Two-tier democracy

The local government white paper promises to
devolve power away from central government, reversing a trend begun
by Margaret Thatcher who distrusted councils and was determined to
emasculate them. Stephen Byers, secretary of state for local
government, wants to give local authorities more autonomy, more
freedom to use resources as they see fit, and more opportunities to
exercise their creativity and establish diverse forms of good
practice. A national performance framework will be developed and
the public will be able to judge for themselves, as each council
will be required to publish a “balanced scorecard” of its

It ought to herald a new dawn for local
democracy. But that would be to succumb too readily to the spin, to
read the headlines and ignore the small print, which may deny to
the majority the benefits that will be enjoyed by a minority. Under
the white paper’s proposals, two new tiers of local government will
be created: the “haves”, who will be given more, and the
“have-nots”, who will have to struggle with less.

There is no harm in instilling a greater
spirit of competitiveness into local government, if it serves to
unlock talent and move away the obstacles to achievement, but this
initiative will go further. “High-performing” councils will be free
to raise more money from council tax and other sources, as well as
spend according to their own priorities rather than those laid down
by central government. These councils are also most likely to be
the ones with social services departments that have been rewarded
with more money for doing well in the new star-rating system,
announced by health secretary Alan Milburn last October.

At the other end of the scale, “poor
performing” councils have nothing more to look forward to than a
thoroughly demoralising battery of sanctions. They can expect the
attentions of government-appointed troubleshooters and, in more
extreme cases, the humiliation of a takeover by another local
authority or even the private sector. The effect will be to inflame
an already damaging recruitment crisis in many localities, further
impoverish services with a history of under-investment, and offer
clients and citizens little prospect of improvement. If the
government’s aim was to strengthen communities, there were better
ways to go about it. But this is Byers’ “new vision for local
government at the beginning of the 21st century”. So only one cheer
for the new democracy.

Too much apple pie

The long-awaited codes of conduct and practice
for social care staff and their employers marks another step in the
long journey to raise the status of the profession.

The employers’ code is based squarely on good
employment practice. However, the six statements governing the code
of practice for social care workers fail to tackle the reality of
working in one of the most difficult professions. Nobody would
argue that the safety, interests, trust and confidence of service
users are paramount to the work of social care staff. And no
professional in the field would disagree that respecting the
independence of users is central to their job.

But the motherhood and apple-pie aspirations
of the code are not enough. The final version must include detailed
guidance on how social care workers are supposed to tackle the most
difficult balancing acts that make up their day-to-day work, such
as balancing the rights of users with those of society.

Without such detail, the code will fail to
achieve its second essential aim – to justify the public confidence
and trust in the profession.



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