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.
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.
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.