go hand in hand.

In an attempt to combat my ignorance, I decided to actually read through the Building Big Society document to get a better grip on the meanings and general proposals at hand.

I have to say my little internal radar lights started flashing when I read that

‘We will introduce new powers to help local communities save local facilities and services threatened with closure and give local communities the right to bid to take over services threatened with closure’.

Goodbye libraries, goodbye library assistants – it was nice knowing you. Now, if you remain open, we will see if we can find anyone who has some time to volunteer for a job that was previously held by someone. This is of course, already happening. I don’t want to be cynical but this doesn’t look very ‘liberating’ to me.

Perhaps these jobs will be replaced by the ‘community organisers’ who will be trained (although we don’t know if this will be paid role or a voluntary role – perhaps I can take a guess).

‘and support the creation of neighbourhood groups across the UK, especially in the most deprived areas’.

I can without any doubt claim to live in one of the most deprived areas in the country. There is actually a fairly strong community identity where I live – it’s one of the things that really appeals to me about living where I do (even though, when I tell people where I live, they sometimes visibly express distress or concern!). People often don’t engage with community groups because they don’t always have the time to between work, childcare, carer roles and other stresses of day to day life – not because of a wish to disengage with the community.

I wonder what magic these ‘community organisers’ will drum up. My other observation is, living in one of the strongest Labour areas, how much appetite there will be for this simply because it is politically driven and is ‘Cameron’s baby’. That draws a lot of scorn in some places!

The part of the document that made me roar with wry laughter was the section about devolving power from the central to the local government.

‘We will promote radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government’.

Really? By freezing council tax receipts and slashing all budgets to local authorities. The means have been whipped away from local authorities to actually DO anything other than the very barest of essentials. Change costs. No-one has money.

I really don’t mean to be overly cynical. I just can’t help it. But this isn’t all about cosy togetherness, it is about an erosion of the expectations of what the state will and should provide. That is ideological. ‘Big Society’ did not start with Cameron or the Conservative Party. It is not a ‘new idea’. There has been decades of committed community involvement going on – after all, the trade union movement itself grew from an ideological viewpoint of creating a voice and community action for people who had a commonality of interests.

There needs to be a recognition of the different ways that reliance on the voluntary sector will look in inner city deprived areas as opposed to wealthy Home Counties commuterland towns and isolated rural communities.

On Wednesday, the Guardian printed a letter from a group of social work academics and social workers opposing a scheme of using  volunteers in child protection work the letter explains,

Loughton (Children’s Minister)  claims he is “not asking for an army of volunteer social workers to take the place of professional social workers”, but that is precisely what this government’s strategy is – to cut workers in the welfare state. “The introduction of volunteers to supplement the work of frontline child protection officers was an example of how the Tories’ ‘big society’ might work in action and would save local authorities money,” your article reports Loughton as saying.

And so it starts. Does Big Society becomes a hollow metaphor for pushing responsibilities onto ‘volunteers’ no doubt boosted by the high unemployment rates as people turn to voluntary positions to get some kind of work experience or are forced to so that they don’t loose their benefit entitlement?

Motivation through compulsion is of a different quality to active engagement for positive reasons. When we place vulnerable people in the hands of volunteers, we do need to be aware of the issues of power balance, motivation and potential risk.

In the example above, where there is a proposal for volunteers to work actively in child protection, I worry that the  process, function and soul of social work is at danger of being lost as the relationship-building is farmed out to volunteers and the qualified practitioners focus on the ‘paperwork, forms, courts’ etc.

The letter goes on to say that

The minister acknowledges a very troubling fact within child protection work – that social workers “can only afford the snatched half an hour visit every week” – yet the need for skilled professional social workers to spend more time with children and families is one of the key messages from numerous child death inquiries. Such contact is less likely to happen with financially driven initiatives such as the minister is proposing. Money-saving schemes could well see the law of unintended consequences realised, with traumatic results for children and social workers once again taking any blame.

Surely the answer is for social workers to have more than the ‘snatched half an hour visit every week’ to grow relationships rather than replace these visits with volunteers.

My hope is that there may be a role for social work in the creation and development of community organising – that we can and should take a role where are jobs are in the ethereal constantly moving state (in adult services anyway) in working heavily in local communities.

My fear is that it is an attempt by the government to fill the gaps of need with vague ideas that are difficult to challenge. We need to know where these voluntary groups are coming from and where their funding is going to lie.

A Vision for Adult Care – a few brief thoughts

I’ve only just had a chance to read the ‘Vision for Adult Care’ published yesterday and wanted to offer a view very initial thoughts although I haven’t any doubt that it will be referred to continually for many years to come.

Having read it my initial response was a little underwhelmed. I don’t know what I was expecting. Perhaps that was just it really, we knew exactly what to expect. There wasn’t anything in there that should surprise anyone at all.

We know that there needs and will be a genuine desire to push the personalisation agenda and move towards personal budgets where service users and carers have greater control over the budgets that they are assessed to need with services rather than directly provided and commissioned services being chosen ‘on their behalf’.

I have always attempted to care plan with rather than for people. That has been the policy for about 20 years arguably since the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act. What stymied the ‘choice’ element back then was the realisation that services have costs attached and ‘block contracts’ are cheaper and provide more services are cheaper costs to the councils. My understanding is that block contracted care with little choice in the provider was never the goal of the reform to legislation 20 years ago. That was supposed to, and did, open up the ‘social care’ market. It has just led us down this prescriptive path because the prescriptive path was cheaper than the choice and user-led path.

That should be the lesson for the government of the day – but enough with my cynicism.

I can wholly embrace the desire to move everyone to personal budgets and moreover, I absolutely welcome and appreciate the acknowledgement that having a personal budget is not the same as having a direct payment.

The language of social care seems almost designed in some ways to alienate and obfuscate so I apologise in my use of jargon.

Managed personal budgets seem to be a way that some local authorities have ‘dodged the issue’ of blocks to direct payments or when people have been reluctant/unwilling to move to direct payments. The government seems to have made, at least an attempt to understand this.

As the document says

We want people to have the freedomm to choose the services that are right for them from a vibrant plural market. That is why this vision challenges councils to provide personal budgets, preferably as direct payments to everyone eligible within social care within the next two years’

That ‘preferably’ offers the councils some get out within the target of ‘two years’ but it will be interesting to see what outcome measures (because there will be new outcome measures) are going to be taken up in my council, at least and what kinds of pressures and supports will be rolled out for that broader ‘direct payments’ issue.

I wonder how many people accept and understand that these ‘direct payments’ and ‘personal budgets’ are all means-tested and can all be charged. I mention that because sometimes in the press there doesn’t seem a complete appreciation of that. I say that as someone who has recently assisted to set up a direct payment personal budget to someone who is paying full cost. He is paying as much as he is getting back. Sounds nonsensical? Not really, because this way he is able to ‘buy’ into the support package and information that is given in the same way it is to those who don’t pay for their own support. Apparently, according to the government though, we don’t provide the same levels of support for full cost users, that is also rolled out as a goal for the future. I wholeheartedly welcome that. Access to support, information and care planning should and will be a universal service. I’ve always believed it is inherently unfair that people who are charged full-cost have sometimes been denied that support – indeed, I have personally provided it and argued successfully with my managers that I should wherever it has been possible but I am aware that too often the local authority has washed it’s hands of anything that it does not have a direct responsibility for – mostly due to cost rather than callousness. But back to the ‘vision’..

The paper sets out a number of principles

Prevention

‘empowered people and strong communities will work together to maintain independence’

Wonderful. No-one can deny statements like that. The vision specifically explains (quite rightly) that early intervention promotes better outcomes (and lower costs) in the longer term. This is what we have been saying for years – as the eligibility criteria have increasingly tightened. Therein lies the so-called rub. The way the ‘vision’ ducks this is by emphasising community support and action alongside paid care services. The ‘Big Society approach to social care’. Gulp. I honestly still find it difficult to understand ‘big society’. Does it mean more people doing voluntary and community work? I am sceptical even though I don’t want to be. My concern is that it means a greater pressure on family and friends as carers.  The vision mentions the ‘scheme’ in Japan where families ‘swap’ care responsibilities in different areas of the country. I worry that too great a reliance on informal and ‘free’ support will lead to un inequitable access to equivalent services for people that don’t have large support networks or live in supportive communities. Time Banks are also suggested as a way of providing support which is good, I like the idea but too great a reliance on hours given willingly may not be the best safety net.

I absolutely agree that commissioning needs to be closer to the ground. I see some of the craziest commissioning decisions being made and can’t believe anyone in those service areas have any clue about what  the local community needs or wants.

The vision does state clearly that ‘Carers are the first line of prevention’. Good. And it goes on to explain ‘Councils should recognise the value of offering a range of personalised support for carers to help prevent the escalation of needs that fall on statutory services’.

I have set up a lot of carers’ direct payments myself and have a few carers who manage them. In some ways, it is very easy to ‘sell’ direct payments to carers as there is a much greater degree of flexibility but there is actually very little money allocated to carers’ direct payments presently. I hope this ‘vision’ and appreciation of the longer term saving that carers are contributing that we will be able to offer them more money through direct payments themselves. Carers Allowance is some kind of evil joke that is, in my view, insulting. Carers Direct Payments potentially can ‘make up’ for it but the local authorities have to loosen the poor upper limits on the carers’ direct payments.

We are promised a forthcoming carers’ strategy. I await it will much interest.

Telecare and technology is also mentioned. We have been promoting this for a few years. It can be very successful but it cannot replace human contact.

Personalisation

I’ve mentioned this above and am very glad that the document acknowledges that ‘A personal budget alone does not in itself mean that services are automatically personalised’. In some ways, that has been my cry in what I thought was the dark. The document mentions the areas that have been slow to pick up in the roll out of direct payments, namely older adults, adults with mental health problems, adults with learning disabilities and adults who lack capacity.  Regarding one of the ideas for managing direct payments for people who lack capacity, one of the suggested ‘solutions’ is placing the control of the budget in the hands of ‘another suitable person’. Interesting. I wonder what this means – informal care and support, a trust fund type project, a professional. All have potential costs and as the criteria for eligibility tighten, the money itself will be less. Higher quality care and m0re choice with less money. Sounds perfect.

There aren’t really any solutions offered but at least acknowledging some of the difficulties is a start.

Interestingly, there is a line about increasing choice to people living in residential care which is a fantastic idea. I am very curious and excited to see how this might happen in practice.

Again, the examples offered in the Vision relate to people that have capacity, support and ideas.

There also seemed to be a suggestion that the IMCA (Indepedent Mental Capacity Advocate) role might be broadened. This is a joy to my cynical self. I  have worked extensively with our local IMCA service and I couldn’t praise them highly enough. I really really hope we can use them more but they will need to be paid.

Plurality and Partnership

The vision emphasises an idealised support ‘partnership’ between individuals, communities, voluntary sector, private sector, NHS and local councils. Probably in that order of preference.

We are told the aim is ‘a broad market of high quality service providers’. Absolutely fantastic. This is my vision for social care as well. I am just a little cynical about the high quality=low cost possibilities but I am willing to be proved wrong, indeed, nothing in the world would make me happier. I want to be able to advise and promote high quality care from many different providers. But that was what we were promised 20 years ago.  The vision promotes a move away from the ‘block contracts’, again, personally, I feel in general they have been negative and have limited choice but there has to be an acknowledgement that they grew out of a necessity to reduce costs.

Protection

Safeguarding concerns have often been raised about the roll out of direct payments and a potentially larger, unregulated workforce of Personal Assistants as well as issues regarding management of finances.

The vision seems to have a great deal of faith in CQC (Care Quality Commission) to inspect services where safeguarding concerns have been raised. Anyone else notice the slight problem here? That’s a bit like closing the door after the horse has bolted – I apologise for the cliche.

There is also the suggestion of a type of ‘neighbourhood watch’ scheme for people in communities to ‘report’ and ‘look out for’ people who might be being subject to abuse. Honestly, I hope this is happening anyway. Fine, it doesn’t do any harm but it doesn’t replace a strong safeguarding structure and culture. I noted there is a particular statement that

‘Local government should act as the champion of safeguarding within communities’ which suggests  that whatever the new ‘practices’ outside the local authorities will do, it won’t be safeguarding. There is a consideration to put this function on a statutory basis. Please, please, yes, yes. Vulnerable adults need the same protections as vulnerable children. This is long overdue and a real failing of the current safeguarding system that at times feels too toothless. It is very hard to get police involved sometimes where I can’t imagine there would be the same difficulties if we were talking about children rather than adults.

Productivity

The vision goes into greater detail about the financial package the local authorities and social care has been ‘gifted’. So be it. It is unprotected money and we all have doubts as to whether it will be enough but noone is getting any money at the moment. There is a focus on efficiency savings.

One of the elements that made me happiest actually is hidden towards the back of the document where it states that ‘The Department of Health will amend the ‘Payment by Results’ tariff from April 2012 so that the NHS pays for reablement and other post-discharge services for 30 days after a patient leaves hospital. From next April, Trusts will not be reimbursed for unnecessary readmissions to hospital’.

Hopefully, this will mean that discharge planning is more coherent and less rushed with the Trusts knowing there will be cost implications of readmission if they ‘get it wrong’. Good.

On the other hand, the vision wants councils to rip apart any remaining in-house services. I understand their point that this is potentially narrowing choice but often, certainly everywhere I have worked, it has been the best quality service when compared with private sector care services. This makes me sad. Goodbye, in-house support. I miss you before you have even gone.

People

And so we move to the social care workforce. Sigh. Yes, the government say ‘care workers, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and social workers, along with carers and the people who use the services’ and you get the impression they put the list in order to importance in their own minds’ eye.

The vision explains that

‘New and continuing professional roles will be developed for front-line social workers, occupational therapists, nurses and others’.

And then goes on to explain the problems there are with sickness and absence in the sector. I wonder if all the reconfigurations have been an issue about increased stress and uncertainty, never mind. I’m sure the government hadn’t considered that.

Interestingly there is mention of working with Munro’s review of children’s services in social work to allow social workers to have more ‘decision-making authority’. Huh? I thought the decision-making was to lie with the service users.

I am thrilled that there seems to be a linking of social work with community development. Seriously. I think this is absolutely the best area for adult social work to place itself and I am genuinely excited to think there could be a role for social workers in community-based growth. However, the skills sets may not quite be there and there will need to be some additional support given at first.

Generally, it’s a mixed bag that tells about lots of hope and plans as expected in a vision. There isn’t much suggestion or explanation yet but that will come with time. Some elements are clearer, some even foggier than they were before and my brief thoughts have been less brief than I imagined.

I find it very hard not to be cynical and I find it very hard to trust this government to be honest. There seems to be a worryingly high dependence on ‘free’ care provided by family and community and no explanation of where the support will come from when these community supports don’t exist.

But I do want the system to be better. I want everyone to receive a better service, not just those who are able to actively engage with the process of receiving a direct payment and I want the changes to work. I don’t care much for the government but I do care desperately for the sector.

A vision is nothing more than a promise until it delivers though. I want the central government, a government without  a mandate, to deliver on outcomes and promises as well as local government officers.

And with that, I sign off the longest post I have ever written for this blog – thanks for staying till the end (if you did). It terrifies me that the word count for one post I wrote in 40 mins is the same as the word count for the essay (currently taking a PQ module) that has taken me about 4 weeks to write… .. . . .

Big Society

So here we have the phrase that Cameron wanted to become a catchphrase during the election but somehow got lost possibly due to public indifference. However, now it’s back to bite.

Cameron launched his ‘Big Society’ initiative a couple of days ago. He uses all the right language of course. It is about a devolution of power and influence over local matters from central government to smaller communities.

As he said in  his speech in Liverpool

‘The big society … is about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street,”

Sounds great so far. As for the details as well as giving some examples of this ‘Big Society’ in action, for example, people in Cumbria buying their own local pub or Liverpudlians opening up some museum services with volunteers.

The idea seems to be to open up the spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism. Money from ‘dormant bank accounts’ will be used to fund some of these projects and plans.

I was sceptical during the election campaign and I remain sceptical now.

Firstly, I am a great fan of voluntary work and voluntary services. I have been directly involved in many voluntary projects and personally developed my own career extensively based on experience as a volunteer. I love it.

But, and this is a big but, I was able to volunteer as my personal financial circumstances at that period of time allowed it. I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to self-fund the work I did as a volunteer.

Is volunteering a luxury then? Not necessarily – those were my own personal circumstances but I am well aware of many many people who manage to work full-time/run a household and find time to input directly into voluntary services. Maybe it’s just me that wouldn’t have the time and energy to do so but I wonder if there is a whiff of middle class morality about it all. Not in all cases, but the example of the pub being bought out by locals certainly seems to pitch the community at a certain level of income.

My other concern is one that relates both to the area I work in and the area I live in. This is as inner-city as it gets. There are some very strong community groups who could easily gain ground both by being active in particular pockets and having the time to invest in the structures of this new ‘big society’ programme that would perhaps, disadvantage minority groups living in areas where there are large homogenous majority communities.

The other concerns relate to reliance on the third sector – this point has been raised in The Guardian . It’s obvious why the government would like to place hopes in the voluntary sector. Often voluntary groups can be ‘closer to the ground’ but do they have more authority that local government? It might be a cheaper way to run things. Currently – and I’m referring to the sectors I am personally aware of – the local authority might well commission local charities to do pieces of work for them or provide services – the Alzheimer’s Society provide day centre support and carers groups for example and receive funding from the local authority. Local authorities are cutting down on spending and the money may come from these ‘big society’ projects from central government funding – oops, I mean ‘dormant bank accounts’ (by the way, is there REALLY that much money in these dormant bank accounts… ).

To the charitable sector, the funding may be cut from one source to be granted at another. Who is better placed to decide which local services are needed or required and what will be the bid process for these charities? The reason I am concerned is that I’ve seen some rather bogus organisations with charitable status – particularly religious groups to be honest. That concerns me.

I don’t want to be cynical about all these wonderful goals. I am a great fan of community work and working within communities. I am just concerned that some of the minority sectors and opinions might be missed in a bidding process for funding for grand ideas.

I really want to be proved wrong though.

It is a question of whether the conception of ‘Big Society’ will work as well in Tower Hamlets as in Tunbridge Wells?  Hopefully the Liverpool pilot will be the proof of the pudding..