A UK government review of local authority duties has raised further fears about the future of social services.
Yet, against a background of harsh spending cuts, this is also an opportunity for people and civil society organisations to declare whether they believe that children and adults should be able to get the support they need.
In other countries too, economic difficulties have raised important questions about justice, compassion and society’s values.
The review – controversy and confusion
Heavy cuts have made it hard for councils to meet even their legal duties, let alone provide other much-valued services to the communities they serve. Against this background, in March 2011, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a review of statutory duties placed on local government.
“Historically, Whitehall has prescribed how councils should conduct their business. As a result hundreds of accumulated legal requirements have become attached to the functions councils undertake,” said Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark. “I am determined to release councils from the grip of Westminster micro-management by busting these bureaucratic barriers and burdens and letting them get on with their job.”
In 2010, as part of the ‘localism’ agenda, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had pledged that “I personally promise to get rid of all the barmy rules and regulations” that take up councillors’ time. “Councillors have been prisoners of regulation, chained to the radiator with red tape, for too long. It's my job to free them.”
Details of the review are set out on http://www.communities.gov.uk/localgovernment/decentralisation/tacklingb..., with an invitation to take part in an “informal consultation exercise” closing on 25 April 2011.
This explains that “To date we have identified 1,294 statutory duties that central government currently places on local authorities, the majority of which arise from primary legislation - and we are aware that at this stage it is not a complete list. We are inviting you to comment on the duties and to challenge government on those which you feel are burdensome or no longer needed.”
Comments can be made via a webform or emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fact that duties are under review does not mean that they will be abolished: no doubt many will remain. Yet those reliant on a range of services, their families and others who believe that they are essential for society’s good now face a period of uncertainty.
Certainly some of the duties set out in two tables on the web page may no longer be necessary. Others could be carried out more efficiently – a review has been taking place, under Professor Eileen Munro, of the child protection system.
Also, the Law Commission has been looking at the law concerning adult social care and trying to make this more coherent. But the inclusion of key adult and child protection duties under the heading 'Review of statutory duties – other government departments' gave rise to confusion and alarm.
The list of duties under review includes, for example, “Local authority's duty to investigate: the local authority is required to make enquiries when it is suspected that a child may be suffering harm and to decide whether they should take action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.”
Other duties under the Children Act 1989 that are under review include a provision that “Allows the local authority to remove a child from an unsuitable placement which is not in the child's best interests and might put the child's welfare at risk, following adoption”. Also listed is “Providing accommodation for any child in need in their area who appears to require accommodation because there is no person with parental responsibility for them, they are lost or abandoned, or the person who has been caring for them being prevented (permanently or not, for whatever reason) from providing them with care.” The “Duty to provide short breaks services to assist carers of disabled children” is included too.
With regard to adults requiring support, “To assess carer's ability to provide care”, “To assess needs for community care services”, “To give disabled person or their representative the opportunity to make representations when needs are assessed”, “To provide welfare services in the exercise of functions under s.29” of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, and to “To provide residential accommodation in some circumstances” under the National Assistance Act 1948 are under review.
Again, “Duty of Local Social Service Authorities to provide after-care for certain patients” who had been so ill that they were detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983 is included. “Power on Care Quality Commission to enter and inspect inter alia any premises owned or controlled by local authority - section 63 provides that it is an offence to obstruct such inspection - so clear duty on local authority to cooperate” is another example of a measure under review.
Other sections of the review too may raise questions about the government’s judgement. For instance, if the government were to get rid of the requirement under Section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 that “Local Authority must cause dead bodies to be buried or cremated where suitable arrangements are not otherwise being made”, what would happen if there were a major epidemic or disaster?
Additionally, what would be the impact of doing away with duties to make access to public services fair for both women and men, people of different ethnic groups and disabled people? And what would happen if local authorities no longer had “To comply with the Data Protection Act when processing personal data”?
Social services – responses to the review
Not surprisingly, there were strong reactions from social care professionals. For example, Community Care reported that Corinne May-Chahal, interim co-chair of the College of Social Work, urged the government not to water down Children Act 1989 duties, which were "vital safeguards in protecting the right of children to a life free of violence and harm”.
Kirsten Anderson, head of research, policy and communications at the Children's Legal Centre, pointed out that, under international law, there are “fundamental rights to which children are entitled, including the protection from all forms of violence, exploitation and abuse” and that “it is not for local authorities to pick and choose which they wish to repeal simply on the grounds that they are 'burdensome'."
“If anyone thinks the government is not serious in its ideological position then they should check this list," warned Peter Beresford, chair of service user organisation Shaping Our Lives and a professor of social policy at Brunel University. "It could take us back to year zero."
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), also condemned the government's consultation in the "strongest possible terms", stating that "The government should not even be entertaining this. It is irresponsible and outrageous and threatens to undermine the entire care system in this country.”
Others however thought that these duties had been routinely included, and were not at risk. Some in government have sought to allay fears. Children's minister Tim Loughton tried to reassure those concerned that he expected "no significant changes" to safeguarding or child protection duties.
Threats and opportunities
The enormous pressure on children’s and adults’ social services due to cuts in local government funding mean that even those with high levels of need often do not get the support they need to lead safe, fulfilling lives as far as possible. This raises basic questions for all concerned with justice and compassion.
Many in poorer communities have worked in dangerous, unpleasant or tedious jobs, enriching others but receiving low pay themselves, some of which was taken as national insurance contributions, on the understanding that they and their families would be cared for when in need. This is not being delivered. What is more, at the most basic level, frail older and disabled people are suffering, as are children whose home life is troubled or who are at risk of cruelty or neglect. This may well get worse.
Many volunteers, faith groups and other community organisations provide help for neighbours in need, and in turn are enriched by their companionship. Yet they cannot meet the often complex needs of everyone in their neighbourhood who needs help, especially since many are already over-stretched.
Just supporting one severely abused child to recover physically and mentally, relearn trust and do well at school, or an older person who has advanced dementia and is unsteady on her feet to live out her remaining days in dignity and comfort, may require considerable time and skill. Yet the rewards can be great – and the consequences to society if help is not offered may be severe.
What is more, for many people of faith, piety is pointless unless linked with deep commitment to safeguarding the rights of those in need in their local communities. Some with no formal religious beliefs also take the view that humans are so deeply interconnected that ‘quality of life’ cannot be achieved in isolation, and in this context social services are vitally important.
Whether or not the government is seriously considering abolishing key local authority duties to adults requiring social care and children in need, this is a challenge – and opportunity – for people and groups to think carefully about what sort of society they want. They can then let the government, their friends, neighbours and perhaps the media know their views.
Faith and other community groups can play an important part in keeping their members and users well-informed, and supporting them in speaking out about what they believe is ‘burdensome’ - or worth valuing and defending.
Beyond the UK too, many are looking at proposed ‘solutions’ to the economic crisis which affects so many countries, and asking questions about the treatment of those in greatest need.
Consultations and public controversies offer opportunities as well as challenges.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.