Some years ago in Austria they decided that they needed a new approach to youth justice, and so they set up a non-political commission, which took ten years to consider all the issues and consult anyone with an interest in the subject. In the end they came up with a system which emphasized the concerns of victims of crime, focusing on reparation, while at the same time it diverted young offenders from the criminal justice system through a ten-stage process.
The main point, however, is not the nature of the outcome but the fact that the resulting system was popular with the professionals involved, popular with the victims of youth crime and popular with the media. In short, it received the support of the key stakeholders. We understand that it worked, too, with fewer young offenders being incarcerated and more giving up offending when they learnt of the impact of their crimes on their victims.
We are offering this brief story as a parable which we should note in the United Kingdom. At present there are massive changes being planned or already under way in the National Health Service, the prison system, housing, pensions and benefits, higher education, schools and services for children. There is hardly any aspect of social policy which is not being turned upside down.
Obviously some policy changes are required because of the need to make cuts to balance the nation’s books; simply trimming the services could have led to imbalances, and prioritisation is necessary. But neither the immense scale nor the hasty speed of change is necessary. Radical changes are being planned which have not been thought through sufficiently. Nor have the policy planners taken the stakeholders with them, as the doctors’ reaction to the latest idea for the NHS has shown.
In our own field the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, for which professionals battled for a decade, has casually lost its funding; the Children’s Workforce Development Council has had its government backing withdrawn; the General Social Care Council is being turned into an elitist social-workers-only wing of the Health Professions Council; and the National Children’s Bureau has had to do some drastic pruning, particularly after the cancellation of the play programme which the last government initiated. All this reeks of unconsidered slash-and-burn. The combined impact will be a service with inadequate overall planning and support.
Clearly there are times when governments have to respond quickly and decisively, whether it is because of a natural disaster, armed conflict or major economic problems. All these have occurred in the life of this government, and we expect them to take swift action. But the social policy areas listed above are all matters which could be considered at greater leisure on the Austrian model. If general practitioners are to play a pivotal role in the NHS, for example, why should this not be debated until all the key stakeholders agree that this is the way forward?
There is little to be gained from forcing major changes through in the face of serious opposition from those whose co-operation is needed. It guarantees years of wrangling, time wasted on the re-organisation and the creation of new systems, huge financial outlays and loss of experience as unwanted workers are pensioned off. On the plus side, the new system may be an improvement, though the benefits may take some years to show through, and it may demonstrate that the minister responsible can be tough and macho. Of course, the next government may decide to reverse the changes.
Which is the main point of this Editorial. Major social policy changes need to reflect the views of the country as a whole, not just the party which is currently dominant. Radical changes may be needed at times, such as the introduction of the welfare state after the Second World War. The planning in the Beveridge Report had gone on for some time, it was clear then that its creation reflected the wishes of the population as a whole, and both the main political parties accepted the change.
The current parliamentary system does not encourage long-term consensus-building. It often leads to a see-saw of changes, with each new government (or even each new minister) reversing the changes made by their predecessor.
For example, regulation
A good example of this is the regulatory and inspection system. The Registered Homes Act 1984 made local government responsible and this system worked for nearly two decades, when it was concluded that the variations in standards and approach between authorities were no longer acceptable. The move in 2004 to set up the National Care Standards Commission as a national regulator for care services was initially supported as it was envisaged it would bring about improvements in care supported by a set of national minimum standards. It was a shock when the NCSC was told after 17 days that they would be abandoned. The Commission for Social Care Inspection brought together the Social Services Inspectorate and the regulatory responsibilities and lasted from 2004 – 2009. The current regulator is responsible for health and social care, and who knows about their future as the natures of face to face inspections is being scaled back?
What we do know is that the changes in policy decisions that led to these culls have impacted on the credibility of regulation and the major regulatory processes which they successively implemented. The decision to constantly change the policies has been very expensive, reportedly costing millions with each organisation starting from scratch and ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’ Large sums have been paid out in early retirements, there have been massive staff changes, each new body has had to devise its own systems and policies, expensive computer systems have had to be junked, and the services have not known where they stood.
What is more, the aims of these changes have not been achieved. There have still been inconsistencies between inspectors and, in so far as consistency has been imposed, it has often been rigid and based on a tick-box approach. Furthermore, we have people carrying out the regulatory responsibilities who have no practice base. There have been some improvements in the services inspected, but the chaos of continual change has also caused serious damage.
For example, Every Child Matters
More recently, Every Child Matters was an approach which was positive, focused on children’s fundamental needs, accepted by the professions and not reflecting the politics of any particular party. But the new minister felt the need to ditch it and to impose his style and thinking. In our view the Every Child Matters approach should have lasted two or three decades, so that there was time to think it through, apply it, modify it where necessary and use it in practice as a settled part of the system. Indeed, it is reported that some authorities are continuing to work on the basis set up by the previous government because they think that it makes good sense.
One aspect of the problem is that ministers who carry the ultimate responsibility may be appointed without any experience of the field which they are meant to serve, and they may have no track record in management either. Yet they are meant to make their mark in the lifetime of the parliament if their reputation is to be made; hence the quinquennial volte-face.
The country needs a better system of social policy formulation, longer than the life of a parliament.