Don’t blame Brexit for society’s ills

The countdown to 29 March, the date on which, unless politicians decide otherwise, Britain will leave the EU without a deal, has heightened the already hysterical claims of Brexit-induced calamity. Aeroplanes grounded, STDs rampant, food and medicines stockpiled, the economy on life-support – stories of disaster wrought by a No Deal Brexit have made headlines day after day.

What’s more, the scare stories are not limited to questions of goods, travel and security. The NSPCC recently warned that Britain could become a safe haven for child-sex offenders seeking to evade justice in event of No Deal Brexit. Meanwhile, others have suggested No Deal would hit various areas of social policy.

Those of us who support a No Deal Brexit, a clean break from the institutions of the EU, should not be complacent. Housing secretary James Brokenshire, in a leaked letter to the Treasury, warns that the £35million paid to his department is not nearly enough to plan for and respond to the effects of No Deal.

One wonders, too, if the handful of civil servants and NHS officials looking after the Department for Health and Social Care will really be able to coordinate contingency planning across the country. Given the NHS seems to be in a state of permanent crisis, it would be wrong not to be concerned about its capacity to cope with rupture.

But those commentators wringing their hands over the alleged impact of a No Deal Brexit on various areas of policy are not simply calling for preparation to be stepped up. Rather, the undertone of much of the discussion is that Brexit itself is little more than a distraction from ‘the real issues’, and therefore should be abandoned for the good of ordinary people.

The Guardian’s Richard Vize argues that ‘vital areas of public policy that directly affect our lives are being sacrificed to the obsession with Brexit’. Similarly, Hugo Dixon, deputy chair of the People’s Vote campaign, says ditching Brexit will free MPs to ‘focus on healing our country’, to show voters that the Remainer classes feel their pain, even if they won’t act on their instructions.

Meanwhile, Chuka Umunna, leading Remainer Labour MP, has linked the death of a man sleeping rough near parliament with ‘Brexit-induced chaos’.

This is not only cynical politicking — it also gets things entirely the wrong way round. Brexit didn’t create the gulf between the political class and the people – it gave expression to it. Nor did it create the various social issues that politicians and commentators are saying are being sacrificed to the Brexit debate.

If Umunna was really serious about solving the homelessness problem, he would be arguing for a programme of mass housebuilding. The issue of the lack of housing supply has been pressing for decades. And, over the years, Labour has been no more able to solve the problem than the Tories have.

In any case, it is entirely understandable that Brexit dominates political discussion. It is, after all, the biggest question we have asked ourselves as a nation in living memory. The referendum result uncovered and clarified social, cultural and political divisions.

What’s more, Brexit is as much the potential solution to these problems as a distraction from them. The problems with public services were there long before Brexit, and have got worse with official neglect. More say for ordinary people over how they are governed could be the first step towards better policy and better services.

Taking back control could be a boon to struggling Brits.

First published on spiked

Homelessness: sympathy is not enough

It is traditional at this time of year to spare a thought for those left out in the cold. And this Christmas many are concerned about the increasing numbers of street homeless, despite the government’s bold ambitions to halve the numbers by 2022 and ‘eliminate’ the problem by 2027.

Homeless charities usually struggle for volunteers, but they have been inundated with offers of help over the festive period. So much so that they are having to turn volunteers away. Such offers are no doubt kind. But non-committal volunteering can be as much a hindrance as a help to a sector dealing with increasing need.

Indeed, with a problem as difficult and complex as homelessness, well-meaning virtue-signalling is not enough.

This year thousands took part in ‘sleep outs’ in Scotland, organised by the charity Social Bite. People camped out in their sleeping bags and were rewarded with performances from KT Tunstall and others. But there’s something distasteful about such stunts. Bruce Forbes, director of the Angus Housing Association, told the BBC he thought the event was ‘quite patronising to homeless people’.

To its credit, Social Bite raised £4million from its ‘sleep out’ last year, which was spent on a ‘village’ for 20 homeless people in Edinburgh, and contributed to a housing initiative that turned 800 homeless people into tenants. But, even then, is this really enough? How many fields full of people playacting at being homeless will it take to get the genuinely homeless off the streets and into permanent accommodation?

According to Shelter, there are 320,000 homeless people in Britain at the moment. This is somewhat misleading. Shelter conflates families living in B&Bs and hostels (the bulk) with the relatively few, if rapidly growing, number of people sleeping rough. But, inflated statistics aside, there is clearly a problem here that needs to be tackled.

Complex factors can lead to people sleeping rough or losing a tenancy. Mental illness, family and relationship breakdown, alcoholism and drug problems all play their part. Changes to the welfare system have contributed to recent rises, too. Stories of people losing their jobs and then their homes because they had to wait up to eight weeks to receive Universal Credit – the UK government’s new benefits system – and then couldn’t pay their rent are as familiar as they are depressing. But these explanations never really get to the root of the problem.

Too often we focus on politically convenient targets – whether it is the Tories and their supposedly nasty new benefit, or so-called austerity driving people into food banks and out on to the streets. But, in truth, it is a chronic shortage of housing, longstanding economic stagnation, rising costs and falling living standards that have created the conditions conducive to people losing their homes in increasing numbers.

No amount of awareness-raising, volunteering or Christmas spirit is going to solve these problems. Instead of hugging the homeless, we should be grappling with why so many people are forced out of their homes in the first place.

First published on spiked

Caring for the elderly in an ageist society

In his 2019/20 Budget, Philip Hammond, the UK’s Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, announced £650million additional grant funding for local authorities in England to spend on services for older people and adults with long-term disabilities.

This will help ease the ‘immediate pressures’ they face, he said. Only £240million of this money is earmarked for propping up the social-care system, however. And the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has been lobbying for £2.35 billion after enduring year-on-year funding shortfalls.

According to Labour MP Frank Field, co-author of A New Deal to Reward Kindness in a Forgotten Profession, cuts to local-authority budgets have resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’ in the commissioning of paid-for homecare provision. The inevitable result is poor-quality, rushed personal care.

Emily Holzhausen of Carers UK says unpaid carers, some of them pensioners themselves, and typically looking after other elderly family members, are ‘exhausted, demoralised and have lost vital community connections because there is not enough good-quality care’. They are ‘the backbone of the care system’ without whom ‘the system would collapse’, agrees Ian Hudspeth at the Local Government Association.

The King’s Fund says the system not only needs to make improvements in the quality of care that is provided, but also needs to find more resources. These will be needed to address an estimated additional 1.2million people’s unmet care needs, and to find an expected 700,000 more social-care workers by 2030 as the ageing population continues to grow.

New, more efficient and innovative ways of providing care do need to be found. This needs to go alongside a better way of managing the demand on services, with an approach that is more preventative and also integrated with health, housing and benefits systems. A balance needs to be found between formal support, provided or commissioned by the state, and informal support that comes from family- or community-based care.

These are not just technical questions for the social-care sector to grapple with. They are far bigger than that, touching upon the issue of what kind of society we want to live in, and what we expect of each other. At root, there is the issue of what we regard as individual and collective responsibilities; and what the duties of the young are to the old; and the question of how elderly people come to decide for themselves how they should be cared for later in life.

More than that, the problems facing the social-care system need to be understood in the context of a wider generational hostility that is compounding, if not driving, a longstanding official neglect of older people’s care.

The bookmakers Paddy Power have been criticised for its adverts portraying old people as zombies, albeit as part of its UK sponsorship deal with the TV series The Walking Dead. It is meant to be a joke, but older people’s charities didn’t find it very funny. Such ‘inaccurate stereotypes’ are described by Independent Age as ‘crass and utterly disrespectful’.

Some of us might be tempted to laugh this off as yet another overreaction from the permanently offended. Ofcom has yet to decide whether the four complainants (yes, four!) about the Paddy Power ad are enough to justify an investigation. And yet, this depiction of old people is not an isolated incident. It reflects a broader prejudice today.

‘Negativity about ageing and older people is pervasive in our society’, says Caroline Abrahams at Age UK. Whether it’s the nasty sentiment that Brexit voters are a bunch of selfish old bigots whose demise can’t come too soon, or that Baby Boomers have been piling up problems for moaning millennials, or that old people are just getting in the way with their ‘bed-blocking’ and their unreasonable expectation that younger folk should subsidise their state pensions, free bus passes, TV licences and winter fuel allowances – again and again, we see generational disdain for older people.

Add in the damning inspections, abuse scandals, cuts to services, underpaid care workers and the ‘dementia tax’ debacle that have so plagued the social-care sector in recent years, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that elderly people are increasingly regarded as a burden on society and a drain on resources. Once, they were seen as the repositories of wisdom and a source of support for hardworking families – now they are talked about as a barrier to youthful flourishing and of course to Britain’s continued membership of the EU.

So, addressing the crisis in older people’s social care is not just a matter of figuring out how we pay for it, or even how we organise it. It is also about rethinking our relationships with each other and with the state. And it is about taking on the ageism that is currently such a stain on policymaking, popular culture and public life. Social care for the elderly will not be taken seriously so long as hatred of old people is borderline acceptable in polite society.

First published in spiked

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