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

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

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

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

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

These were Cameron’s words yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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..

Thoughts on the Leaders’ Debate – 15.4.10

I watched the ‘Leaders Debate’ or rather, most of it. I thought Brown did better than I expected and Cameron worse. That may have been due to my expectations that Brown would be poor and Cameron would be polished.  I expected Clegg to make quite a strong showing – it’s easier for the ‘third’ party.

My general political leanings are soft left. I am not a natural Conservative and honestly, can’t consider voting for them so of course,  my bias will show but I don’t need to pretend to be neutral about this..

I was disappointed by the negativity about immigration to be honest. I think it is an easy target and by no means a source of as much concern as the ‘Daily Mail’ would like to have us believe. But I work between the Health Service and Social Care and know the impact and the very real impact a restriction on immigration would have on these services.

About the last point relating to care for the elderly, Cameron’s £8000 insurance against care fees on turning 65 – seems only to benefit the middle classes and protect their children’s inheritances. It does absolutely nothing to address the real funding crises in social care – not least because there is a massive move away from residential and nursing care for a start. Brown and Clegg both talked about some issue of consensus needing to be reached.

About carers, Cameron expressed the need for more respite but Clegg quantified carers getting ‘a week off’. We must have a much more generous system in our local authorities than the ones that Cameron and Clegg have been involved with. I can’t imagine one week being enough.  To be honest, over the last 10 years of my practice, respite and carers services have increased a lot – that isn’t to say they couldn’t be better of course – look at Carers Allowance, for a start – but I think the government have a much better record on carers support than the previous Conservative government.

And honestly, I think Cameron overplayed some of the issues about direct payments a bit – firstly they are being phased out but also, while I as a social worker, might have to deal with onerous amounts of paperwork, the priority was always making it as straightforward as possible for the user/carer – through support networks in place to assist.

One other point, the emphasis on cancer treatment, I know it’s emotive, believe me, I know – I say this as someone who, in my mid-30s has lost both of my parents to cancer – but I am also very aware that there are other medical conditions and more general discussion about health that I would like to have heard. Nothing about dementia for example. That was a shame really.

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Broken Britain?

I was disheartened at how quickly the appalling story of Edlington – where two young boys, aged 10 and 11, under the care of the local authority attacked two other boys and subjected them to what surmounts as torture almost to the point of murder – turned into a party political debate about ‘Broken Britain’.



Firstly, there is no doubt that the case indicated is sickening. I’m sure that mistakes were made by professionals – as much as been said openly. But for the leader of the Conservative Party to extrapolate, as he did in a speech last week, that it indicates that society in Britain is ‘broken’ and lays the blame on the current government, reeks of mean-minded opportunism and a poor understanding and analysis of the country today.

We shouldn’t forgot what the previous Conservative government did to break society and to break Britain – from the sell-off of social housing which has led to increased overcrowding and a more desperate rush for the homes that are available to the miners strike and breaking of the industrial base of the north of England, leading to greater divides between the North and South and the promotion of the ‘me’ culture.