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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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”