On Wednesday I was delighted to be present when Oliver Letwin rubbished the notion that many users of social care are ‘incapable of making decisions about their own lives’. The Minister of State for Policy was responding to a question from an audience member following his talk on the Open Public Services White Paper. It is ‘desperately patronising and utterly wrong’ to diminish people’s capacities in this way, he said. Not that I have found mention of this among the largely negative reaction to his proposals for reforming public services. Which is a shame because it is rare you hear such an uncompromising and impassioned defence of people’s personal freedoms.
You might not be surprised to hear that I’m sympathetic with what Letwin had to say. I wrote Social Care for Free Citizens for the civil liberties group, the Manifesto Club. I’m also a member of the Personalisation Group to Revolutionise Social Care, a loose collective of social care professionals who think more can be done to really put social care users in control of their own care, and ultimately of their own lives. And the policy makers, to be fair, seem to agree with us. The Department of Health has recently published a Consultation on proposed changes to regulations for Care Quality Commission registration. Included is the proposed removal of the requirement that only CQC-licensed home care may be purchased. The ‘financial costs and the additional bureaucracy’, DH say, ‘outweighs the assurance of safety provided by regulation’. In response, a self-appointed defender of ‘vulnerable’ adults has raised the prospect of ‘perpetrators who will be willing and able to do some caring if it gets them near vulnerable adults or children‘. The vast majority of social care users – mostly older people – have undiminished mental capacity and are more than capable, with a little support, of living independent and fulfilling lives. In a society with an exaggerated sense of the prevalence of abuse, and of the vulnerability of fully grown adults, statements like this can only contribute to a limiting of the choices open to people who use social care.
The spectre of abuse should not be allowed to deny adults their autonomy or to close down debate about improving social care. As the coalition’s Vision for social care says, ‘risk is no longer an excuse to limit people’s freedom’. Which is why I am also nervous about the implications of local authorities issuing smart cards. Instead of personal budgets taking the form of direct payments into people’s bank accounts, these cards restrict what the money can be spent on and allow the council to keep tabs on people’s spending. Unless there are well-founded concerns about a person’s mental capacity, why would anybody choose to diminish the choices they are allowed to make? There are changes that can be made for the better though. A good start would be for those of us in the world of social care not to call people ‘vulnerable’ just because they are receiving a service from us. Letwin was right in his criticism of the paternalistic impulse that deprives so many so-called vulnerable adults of their independence. But we need to go much further than that and look beyond the culture of public service provision. A misplaced tendency to regard people as incredibly vulnerable and lacking the capacity to run their own lives, is fuelled by a wider fearful and risk-averse culture that affects society as a whole. If the transformation of social care is to turn ‘vulnerable’ adults into just adults, then we’ll need to get to grips with this too.
I spent Sunday at the National Final of the schools Debating Matters competition. I was thoroughly engrossed in the intellectual to-and-fro ranging as it did on topics as diverse as wikileaks, smart drugs and burqa bans. With the possible exception of the latter discussion, these young debaters put the usual so-called grown-up fare to shame.
The burqa ban round was interesting for what it lacked … any mention of religion. Those for the ban argued (predictably enough) against this ‘symbol and facilitator of the oppression of women’, those against described the burkha as ‘an integral part of their identity’ and fundamental to the ‘freedom to make a statement about who you are’. While sartorial libertarianism was all the rage – as you might expect from fashion-conscious, uniform-wearing sixth-formers – only one student (from the audience) thought to mention God. But I suspect this shortcoming was more than a youthful oversight. The obsession with identity has taken the place of more substantive matters and to be fair we’re not in the midst of a religious war.
Ours is a world of conspicuous consumption. And a good thing too in my view. ‘The world’s second largest export is coffee’ said one young debater in a curious start to the smart drugs debate. What’s wrong with wanting to be smarter, better, faster? From nose jobs to perking up knackered long-haul lorry drivers, enhancements are a win-win, argued one side. The other resorted to dystopian visions of a Brave New World of grotesque botox-injected children at beauty pageants. This lost them the argument. Or so I thought. They actually won that round. Just goes to show how easy it is to go with the side of the argument you like, rather than with the arguers that make the best of the side they find themselves on. Try that at home!
Congratulations to St Francis Xavier’s College, Liverpool, for taking first prize. I particularly liked their case against the motion: ‘Wikileaks is good for democracy’. Matthew Handley was critical of the notion that ‘leaking in and of itself is a good thing’, regarding it as both irresponsible and unaccountable. Rather, they argued, things could get ‘even murkier’ as the authorities look nervously over their shoulders, politicians cover their backs and the diplomats get wrong-footed by a leaked briefing here and an unwise dispatch there. ‘If everyone hears everything, no one says anything’ said Handley’s debating partner Daniel Keeley. Thankfully the students had plenty to say.
That’s what Toby Young – founder (among many other things) of the West London Free School – has called for. So said Claire Fox, director of Institute of Ideas, and chair of last night’s Voices of Freedom debate on ‘Freedom, Education and the State’. All the panelists – including Young, Tom Clougherty (Adam Smith Institute), David Davis MP, Matt Grist (Demos) and Professor Terence Kealey (vice-chancellor, University of Buckingham) – agreed that ‘excellence for some’ was preferable to ‘mediocrity for all’. This, the strapline for the debate, was more than a little leading but it did bring us quickly to the degradation not only of education today, but of the debate about education too.
Young was scathing on the previous government’s defence of ‘parity of attainment’ above all else. Defenders of the status quo, he said, complain not that free schools will fail but rather the opposite. They might succeed and prove to be good schools, and consequently show up the failings of their neighbouring state schools. Grist was also critical of the ‘misplaced egalitarianism’ that has passed for education policy for so long. Arguably, for all the ‘free, open, diverse’ schools that Clougherty and the government champion, the coalition’s social mobility strategy (as I explain here) is similarly misplaced. Still, the man from Demos, argued for a more ‘expansive’ notion of education, one that encourages something that appeals to all that is ’aspiring, flourishing’ in our young people. Kealey rather split the panel with his defence of the Ivy League, but his grounds for doing so – the pursuit of excellence and their removal from the patronage of both state and ‘industry’ – were, again, sound.
Indeed, I found little to object to from any of the panelists. Except. I suppose it was Davis’s argument, on the one hand, that social mobility came to an end with the demise of the grammar school. And on the other, that Young’s free school experiment is the way to go. His co-panelists had all argued in their varying ways that its the ‘model’ or the ‘system’ that counts. Its who owns the school or university, how much independence it has, that determines what happens within. But this is a distraction. I suggested it might be better to focus on the ethos of our schools and what a ‘good education’ might look like. While a good case can be made for freeing up the school system – and the more free schools there are the better as far as I am concerned – this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what’s gone wrong with education. Less still how we are going to address it.
I always know something isn’t right when I find myself agreeing with Peter Hitchens. He was speaking as the sole contrarian on the panel at the launch of a pamphlet Civil Liberties: Up In Smoke. This was the first in a series of debates Voices of Freedom organised by The Free Society at the Institute of Economic Affairs. While I am as opposed to the smoking ban as Hitchens is opposed to people smoking (and much else besides), I couldn’t help agree that the anti-ban lobby tend toward ‘self-dramatisation’. They seem to think, he argued, that they are making a ‘bold stand against something or other’. But smoking is not a ‘moral choice’ or a matter for ‘profound conviction’.
While writer Sir Ronald Harwood was admirable in his unashamed defence of his lifestyle choice – ‘I love smoking’ he said, ‘I enjoy every puff I’ve ever taken’ – his co-speakers worried me. They too readily identified themselves with a persecuted minority. Simon Davies of Privacy International, and author of said pamphlet, spoke of the ‘victimisation’ and ‘discrimination’ that smokers face. Chris Snowdon, author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, complained that they should be protected but instead it is ‘government instigating the bullying’. Thankfully, Daniel Hamilton of Big Brother Watch, perhaps conscious of the dangers of infantilising smokers, argued that ‘adults have a right to act as they wish’. They should resist efforts to ‘drive smoking off the face of the earth’.
Indeed they should. But they’ll first need to get to grips with the fact that arguments about personal liberty are being turned on their heads. Today, it is not freedom’s defenders, but those who oppose people living their lives as they choose, who wield the harm principle. J S Mill’s notion that the only brake on one’s liberty should be the harm done to somebody else no longer does the job. In our anxious times where anything and everything is deemed a risk, and we are all potentially vulnerable, harm – we are told – is all around us. Instead of challenging this view or simply defending their right to do as they please, anti-ban campaigners are entering into a dangerous game of competitive victimhood that they simply can’t win.