Patrick Butler at The Guardian says we have ‘entered into a new phase of the cuts’. His Cutswatch blog is tracking how ‘local cuts are changing the lives of individuals and communities in small but often significant ways’. ‘The effects will be seen from mental health, substance abuse and homelessness to libraries and swimming pools’ he says. Amelia Gentleman explains that while local government will continue to carry out its statutory functions, ‘people with requirements that are one notch short of urgent will have to fend for themselves’. But even this is in question. ‘Dead bodies could start piling up, strip clubs could be set up on any street corner and vulnerable children could be left without care’ according to one report. Unison, it turns out, are worried about the catastrophic impact of proposals coming from Pickle’s CLG to remove certain statutory duties.
We hear about how vulnerable this or that group is and how they’re going to get the worst deal as the spending cuts bite. ‘Young people bear brunt‘ concludes a recent survey of local authorities. No its not, its refugees who will suffer, says another study, as funding is withdrawn. Then again, another finds that women will be the ‘worst-hit by spending cuts‘, particularly those in abusive relationships and single mothers struggling to cope with less money. People with disabilities, not to be outdone, also claim to be the most put upon as their benefits are cut. They even called their march the Hardest Hit. Given their less than sympathetic public profile, the Police Federation’s recent ads resort to adopting victim status by proxy. Featuring a child cowering from an abusive parent, the strap-line reads: ‘Consequences of 20% cuts to policing?’.
Of course you might argue that some people are genuinely vulnerable and need support. But is this competitive victimhood really the best way of arguing for the public services that they, and the rest of us, need? Hiding behind the supposed vulnerability of members of the public is not a good argument. While the impact of the cuts will no doubt have a disproportionate impact on the worse off, public servants and campaigners need to make a positive case for public services.
The opening debate at Community Care Live 2011, Breaking down the culture divide?, was despite my best efforts a consensual affair. Mary Lucking, head of Adoption at the Department for Education, was critical of an ‘overemphasis on ethnicity in the matching process’ that creates ‘significant delays’ for children who badly need to be placed with families. Nevertheless, she said, the position remains that ‘due consideration’ must be given to cultural, religous, etc needs. But, I asked her, does ethnicity constitute a need? It depends on the child, she said, rather unsatisfactorily.
John Simmonds of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering told us that black children are much less likely to be adopted. Those that are spend on average at least another year in the care system while they wait for the right (ethnically-speaking) family to come along. But rather than question the barriers that the care system and adoption process put in the way of children and their potential families, Simmonds fell back on the usual suspects. ‘We can’t deny the significance of racism and prejudice in society’, he said.
I think that BAAF, and others who stick to this line, need to take a reality check. We don’t live in the 1970s-80s anymore. While there’s no shortage of intolerance and illiberalism these days, ours is not a society divided along race lines. Simmonds even managed to acknowledge that the evidence suggests that children in transracial placements do just as well as any other adopted children. In my view, the social work establishment are too wedded to identity politics. It is a major contributor to the ‘anxiety, guilt and uncertainty’ that he says practitioners experience when trying to place black children. For all the rhetoric to the contrary, individual children’s needs are coming a poor second to an essentialist dogma.
TimeBanking founder, and ‘creator of the Co-Production principle’, Edgar Cahn was speaking at the RSA last night on Building the Core Economy. He described himself as a bit of a hell-raiser. While he is clearly an influential figure, for all his liberal disillusion with the business of … well, business, he is no radical. While I found his political philosophy unconvincing, TimeBanking as a tool or a technique for stimulating co-production has something going for it. As does co-production itself, which, as the blurb succinctly put it ‘turns recipients of service into co-producers of change’. You can deliver pizza, says Cahn, but you often can’t provide public services in this way. Particularly, I think, those services with a strong personal component such as social care. Instead it is necessary to ‘enlist people’, to make use of their assets and strengths to seek solutions, rather than seeing them as clients with problems. I have more than a little sympathy with this view. Both approaches tend to endorse a positive view of people’s capacity to change their lives and the communities of which they are a part. There is, he said, an ‘openess to these ideas that there wasn’t 20 years ago’. Cahn’s ideas are certainly increasingly attractive to those eager to find new ways to engage communities in delivering public services. It might be argued that he is an apologist for cuts to services. But that would be unfair. The real problem with TimeBanking is, as he admits, its focus on transactions. The introduction of time credits risk undermining the informal bonds by which communities function. As they say, time is money.