Community Care interviews Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy

Charles Kennedy was interviewed by Community
news editor Lauren Revans.


Question: The Labour government made its
priority education, education, education. What would a Liberal
Democrat government make its number one priority?

Answer: Put most simply, the Liberal Democrat priority
is to provide decent investment for all our public services funded
through fair and transparent taxation.

Q: Is Labour doing enough to tackle social
exclusion? What would the Liberal Democrats do differently?

A: Social exclusion is caused by a wide range of factors
including poverty, a lack of access to decent public services,
crime, a poor quality environment, and often a lack of any sense of
community or belonging. I disagree with the government’s
top-down approach which says that they know what is best for local
communities. Instead, governments need to enable local people to
find local solutions to the problems of social

One example of an area where Labour has failed almost
entirely is in improving the outcomes of looked after children.
Currently there are still major gaps in the provision for the
60,000 looked after children and these will not be alleviated any
time soon. Last month the 11th Annual Report by the Chief Inspector
for Social Services highlighted that there were still 1,000 such
children on the child protection register and 3,000 looked after
children who had not been allocated a social worker. This simply is
not good enough.

At present more than a sixth of jobs in social care are
vacant and two out of every three social service departments are
having difficulties recruiting. The Liberal Democrats would put the
recruitment and retention of social workers as a far greater
priority to begin to improve this situation. Until there is a
concerted effort to improve the perception of social workers,
combined with a dynamic recruitment and retention drive for social
services staff, social exclusion from older people to vulnerable
children will continue to blight our country.

Q: Do you see investment in public service and
investment in the pay and conditions of public sector staff as two
sides of the same coin?

A: It would be futile to invest a piece of new hospital
equipment, for example, if the doctor or nurse who is needed to
operate that equipment has left the NHS. Public sector workers feel
undervalued for a whole variety of reasons, not just pay. Most of
them go into the public services because of a motivation to help
people not because of financial reward. Yet too often they work in
poor conditions and face constant interference from central
government. And now they face the insult of being attacked by
government ministers as “wreckers” and opponents of

Q: What would you do to improve the pay and
conditions of public sector workers in general, and social workers
in particular, in order to stem current recruitment and retention

A: Five years of under-investment by Labour, after 18
years of Tory under-investment, has left a lot of problems in our
public services. The government has finally started to invest
properly. The debate now centres on how the money should be spent
most efficiently to provide the greatest benefit to patients and
pupils and the users of other public services, as well as to
improve the pay and conditions of those who provide those

I think the most important thing to do, in general
terms, is to value public sector workers and not denigrate

Q: The Treasury has just published its plans
for making voluntary sector involvement in public service delivery
easier. How would you change the rules and funding mechanisms
surrounding the voluntary sector?

A: The Liberal Democrats are strong advocates of more
decentralisation of public service provision, the funding of
voluntary sector involvement included. We want to end the doctrine
of “Whitehall knows best”, because all too often it doesn’t.
So local people would have more local choice on what type of
service provision they want and how they will fund it.

Our Policy Paper called ‘Quality, Innovation, Choice’
puts forward proposals which would allow local people and
professionals greater freedom to run public services by encouraging
the growth of mutual and voluntary providers as public benefit
organisations. It is being debated at our conference.

Q: Do you think there are too many targets and
too many inspections in local government? How would the Liberal
Democrats do things differently while still ensuring standards are

A: This government has become obsessed with centrally
imposed and centrally regulated targets whether it be in local
government, or for that matter in our hospitals and

The Liberal Democrats have always believed that power is
best exercised as closely as possible to those people who are
affected by it. That is why we have long advocated more
decentralisation and more regionalisation of power in

Q: The Labour government has made some headway
on regenerating communities through its neighbourhood renewal fund
and unit. What would the Liberal Democrats do to speed up
neighbourhood renewal and ensure that help was available for more
than just 88 areas?

A: This Labour government has created a whole raft of
different schemes, the majority of which are run by undemocratic
Quangos. It is time they gave the power and the money back to the
people who are best placed to deal with the problems of
neighbourhood renewal, i.e. the local people

Local Councils and local people should have the freedom
and flexibility to tackle the problems themselves not have to enter
into long bureaucratic funding assessments with Quangos and Central
Government, some of which are so complex that not all the money
gets spent.

It’s yet another area which the Government has covered
with targets and spin but sadly little action.

Q: Do you agree with the introduction of a
three-year social work degree course?

A: Anything that improves the training of social workers
must be recognised as being valuable. However, it is also important
that the structure of the courses provide a strong motivation for
remaining in social work once the course has been completed. A
report published earlier this month showed that only 2 per cent of
social services budgets was spent on training for current social
workers. This prevents social services from being at the cutting
edge of new practices and information dissemination. There must be
a concerted effort to recruit and retain social workers, but it
must not be at the expense of quality.

Q: In the run up to the publication of the
Laming report on the Victoria Climbie inquiry, everyone is
speculating about the future of children’s services. What is your
vision for the future of children’s services? Do you see any future
role for a merger with education or the creation of a national
child protection agency?

A: Clearly I would not want to pre-empt the conclusions
of the Laming Inquiry which I believe will be out in early
November. However the Liberal Democrats are committed to
introducing a Children’s Commissioner for England as has been set
up in London, Scotland and the European Union. As in Scotland, the
office should be independent, and should cover all children and
young people ordinarily resident in England up to age 18, and those
over 18 for whom after care duties apply. Its remit should be to
co-ordinate, monitor and promote issues affecting children’s rights
and interests, including implementation of the UN Convention on the
Rights of the Child. Furthermore, we would like to see area child
protection committees put on a statutory footing to ensure that
multi-disciplinary working between all departments, be it health,
social services, education and justice, so they can work together
to provide the maximum protection for vulnerable

Q: How do you see the relationship between
health and social services? Do you see a future role for combining
adults services and health, or for increasing the number of
multi-agency teams, possibly through the creation of more care

A: Our public services paper emphasises the importance
we place on the integration of health and social services at a
local level. It states clearly that we would end the division
between health and social care in England by running local services
through the same local authority with one budget. We are also keen
to stress the importance of social care to health improvement, so
would wish to ensure that any partnership emphasised the importance
of care closer to home so that social services are not dictated to
by the health service. We are keen that these organisations would
be responsive to local needs and accountable to local

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