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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.