Milburn out of touch

The anger and sadness were almost tangible in
the conference hall in Harrogate following last week’s keynote
address to the National Social Services Conference by health
secretary Alan Milburn.

Publicly, people called it “ironic” that he
paid lip-service to launching a recruitment campaign to improve the
public image of social services, before storming through a series
of threats and harsh criticisms.

“Ironic” is putting it mildly. The speech was
hypocritical. For if Milburn really wants to improve quality in
social services, he must know that inflicting wound after wound on
the morale and reputation of the workforce is not the way to
achieve it.

The principle target of his contempt – hard to
pinpoint under such heavy and undiscriminating fire – appeared to
be the length of time taken by some councils to improve services.
Yet Milburn made no link between this and the recruitment and
retention crisis, despite the fact that the link is obvious to
anyone with experience of social services in 2001, and the fact
that he was supposedly launching a campaign to tackle the

If naming and shaming actually helped the
public, it could perhaps be justified. So let’s be clear: it
doesn’t. The performance assessment framework only benefits service
users if they can be shown how it works, and what complex tasks are
being measured. Simply telling people they live in a “poor
performance” area isn’t much use to them. It makes the relationship
between the public and local services more difficult, and
exacerbates the public’s disengagement from local democracy. And if
the complex performance assessment framework is of little benefit
to service users, it’s hard to see how the even cruder “star
rating” system announced by Milburn will improve matters.

Even Milburn’s “top 10” performers will be
dismayed at his lack of respect for local authority social services
as a whole. What does local democracy mean when the “best
performers” may be called in to take over the services of other
councils? Or when the private sector can be brought in by central
government to impose solutions on local government?

Even the rewards for the best performers fail
to make sense. If the performance fund was shared among struggling
councils, or if all councils had fewer conditions attached to their
funding, no doubt they would all find it easier to improve. If
these measures are acknowledged to help run better services, why
limit them to those whose services run well already?

The punishments are even more illogical. We
hadn’t heard much since the NHS Plan about the government’s powers
to impose care trusts on areas where joint working is not
successful – until this speech, that is, when every spectre lurking
in a corner of policy somewhere was raised. Milburn clearly stated
a wish to see care trusts in “all areas”. And he threatened to
impose care trusts on failing authorities. Yet surely if care
trusts are the best option for seamless services, and if social
care is to have real influence in them, as the government claims,
they should develop at a realistic pace in areas where both joint
working and individual partners are strong. Care trusts themselves
lose credibility if they are used as a stick to beat recalcitrant
or unprepared partners into a submissive but shallow alliance.

Meanwhile, in social services departments
around the country – top 10, bottom 10 or somewhere in the middle –
the reality behind the statistics goes on, transforming the lives
of our most vulnerable citizens. The minister should get out more,
to realise both the unfairness and the devastating impact of his

To have your say on Alan Milburn’s
speech or discuss any of the issues raised by it, click

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