Human touch is missing

There are some demanding targets in Tony Blair’s published brief for new social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong. Among the immediate priorities is a welcome reference to children in care, calling on the Cabinet Office under Armstrong to work with the Department for Education and Skills to raise the educational achievements and aspirations of looked-after children. Blair also urges her to secure a good deal for excluded groups in the 2007 comprehensive spending review.

Whatever children’s minister Beverley Hughes may say, the failure to impose specific duties on schools towards children in care in the Children Act 2004 will have done nothing to improve their chances. It is vital that Armstrong, who will chair the new cabinet committee on social exclusion, works with the DfES to close the scandalous gap in achievement between looked-after children and the rest, 11 per cent attaining five good GCSE passes versus the mainstream average of 56 per cent.

Much of the rest of Blair’s brief for Armstrong is given over to his government’s unashamedly paternalistic attitudes to various sections of society: families, people with mental health problems and the voluntary sector. There is an implicit objective for each, namely that families should show respect; that people with mental health problems should find work; and that the voluntary sector should take on more public service contracts. For once we are spared a mention of people on incapacity benefit, though the government’s recently announced experiment with talking therapies is intended primarily to get this group into jobs too.

There is a grain of sense in these objectives, but there is also something depressing about the instrumental nature of so much public policy. Whatever happened to the idea of family support to help families function well as such, never mind to show respect or to be fine, upstanding members of their communities? What about mental health services that cure people for their own sake, never mind make them employable? And what about a voluntary sector that merely serves its users, never mind delivers public service priorities?

This government, like any other, is preoccupied with the cost to society and our communities of social dysfunction. But it should not forget, as a matter of policy, the intrinsic value of the individuals who are helped.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.