Farewell to the fourth floor and the austerity agenda

By Virginia Moffatt
18 Jul 2014

At the beginning of the month, after seventeen years in local government, the last eight spent in Oxfordshire, I handed in my pass, laptop and phone and left the fourth floor for the last time. It's probably been the most difficult work decision of my life. I loved my job (managing a brilliant quality and contracts team for social care services). I loved the many colleagues I had in and out of the Council and the people with learning disabilities and their families I worked with. I loved being part of a Social Services Department with values and decency and vision. But, in recent years the work has become increasingly difficult. The reason - perhaps known only to insiders, but gradually making it onto the media recently (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28116570) - is the horrific level of funding cuts imposed on local government since 2010.

It is no coincidence that the last time I left a local authority, in 1991, I felt the same weight of pressure of trying to deliver the impossible task of providing good quality social care at a time of vicious cuts. I thought then that I would never return. But in 1997, in the optimistic days of the first New Labour administration, I couldn't resist the job of joint commissioner of learning disability services in Camden, making combined health and social care a reality. It was an exciting time to work in local government, as positive initiative after positive initiative flowed from Downing Street.

"Valuing People" (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...) put the idea of person centred services at the heart of learning disabilities services. "SureStart", (http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/http://www.educ...) piloted by a colleague of mine, demonstrated the value of preventative services for families of children suffering from deprivation. The Mental Capacity Act (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2005/9/contents) gave us a framework for supporting people with limited capacity the opportunity to maximise control of their important decisions.

For me, the crowning glory was the concept of Self-Directed Support, (http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/by-date/selfdirected-suppo...) which has become national policy, thanks to the fine work of my good friend and colleague Dr Simon Duffy, at the NGO In Control and subsequently at the Centre for Welfare Reform – with which Ekklesia has considerable fellow-feeling and opportunity to collaborate.

It wasn't perfect. In the last seventeen years I have witnessed more than my fair share of things going wrong, safeguarding incidents and complaints. I've seen people's services break down, and professionals like myself struggle to fix it. I've seen service users and carers get a raw deal and organisations ignore their rights. But I have also seen remarkable growth. Service user and carer groups are now an established part of the landscape. Their right to speak has been integrated into council decision making processes, through Partnership Boards, consultations, and regular feedback groups.

I have also seen the closure of all the learning disability hospitals (aside from assessment and treatment services) and the rise of supported living that enables people with learning disabilities to be tenants within their own communities. I've watched as people with learning disabilities have become more visible in drama, sport and politics. And I've been proud to be part of this revolution. I thought, naively, that it would go on forever. I was wrong.

The warning signs were there, back in 2008, at the time of the bank crash. As Labour panicked and decided to bolster the bankers uncritically, incoming Chancellor George Osborne took to the media to decry the wasteful public sector (conveniently ignoring the deregulation of the financial system that played a major role in the crash). It was a clever move and led to the big pre- and post-election lie - that the previous government broke the country, and only austerity could fix it.

Labour was not immune to such rhetoric either. In the run up to the last election, the local government settlement was nowhere near as generous as it had been. Year on year, we were being asked to do a little bit more with a little bit less. And we did. In Oxfordshire, we worked hard with our provider organisations to identify better, cheaper ways of doing things that didn't impact on quality. We merged our back office functions, closed down buildings and, to my mind, made our working conditions a lot worse through the introduction of hot-desking and open plan offices in a way that lacked real thought or understanding. It was hard. Sometimes service users, carers and providers disagreed with our assessment of how to make the money spread further. Personally, I found sharing a floor with a hundred people immensely stressful. But there was a sense of common values, common vision, and an understanding we had to make every penny count, if we wanted to ensure the best services for the people of Oxfordshire.

Then, in 2010, just before the election, I attended a briefing for managers from our finance team. The message was stark. Bad times were coming. A 25 per cent cut was predicted if Labour came back to power and a staggering 28 per cent with a Conservative government. This was far worse than anything every contemplated at the height of Thatcherism. We had anticipated some of this with the savings plans we had in place, but we were going to have to make some unpalatable decisions – and it wasn't going to get any easier.

When the UK Coalition Government was first formed, there was a sense of calm across the country. The Conservatives were very clever in comparing the national economy to household finances; something that Ann Pettifor and other political economists have shown to be a highly deceptive analogy. This paved the way for the idea that, individual or country, if you are in deficit you have to make cuts in your outgoings (irrespective of the impact on overall debt, productivity, investment and so on, when it comes to the real economy).

The Liberal Democrats were only too quick to join this consensus. The soothing message that "we're all in this together" was reassuring. People were fed up with Labour and everyone wanted a change. But, for those of us working in the public sector, we realised that Osborne's first budget heralded disaster. It was like being on the top of a cliff and seeing a tsunami coming, but being too far away from the people on the beach to shout a warning.

The last four years have been as brutal as we feared. In all my thirty years in social care I have never seen anything like it. Provider organisations have restructured, found ways to involve non-paid carers, merged, re-graded salaries and embraced zero hours contracts to cut their hourly rates (some back to pre-1997 levels). In the Council, we've restructured, downgraded some posts, increased the span of others. Everyone I worked with is doing a more complex job, with more responsibility, for less pay. The result? Stressed staff, stretched resources, an increasing risk of things going wrong, and the worry of the backlash that might follow. Moreover, there's worse to come. The second wave of a further 10 per cent of cuts will hit Oxfordshire over the next three years, and there's a third and possible fourth on their way - though at least, this time round, the people on the beach have a lot more awareness, thanks to the work of determined and focused campaigns such as The Hardest Hit, the War on Welfare (WoW) Petition group and the National Health Action Party.

It has been a tough time. I have survived thus far because Oxfordshire has not been quite as badly hit as other local authorities. It has also taken an ethical approach to reduced funding, aiming to preserve as much social care as it can. Together, my colleagues and I have worked hard to deliver on that, and I am proud that we've managed to do that in an inclusive way, rather than imposing top down solutions on people. But I came to the point where I realised I could not keep doing this and stay healthy and sane. Every day I can see austerity impacting on the whole of society and making things worse.

Welfare, education and the NHS are all being hit by the same cuts, driven, not by a desire to improve the national debt (which is now significantly worse than 2010 http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_debt_chart.html) but by a poisonous ideology that private profit must come before common good. So I decided that the time had come to move somewhere, where I can be in a position to challenge that ideology. I have joined Ekklesia as the new Chief Operating Officer, because I can see what an important role a think-tank linking good quality research and ideas to civic action, political change and a positive role for churches and other NGOs can play in influencing mainstream politics. That is what I want to be part of.

I hope that this move will help me be part of the growing resistance to flawed austerity models and the generation of viable, humane alternatives. Government has a duty to promote the common good. I am desperately sad to have left my friends and colleagues behind, but it is my hope that in moving to Ekklesia, I can be part of a larger, creative conversation that will help change the direction we are taking in Britain and beyond. Hopefully that will mean a better tomorrow for my wonderful colleagues in local government and for the people who rely on their essential services.

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© Virginia Moffatt is Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia. She has a strong background in organisational management and has worked in social care for many years. She is an active advocate for peace, justice and inclusive welfare, and is a published writer.

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