Pickles and Local Government ‘Saving’ Ideas

Eric Pickles at Conservative Party Conference

Yesterday, Pickles announced a cut of 1.7% spending for local authorities. On top of cuts which have taken place already, this leaves many public services in a precarious position.

Local government has been hit hard already by this government and the austerity measures taken and while Pickles and his ilk in the Cabinet like to promote the impression of profligacy in the public sector, the cost is made in terms of quality of life and vital support services to some of the most vulnerable in the country.

The Guardian quotes Pickles saying

“Councils must do three things to get on the right road for their residents: put our fair funding deal to work; do every single one of our 50 ways to save; and accept our council tax freeze offer. Councils that cry wolf without having done all of this are letting their residents down.

“Councils that put their thinking caps on now can save precious taxpayer pennies next year by cutting out waste and transforming frontline services that vulnerable people rely on.”

So this is ‘localism’ at play. I thought I’d take a look at Pickles’ 50 ways to save.

They are available to view here (PDF).

I’m just going to look at a few of them and there does seem to be a theme. For a government document there is some very political language lurking inside Mr Pickles’ suggestions.

Firstly he talks of ‘sharing back office functions’ and praises initiatives like the ‘tri-borough’ linking of some functions between Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster as well as giving other examples where this has been the case. While there may be scope for some services, the assumption that ‘back office’ is unnecessary can be dangerous. My understanding is that the cuts in staff do not limit themselves to ‘back office’ and the blurring between ‘frontline’ and ‘back office’ can be dangerously shaky at times.

Another of his suggestions is – and I quote because I think this language is important is – ‘Claw back money from benefit cheats’. Fine, this is fraud but why is it listed separately from the other ‘tackle fraud’ point. Of course fraud should be tackled but the use of language is very different in the two points. Pickles plays on emotion here and the now familiar government rhetorical of creating and emphasising the collocation of ‘benefit cheats’. It could easily have been termed ‘tackling fraud’ but no, the government want to emphasise this point particularly.

Another one is ‘encourage e-billing and direct debit’ – now maybe I’m on a different planet or maybe things are different wherever it is Pickles lives but my understanding is that this has been pushed pretty heavily already.

Ah, encouraging hot-desking is there too. This works in different ways in different services. Having worked in adult social care for many years, the importance of having a team around you in a stressful environment is crucial in my opinion in terms of engendering safe practice and providing team support. This is debateable and is my own experience but I do worry about the support available if we are continually pushed towards hotdesking.

‘Close subsidised staff canteens’ – fair enough but lets close the subsidised bars in the Houses of Parliament too.

Cancel away days in posh hotels and glitzy award ceremonies – this made me chuckle. The last away day I attended was in the office I worked in. My council got rid of awards ceremonies and for my ‘excellent service’ I got a £5 M&S voucher ‘to buy myself a sandwich’. I was genuinely delighted by my award because it wasn’t expected and it was something I am proud of. I’ve even kept the vouchers as a souvenir. Maybe I was never at a pay grade high enough to have the fancy away days or glitzy ceremonies but I suspect a lot of councils have cut in this area substantially already.

Introduce a recruitment freeze he says. There have been some very damaging recruitment freezes which have had a direct effect on services produced. Looking again at the LA I came from the proposals included replacing all leaving social workers with unqualified replacements. Is that what Pickles wants? Or perhaps he suggests leaving those posts unfilled, increasing stress and sickness levels on those remaining?

I loved my job. I loved doing what I did but the increased stress levels I experienced and the reasons I applied for another job were directly related to the reduction of staff in the team in which I was working. I felt we were teetering on the brink of providing a safe service. This will get worse, it seems and Pickles seems to be condoning it.

And similarly he talks about cutting agency staff used. See above. The team I worked in lost a number of team members who weren’t replaced. Agency staff were brought in to cover at a higher cost because the risks were too high. Had there been more planning initially, this would not have happened. This is what does happen when quick cuts are requested and demanded. Longer term costs.

Then we get onto the ‘scrap trade union posts’ nice little ‘saving’ he suggests. Yes, really. I am appalled by this. In the light of the amount of redundancies he is asking for, union membership and time is absolutely crucial. Does he really think that these cutting measures will engender a more efficient staff team with poor morale. I am a passionate trade unionist and this panders to the general government agenda of chipping away union power as does another of his suggestions to ‘charge for collecting trade union subscriptions’.

And he suggests they councils ‘stop translating documents into foreign languages’. Oh, that’s an easy target. He says this affects ‘community cohesion’. No, it further alienates those who don’t speak or read English. Statutory services are just that and restricting information to those who may not understand English is another way to marginalise other communities. This is downright dangerous as far as I’m concerned.

He talks about ‘ending lifestyle and equality questionnaires’. Because these are ‘intrusive and unnecessary’. I can’t speak for all of them but saying that ‘councils do not need to spend time and money on Equality Impact Assessments’ says where his priorities lie. True that I’ve seen some awful Equality Impact Assessments in my time but I’ve also seen Trade Unions in particular challenge them when they have been poor to good effect. Getting rid of them completely isn’t ‘the answer’.

We get onto a nice, snappy ‘sell services’ suggestion which I feel is at the core of the government’s agenda in relation to local authorities. This government WANTS skeleton local authorities that provide little to nothing directly. Private and voluntary sectors may move in for the more profitable services and some ‘social enterprises’ might pop up which can pick up the slack in areas like adult social care – but the terms and conditions of employment for staff will be poorer – as will the democratic accountability.

I have now left local government service but my heart is lingering on because I know what those services which are being decimated mean to people. Maybe not to Pickles and his ilk in the Cabinet but to some of those who have the highest needs. My concerns is that adult social care cannot sustain many more cuts although obviously that varies from area to area but Pickles wants to detach services from the auspices of local authorities and that’s dangerous language.

There is scope for saving in better commissioning of services and better monitoring of services commissioning. My experience within local government is that the channels of communication have been weak. As a social worker in a local authority I felt very much at the periphery of the organisation – possibly because I was also seconded out to the Mental Health Trust – but I could have been and my ex-colleagues could be a valuable resource in terms of seeing where a lot of the waste and benefits could come from.

If I were writing to a local authority a guideline for saving I would probably share Mr Pickles’ last point. Speak to your staff. Speak to all of your staff. Your staff may be your residents. They may be on the periphery of the organisation but they may also see things not apparent at director level. Value them and promote engagement with unions rather than isolating them because good staff can push improvements.

As for Pickles, his document is as much of a farce as his ripping to shreds of the funding streams for local authorities.

photo via Flickr conservativeparty

Support or Social Control?

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ announcement that he’s going to focus on ‘troubled families’ had a slightly familiar ring to it. It smacks of an attempt to co-opt health and social care agencies into getting those who are a nuisance to behave themselves.

In Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) we’ve been here before. Pickles’ ‘troubled families unit’ reminds me of the recent fad for anger management classes.

You all know the scene. The violent husband is confronted on the TV chat show. The audience boos. The host gives him a long spiel about how he needs to change. The wife nods patiently. Then the host offers him the chance to save his marriage by signing up for anger management with the show’s in-house psychologist. The husband gratefully agrees, the audience cheers and the credits roll.

What happens next? Quite possibly he goes along to six sessions of anger management, dutifully completes them…and then goes back to merrily knocking seven bells out of his wife.

In CAMHS we keep getting requests for anger management from parents, GPs, teachers and social workers, because a child “has an anger problem”. Anger management came into vogue a few years ago, and I can see why it’s attractive – especially to policymakers. Disruption in the classroom? Youth offending? Antisocial behaviour? Not to worry, it can all be therapied away in 6 sessions. I’ve no doubt that if I spent a while on Google Scholar I could come up with a few research papers to say that anger management is an effective, evidence-based intervention for children.

But here’s the problem. Of all the kids I’ve seen who’ve been sent for anger management, I’ve been struck by how many of them have actually benefited from it.

None of them.

A lot of anger management classes are, quite frankly, a bit dire. They talk about the causes of anger, the fight-or-flight response, about breathing techniques and distraction. All too often, what they don’t ask is, “Why is this child angry?”

Children usually don’t become automatically angry. More likely, something has made them angry. Abuse, trauma, neglect, being in an environment where anger is a default way of expressing emotion. Labelling the child as having “an anger problem” ignores the wider context.

Worse, it can reinforce child-blaming. Sending the child for anger management can give out the message from services, “Yes, we agree. The child is the problem. He’s the bad one, it’s his fault and he needs to go away and sort out the problem.” I’ve seen kids attend an anger management class, and then be handed back to their parents, who start bellowing and swearing at him before they’ve even left the reception. Those parents are the first to us that we’re rubbish, because we still haven’t sorted out their kids “anger problem”. Often they tell us this while going into a long, loud tirade about what a terrible kid he is, while jabbing an accusing finger in his direction.

Anger management not only ignores the wider context, it also focuses on one particular emotion at the expense of others. An angry child is usually a distressed child. Anger just happens to be the problem that others (parents, teachers etc) want dealt with, because they want the child to behave. Others may say that the kid has an anger problem. The kid might just feel he has a problem. Or indeed, a world of problems.

No doubt the ‘troubled families’ that Pickles wants to target will also have a world of problems. He’s even kind enough to list them.

A family with multiple problems has been defined by the cabinet office as “no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items”.

So, does Pickles envisage these families getting a comprehensive package of support, or some politically-attractive non-solution like anger management? Here’s a clue.

Pickles revealed a single problem, or troubled, family can cost the state up to £300,000 a year and predicted this figure can be cut by £70,000 annually simply by reducing the number of agencies involved.

Some of these families can be involved with the local authority, schools bodies, drug and alcohol services, the police and an array of social service departments. Pickles claimed less than 1% of the population can cost the economy over £8m a year.

Well, I’ve certainly come across cases of “agency overload” where too many professionals have become involved with a family, but are we supposed to say that if a child goes to CAMHS they can’t also go to, say, a young carer service? If not, what on earth is multi-agency working for?

So, to summarise, the message from Pickles is, “We’re cutting back the support you guys offer. Oh, and at the same time, we also expect you to sort out the stuff that gets voters irate.”

Pickles and ‘Troubled Families’

An article that appeared in the Guardian on Monday has been playing on my mind for a couple of days. Eric Pickles the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (who incidentally seems dead set on destroying both) wants to tackle what he calls ‘troubled families’ or more importantly perhaps, he wants to streamline the amount they ‘cost’ the state.

Louise Casey has been appointed as a ‘Tsar’ to oversee a ‘troubled families’ unit which sounds like some kind of Stalinist initiative.

Not that I don’t want people who need help to get help in the most cost effective and streamlined way but there are a few issues on which I would challenge Pickles and the government. Firstly the direct correlation that they seem to draw between the riots in the summer and particular familial issues.

The government really need to make their mind up about what they perceive to be the reasons for the riots. Personally I think they are oversimplifying to the nth degree and trying to ostracise and target particular social groups. Yes, gangs may have been an element but the reasons the riots spread has to be taken much more broadly than that. The subsequent arrests show the age ranges were not necessarily concentrated around ‘youth’ and the class base of those pillaging the country is much broader than these ‘troubled’ families if you include the political classes who continue to twist rules (re: Liam Fox) and virtually ravage public services (NHS) just as those on the street looted the electronics stores.

There are broader issues which have created a ‘must have’ society and it is not only the so-called ‘troubled families’ and ‘gangs’ that need to be tackled but the corruptions at the heart of the political elite that create an ‘us versus them’ attitude to rule and one which is not helped by highlighting those who are ‘troubled’ and targetting them.

Back to Pickles though, the article quotes him as saying

“the common refrain was where are the parents? Why aren’t they keeping their kids indoors? Why weren’t they with them in court? The whole country got a sudden, unwelcome insight into our problem families. The ones that make misery in their communities and cause misery to themselves.”

What Pickles fails to appreciate is that ‘the country’ got in welcome insight in the summer to far more than these ‘problem families’. We got an insight into the way that our society has developed a materialistic and opportunist streak that is by no means confined to the ‘less than 1% of the population’.

Indeed, it was the willingness of those who are  not in this particular group of ‘troubled families’ to join the general lawlessness and looting that was the real social issue evidence in the aftermath of the rioting.

So what is a ‘troubled family’?

A family with multiple problems has been defined by the cabinet office as “no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items”.

Let’s see. Unemployment, poor housing, poor education.. oh look, mental health has been thrown in there too to add to the stigma as well as disability and low income. Hmm. That is a ‘problem’ family. Well, has it ever occured to the government that removing access to a comprehensive and supportive benefit system and social housing and decent education might actually cause some of these compounded ‘troubles’  rather than tackling the so-called ‘troubled’ families that arise from these social and financial circumstances.

Surely the proverbial ‘prevention is better than cure’ maxim applies? In which case, why doesn’t the government tackle the issues behind poverty rather than exacerbating them and marginalising and stigmatising poverty and the effects of poverty by dismissing families who grow up with these issues as ‘troubled’.

Labelling hurts. Labelling by a government is pure discrimination and playing politics with peoples’ lives is worse yet.

Troubled maybe, but troubled to whom?

I don’t say these families should not receive further help. Of course they should but they should on the basis of the poor housing, low incomes and ill-health rather than because they are ‘problems’.

Who created these problems and how can they be solved? That should be what the government is asking. How can we build a society with a sufficient and appropriate safety net than creates real community and doesn’t destroy localities and local services. The government cannot absolve itself from all social projects and social services by laying the blame on the ‘troubled families’ line without accepting responsibility.

Or maybe they can but we shouldn’t allow their narrative to become the predominant one.