Messenger of social justice

“Don’t forget that other people worked for everything we’ve got, and it’s just luck”. Polly Neate is six years old. It is 1972. Her mother, a psychotherapist, is successfully implanting a social justice gene in Neate that has in turn been passed onto her own young daughter, as in the event-heavy summer of 2005, they discuss why wearing the hijab or a veil is an outward sign of devotion. Her daughter feels strongly that people shouldn’t be judged by their appearance.

The Neates reflect aspects of the creativity, fragility and diversity of today’s Britain. Polly’s father, a top corporate lawyer, is president of the International Bar Association. Her brother Patrick is a prize-winning novelist. Another brother Vincent is a management consultant. And her younger sister Milly, a transracially adopted young woman, is a primary school teacher in London.

Neate’s adoptive sister arrived at the age of one, on Neate’s eighth birthday, and they have been inseparable ever since. The two have never exchanged a cross word.

Next month Polly Neate leaves Community Care after 15 years, the last six as editor. “It’s good to move on when you’re really enjoying yourself, when you’re still positive,” she reflects. 

Now 39, Neate is moving on to work for NCH as the executive director responsible for new business strategy, communications and campaigns. On her watch, circulation of the magazine and her staff team have doubled; news and feature pages have gone up from 30 to 40; the website, 0-19 magazine and the events business have taken off; and the coverage of issues has become noticeably broader. 

When Community Care won the prestigious Periodical Publishers Association Magazine of the Year Award in 2003, Neate was on top of the publishing world. Her staff pay tribute to her vision, high professional standards, strategic direction and creative control of how the magazine sounds and looks every week. “She’s been a first class editor, both in her leadership of the magazine and as an ambassador to the people who work in social care,” Mark Ivory, Community Care’s managing editor told me.

By any standards, and especially with many trade magazines finding life tough, hers is a success story. So why go? The truth is, like many professionals on the cusp of 40, Neate realises now is the time for a change of direction if there is going to be one. Her only regret is that social care, the profession she believes in, is itself changing but with far less certainty about where it is going.

“The values are under threat and something should be done about it,” she says.

Neate’s parents gave their children a keen awareness of social justice which has had a heavy influence on Polly’s life. Trace elements of discussions a decade before with her father about the three-day week in Ted Heath’s Britain could have been detected in her first features for magazine Hard Labour, a Bristol University one issue-wonder majoring on women’s issues. There was also, in the hard right Britain of 1984, a campaign called “No Platform” dedicated to denying the Enoch Powells of this world a stage, of which Neate was a ringleader.

After Bristol, came a post-graduate degree in journalism at City University and, in 1989, her first piece appeared in the nationals, a diatribe for The Guardian’s women’s page against the Campaign for the Feminine Woman. Then, after a spell on the New Statesman, her first freelance feature for Community Care was published, about the treatment of black staff in social services departments. “What is Community Care doing sending a white journalist?,” one black senior manager asked her. 

The process of writing these earliest articles and editorials was formative. It put her in touch with front-line staff and through them, service users. This has been Neate’s professional stamp on Community Care – the expanding coverage of front-line work and its importance. It is also what she most looks forward to at NCH, getting out there to support the charity’s front-line services, and working for a not-for-profit organisation. 

Not having led a campaign on behalf of social care practitioners about their terms and conditions, bringing the reality of their working lives and their staggering levels of responsibility to wider public attention, is her only unfulfilled dream as an editor, especially as for practitioners the gap between rhetoric and reality now seems an unbridgeable chasm. 

The campaigning theme has been there throughout Neate’s working life, and will carry on at NCH. Of several Community Care campaigns, the exposure of the weakness of leaving care services in 1997 which helped to inform the Leaving Care Act 2000 is a source of lasting pride. In a similar vein, Neate feels the last two campaigns the magazine has run about the needs of asylum seekers and young offenders have spoken out for people that New Labour has let down. 

Another Neate legacy on Community Care has been for the magazine to express strong views. “I want readers to know what Community Care stands for,” she says. She has understood and exploited the ability of journalists to instantly get through to top people in a media-dominated world.

While she cautions against the ego-massaging some journalists thrive on, she feels she has been able to influence opinion-shapers and decision-makers, including ministers of the day like Margaret Hodge and John Hutton, by discussing issues in plain language without an obvious axe to grind. She in turn has been inspired by social care leaders like Denise Platt, Jane Campbell and Peter Beresford.

Neate remains outraged. The depth of discrimination disabled people experience moves and motivates her, she says, recalling the experiences of a woman she met who could not walk for years because her toenails had never been cut. 

Still fired up by the passion she started out with, Neate thinks social care is much more accountable now, and that while structures are often transient, the work and those who provide it keep going in a Groundhog Day of magnificent individual acts of caring. 

Where will Neate go now and who will she become? As an entrepreneur going into a more traditional sector than publishing, she will need to learn the rules of another game, if only to challenge them while living by them.

Just as she has reunions with old primary school friends from her reception year, so I hope she will keep in touch with those of us in social care she meant so much to, and with a profession she has done so proud.

Anthony Douglas is head of children’s guardians’ body Cafcass and is a former local authority social services director

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