Cutting red tape by cutting services

Coalition “savings” are not possible without diluting or scrapping our statutory duties to the vulne

If you go to the Department for Communities and Local Government website, there is a consultation exercise afoot. The Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, is asking the public which statutory duties to get rid of. Just to cut red tape? How very dull.

Once you have sorted through the PDFs, found the spreadsheet with the list of statutory duties, noted down the reference number of the duty that piques your interest, you are invited to leave a comment about whether we should keep that particular duty. Using a Survey Monkey web form. If you manage to avoid slumber while wading through planning and caravan licensing duties, you will find some alarming things.

What burden?

The "burden" of the duty to investigate child abuse is there. The "burden" of receiving a child into care when a care order is made, to promote the welfare or education of looked-after children, or promote reasonable contact to children in care are all up for grabs.

In the context of housing benefit cuts, which will cause a huge increase in homelessness, all the duties under our already weak housing legislation are listed. Duties to vulnerable people, from the elderly to those with learning disabilities, from the homeless to children with special needs, are listed as burdens you might want to assist your local authority in dropping.

In every conversation I have with ex-colleagues about the "savings" they are expected to make, the same thing is said: these cuts are not deliverable without dilution or disposal of the statutory duties we have to vulnerable people. The looming funding crisis for health and social care would suggest that these fears are not unfounded.

Most of the "cuts" that are happening are not straightforward cuts. They are transfers of services to smaller private-sector or voluntary organisations. At the same time, the voluntary agencies that already provide services face cuts to their funding. This is not new for social care and social work departments, as our the most marketised area of public-service provision. The past two decades have seen diminishing resources, offered by an ever-fractured web of private and "voluntary" organisations.

Smaller organisations by necessity narrow the criteria for using their service. It takes increasing numbers of services to meet the complex needs of one person. (I have had cases where 13 organisations were involved in meeting the needs of one family.) Referral procedures get tighter and more detailed and the administrative burden on social workers increases. As Eileen Munro found in her recent review of child protection services, administration has quite literally crippled our social work departments.

The job of a social worker has long been that of a "purchaser of services" and case manager: to ensure that the agencies and private companies that actually deliver services are doing what is expected. Some shreds of accountability remain because local authorities have statutory duties. Even though the local authority doesn't own the services any more, the law says it has to meet basic requirements. And it is the local authority's responsibility when things go wrong.

Red tape

Far from cutting "red tape", the cuts to back-room administrative support (to "protect" front-line jobs), recruitment freezes (which are staffing cuts in teams with high turnover and dependence on agency staff), as well as the tendering out of as many services as local authorities can get rid of, ensure that crippling levels of administration are mushrooming.

Removing the "burden" of statutory duties means that when the proverbial hits the fan there is no necessity to ask what went wrong. It may cut the red tape involved in serious case reviews when a child dies, or a government inquiry when this broken system fails miserably. But it basically means the government washing its hands of the effect of these policies.

It does nothing to cut the administration that prevents social workers from doing their jobs. It just means there is no legal duty to necessitate that job in the first place.

This cautious toe in the water to see how easily the state could drop its responsibilities to our most vulnerable children and adults has provoked some response. The British Association of Social Workers accused Pickles of posturing, and the Law Commission appears to be upset that it was not informed. But the most worrying aspect of this story is how unlikely there is to be a public outcry if these duties are dropped.

The mess that no one wants

If the responsibility to provide an "efficient and comprehensive library service was dropped" I could imagine an outcry to protect it. Philip Pullman would be angry and Ed Miliband might even campaign. Services to children, adults and the elderly are unlikely to be the focus of any celebrity-studded campaign.

Social care exists to mop up social problems that no one wants to acknowledge exists. The appalling situations that our elderly people and most vulnerable children are living in. The children our government has taken parental responsibility for don't really vote. It is the lack of concern for these groups that necessitates a statutory responsibility in the first place. Apart from the occasional conscience prick of a child protection scandal or undercover documentary, the public is largely uninterested.

Ed Balls found shouting about Sure Start was useful for winning votes on the back of commitment to children, while making year-on-year cuts to crumbling children's services. Councils nationwide have found that attacking children's services and adult social care first allows them to protect the more voter-friendly services desired by "decent" taxpaying voters.

Media-friendly charities may find some sympathy for the funding cuts they face. Many will stay silent to protect their government contracts. The dry legal language around these basic duties is unlikely to take hold in the public consciousness. Besides, we barely want to acknowledge these people exist.

It is entirely possible that this consultation exercise will show our Conservative-led government that there is little political risk in washing its hands of the burden to prevent real harm coming to those with little other protection. I wonder who will be hung out to dry when the next scandal about abuse of our children, or older people kicks off?

Lisa Ansell is managing director of Calder People.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA