Monday, 28 June 2010


On the far edge of my desk in call-centre land sits a Vicky Pollard doll. The revolving door of the flexible labour market means that no one currently incumbent knows how or why it appeared there so there it stays rather like the dead man in Yossarian's tent in Catch 22; unchallenged except for the time it was stuffed in a drawer for the visit of dignitaries from an important client.

Generally I hardly notice it, but from time to time it catches my eye. When it does I ponder; How powerful are stereotypes like Vicki Pollard and how much do they shape the kind of welfare state we find ourselves with? Writing off the character as a crude stereotype is I believe to misjudge its power.

In my journeys through the blogsphere I have recently come across a neo-liberal blog titled: 'Burning our money'. I felt moved to comment on one post about IDS's policies as I felt a graph being used was misrepresentitive (lies, damned lies and statistics). In the process I have been able to see the other comments on the post where readers have turned to every stereotype about benefit claimants ever trotted out in the right-wing media. There's talk of "scroungers", immigrants, fraudulent incapacity claims, holidays, TVs and for a bit of comic relief among this cocktail of nastiness a link to a Daily Torygraph story.

All this in the midst of a down-turn where many people have been put out of work because of a widely reported economic downturn; yet in some quarters the unemployed are still portrayed as feckless and defective. It seems that stereotypes are very potent indeed and particularly useful to neo-liberals seeking to dismantle an already threadbare welfare state which pays such low levels of unemployment benefit it routinely sees workers losing their jobs gobbled up by debt.

Public sector workers too fare no better. Len McClusky of the Unite union making an excellent point in a recent Guardian article when he says of politicians:

"They talk about public sector workers as if they're devils. We're talking about people who teach our children, treat the sick, clean our streets, people who are responsible for building the fabric of the communities in which we live."

As a former public sector worker I was particularly aware of the gap between popular perceptions of gravy trains and reality of missed lunch-breaks, unpaid overtime and colleagues routinely burning out and as a former Social Care employee I saw many people who battled against negative stereotypes day-in-day-out.

If we want to defend our welfare state and ideals of social justice we need not be afraid to challenge stereotypes where they exist. Vicky Pollard doesn't need to be just stuffed in a drawer but confined to the dustbin.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Downloading responsibility

One of my former managers at social services had a legendary habit of pacing the office after hours to check people had correctly shut down their PCs and turned off their monitors. The rationale for this was not an environmental one, but a cost driven one. As our manager reminded us we were all responsible on a individual micro-level for the councils budget. Unsurprisingly the manager in question was soon promoted. Later they returned to the office to explain why we would need to move from our modern(ish) air-conditioned, open plan, town centre office to a rabbit warren like, non air-conditioned - and boy was it hot in the summer, older building on the edge of town cut off from civilisation by both a motorway and railway; an area so remote Tesco still hasn't even bothered opening a convenience store. The building was however, much cheaper being unoccupied for around two years after its previous occupiers the housing association who controlled the surrounding estate moved to plush new purpose built accommodation. Two years on a further accommodation rationalisation drive saw more staff quitting their town centre locations and squeezed into our building. Some of our grumbles may seem churlish (lack of cycling facilities, lack of toilets, temperature), but staff reliant on public transport faced nightmare journeys, we became inaccessible to service users, no longer being centrally located made journeys for home visits longer and the lack of an open plan environment affected team-dynamics with literal walls solidifying into metaphorical barriers.

In short this story shows austerity is nothing new to local government it has been the norm, in my experience, for years. It therefore seems hard to see just how much more local government can drive down costs without performance being seriously compromised and by this I mean increased risks. This is important as local government will be the arena where cuts are most keenly felt. Take this post on the excellent Fighting Monsters Blog. The example given is of ILF payments being affected. These are, very sketchily put, where central government assists with funding for people under 65 living in the community, but who have needs above the threshold for residential care. By scaling this back more pressure is put on local authorities. I make a similar point in an earlier post on the resilience of public spending; the bottom-line is that the needs will still need to be met; the state being unable to walk away from instances of need which would otherwise go unmet. In this case it therefore means funding must be diverted from elsewhere by the local authority. In other words the ultimate responsibility for making the required cut is downloaded from central government to the local authority. The luxury for central government is it can then distance itself from making real, tangible cuts and also importantly absolve itself of responsibility when services do break down. Add to this the prospect of a council tax freeze and Local Government is in a very. very tight spot indeed.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Time to give care workers their due

I've said it here before but won't ever tire of saying it. The undervaluing, underpaying and overworking of the staff who provide care is nothing short of scandalous and is the major barrier to improving standards.

I've seen many instances of how care staff are treated shabbily by local authorities keen to cut budgets and companies seeking to maximise profits. Job security, domestic arrangements, pay, conditions, and training all suffer. I'm also ashamed to say that the attitudes of some social care professionals towards front-line care staff were also pretty poor.

There is also the added dimension that this is gender issue as the majority of the workforce are female.

An article in the independent today captures some of these issues.

The message though is clear. The pay and condition of care workers matters to everyone in the social care universe; perhaps being even more important than subjects du jour like Individual Budgets.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The resilience of public spending...

University is now all over until October. I picked up my final mark, my best yet, 75% for my essay on the voluntary sector. Now the hard part; figuring how I'm going to pay my tuition fees next year. It really is a struggle particularly as post-grad there is very little in the way of support. Whenever fees are mentioned my ears invariably prick-up. So it was with interest I heard David Willetts talking on the radio yesterday. He actually made a really good point which summed up just how hard it is to cut government spending. If fees are increased then loans and other financial support need to be increased, as these are mainly funded by the government you are really only shifting spending around. In addition to this making anything means tested also results in a huge amount of admin, an appeals process etc which ends up making things very expensive.

Personally I favour a graduate tax. My first degree was almost 10 years ago and as I didn't do great in the earnings stakes I still haven't reduced the capital and have not yet had a year where I met the interest. Because the loan has grown by so much I'm also unlikely to in the next few years so I am in fact paying a de-facto 10% tax on my earnings over 15k and will do for quite some time. This perverse effect means people like me who do less well out of a degree end up paying far more over the long term. The fairest system would then seem to be a graduate tax. If you do well then great you pay a bit more. If you don't do so well ,maybe you're working in the public sector or volunteering, then you pay less. Seems fairer to me.

The big issue is also one of equality. My university is red brick and I must be the only person there not decked out in Hollister or A& F topped off with some flip-flops. That the institution is horribly middle-class, not to mention young, is painfully visible by the sartorial choices of its members. Personally I'd prefer more diversity. I'd like to see more variety of age too, in fact I think I'm gaining far more from university now I am older and have more experience. I certainly know what the price of a 2:2 is!

Monday, 7 June 2010


I'm very much with Alistair Darling. I don't profess to be an economics expert (B grade A-level Business and Economics), but I do remember the arguments in the 1990s about how economic globalisation meant the state had to shrink and employment protection laws had to loosen. These arguments usually professed that globalisation possessed the irresistibility and inevitability of a law of nature. As a result the argument was not about globalisation itself, but how to successfully adapt to it. The passing of time has led to some revision. It is now not just a fringe opinion to suggest that globalisation was in significant part a political project. Passing it of as an inevitability had been a cunning ruse on the part of neo-liberals in the US, Canada and UK to justify their attack on the post war welfare state.

In the UK Thatcher drew heavily on the intellectual foundation of Hayek who had critiqued the welfare state as detrimental to liberty and advocated instead a bare minimum safety net. The welfare state is however a resilient and thick skinned beast due to its popularity. In the UK our love for the NHS seemingly knows no bounds; we will happily volunteer, donate and run marathons for it. The neo-liberals therefore had a problem. How best to dismantle institutions without causing unrest and losing power?

The answer to this is to present what you are doing as an inevitability.

... such as the need to reduce the deficit

Thursday, 3 June 2010

I have long had a feeling that the people at the top have no idea how the organisations they are responsible for work. This was continually with me at the Council where it seemed there was a vast gulf between the front-line staff and the management strata immediately above the level of team manager.

Recently this feeling has returned as a result of reading Catch 22. The dark, resigned but comical accounts of the farcical manoeuvrings of the generals and senior officers reminding me more than a little of my former masters.

I'm glad to say I am not alone in my views. In an interesting piece in the Guardian a former front-line worker critiques IDSs knowledge of the system he is seeking to reform.

They really have no idea at the top!