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

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What I would say to Norman Lamb

Norman Lamb MP

Working in dementia services at the ‘frontline’ I often consider what messages I’d feed back to the local and national policy makers if I ever had the opportunity. Of course, I don’t have these opportunities as I’m not a manager so I thought I’d imagine I were at an important meeting with Norman Lamb, the minister for Care Services.

This is what I’d say.

Make policy practical. Making the right noises about setting up a wonderful plan to ‘challenge’ dementia is all well and good but I see nothing of that at the ‘frontline’.

What I see are cuts. I see respite narrowing in terms of ability to access. I see provisions which had been helpful, closing. I see a lack of beds in the local hospitals when they are needed and I see people who need support being denied it because there are no provisions left.

So take your pleasantries and policy ideas and come and spend a day with me in the community and you’ll see why I am impatient and unbelieving about the platitudes that emerge from those who don’t seem to understand what is happening ‘out there’.

I’m tired. I’m tired of saying ‘no’ to people whom I see need services because the provisions are so tight. I’m tired of saying ‘no’ to people at the early stages of need when I know it will prevent higher costs in terms of pain and suffering but also in terms of money in the longer run. I’m tired of logging targets that have no meaning in the lives of those whom I work with. I’m tired of jumping through artificial targets so I can ‘prove’ I’m doing my job when neglecting visits to actually talk to people because I have to catch up on the paperwork.

I have waited for years for a fair system of implementing personalised responses to care which include people with dementia but am still waiting because the entire focus on the programmes developed through personalisation have been on those who are more able to be involved in the processes or those who have involved family members to help them. I’m tired of wading through appallingly designed forms, self assessments and RAS (resource allocation systems) that focus entirely on physical health needs and marginalise mental health needs thereby ignoring equality legislation.

I want action and yes, sometimes, action includes money. I know what the people I work with ask for and I know I can’t deliver it – not through a lack of will – I want to be able to go home thinking I’m doing a good job and doing my best – and for the most part, I think I do – but the best I can offer is very sparse. The best i can do isn’t good enough.

We have few residential homes locally and are placing people further from their families. We have nothing ‘creative’ left to offer as those agencies which are helping with ‘support planning’ aren’t trained to offer support in non-directed advocacy and therefore if someone doesn’t ask, they don’t get.

So what would I do? I don’t have a budget and it’s probably for the best as I’d steam through it in five minutes – one of the many reasons I’m not and will never be a manager – but I would focus on trying to create a system of social care which offers equality of access to good and creative support planning.

I’d commission more non-directed advocacy into support planning. I’d roll out Individual Service Funds for people with dementia and I’d allow more time for carers – and for social workers to work with people who have dementia because honestly, that’s what’s needed.

However all we get is platitudes about how wonderful services will be without extra money being provided. Yes, I’m sure early diagnosis is important. It is. But please, please can the Department of Health and local government concentrate their minds on what is happening now and the poor services we are providing now and do something, anything to make them better.

I want to do my job well and I want to support people but all the tools I had available for doing so are being ripped away from me. It’s sometimes hard to keep the motivation up when you don’t believe you are helping anymore.

I’m the person saying ‘no’. Me, not the Head of Adult Services, not the Ministers responsible, not the councillors responsible. I sit in people’s homes and tell them what they are not entitled to anymore. I want those who make these decisions to take responsibility for that and to listen to us who go out there and who see.

That’s what I’d like.

picture by Liberal Democrats at Flickr