Oxfam calls for crackdown on tax evasion to tackle UK poverty

Today brings the welcome news that Oxfam have joined calls for more to be done to tackle tax evasion in the UK, and for the money recouped to be channelled into reducing poverty. They estimate that the tax coffers lose out by £5.2 billion a year due to offshoring of assets by wealthy individuals. They give the following examples of how this money could be used if recovered:


Oxfam tax evasion UK poverty


Read their report in full here.


Adoption: Threats And Divisions As Gove Loses Patience

We’ve known for some time now that as far as working with children in care are concerned, adoption is the government’s absolute priority. A series of announcements over the past 15 months or so have focused on different aspects of the process. Last week came the latest and potentially most radical, where failing authorities could be stripped of their powers, which would be handed to the voluntary or private sector. There’s £150m purely for adoption, new resources but it’s not new money because it comes from cash previously earmarked for early intervention. Michael Gove just got serious.

The new money for adoption is £150m previously earmarked for early intervention, an area where Surestart and other preventative initiatives that aim to keep families together have already been decimated. A few days before this announcement, Eric Pickles stated he wanted to cut resources available for troubled families. The agenda could not be more stark – prevention and keeping families together is less important than adoption. With devastating irony, this most ideological of decisions uses money specifically set aside for evidence-based initiatives.

Politicians and practitioners agree that the shortage of adoptive carers has to be robustly addressed but surely not at the expense of other children in need. The government’s attempt to say that one sector in need is more important than another smacks of the way their divisive language around the welfare and employment debate tries to set working people against the unemployed, the rest against the “shirkers and skivers”. Child care is a continuum, with support for keeping families together at one end and adoption at the other. They may appear to be poles apart but in fact they are part of the same whole, far more closely related than is convenient for the governement to acknowledge.

Evidence shows that large numbers of children come in and out of care. In foster care, for example, providers have noticed that the rise in placements due to the higher numbers of children coming into care has been accompanied by an increase in the number of short-term placments, where children then return home. It is easy to forget that the original intention of section 20 of the Children Act where children and young people can be accommodated with the agreement of their parents was designed to maintain the ties between children and their families rather than close the door, and that families could use accommodation as a service, a week or two’s respite while they sort out problems with the help of their social worker so that the child can return to where they belong, in a safe, caring home. The Act became law in 1991 but sounds like ancient history. I may as well be writing in Sanskrit for all the sense those last few sentences make in 2013.

On a personal level, as someone who has worked across the whole spectrum but more recently in fostering and adoption, I feel dirty, as if I’m using money that’s been pinched from a child’s piggy bank. This is how awful this low, underhand and cold-blooded financial conjuring makes me feel.

The decision encapsulates all that is wrong in that dark, dank place where politics meets planning for children’s services. These are themes I’ve written about before. Prevention leads to better services and saves money in the long run whether it’s children in care, health and safety or gritting the roads before forecast snow falls. Yet for the government, any government not just this one, there’s little reason to invest in the long-term because another administration will reap the benefit, be it another government or perish the thought, another lot of politicians from another party. Yet we will know the success of our work with children in care only when they are well into adulthood, and anyway, even then people change as they grow older.

Adotpion czar Martin Narey, now Sir Martin, said this week that if even half the children on the waiting list are adopted, that would produce huge savings. He’s right of course, and he’s right to say that children should not have to languish in care with only the hope of a family to hang on to. Where I fundamentally disagree is that one element of the continuum should be prioritised at the expense of another. The twin goals of long-term savings and better choices for children and families for children in need of help from the state could be achieved by investment in early intervention as well as in adoption, not instead of. Also, even if the adoption backlog were cleared, there are others coming through the system in greater numbers than ever before. They too will need placements and the resources to find them. Further, adoption is not the only route to permanence. Evidence demonstrates the value of long-term fostering for many children and for their carers who receive support throughout the placement. These placements cost money but the children are worth it.

I am delighted that the government has made the welfare of children in care a priority, the first to do so in recent memory. However, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that for this long-term, complex issue they are seeking a quick win, the headline and the soundbite that goes with it.

More irony: government proposals in the pipeline won’t grab the headlines but are far more interesting and relevent for me as a practitioner because they directly address many of the problems in the existing system. Most important is the review of the court process that maintains a steadfast focus on the needs of the child within a clear timetable and minimises drift. Support for adopters will increase, with a look at personal budgets so they can decide what their family needs and how to sort out any problems. The purpose of the new national Adoption Gateway is to make it easier for prospective adopters to find out more. Changes in the inter-agency fee place the voluntary sector on the same level as authorties, thus widening the pool of adopters. Finally, there will be more organised gatherings of prospective adopters and children, sometimes called adoption parties. This is a direct result of an evidence-based study by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering that was properly researched, funded by the voluntary sector and fully evaluated. Taken together, these initiatives will do nothing but good. I fully support them. Evidence not ideology.

Every now and again any system in any organisation needs a good kick up the backsidebut in my experience, threats are far less effective than committed, considered leadership that understands a problem and sets goals for change. The government has quickly tired of what it sees as intransigence in the sector. Last week we heard that councils who do not respond will find adoption services removed entirely from them and placed in the hands of the voluntary and private sector. The appearence of the private sector is noteworthy. This requires a legislative change as private companies are not able by law to become adoption agencies.

Once more we are seeing divisions rather than partnership. The voluntary sector wants to work alongside local authority partners. Legions of dedicated, able local authority social workers want to find more adopters, not to be excluded from the whole process. We have to work closely with communities to find more adopters, for example more black adopters, rather than becoming ever more distant. Change must be accomplished by working with the sector not against it.

The Socialist Workers Party and the Collapse of Cults

This post is rather off-topic for this blog. However, I’ve recently been doing some family therapy training, which involves a lot of discussion about how systems change. Although I’ve kept the theorising to a bare minimum here, this post is fairly heavily influenced by the thinking I’ve been doing about systemic theory.

I’ve just come back from a short break in Prague. While there, I took the time to visit the Museum of Communism (handily situated between a McDonalds and casino, and opposite a Benetton!) and educate myself about the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the downtrodden masses of Czechoslovakia finally seized enough momentum to overthrow the Communist dictatorship. The museum contained heartbreaking footage of peaceful protesters being bloodied and battered by police thugs. All the brutality didn’t change the outcome though. The game was up, the regime had lost its authority and quickly fell. The name of Vaclav Havel, the revolution’s de facto leader (and the country’s first democratic president) now graces the airport I flew in and out of.

Arguably, the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia could be seen as just another form of cult. A self-serving clique that operates according to its own internal logic and values. As is so often the case with cults, it was no secret that the emperor had no clothes, but it took a certain set of circumstances and critical mass to bring about a collapse.

The topic of cults interests me, and as it happens we’re currently seeing an ongoing collapse of a cult, in the form of the Socialist Workers Party. As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the party is in deep crisis after a female party member accused a senior figure, “Comrade Delta”, of raping her. Rather than reporting it to the police and entrusting the matter to the “bourgeois court system”, they formed a committee of Comrade Delta’s colleagues, who promptly found him not guilty. A large section of the membership, including many who were previously slavishly loyal, are now in open revolt over the matter.

The SWP have always had a reputation for being a somewhat strange and at times unpleasant organisation. Anyone who’s been involved in protest events will have had experience of them turning up, handing out placards and leaflets, and generally trying to take over. Their communication style has always been rather didactic and top-down with supposed wisdom handed down from the party leadership. The membership has always been small and often transient. People have a habit of joining in a fit of idealism, and then leaving somewhere down the line out of disillusionment with the control-freakery and intellectual stultification. The result is that those who stick it out long-term tend to be the worst kind of groupthink drones.

As is so often the case with cults, it can produce some amusingly bizarre group dynamics. In among the various online discussions about the crisis, I came across this comment by a former member.

At its most extreme, the sycophancy appears cult-like.  A number of [Central Committee] members are big fans of jazz music. Under their leadership over the past few years, the party has organised a number of (mostly loss-making) jazz gigs as fundraising events.  Regardless of their own musical tastes, comrades were told they were disloyal if they didn’t purchase tickets.  This elevates the cultural tastes of the official leadership to a point of political principle; and clearly is not in any way a healthy state of affairs.
Incidentally, the SWP’s favourite jazz musician Gilad Atzmon has published a blog post in defence of Comrade Delta and the SWP. His response to the rape allegation is – I kid you not – that it’s all the fault of the Jews. If I haven’t critiqued his argument here, it’s because it’s so obviously contemptible.

In spite of the authoritarianism, the bizarreness and the jazz, the SWP has attracted a surprising quantity of celebrity alumni over the years, like a low-rent Scientology. One wonders what current and former members such as China Mieville, Mark Steel,  Laurie Taylor and Paul Foot, all obviously-thoughtful and creative individuals, saw in such an intellectual cul-de-sac. Then again, they also have alumni such as Garry Bushell, Peter Hitchens, Julie Burchill and Rod Liddle, who simply seem to have swapped one set of thuggish certainties for another.

As is usually the case with cults, and was certainly the case in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, the rottenness was in plain view for all with eyes to see. Indeed, the rape allegation seems to have been rumbling along for years. The collapse of the cult is not due to a revelation of truth, but a systemic collapse due to a loss of internal cohesion. As in the Czech revolution, the SWP hierarchy made its attempts to restore cohesion, in one instance expelling four members who had a Facebook discussion about the allegations. Whereas previously the system was sufficiently robust that this would be sufficient to return it to its previous state, there was now enough chaos in the system that this only added fuel to the fire, giving impetus to change. Again, a similar effect happened in the run-up to the Velvet Revolution, with police brutality driving more outraged citizens to take to the streets.

If you wanted to get into systems theory about it, you could say that this was a case of a negative feedback loop turning into a positive one, thereby producing what’s referred to as a second-order change. The change will not be of individuals within the system, but change of the system itself.

Insiders on the British left seem to think that the SWP is likely to survive in some form or another, for the simple reason that they have a surprising amount of financial resources for such a small organisation. They suspect that the endgame is likely to involve a battle over who controls the cash. Even so, the party is likely to be fundamentally changed. Their own miniature Velvet Revolution now seems unstoppable.

Moving On and Looking Back

Forgive me for the slightly self-absorbed post. Blogging by its nature can be the epitome of self-absorption but I attempted to write with a look to the wider world, particularly in the sector I know best, social care. I put this in the past tense as this will be the last post I write.

When I started writing, I had the voice of a social worker and AMHP (Approved Mental Health Professional) in a Community Mental Health Team. I was trying find that voice amid the policy and processes that we found ourselves, as practitioners, caught up in and trying to extend outward some of the frustrations and observations garnered from the ‘frontline’. It felt and it feels like that policy happens from afar, away from the homes I visited, the wards we attended, this was my world and it felt like a completely different world from the one defined by officials in the Department of Health when they remember ‘social care’ is a part of their remit.

I believe wholeheartedly in social work as a profession and social workers as professionals but I became frustrated at the lack of professional leadership. There is no doubt that the last year of my professional life has been one of the most challenging. I’ve worked in social care for 20 years (gulp – I look younger, I promise!) as anyone can imagine, I’ve seen many changes in that time. ‘Reconfigurations’ were nothing new to me. Working with change and in organisations that change frequently is one of my fortes but the most recent one was the most painful by far. While parts of my job, I loved – particularly when I was able to work with and alongside individuals and families and walk with them through some of those moments of crisis – working in an organisation and delivering services which were being ripped to pieces was difficult. Defending organisational decisions became impossible. The fight was still there inside me to promote and present a better way of working and honest interactions with everyone who needed our service, I saw waiting lists grow and discharges of people who I felt would benefit from more support. I saw the effect of the programme of cuts in the NHS in a very visceral way. I was and am very lucky. I have been able to walk away. I find myself in a job that excites and interests me and presents many new challenges. The same ease with which one can move on cannot be said for those who are reliant on the support of social care services and I remain acutely aware of my privilege in being able to.

I found a different (but related) job and thought I’d be able to continue writing with the passion I never stopped having but I can’t. The situation has changed and the voices need to be heard from the frontline I’ve stepped back from. I have become the person I resented for so many years. As a social worker, I always had a hint of scorn for those who took the ‘desk jobs’ and moved away from the direct work with people who use the services we provide but I’ve become one of those people.

In defending myself to the old me, I’d say that changing the world can happen in different ways. I am no less committed to the same ethical standards of making the world of health and social care better for those who use services. I am seeing that social work and social care happens in many different places. Is it an attempt at justifying my decision to leave social work behind? Yes, probably but that’s something I’m reflecting on a great deal at the moment.

I have been disillusioned by the time I spent working in the statutory sector as a social worker. As a parting salvo as I head off into the sunset, I want to reflect on a couple of themes that revolve around social care at the moment.

Kneejerk funding decisions lead to more expense, both in terms of quality of life and finance in the longer term. I’ve seen panic cuts both at a national and local level. The problem with panic cuts is that the things that are easily destroyed cannot be built back up in the ‘good times’.

‘Choice and control’ the buzzwords of change ring very hollow to me now as I saw in both the NHS and the local authority, the way that data and information is manipulated to meet performance targets that are meaningless to people who use services. Choice is one of the most nefarious words in the sector in my opinion. ‘Choice’ is very much defined by what organisations allow to be chosen and the confidence, communication skills, advocacy support of the individual doing the ‘choosing’. I railed against processes that favoured ‘he who shouts the loudest’ but it was to no avail. Presented by the government as a panacea of positivity, I have seen the downside of ‘choice’. It has been the creation of a two-tier service in adult social care that provides those who are able to choose with fantastic opportunities but those who may not have the capacity/support to choose are left lagging behind, in poorer, oft forgotten services. With funding drying up and fewer third sector organisations able to pick up the slack, there is a massive void of support which often falls on family and friends – the ‘informal’ support networks that the government still feel able to criticise.

Dementia care is a particular interest of mine. Professionally I have worked in the area for a number of years. Dementia is moving further forward in terms of government policy making and the so-called ‘dementia challenge’ which is currently trying to increase diagnosis rates. That’s all well and good and I won’t enter that conversation but I will say this. In order for dementia to be better understood by the public it has to be better understood by the government agencies who are supposed to be providing the information. There is a horrendous lack of information about the role that supportive social care services play in improving the quality of life for people with dementia. As I worked alongside a ‘memory clinic’ which had been decimated by cuts, I laughed hollowly at the words of the government ministers about increasing diagnosis rates in primary care and for hospital inpatients. See my first point about panic cuts and lack of cohesion. Reading some of the Department of Health missives you’d be at a loss to think they ever discussed any of their plans with anyone with a current social care background. Perhaps the new Chief Social Worker (or one of them anyway) will provide a sticking plaster to this but it’s very apparent at the moment that there is no cohesive, current social care voice in the government department and it makes some of their policies woeful. The level of ignorance even of government ministers who clearly haven’t been briefed by people who understand social care would be embarrassing if it weren’t desperately sad.

Lastly about Social Work itself. I retain my social work registration and will now until 2014 at the very least. I suspect far beyond that as I don’t want to give up my registration. I am very proud to be and to have been a social worker. The ethics and values of the profession can really shine a light and guide many of our colleagues in allied professions and we shouldn’t be shy of realising our own worth. Often I hear social workers talk of status and comparing ourselves unfavourably to nurses, teachers, doctors, psychologists etc. We shouldn’t need to constantly compare. We have a fine profession with its own knowledge base, standards and codes. Having worked in a multi-disciplinary mental health team (and I think being an AMHP helped with this as we are known to be a stubborn and independently minded bunch) I never felt anything but an equal to the other professionals I worked alongside (and challenged – psychiatrists – I’m talking to you ;)). We do need to ‘sell ourselves’ more and we can’t rely on waiting for ‘good press coverage’. Do the job, however hard, with the ethics and values at the heart and remember why we are there – it isn’t to promote organisational will but to walk alongside and guide. Sometimes there are difficult, coercive decisions to be made but reference to values and ethics become all the more important there. The nature of a job that sometimes has a coercive function is that ‘hearts and minds’ will never be particularly straightforward. I didn’t become a social worker to make friends or to swan in adulation of my ‘goodness’. I went into it because I felt it gave me more opportunities to make a positive difference in someone’s life. More often than not, certainly over the last couple of years, it became more about saying what wasn’t possible than what was – but if I could deliver that with as much humanity and empathy and transparency as possible, it could be a start.

Many thanks to Zarathustra for this space and for the support he has offered to me.

And thanks to everyone for reading, commenting and responding over the last year or so. My reasons for stopping are work-related but not in a bad way. I just think my voice has changed now and it’s important that those ‘on the ground’ have the way left open to them to find it. I won’t say I’ll never write again, I may at some point in the future, but if I do it won’t be anonymously I will, though continue to knock around on Twitter I expect!


Exporting Care

Location, Location, Location

Yesterday I read this article in the Guardian. It reports that in Germany there is an increase in Germans being placed in residential, retirement and rehabilitation units in eastern Europe where the costs are lower.

As the article says

Germany’s chronic care crisis – the care industry suffers from lack of workers and soaring costs – has for years been mitigated by eastern Europeans migrating to Germany in growing numbers to care for the country’s elderly.

But the transfer of old people to eastern Europe is being seen as a new and desperate departure, indicating that even with imported, cheaper workers, the system is unworkable.

But before we are too quick to castigate Germany, I think it’s important that we look at what happens in this country.

Until one month ago, I was a local authority employed social worker, seconded into an NHS Trust (as I was a mental health social worker) working predominantly with older people. I made a lot of residential and nursing placements. I worked in an inner London borough.

The amount of local placements we had came nowhere near meeting the needs of the local community. Yes, there has been a push towards caring for people longer at home – perhaps it was a feature of central London, perhaps not,  but many of the people I worked with did not have family around them. The cost of housing had pretty much seen to that in terms of ripping communities apart.

Still, there are pockets of close communities even amid the high towers of the financial centres of London. Among the office blocks and fancy shopping streets, there are communities that have evolved over the decades, centuries even and those tourist spots visitors see, they are ‘home’ to many people who might not wear the smartest suits or have the fanciest accessories.

We ‘converted’ some of the residential provision locally into ‘extra care sheltered’ provision – see, that would be good, that would ‘keep people at home’ for longer.

So where are we now?

The chances of getting a placement in the local area are very slim to zero. We had waiting lists months long for some of the residential provisions in the area. The wonderful ‘extra care sheltered’ housing provision realised soon that they could not manage the needs of those who needed 24 hour residential support or maybe the criteria for residential care moved higher but they have not truly become an alternative for someone who needs a residential placement. They have become a safer environment with a constant ‘warden’ for those who may otherwise have had sheltered accommodation.

So there are fewer residential and nursing placements for people who are local to the area. If a family shouts and hollers enough they may get someone on the ‘waiting list’ for a place. Who knows when that place will come up. We don’t like saying it explicitly  but places in residential and nursing homes usually come up for one reason and that’s a death or a deterioration in physical health and noone wants to think about that.

What does a local authority do then?

It moves people out. It is more likely to move out people who have no family support and no ‘links’ to the area. You see, living somewhere for 70+ years isn’t seen as ‘link’ enough if your family and friends aren’t there. Anyway, even if they don’t want to move you out, if there are no beds, there are no beds.

So while we aren’t moving people to other countries, that’s only really by virtue of us being an island. We aren’t that much better than Germany in this respect. We are moving people to unfamiliar settings and localities on the basis of cost alone.

Commissioning Quality

How are these decisions made? Well, to absolve myself from responsibility, I’ll say it wasn’t my decision. I did and do rage against it. I raised it internally as the ways these decisions are made are purely on the basis of finances of local authorities to make placements.

Currently, in inner London we are placing frequently in outer London but soon it will be the Home Counties and further and further away from familiarity. I wonder how consistent this is with the Mental Capacity Act which demands previous preferences are taken into account. This can be ridden over roughshod if there aren’t any local placements at the right cost.

So we move to commissioning. There has been a race to the bottom in terms of providing services and placements at the lowest cost. Property is a massive cost in central London so cheaper land can push down general cost but at what price to autonomy and preference?

There has to be a way for commissioners to be accountable for the decisions they make. Families can push and make complaints on behalf of those who are not able to make decisions for themselves but there really needs to be, in my opinion, some external scrutiny of commissioning decisions made by people who really understand the social care sector. Yes, councillors can scrutinise but how many understand the needs of those who are not pounding on their doors making complaints about council services? Who understands that those who have the quietest voices or who have noone to advocate for them may be having their rights ripped away from them?

I’m not sure of the answers. All I know is that I wish the commissioners would have listened to their social workers. I wish there were a stronger, formal system of advocacy which would raise these issues with people who commission services and I wish there were an understanding in central government of the impact that geography makes on the cost of social care.

There may be cheaper and more available placements in South Yorkshire but that doesn’t mean the answer is placing Londoners there. I fear it may well be in the future.

We can’t become too complacent. Germany today may well be Britain tomorrow.

Twas The Not So Big Society Before Christmas

Since Christmas is nearly on us, and the Apocalypse appears to have passed without incident, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on the past year.

Last Christmas, The Not So Big Society was only a couple of months old. Prior to starting the site, both Ermintrude and I had been running successful blogs that we’d felt compelled to shut down due to people causing trouble for us in meatspace. As result we’d both found ourselves at something of a cyber-loose end, and agreed to set up a blog together. Since then we’ve been joined by other writers, including Abe Laurens, Politicalnurse, Gary, Bonkesoul and Z3r00n3. I like to think we’ve evolved nicely into a forum of ideas and opinion about health and social care, with the occasional dollop of small-p politics.

Over time the readership of the blog has slowly but steadily grown, from 2,648 views in October 2011 to 14,466 in November 2012. A rather unscientific browse through our list of followers on Twitter suggests we’re being read by a healthy mix of professionals, service users, students, academics, politicians, campaigners and interested individuals.

We also get a steady stream of angry, at times abusive, messages from people who believe that social workers are engaged in a massive conspiracy to steal children. If I’ve learned one thing this year about building up a readership, it’s that quality is as important as quantity.

In terms of how people are finding us, the most popular search string (apart from the obvious like “not so big society”) is, believe it or not, “tin foil hat”, probably due to this post. The most popular sensible and non-obvious search term was “AMHP training”. There’s also a very high number of search hits for information about the John Smalley case, which I used to demonstrate how appallingly under-regulated the psychotherapy industry is.  I suspect this may be because although it’s not a huge issue in terms of widespread media interest, there’s not many other places highlighting this problem.

Oh, and hello to the small number of you who found us with the following search terms.

“the queen should die”

“fascist child protection services”

“tin foil child”

“fifty ways to save pickles”

“cosmic schmuck principle”

This time last year, the spending cuts that followed the credit crunch were yet to be fully implemented. Now we’re beginning to feel the full impact, very possibly with more to come. I’d vaguely hoped that austerity would prompt a greater sense of compassion in society, that we would feel compelled to spend more time looking after our friends and neighbours in order to protect the vulnerable.

In fact the opposite happened. This year has seen a ramping-up of unpleasant rhetoric that tars and feathers the poor, the sick, the unemployed and those who work with them. Disabled people are all faking it. If you’re unemployed it’s been you don’t want a job rather than because you can’t find one. The poor need to be given vouchers instead of money so they don’t spend their benefits on fags and booze. Nurses are all lazy and compassionless. Social workers are all loony-left ideologues. Our political classes may not have been responsible for the financial crash, but they are responsible for turning the struggling masses against themselves.

I’m more angry at the government and the world in general in my mid-30s than when I was a stroppy, immature teenager. What’s that about, then?

If there is a Christmas message from this blog, I hope that it is this: despite what Margaret Thatcher claimed, there is such a thing as society. If there is a true measure of society, it is the way it behaves towards those in need of care and support. We did not create the ongoing austerity, but we live with it and face the consequences every day. We are the have-nots rather than the have-yachts. We believe in compassion and decency, and we oppose stigma and victim-blaming.

We are the Not So Big Society.

Pickles and Local Government ‘Saving’ Ideas

Eric Pickles at Conservative Party Conference

Yesterday, Pickles announced a cut of 1.7% spending for local authorities. On top of cuts which have taken place already, this leaves many public services in a precarious position.

Local government has been hit hard already by this government and the austerity measures taken and while Pickles and his ilk in the Cabinet like to promote the impression of profligacy in the public sector, the cost is made in terms of quality of life and vital support services to some of the most vulnerable in the country.

The Guardian quotes Pickles saying

“Councils must do three things to get on the right road for their residents: put our fair funding deal to work; do every single one of our 50 ways to save; and accept our council tax freeze offer. Councils that cry wolf without having done all of this are letting their residents down.

“Councils that put their thinking caps on now can save precious taxpayer pennies next year by cutting out waste and transforming frontline services that vulnerable people rely on.”

So this is ‘localism’ at play. I thought I’d take a look at Pickles’ 50 ways to save.

They are available to view here (PDF).

I’m just going to look at a few of them and there does seem to be a theme. For a government document there is some very political language lurking inside Mr Pickles’ suggestions.

Firstly he talks of ‘sharing back office functions’ and praises initiatives like the ‘tri-borough’ linking of some functions between Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster as well as giving other examples where this has been the case. While there may be scope for some services, the assumption that ‘back office’ is unnecessary can be dangerous. My understanding is that the cuts in staff do not limit themselves to ‘back office’ and the blurring between ‘frontline’ and ‘back office’ can be dangerously shaky at times.

Another of his suggestions is – and I quote because I think this language is important is – ‘Claw back money from benefit cheats’. Fine, this is fraud but why is it listed separately from the other ‘tackle fraud’ point. Of course fraud should be tackled but the use of language is very different in the two points. Pickles plays on emotion here and the now familiar government rhetorical of creating and emphasising the collocation of ‘benefit cheats’. It could easily have been termed ‘tackling fraud’ but no, the government want to emphasise this point particularly.

Another one is ‘encourage e-billing and direct debit’ – now maybe I’m on a different planet or maybe things are different wherever it is Pickles lives but my understanding is that this has been pushed pretty heavily already.

Ah, encouraging hot-desking is there too. This works in different ways in different services. Having worked in adult social care for many years, the importance of having a team around you in a stressful environment is crucial in my opinion in terms of engendering safe practice and providing team support. This is debateable and is my own experience but I do worry about the support available if we are continually pushed towards hotdesking.

‘Close subsidised staff canteens’ – fair enough but lets close the subsidised bars in the Houses of Parliament too.

Cancel away days in posh hotels and glitzy award ceremonies – this made me chuckle. The last away day I attended was in the office I worked in. My council got rid of awards ceremonies and for my ‘excellent service’ I got a £5 M&S voucher ‘to buy myself a sandwich’. I was genuinely delighted by my award because it wasn’t expected and it was something I am proud of. I’ve even kept the vouchers as a souvenir. Maybe I was never at a pay grade high enough to have the fancy away days or glitzy ceremonies but I suspect a lot of councils have cut in this area substantially already.

Introduce a recruitment freeze he says. There have been some very damaging recruitment freezes which have had a direct effect on services produced. Looking again at the LA I came from the proposals included replacing all leaving social workers with unqualified replacements. Is that what Pickles wants? Or perhaps he suggests leaving those posts unfilled, increasing stress and sickness levels on those remaining?

I loved my job. I loved doing what I did but the increased stress levels I experienced and the reasons I applied for another job were directly related to the reduction of staff in the team in which I was working. I felt we were teetering on the brink of providing a safe service. This will get worse, it seems and Pickles seems to be condoning it.

And similarly he talks about cutting agency staff used. See above. The team I worked in lost a number of team members who weren’t replaced. Agency staff were brought in to cover at a higher cost because the risks were too high. Had there been more planning initially, this would not have happened. This is what does happen when quick cuts are requested and demanded. Longer term costs.

Then we get onto the ‘scrap trade union posts’ nice little ‘saving’ he suggests. Yes, really. I am appalled by this. In the light of the amount of redundancies he is asking for, union membership and time is absolutely crucial. Does he really think that these cutting measures will engender a more efficient staff team with poor morale. I am a passionate trade unionist and this panders to the general government agenda of chipping away union power as does another of his suggestions to ‘charge for collecting trade union subscriptions’.

And he suggests they councils ‘stop translating documents into foreign languages’. Oh, that’s an easy target. He says this affects ‘community cohesion’. No, it further alienates those who don’t speak or read English. Statutory services are just that and restricting information to those who may not understand English is another way to marginalise other communities. This is downright dangerous as far as I’m concerned.

He talks about ‘ending lifestyle and equality questionnaires’. Because these are ‘intrusive and unnecessary’. I can’t speak for all of them but saying that ‘councils do not need to spend time and money on Equality Impact Assessments’ says where his priorities lie. True that I’ve seen some awful Equality Impact Assessments in my time but I’ve also seen Trade Unions in particular challenge them when they have been poor to good effect. Getting rid of them completely isn’t ‘the answer’.

We get onto a nice, snappy ‘sell services’ suggestion which I feel is at the core of the government’s agenda in relation to local authorities. This government WANTS skeleton local authorities that provide little to nothing directly. Private and voluntary sectors may move in for the more profitable services and some ‘social enterprises’ might pop up which can pick up the slack in areas like adult social care – but the terms and conditions of employment for staff will be poorer – as will the democratic accountability.

I have now left local government service but my heart is lingering on because I know what those services which are being decimated mean to people. Maybe not to Pickles and his ilk in the Cabinet but to some of those who have the highest needs. My concerns is that adult social care cannot sustain many more cuts although obviously that varies from area to area but Pickles wants to detach services from the auspices of local authorities and that’s dangerous language.

There is scope for saving in better commissioning of services and better monitoring of services commissioning. My experience within local government is that the channels of communication have been weak. As a social worker in a local authority I felt very much at the periphery of the organisation – possibly because I was also seconded out to the Mental Health Trust – but I could have been and my ex-colleagues could be a valuable resource in terms of seeing where a lot of the waste and benefits could come from.

If I were writing to a local authority a guideline for saving I would probably share Mr Pickles’ last point. Speak to your staff. Speak to all of your staff. Your staff may be your residents. They may be on the periphery of the organisation but they may also see things not apparent at director level. Value them and promote engagement with unions rather than isolating them because good staff can push improvements.

As for Pickles, his document is as much of a farce as his ripping to shreds of the funding streams for local authorities.

photo via Flickr conservativeparty

Does God Need A Make-Over?

There has been much in the media of recent about the rather fraught view of religion by other parts of society. On this occasion, I’m thinking in particular of the Church of England’s (and to be fair, most other Christian denominations) response to gay marriage and of course the well-publicised vote on whether women should be allowed to become Bishops in the Church of England.

I find it an interesting discussion for a number of reasons not least because I am a Christian and an Independent Social Worker so find myself asking whether the two can co-exist without being at loggerheads for much of the time.  On the one hand, they appear to be best friends; after all principles such as compassion, self-less giving, openness and honesty and shared between the two.  Prior to being a welfare state wasn’t welfare provided by family and caring neighbours? On the other hand they appear to be poles apart and the (media’s interpretation of) views of Christians have become the very definition of inequality and discrimination: Being reported as an outdated, irrelevant religion whose demise is imminent.

All this has led to the media and bloggers alike asking whether God has become irrelevant or in Katy Campbell’s blog questioning whether God requires a bit of PR to continue in contemporary society.

I think a part of the problem is that people are confusing religion with the Christian’s view of God.  For a Christian, God created everything in the beginning, has always and will always co-exists as Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit.  Whilst Christians identify that individuals can have a relationship with God who is perfect, religion is largely man-made and often where the problems exist. The problems don’t necessarily lie in the fact that people believe in God or any other god for that matter.

Does God need a make-over? If you ask a Christian they would say that to suggest that he does would be to acknowledge that he isn’t actually God so in itself is an absurd question.  Does the Christian church need a make-over to bring it in line with contemporary society and more in line with Biblical principles?

Another issue is the Bible which is of course the Christians’ book of choice. A Christian will tell you that it is one of the means through which someone gets to know God. It has itself been under scrutiny of recent particularly when discussions about gay marriage have been raised.  The reason being that the Bible sets out a clear framework for marriage; Christians believe that it is an institution ordained by God and a union between a man and women. That is why most Christians will be against gay marriage. Not because they are homophobic but because it is contrary to the foundation of their faith.

So, perhaps the issue isn’t that God requires a make-over or that the foundations of the Christian faith should somehow be remodeled because to suggest such a thing is surely questioning whether any religion is valid.

Reasons to be cheerful about the rise of UKIP

So, another day, and another UKIP representative has said something highly offensive and absolutely barking mad. It must be a Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday.

This time, it’s Geoffrey Clark, their Kent County Council candidate, who suggested compulsory abortions for foetuses with Down’s Syndrome or spina bifida. Not that he was insisting we should, he said in response to the understandable howls of outrage. Just that it might be worth considering as a way of bringing down the national debt. A UKIP spokesman told the BBC that they didn’t agree with his views, but he’s still “a hard-working local activist who would make an excellent councillor.” Though they now seem to have changed their minds about that, because they’ve suspended him and say he won’t stand for them again.

A month or so it was going all so well for them. They were riding the tide of national scandal about a case in which Rotherham Council had removed three children from foster carers who were UKIP members. Never mind that the fuss seems to have died down very quickly, and it turned out to be almost certainly more complicated than that. They got to bask in a couple of weeks where politicians and pundits were falling over themselves to say that UKIP are a credible, mainstream party.

And then one of their candidates told the media that allowing gay people to adopt was “child abuse”, and it was right back to form. Not that it stopped them doing well in recent elections, resulting in more headlines proclaiming them “Britain’s new third party”.

As a left-of-centre progressive, how do I feel about their recent success? Absolutely great. Let me explain why.

When I say I feel good about it, I’m not suggesting in any way that I respect or admire UKIP. Quite the opposite. Back in 2010 I made the mistake of reading their general election manifesto. It felt like listening to a bunch of retired colonels having a drunken argument in the pub.

And then there’s their self-description as a “libertarian, non-racist party”. Quite apart from having a “not a racist but…” in that description, do they really believe they’re libertarian?

It’s not my philosophy of choice, but libertarians generally support open borders and gay marriage. And they certainly wouldn’t endorse compulsory abortions of disabled children. Ultimately, I suspect that UKIP has become riddled with the kind of politico who calls himself “a libertarian” because it doesn’t impress girls at parties when you tell them, “I’m very, very right-wing.”

So if UKIP isn’t having its ranks filled with staunch defenders of individual liberty, where are they getting their new support from? We don’t need to speculate, because today Lord Ashcroft published research giving us the answers. The straightforward answer is they’re getting it from disaffected Tories. The kind of people who are “pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame”, and have a certain set of preoccupations.

“But these are often part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.

“All of these examples, real and imagined, were mentioned in focus groups by UKIP voters and considerers to make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.”

We all know people obsessed with this sort of thing (as Ashcroft said, these problems can be real or imagined. They’re mostly imagined.) But they only represent a certain subset of our culture. They’re also the kind of subset that can be relied upon to say something that will cause huge upset and outrage to the rest of us. Things like suggesting disabled children be aborted to help the national debt.

So, UKIP will carve themselves a nice little hard-right niche as the Even Nastier Party, but they’ll be repulsive to everyone outside that niche. As for the Tories, they’ll be left with a lose-lose situation. They can either stick with their current positions, and continue to haemorrhage their right-wing to UKIP. Or they can tack to the right, and concede the centre-ground to Labour. Either will be electoral disaster for the Tories, and a Labour landslide.

Personally, I intend to vote at the next election for the National Health Action Party, providing they stand in my constituency and there isn’t a significant risk of causing a Tory to sneak in the back door by doing so. Otherwise, it’ll be a clothes-peg on the nose and voting Labour.

So, for splitting the right-wing vote, my message to UKIP is this. Thank you and I salute your efforts, you revolting bunch of total oiks.