There were two articles that caught my eye over the past 24 hours on the general theme of the cuts. The first being comments by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith about ‘feckless parents’, and the second about the loss of hope in those communities hit hardest by the cuts, by Mary O’Hara. On the former, Sue Marsh deals with the issue of how using such language fans the media flames. On the latter, the issue of hope (and the loss of) is similar (but far better written) to the one I wrote about in my blogpost Giving them hope.
The broader context of what Iain Duncan-Smith said needs to be considered. He was speaking at an event called Families and Young people in Troubled Neighbourhoods at the London School of Economics. After his resignation as leader of the Conservative Party in 2003 he set up the Centre for Social Justice, which he chaired until appointed to his current ministerial post. What the headlines missed was that what looked like a think tank aligned to the Conservative Party ended up appointing former Labour ministers David Blunkett and Frank Field to their council of advisers, the former taking on Duncan-Smith’s role as co-chairman. Given Duncan-Smith’s work and background in this field, my take is that someone like him should have chosen his words more carefully. This is even more so given that his ministers have already been censured by the Work and Pensions Select Committee over fanning the media flames.
The result is that the headlines are all about testosterone-fuelled outrage about the latest scapegoat rather than an acknowledgement that tackling poverty is about far more than money – as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated in its Monitoring Poverty Report for 2011:
“The concern is that the policies to support these goals, especially those relating specifically to low income, rely too heavily on the tax and benefit system – in this case the reform that is Universal Credit – as a panacea. In so doing, this Government repeats the mistakes of the last one, which came to rely on tax credits to tackle child poverty.
The fact that there is a strategy for child poverty but not one for working-age adults repeats another error. The rise in working-age poverty, among those in work and not in work, represents one of the previous Government’s biggest failures. The lack of recognition of this problem is therefore a major gap in the current Government’s programme.”
In terms of his more detailed comments, my preference is to wait for the podcast/transcript to be published by the LSE. The academic in me thinks about more research and evidence-gathering. The policy-wonk in me thinks those in the glass towers of Whitehall need to spend time living and working in those communities they seek to influence as well as bringing in (on secondment or otherwise) those who have frontline experience. (In my experience they have far tougher skins than I could ever hope to have).
Yet I found myself caught out with the above mindset by the “no nonsense” approach by some of my relatives, whose response mirrored many of those who at the time called for the draconian response from the courts in response to the riots. At what point do you take the gloves off and say “S/he is a nasty piece of work, a danger to the wider community and needs to be dealt with robustly”? Or, for example what do you do where a parent/parents are in those specific cases having the biggest detrimental impact on the wellbeing of their children? How do you get that balance right? The challenges of being a social worker where you’ve got to make those judgements day in day out, knowing that one step wrong and it’s not just the well-being of a child that is at risk but you being in the middle of a media firestorm at the same time.
The big “policy” decisions that for me are not tied into all of this are the ones around costs of living, food and health. These go far beyond the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions as I am about to set out.
I remember being pleasantly surprised by the work Jamie Oliver did back in 2005 on school dinners. The caption that has stayed with me was when the school nurses said to him that before his arrival, they would regularly have to deal with a number of illnesses the children had, and that several weeks after his arrival and the changing of school dinners, referrals to school nurses had dropped dramatically. This is why I am not surprised Jamie Oliver has torn into Michael Gove over the reintroduction of junk food and junk vending machines into schools. The problem is that few ministers want to take on the food multinationals. They are a massive vested interest and have the resources to employ lobbyists to swarm around ministers, civil servants and advisers 24/7.
There is then the issue of Andrew Lansley, who took the decision to make huge cuts to public health advertising campaigns not long after taking office as Health Secretary. He had to make something of a U-turn when the impact of those cuts started to be felt. Then there is the problem of ‘food deserts’ in more deprived communities – something that would inevitably involve the Department for Business who are responsible for regulating the supermarkets. But how far should state intervention go? If people are choosing not to buy healthy food, what can/should the state do? Should it educate the parents? (And if so, how?) Should it use tax levers to penalise unhealthy foods, their manufacturers and outlets? (Cue the lobbying by the big food manufacturers). Should they encourage/empower schools to keep all of their pupils within the school gates at lunchtime so that children can’t go to the local takeaway for lunch every day?
In one sense, I think that Duncan-Smith is correct in saying that there is only so far throwing money at the problem will achieve. Where he and the Coalition are struggling – as I think the previous administration did too, is that they seemed unable to make the links at a ‘high policy’ level that involved amongst other things taking on some of the big vested interests. Are Iain Duncan-Smith’s objectives being undermined by the actions of Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley?
Moving onto Mary O’Hara’s article, her experience of the 1980s puts human face to the dry statistics. Reading the autobiography of Baroness Shirley Williams a few days ago, the greatest gift that her father gave her she said was the gift of self-confidence. Remember that she grew up in the run up to the Second World War. Compare this to the line in O’Hara’s article:
“Poverty – absolute or relative – diminishes people. It takes away their pride. Worst of all it takes away their hope.”
How can parents who have had their pride shot to pieces have any chance of giving their children the gift of self-confidence?
For me, those who have a fetish for even more cuts will struggle to understand the impact of them because amongst other things, they don’t have to live with the day-to-day impact of the cuts. The attitude is reflected by posters such as this one which re-enforce the view that the cuts are being done out of spite rather than economic necessity. When you take away people’s pride and people’s hope, don’t be surprised that people’s mental health takes a hit. Now that mental health issues are far more openly talked about – especially by young people, one of the things I think that we will find over the next few years is a picture of what the mental health impact will be of both the cuts and of the economic crises. This will be just as much of a challenge for the NHS given that its ability to provide mental health services is being hit at a time when demand for such services is very likely to rise.
The mental health issue is important to me not just because I’ve had my own challenges with it, but that during my teens in the 1990s depression and mild-to-moderate mental health conditions were simply not acknowledged. Hence why articles such as Emily Band‘s one on the impact social networking can have in combatting depression that was in the Guardian today for me are so important.
I’d like to go further in referring to Professor Danny Dorling’s work Fair Play, but it’s all locked up as a paid-for publication. A general bug-bear of mine: Not being able to access stuff that could be really important. But then works like than don’t make themselves & we all have to make a living. Just as with poverty, I don’t have a solution for this one either.