Politically protecting the vulnerable
As regular readers of this blog will know we have got ourselves into a fair bit of trouble when discussing libraries. So, before I continue please let me state that I actually like and value libraries. I think that local government should continue to provide them and I fully recognise that they are a valuable community resource.
However, when discussing libraries I have always said that they should be considered in context alongside the other council services that are also affected. I was therefore fascinated to come across a short article on the Guardian Social Care network where the Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Kevin Mitchell, discussed the public reaction to the cuts being made in his county.
After explaining the parlous state of his budget (he needs to find £119m out of £500m; roughly 24%) he goes on to explain the public reaction to his proposals:
We have taken the decision to ring fence two areas of spending: social care for vulnerable children and our fire and rescue service. We took the view that other service areas should take a proportionate share of the cuts.
When we presented our plans for implementing this decision, our electorate could see that we were proposing over four years to cut social care spending by £31m, highways spending by £13m, waste management by £4m and library services by £2m.
Given the scale of the planned cuts, you might expect a caring population to express anger about cuts to care for older people, about the impact of cuts on the highway network and congestion and about the impact of cuts on recycling. None of these concerns materialised to any significant extent.
The single area of huge campaigning activity was our library service. Residents rose up in our city, towns and villages to demand that we keep all of our 43 libraries open.
This is very similar to the situation in Gloucestershire where libraries were substantially cut because the council pledged to protect
- Care of older people
- Care for vulnerable adults
- Child protection and care for vulnerable children
- Fire & Rescue
- Supporting thousands of voluntary carers
They therefore ended up making proportionately higher cuts to their library services.
Taken together these examples, and many more from places we actually work, lead us to ask some difficult questions. The biggest of these relates to how local democracy can adequately protect the most vulnerable in society when because of their small numbers they are unable to shout the loudest?
In this case it is probably possible as libraries always make up a fairly small part of the council’s budget (especially when compared to social care). But what about when the comparison is between street cleaning, parks, highways maintenance or waste collection (weekly or otherwise) and social care?
Each of these services is very expensive, but universal, and protecting them can only mean deeper cuts to social care for the vulnerable in our society. And yet in general, like libraries, these services are popular and thus difficult to cut politically.
The fact is that as it is not a universal service social care is very poorly understood and thus not defended to the barricades in the way that bin rounds and libraries are.
This needs to change and a more rounded debate started.
It is imperative on politicians to get out there and make the case for their proposals. If protecting social care then they need to really explain why this was the right thing to do. It is not good enough to use it as a form of blackmail (a child might die) but instead a real debate needs to be started and effort taken to really explain how social care works and why it is so important that the budget is protected, or not, as the case may be.
Our politicians need to be at the forefront of such a debate. If they don’t I fear that local government will either end up making some decisions it will regret or making decisions that don’t have the full throated consent of the population. Both would be bad for the long term future of social care, and democracy.
The leader of Oxfordshire concluded his article arguing:
I was saddened that, deficit deniers apart, these largely well-heeled worthies refused to accept that reducing library cuts would add to the cuts to other services … It is clear many of them had little understanding of social care. That a single learning disabled client can cost a six-figure sum each year of their lives. That decent domiciliary care can help an old person live an independent life longer and much better than if they entered residential care.
Everyone involved in social care has a critical role to raise the public profile of social care. I am afraid the village shop, school, pub and library will always score highly with electors because of their visibility while the importance of social care will remain invisible to most electors until they or their loved ones need it.
I’d agree; but our politicians need to follow Kevin Mitchell’s example and lead from the front on this one.
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