Social need is too untidy

The problem with Supporting People, writes Conrad Russell, is
that it is another attempt to apply tight budgetary controls to
meeting needs that don’t conform to neat categories.

The legislator’s lot, like the policeman’s, is not a happy one.
Nowhere is this more true than in legislating for that welter of
individual needs and problems that come under the umbrella of local
authority social services. All legislation depends on the ability
to set out clear categories of entitlement, to define grounds of
financial need, and therefore to decide which pot of money can be
drawn upon for which need.

Now let us imagine a woman, speaking only Gujerati, arriving at
a women’s refuge in the middle of the night, bleeding, carrying two
young children, and equipped only with the torn clothes she stands
up in. She needs housing: for housing she is eligible for housing
benefit. She needs heat in her room: for heating she is not
eligible for housing benefit. From the provider’s point of view,
these are a single need. From the legislator’s or the accountant’s,
they are two different needs to be met from two different

When money grows tight, all the anomalies with which we get by
in these situations are forced into the light of day. One would not
guess, reading the Department for the Environment, Transport and
the Regions’ optimistic recommendations for the Supporting People
framework, that it was forced on them by a court judgement of 1997
insisting that there was no legislative authority to use housing
benefit for personal services. The government was slow in reacting
and when it did it came up with the same sort of artificial
bureaucratic barrier that is dividing long-term care.

The Supporting People proposal is designed to provide
housing-related support services to people in vulnerable groups and
it is paved with good intentions. The need is real and important,
and money devoted to it may produce a very good return. Children’s
workers in women’s refuges, counselling for teenagers estranged
from parents, and sympathy and advice for people with chronic
mental health problems are all cases in point. These occupations
are all time-consuming, and all utterly individual. When there was
a common pot of money, support workers could meet these needs as
they arose.

Now, with all the apparatus of monitoring and checkpoint
information, it will be necessary to make rational justifications
of all the decisions involved. That risks taking more time and
labour than all the support work put together. How does one explain
the needs of someone, progressively alienated from every one of her
relatives in a process beginning at the age of six months, who at
any moment of stress disappears from her accommodation and cancels
the mobile phone that is her only link with the outside world? How
does one explain this to someone conducting a budgeting

There are some good things in these proposals. The sort of
problem detailed above would be met by the allowance of floating
support, not tied to the accommodation in which it has been
provided. But what of cash limits, which are clear in the
ring-fenced money provided? In women’s refuges in particular, the
need is escalating rapidly, possibly because the proportion of
women willing to suffer in silence is declining so rapidly. When
the cash runs out, does one spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar?
What do we do with someone who falls over the moralistic purposes
of the rough sleepers unit, whose sense of safety depends on
occasional drugs, and would rather be dead than do without them? Do
we tell such a person not to beg, and do we risk our own funding if
we do not?

Helping people with such individual problems is something which
demands a very high level of confidence in those who provide it. No
rules coming out of parliament or Whitehall have ever allowed for
the sheer untidiness of individual need, especially where that need
contains a mental health element. Handling that sort of problem
calls for a very high allowance of discretion in the person taking
the decisions. And that discretion is not something the criticisms
fired at council social services departments encourages. Confidence
that collides with standard spending assessments tends to emerge
having suffered severe injury.

In all our public services, we have, since the arrival of the
International Monetary Fund in 1976, been expecting more of those
who serve us than they are able to deliver. We have been expecting
them to do more than they are able to do, and subjecting them to a
culture of blame every time they fail to do it. Every teacher,
every doctor and every nurse knows what this is like. Members of
social services departments, because they tend to come at the
bottom of the council queue, know this better than anyone.

Last week, I was talking to a support worker in a university.
She has probably saved at least one person a month from having to
leave university during the past two years. This has often been
done by the use of personal discretion and a high level of
judgement. She told me last week that she knows she is attempting
to do the impossible, and is looking for a new job before the
attempt breaks her. How many social workers feel the same? If
government cannot learn to spend a little more, and control a
little less, it will soon have no public services left.

Corad Russell is Liberal Democrat social security
spokesperson and professor of British history, King’s College,

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