A big concern of those lined up against public sector cuts has been that the vulnerable will lose out on services that make a big difference to the quality of their lives, such as in the social care sector.
But what if some of these services are doing more harm than good?
There have been a number of well-read blogs written by police officers, ambulance paramedics, nurses, magistrates or teachers that give accounts of the often bizarre and chaotic nature of public service delivery. Winston Smith, the Orwellian pseudonym of a 37-year-old social care worker, appropriately won the Orwell Prize last year for his blog that has now been published as a book, Generation F, which gives an insight into the strange world of the youth social care system. Amid tales of terrible behaviour, baffling politically correct-speak and profligate spending, he argues that these services actually work against their stated aims – failing to socialise their residents leaving them unlikely to play a positive part in society, while squandering public money on layers of bureaucracy or in pandering to their unreasonable demands.
Now working in the north of England, the book condenses Smith’s five years experience working in half a dozen projects into the characters that populate a fictional supported housing project and a children’s care home, drawn from real life people and events. Written with dry humour in a perceptive, forthright style, the book veers from blackly funny to outright horrifying. Reviewed in the Daily Mail and Guardian, it generated a storm of responses from readers divided along partisan lines – with one decrying ‘broken Britain’ while the other lambastes the author for his lack of empathy.
Smith rejects the charges that because he refers to his residents’ worst excesses bluntly he is somehow a heartless reactionary. “It’s typical that critics focus on the language I use to describe the problems rather than the problems themselves,” he says. “A lot was written originally for the website within hours of coming off a shift when you’ve been shouted at and abused. They’re very negative places to work, and while I’m a paragon of professionalism at work, when I come home and blog then my feelings are going to come out in the language I use.”
Smith argues that the pervasive culture of political correctness which sees being ‘judgemental’ as unacceptable has meant errant youngsters are never properly chastised for their antisocial behaviour. The flats and communal areas get regularly damaged, verbal abuse is commonplace and even in the case of physical threats or violence, the process of eviction can be long and arduous.
“I think there needs to be a bit more tough love. I don’t believe children need to be seen and not heard, but they need to be led by strong adults who have an idea of who they are and where they’re going, and what values they need to impress upon that young person and not leave them to run wild. That is, after all, what a parent would do,” Smith says.
As a younger man, he experienced problems with drink, drugs and depression before pulling himself together and gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Teetotal now for 10 years, he has experienced the same sort of mental health problems, destructive drink and drug use that plague those youngsters at the bottom of the pile – those who have also sometimes been abused or failed by their families, and who are now all too often failed by the state in loco parentis.
Smith says the culture that pervades the social care system bends over backwards to accommodate the ‘rights’ and whims of the often ill-educated, anti-social, violent minority while failing to provide firm, consistent guidance as to what is expected of them. Those who use the services without causing trouble suffer from sleepless nights, noise and aggression from those that do, and difficult teenagers and young adults leave with serious behavioural problems left unchecked.
He explains: “The actual support the young people are given doesn’t benefit any of them, beyond the fact they have a roof over their heads. You have a generic paperwork template that has to be adhered to for the funding to keep coming, into which everyone no matter how different has to be squeezed. The ones that have got jobs, that are in college, that are trying to make something of their lives will tell you openly: this is nonsense, I don’t need you to write down that I’m going to go to college or work. Of course I am, I only come here because you send me warnings if I don’t.
“On the other hand the ones that do need to sort their lives out never turn up to any meetings, receive loads of warnings and threats but nothing ever comes of it.”
By systematically failing to deliver consequences for negative behaviour – for example, not filling in a housing benefit form means no rent is paid, which leads to eviction – supported housing projects isolate their residents from reality rather than equip them for independent living, as is their aim.
“Housing in this country is so expensive even middle class people with degrees can’t afford to rent and are stuck living with their parents, so it’s difficult for people at the bottom end of the scale,” Smith adds. “So while a place to live is something anyone would agree with, I don’t agree with armies of support workers being complicit in this lie – because it is a lie that anyone needs support to get to the dole office – and it just increases the dependence on the state and erodes any sense of personal responsibility they have for themselves. “If you as an individual cannot even sort out the free money you get from the state, what hope is there for you in life?”
There is a sense in what Smith is saying that the care system has overreached itself by taking responsibility for our actions when it should not. In one case, a mother, who refused to sign the form that would allow her teenage daughter to move into the supported housing project, thinking it would only worsen her behaviour, was told by her daughter that the Connexions service could sign it for her – aiding and abetting parents in dumping their children into social care at the first sign of difficult teenage behaviour. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of supported housing projects almost doubled.
At the same time, the care system too often makes a poor job of it. Smith describes one teenager who had been taken into care age five following sexual abuse. “When she left at 18 she had a wide range of behavioural problems, personality disorders and was quite violent. Staff would say, ‘Oh isn’t it terrible how she is, but what can you expect?’ But we have to bear some responsibility for the person she has turned out to be. We have had 12 years of complicity in who she is, it’s not just down to her first five years.”
The social care system, from child protection to care for the elderly, is a regular target for criticism despite dealing with some of the most difficult people in society or taking on the roles we wish to offload. In the light of the Panorama exposure of cruelty at care homes last week, that scrutiny is bound to increase. But the problems here are not limited to the care system. While the welfare state bends to help anyone at the bottom, even when they‘re “the most feckless, irresponsible, antisocial people who blight the lives of anyone they come into contact with,” Smith says, “the higher echelons of our society get the same treatment. The bankers were rescued, and now perversely pay themselves bonuses at the taxpayer’s expense. Failure gets rewarded at the very top and very bottom, and everyone in the middle gets screwed.”
In an age of moral relativism and increasing divide between rich and poor, the care system’s troubles look more like a metaphor for those of society as a whole.
Generation F (Monday Books) is available now, £8.99