A Watershed Year

For all of us, social care in 2004 will mean different things.
For me it has especially meant the death in July of my partner’s
much loved uncle Les. He was 86 and the support he received was a
model of integrated services – health, housing and social care all
in harmony – multi-disciplinary staff, working well together,
caring and committed.

Les had true independence right to the end. The evening before
he died he went to the Tiger Inn with his mates. When our tears and
grief are because someone has had a good life and now it has ended
– perhaps that’s the most we can hope for as human beings.

The question is how do we get the social care big picture right
to provide such positives routinely and reliably for everyone? This
has been the enduring problem for social care. This year has been
important for big pictures in social care, if only because there
has been so much change. Yet it is less than 20 years since the
last major changes took place in child and community care.
Demonstrably neither worked, but turning to repeated restructuring
as a solution has been another of social care’s longstanding

This year saw a new Children Act, heralding a massive
reorganisation of children’s services and a proposed green paper on
adult social care. The new three-year qualification in social work,
with its emphasis on practice and user involvement, in now fully
operational. In April, the last of the new social care structures,
the Commission for Social Care Inspection, was established. Charged
with inspection and regulation as a route to better social care,
CSCI is perhaps the most important piece of the organisational
jigsaw. It stresses user involvement and putting the service user
at the centre of social care as its first value. Then there’s the
broader context of change. A public health white paper, a second
Mental Health Bill, a new unified rights body pending and extended
disability discrimination legislation, already in the House of
Lords. Change, change, change.

At a recent British Council seminar, David Behan, chief
executive of the CSCI, set out to an international audience the
facts of English social care. There are 1.2 million staff working
with 1.6 million service users; an annual budget of £15bn,
involving 25,000 service providers and 150 local authorities. These
are enormous figures.

This is truly “caring” on an industrial scale. The frequently
experienced reality is like 19th century factory production. Sadly
people’s lives are the product here. It is a process, whether in
institutional settings or people’s own homes, that too often seems
to be crude, routinised, impersonal, desensitised and mechanical. A
common image from service users is of a procession of unknown,
anonymous care workers trooping through their homes. Hardly
surprising that this is how it so often feels, when we are talking
about a labour force with terms and conditions on a par with
supermarket check out staff and burger bar temps.

Direct payments meanwhile demonstrate an alternative human face,
with the potential to support people to live life on their own
terms. But with only 15,000 service users so far using them
(compared with 600,000 still in institutional care), there are
worrying signs that policymakers are conceiving of direct payments
in narrow consumerist terms. Thus direct payments are reduced
merely to a matter of service users purchasing their own package of

This is a long way from the liberational ideal of the disabled
people’s movement with its vision of having whatever assistance you
need to live on equal terms with other people. Instead, it could
lead us straight back to dependence on the same old agency

This year has been a watershed year for social care. Soon the
findings will be available from the service user consultation
carried out for the government’s vision for adult social care. This
will offer an important indication of what service users think of
social care now and what they want for the future.

In 2005 we will be able to see how well the social care reality
matches the rhetoric. It was a good fit for uncle Les. There are
1.6 million other service users who will doubtless be hoping to be
able to say the same.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University, and is involved in the psychiatric system survivor

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