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Too much safeguarding

There is an awful familiarity to the guilty verdicts given to 20 men in Huddersfield in the north of England for raping and abusing girls. These ‘grooming gang’ offences committed between 2004 and 2011, by men operating in the nighttime economy of taxi ranks and fast-food takeaways, are just the latest in a series of similar horrendous accounts of what has been happening on the streets of Rotherham, Newcastle, Telford and Oxford, among other places.

As Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, put it, ‘No one, local authority leadership, police, many of the people that should have been taking this more seriously earlier, did’. And yet this is in stark contrast with what is going on when it comes to ‘safeguarding’ children from other supposed threats, or from their own families.

‘We are failing our children if we don’t put them at the heart of government spending’, says Anna Feuchtwang, chair of End Child Poverty, in an open letter to Theresa May and Philip Hammond in the run-up to next week’s Conservative government budget. The alliance of a hundred-plus organisations concerned with the lack of what Feuchtwang describes as ‘concrete financial commitment to the welfare of children’ was echoing the Children’s Commissioner’s warnings about the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of local authorities failing to meet their statutory duties to vulnerable children.

But it is not as if money is not being spent on far-reaching interventions into children’s and families’ lives. The number of children referred to social care every year has increased by 100,000 in a decade. The numbers of care orders granted to local authorities to remove children from their families has doubled. Child-protection inquiries have more than doubled. It is just that at the same time as all this has happened, central-government funding has been cut quite drastically, putting children’s services in crisis. The LGA says there will be a £2 billion funding gap in 2020; £3 billion by 2025.

This is a crisis of our own making. There is relentless ‘awareness-raising’ about the alleged multiple and worsening threats to children’s wellbeing; and yet the small minority of children and adolescents with serious problems, such as those who are self-harming or suffering from serious eating disorders, are waiting for months on end to be seen because services don’t have the resources to cope with the extra demand.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, has described it as a ‘perfect storm’. But he blows something of a gale himself by talking up all the risks he thinks young people face. He talks of cyber-bullying and gaming addiction alongside online grooming, as if some sort of continuum exists between playground unpleasantness, Playstation and predatory paedophiles. These hazards or threats ‘apply to everyone’, claims Khan.

This is the problem with child protection today. In an effort to safeguard ‘every child’ from every danger, the particular child facing particular risks no longer matters as much. The response of services is disproportionate – intervening far too much or hardly at all. There is an overreliance on top-down procedure rather than trusting people on the ground – whether it be the youth workers who were so important in uncovering what was going on in Rotherham, or people in their communities just keeping an eye out for anything untoward.

In a parliamentary debate on the recent Care Crisis Review, Lucy Allan MP said, ‘If we believe that families do a better job than the state, we must work with families to support them, not just judge them and find them wanting’. She’s right. The state shouldn’t be needlessly taking kids away from their parents. But who still believes that families do a better job than the state does? At a time when parents in general aren’t trusted to bring up their children without expert advice, what prospect is there of the authorities working in good faith with parents who are struggling, neglectful or even abusive?

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham conceded that cases of child sexual exploitation are a ‘tiny proportion of referrals and contacts to children’s social care, but they constitute a very significant proportion of the children at risk of serious injury and harm’. But between 1997 and 2013, the at least 1,400 girls estimated to have been sexually exploited by grooming gangs in the town were not protected. And yet, over that period, the inquiry report tells us: ‘Inspections frequently commend[ed] the council for its commitment to safeguarding young people.’

If we are to prevent another Rotherham, Banbury, Halifax, Rochdale or Huddersfield, we need to challenge the constant top-down panicking and obsession with process, re-focus child protection on the avoidance of significant identifiable harm, and re-establish trust in those best placed to look out for children in their communities.

 First published in spiked

The phoney debate over Universal Credit

The government’s flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, looks to be in serious trouble. It was intended to simplify the social-security system to help welfare claimants into work, but is instead charged with causing them even more hardship. It has been beset by problems, from controversies over an eye-wateringly over-budget (and subsequently abandoned) IT system to delayed payments to the excessive use of sanctions.

Some Tories have threatened to rebel against the government in parliament unless the Treasury finds more funding for it in the Budget this month. The BBC reports that ministers are bowing to the pressure, and planning to delay the rollout once again.

There are ample reasons to criticise the Tories’ handling of this. It is projected that 1.1million households could gain £53 per week as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit, but as many as 3.2million could lose £48 per week. The impact of the introduction of Universal Credit on those dependent on benefits is real enough, not least as over a quarter of claims fail for one reason or another.

But the debate is phoney. Leftish commentators have been complaining about how awful Universal Credit is since it was first introduced by Iain Duncan Smith back in 2013, when he was work and pensions secretary. And yet they lack any substantive arguments against it, never mind any alternative proposals. After months of merely saying it would ‘review’ Universal Credit, the Labour Party for a moment suggested it would scrap it, but has now backtracked once again.

The Universal Credit row has also become a proxy for the Tory civil war over Brexit. Brexiteer Duncan Smith openly blames former chancellor and Remain campaign leader George Osborne for Universal Credit’s woes: Osborne raided the £2 billion of funding that, Duncan Smith claims, would have made all the difference. Meanwhile, former prime minister John Major, another vocal Remainer, has compared the Universal Credit debacle to the poll tax.

But as badly designed, implemented and funded as Universal Credit no doubt is, we shouldn’t just discard the ideas that underpinned it. Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘better benefit’ was intended to ensure that people aren’t penalised for moving from welfare to work. There is something to be said for that, even if this technical solution hasn’t matched up to the scale of the welfare problem.

We need a proper debate about welfare, and why so many people are so reliant on it. For all the mock outrage about Universal Credit coming from Labour, the truth is that this new programme, properly implemented, would hardly be any worse than what already exists. Labour, besotted with the status quo, seems suspicious of any attempt to question, let alone do something about, the fact that so many today are so dependent on the state to get by.

First published in spiked

Young people are not mentally ill

‘We know that young people face a huge range of pressures, including exam stress, bullying and concerns about body image’, says Jade Zelkowicz, community fundraising manager for YoungMinds. As part of the charity’s #HelloYellow campaign, timed to coincide with World Mental Health Day, thousands of young people will wear yellow to spread the word that ‘whatever you’re going through, you can talk to someone if you’re struggling to cope’.

So how big is the mental-health problem? According to YoungMinds, the ‘research shows’ that three children in every class have a diagnosable mental-health condition; 90 per cent of schools have reported a rise in anxiety, stress or depression among their students; and the number of children arriving at A&E with a diagnosable condition is twice what it was in 2010. A rise in hospital admissions and growing pressure on schools are certainly a cause for concern. These figures aren’t to be taken lightly — but nor should they be taken at face value.

I wrote a piece two years ago questioning the extraordinary claim that 1 in 10 children – or 3 in every class as YoungMinds put it – have a diagnosable mental-health condition. The claim is based on a study in which diagnoses were made by clinicians who never even met the children concerned. I remain unconvinced.

Besides, if the results could be trusted at all, they only confirmed that whatever the mental-health problems young people are supposedly suffering, there is no mass outbreak of serious neuroses and psychoses in our schools. Rather, it is emotional and behavioural problems like anxiety, ADHD and so-called ‘defiance disorder’ that predominate. This could tell us that something is going badly wrong with the way children are being educated and socialised – not to mention diagnosed – but it doesn’t necessarily point to a mental-health crisis.

YoungMinds is part of the Heads Together campaign, fronted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, with the stated aim of ending ‘the stigma around mental health’. The young royals want us to open up and get talking about our mental health. But in truth, we seem to talk about little else these days.

Mental health is no longer the taboo it is made out to be. Celebrities have long flaunted their traumas, addictions and syndromes. Mental health is in the frontline of the culture war against the stiff upper lip, ‘toxic masculinity’, and – the biggest crime of all – bottling it up. It is one of the main drivers of therapeutic policymaking, from schools to the workplace.

But far from helping those struggling with serious mental illness, spreading ‘awareness’ of the nation’s mental-health issues diverts resources away from those that need it most. Children and adolescent mental-health services have long been in crisis. Young people, some with life-threatening conditions, are sitting on waiting lists for months on end before they see anyone.

This is in the context of what Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, describes as a ‘perfect storm’ in children’s services. The UK’s children’s commissioner recently expressed concern that local authorities are struggling to meet their statutory duties to vulnerable children. Services are squeezed between ever-dwindling central government funding and large increases in the numbers taken into care or suspected of being abused. (The wisdom of these interventions has also come under questioning.)

‘From cyber-bullying to gaming addiction to online grooming, the risks are all too real – and they apply to everyone’, says Khan. The onslaught of multiple and supposedly widening threats to children’s wellbeing appears relentless. And the perception of these risks certainly creates demands that must somehow be met by services under strain. But is this a crisis of our own making, and do these risks really affect ‘everyone’?

It is no wonder young people feel their mental health and emotional wellbeing are under threat when they are constantly told that they are. This also causes them to feel vulnerable to events and experiences that would have seemed unremarkable to previous generations. Should we really be surprised that children’s services are under unprecedented pressure as a result? As a society, we urgently need to grapple with these questions if we are to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of making a whole generation of kids unwell.

 First published in spiked

No, Brexit Is Not A Distraction From NHS Or Housing Crises

According to John Rentoul, writing in The Independent at the weekend: “Brexit is distracting the centre of Government – No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury – from attending to the pressing problems facing the country.” You can see his point. The demands exerted by negotiating a Brexit deal in Brussels that neither party wants, while fending off a Remainer-dominated parliament in London, is hardly conducive to solving big and worsening domestic problems.

He is rightly sceptical about the government’s ambitions to build the millions of houses the country needs; and who isn’t outraged that 22,800 elective operations were cancelled in England as a consequence of ‘winter pressures’? But neither is the fault of Brexit. They are just the latest instalments in a long line of policy failures that existed long before that delicious jolt to the system intruded on the banal politics that existed before 23 June 2016. Does he really think that government would have got its trowel out by now and built the 250,000 homes a year it has been promising? Or that it would have got its act together and solved the social care crisis, and in turn solved one of the underlying causes of the NHS crisis?

No, Rentoul is wrong. Brexit isn’t a distraction from more pressing matters. However big the crises of housebuilding and in the NHS – and they are as considerable as they are longstanding – Brexit, and the crisis of democracy we face if it is not implemented will be that much bigger. But if we get it right – and it is a mighty big ‘if’ given the concessions already made by the UK negotiators – and those who seek to undermine it fail in their attempts to sabotage the popular will, Brexit has the potential to genuinely transform the agenda across public policy.

Even if it is thwarted as sovereignty and independence are sacrificed in the name of maintaining a relationship with the supranational body we are supposedly trying to leave, the popular sentiment behind Brexit can’t so easily be put back in its box. Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, it has the potential to be the catalyst for replacing the managerial target-setting that has plagued public services for decades with a culture of political contestation over competing visions of our collective future. Policy-makers, once deprived of the shelter provided to members of the EU from their respective citizenry, will become more exposed – as they should – to the pressure to act that comes from the questioning and debate generated by the public’s critical engagement with those who govern in their name.

None of this is automatic of course. The disengagement of the masses from politics in the UK has been a decades long process with its roots in the failure of past political projects of left and right. Also, the technocracy, restraint and risk-aversion that played a part in voters rejection of the elites at home and abroad and their reawakening as political subjects, continues to dominate public life. And it continues to stifle progress in building lots more houses and ensuring fewer beds are blocked, as surely as it inhibits those negotiating our exit from the EU or failing to plan for our post-Brexit future. The stasis that was with us before the summer of 2016 is still there if less seemingly immovable. It is only by truly involving the people in the policy process – an old mantra amongst policy wonks curiously absent of recent – that we can finally shift it.

First published in Huffington Post

How to end homelessness

Until recently, homelessness would only come to public attention in the run-up to Christmas. But things are changing. Homelessness is now being openly discussed by politicians ‘after years in the policy wilderness’, says Patrick Butler at the Guardian. Politicians ‘seem almost to be trying to outdo each other’ with their schemes to tackle it, he says.

The Conservative government has pledged to halve rough sleeping by the end of this parliament, and to eliminate it by 2027. The Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force in April. It will impose new duties on local authorities – including to prevent and relieve homelessness for all ‘eligible applicants’, not just those deemed to be in priority need or ‘unintentionally homeless’. Housing First pilots have been announced to provide accommodation and wraparound support for the long-term homeless.

And yet the Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce, unveiled as part of last year’s autumn budget, has yet to meet. And some local authorities still stand accused of treating the homeless with contempt. Windsor council’s determination to clear the streets of homeless people before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May caused controversy. The rise of ‘hostile architecture’ – with anti-homeless sprinklers, strategically placed bike racks and metal bars on park benches all making life even more uncomfortable for rough sleepers – has also, rightly, been met with hostility.

Then there was the recent death of a Portuguese man, a former model who had hit hard times and who was struggling with alcohol and mental-health problems. He had overstayed at one hostel and was awaiting admittance to another, but then he died while sleeping in the freezing cold outside Westminster Tube station – virtually on parliament’s doorstep. MPs took to social media. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that the ‘powerful can’t carry on walking by on the other side’; it is time we ‘took up the moral challenge and properly housed everyone’, he said.

Westminster is Britain’s main hotspot for rough sleeping (217 were counted on one night last autumn). The official figures suggest street homelessness has doubled since 2010; 4,751 people were sleeping rough in England in 2017. But this is widely understood to be an underestimate, relying as it does on local-authority counts and, more often, estimates. Nor does it include similar rises in the numbers of people living in temporary accommodation, or, more controversially, the ‘hidden homeless’. A recent ComRes survey found that 41 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds admit to ‘sofa surfing’.

The failure to build enough housing, or enough affordable housing, is often cited as a major contributor to the problem of homelessness. In January, Corbyn announced that a Labour government would immediately, upon being elected, buy every homeless person in the UK a house, even if that meant seizing properties left empty by developers. And yet, for all its grandstanding, the political class has consistently undershot the building of the 250,000 new homes a year – at least – that Britain needs.

House-building in the UK peaked at 183,600 in 2007. It reached a low of 75,350 in 2009 and is now averaging around 150,000 a year. This has lead to a backlog of unmet needs, unfit housing stock, and ever-rising prices and rents – key contributors to today’s unprecedented levels of homelessness. The new legislation will help, but it is only by building the government’s target of 300,000 houses a year now, and not, as planned, by the mid-2020s, that we can begin to ensure that nobody need fear losing their home.

Many argue that it is central government’s programme of austerity, including cuts to local services and to benefits, especially for 16- to 18-year-olds, who are no longer eligible for housing benefit, that has created the current problem. There is certainly a need to address the problems associated with changes to the welfare system, albeit without further fostering a culture of extended adolescence among the young. But blaming the Tories is too easy. The crisis of affordability, of rising housing costs and stagnating incomes, is a longstanding one. It is this that motors the evictions that are the leading cause of homelessness. To solve this problem, we need less grandstanding and more serious investment in infrastructure.

First published in spiked