When an article in the Telegraph reports that even the United Nations has an obsession with the UK’s alleged gangs problem (see my latest Huffington Post) it seems there is nothing stranger than the world of social policy. Which is why, despite what I had to say about the ‘grey managerial world of local government‘, I can’t help but be intrigued by it all the same. So it might be worth mentioning that in addition to the day job I convene something called the Social Policy Forum at the Institute of Ideas. We’ve recently been busy making plans for the year ahead and collaborating on ‘Society Wars: The Battle for Social Policy’, a publication that will give a taster of the strand of debates we organised at the Battle of Ideas last year. We have also been thinking about how we might do things a little differently this year, especially with regards introducing our members to new writing and reports and upcoming meetings and events that we think might be of interest. Do drop me a line or post a comment if you’re interested in joining us. You can also visit our page here or join us on Facebook or Linkedin.
Archives for February 2012
Its 11 months now since I was made redundant after more than a decade working in local government. As I wrote at the time, I had mixed feelings on my exit. Whatever the size of the redundancy cheque – and mine just about saw me through – in the current economic climate there is something slightly terrifying about being let go. At the same time I remember how I felt like one of the lucky ones. It was the poor sods left behind that I really felt sorry for. They would have to continue as before but in a working environment still less hospitable to their endeavours.
While the writing career hasn’t quite taken off – well, it still isn’t paying the bills – the sense of elation at being freed of the obligations of public service was undeniable. I hasten to add that I have since returned as a consultant and with a new enthusiasm for the day job. But such is the individuation of our working (and non-working) lives these days – that’s my excuse anyway – I had yet to take stock of the creative talents of those around me. It was only when I had all the time in the world to scroll through their Facebook updates that I discovered that they had so much more to offer.
So I thought as the lights were dimmed for the second night of a short run of the intriguingly titled Redundancy the Musical, written and composed by a former colleague of mine. That Naomi Lowde was able to find inspiration in what is the grey managerial world of local government is quite something. That she made it entertaining too was a bonus. So, while these creatives are being let loose on the world – and they’ll no doubt find ever more inventive ways of making art and making ends meet – I can’t help feeling that a public sector long past being able to harness such things is the poorer for it.
First published in Huffington Post
While they are, if claims coming out of last week’s summit are to be believed, to blame for the rise of al-Shabab in Somalia, the role of gangs in last summer’s riots was, at the very least, negligible. That much is acknowledged by pretty much everybody. It has even been reported that gang leaders called a truceduring hostilities. Bless ’em. But still the government’s anti-gangs taskforce has work to do apparently, and will not be diverted by the reality on the ground. There is too much at stake for that.
According to the children’s commissioner, as many as 10,000 young girls are being exploited by these no-show gangs. Admittedly, he said this ahead of atwo-year inquiry presumably charged with finding out whether such dubious claims have any basis in fact. But there is clearly an appetite for this sort of thing in government. Lynne Featherstone, minister for equality, for instance, has already made her mind up. She recently claimed that “people would be shocked if they could see the level of violence and abuse against girls in gangs”. She didn’t elaborate.
But an absence of evidence that we have a gang problem in the UK, or that they are engaged in systematic abuse of young girls, is not about to hinder those on a an anti-gangs/anti-abuse mission. Local bodies – from health and social care to housing authorities and schools – will put together their own multi-agency, ‘early intervention’ strategies to deal with whatever it is they have convinced themselves is happening. Whether its ‘working with toddlers’ as Theresa May puts it, youth workers stationed in A&E departments waiting for victims of gang violence to turn up, or GPs reporting those hoping to get some medical attention for their gun and knife wounds to the authorities.
It is hard to know where to start with the wholly objectionable extended state apparatus being put in place for a problem that has yet to even be established. The official obsession with gangs – and a particularly unhealthy obsession with ‘girls and gangs’ – threatens to make things worse. Where are the opposition you might ask? Are they up in arms – if you’ll excuse the pun – about these unwarranted intrusions into the lives of young people ‘at risk’ of getting involved with gangs. At the very least, at a time when public services are under threat, you might expect this to be singled out as a waste of public money? Not a bit of it. They complain, for fear of looking soft on crime and to show their concern for the ‘vulnerable’, that yet more resources need to be pumped into community safety and policing.
Which reminds me. In an inspired piece of casting sure to endear young people still further, it turns out that Trident (the Metropolitan Police’s black/gun crime unit) is to head-up the joint gangs taskforce. This is the same Trident that was behind the operation that led to the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham last August. You know? The incident that didn’t cause but certainly triggered – there I go again – those self-same riots that gangs are being framed for.
First published in Huffington Post
I’ll be going to the Paralympics in London this summer. I’m really looking forward to it but, if I’m honest, this is as much to do with the fact that I couldn’t get a ticket for the ‘proper’ Olympics. And, if my reading of a poll conducted by the charity Scope is anything to go by, I’m not alone. Only a minority of respondents, disabled people and their carers, could build up any enthusiasm for the games. Most didn’t feel excited, or included or expected to feel ’empowered’ as a result. They weren’t convinced that the games would have any impact on participation in sport for disabled people, still less on improvements in transport or access to the workplace. Not even on changing people’s attitudes to the disabled, a particular focus of campaigners.
Two thirds say they have ‘experienced aggression, hostility or name calling’. Nearly half of respondents said attitudes towards them had worsened, and that they experienced discrimination. A majority said that people didn’t believe they were really disabled, or assumed they didn’t work. Scope argue that the 2012 Paralympics will help change attitudes and ‘play a positive role in raising the profile of disabled people’, a sentiment echoed by Chris Holmes, LOCOG Director of Paralympic Integration. The games might encourage the able-bodied to engage with the disabled and not worry so much about saying ‘the wrong thing’ he says. Holmes anticipates a ‘step-change in attitudes towards and opportunities for disabled people’.
So are some people still disabled by society? Do they face increasing levels of discrimination? If so, why? Has society become more hostile, as some claim, or are we just more sensitive about the words people use? Are the disabled, like other ‘vulnerable’ groups, unfairly portrayed as helpless and dependent? There was a time when the disability rights movement fought for equality with the able-bodied. People weren’t disabled by their bodies but by the way society and the urban environment was constructed, said campaigners. This go-getting and often radical movement contrasts with a very different view of being disabled today. Disability campaigners have sought not for access to the workplace, but for the continuation of benefits threatened by welfare reforms; not for the right of disabled people to have their say, or participate more fully in public life, but for the censorship of hurtful comments (especially so-called ‘hate crime’) in the street and comedians (i.e. Ricky Gervais) on Twitter.
Have things really got worse for people with disabilities? Levels of poverty among the disabled would certainly suggest that a much more generous settlement should be demanded. The standard of living of the disabled should not be further undermined by the austerity measures of the coalition government. The existence of institutional abuse revealed in recent scandals, points to the shocking treatment some disabled people still face. But this is very much the exception today. On the whole disabled people aren’t ‘locked away from society’ as Tanni-Grey Thompson, former Paralympic athlete and a member of the House of Lords, recalls from her youth.
Still, there are barriers to disabled people participating more fully and reaching their potential. The welfare system, says Thompson, is about having to ‘prove what you can’t do to get support and actually for me it should be about what support you need to be able to do things, so you can get a job, you can contribute, and you can pay tax, and you can be in society in a different way’. Whatever your views on welfare reform – indeed those in favour of the reforms would no doubt say they agree with Thompson – or on whether or not Gervais’ use of the word ‘mong’ is funny, there is a problem if disabled people are increasingly understood as vulnerable creatures. What is most troubling of all today, when so many gains have been made, is that it is hard to escape the view of disabled people as dependent on the state and tormented by abuse, not least because it is one reinforced by campaigners themselves. A view that I hope to challenge in a debate in Manchesterafter the Paralympics.