Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: citizenship (page 1 of 3)

Welfare and the Common Good

My friend Virginia Moffatt recently edited a collection of essays called Reclaiming the Common Good which explores the way that society, in so many ways, seems to have lost its way. My essay explores some of the original thinking behind the welfare state and what we might do to return to the ideas that originally inspired it. The book launch was in Bloomsbury on 20th September 2017. Virginia asked several of the authors some questions, and here are my answers.

How would you define ‘welfare’? Why is it that we are currently living in a country where those in greatest need are being denied help?

A Finnish friend of mine, Katja Valkama, who was doing research on social policy in the UK asked me: “Why do people say all these negative things about ‘welfare’? In Finland welfare just means well-being.”

Exactly.

The term ‘welfare state’, was coined by Archbishop William Temple, and it was certainly meant to capture the idea that we needed to ensure that our social arrangements – underpinned by law, democracy and the power of the state – worked to guarantee everybody’s welfare – everybody’s well-being.

And the five main pillars of the welfare state still do so today:

  1. Health – The NHS provides us with universal healthcare
  2. Education – Public schools provide us with free education up to 18
  3. Income Security – Pensions and benefits provide some income security
  4. Housing – Housing benefits and social housing provide some protection from homelessness
  5. Disability Support – Local government provides some rather limited social care to people with disabilities and older people who are frail and need assistance

As my ordering suggest – some systems work much better than others and interestingly the ones we value most are:

  • The most universal ones, with no means-testing
  • The ones we forget are part of the welfare state

The word welfare – and its associated stigma – seems to attach itself most closely to social security and to any systems that seem to be just for the poor. This is despite the fact that the biggest benefit – accounting for about 50% of all benefits – is the state pension – a universal benefit. We have somehow allowed welfare and the welfare state to become stigmatised; this is despite the fact that the largest parts of the welfare state remain popular and so have been relatively protected from recent cuts.

On the other hand, the reason why the cuts of austerity have fallen so heavily on disabled people is that they are a group that is particularly dependent on the less universal elements of the welfare state: housing, care and benefits. These are politically easy things to cut because most people think they have no stake in them.

It is particularly important to recognise that our current problems are not so new. Things have been moving in this direction for several decades. For instance if we compare our situation today to the 1970s three things stand out:

  1. The poor have been made poorer, by a mixture of economic change and the lower value of benefits
  2. The rich have become a lot richer, but they do pay a little more in taxes
  3. Most people are in the middle and they are about the same – their wages have dropped, but the difference has been made up by benefits (disguised as tax credits, pensions, housing benefit etc.)

Austerity has recently made things much worse the poorest. But the system has been getting worse and worse for over 40 years. Over time its main function has shifted so as to subsidise the incomes of the middle-classes. But this has been managed in a way that enables them to psychologically distance themselves from those stigmatised groups that they see as beneath them. This is today’s double injustice: we steal from the poor, but heap blame and stigma on their shoulders at the same time.

What would you say to those who argue that the welfare state is no longer necessary in modern Britain?

It’s really important to realise that the development of the welfare state is correlated – above everything else – with the growing insecurity of the modern world. Our productivity or average wealth is irrelevant: people can starve or be forced into prostitution, homelessness or suicide even if society as a whole gets wealthier.

Average wealth is irrelevant, it is equality and income security – not economic growth that is most important.

In fact our amazing productivity has only been achieved by sacrificing (often not willingly) basic economic securities:

  1. First we lost the security of the land and millions were forced to come to the towns for work, and they then became dependent on ’employment’ and those who did not fit into this system were forced into the workhouse.
  2. Second craftsmen and labourers lost the security of their roles as machines produced more for less.
  3. Third we discovered, through the Great Depression, and many other bubbles, slumps and downturns, that even a job was no security. We can now manufacture droughts and famines through bad planning, economic anxiety and panic.

We discovered that the modern industrial world is no protection from growing inequality and radical insecurity – what Simone Weil calls rootlessness. These injustices then inspired revolutionary hopes and fascist reactions. This unleashed war, revolution, terror, eugenics and the Holocaust.

The welfare state – which had its seeds in Bismarck’s Germany – was always a way of replacing the basic securities that people desperately need in a world that had lost the older securities of land, church and community.

Nothing about the current state of the economy makes the welfare state less necessary. Income insecurity is even more extreme today than before the War. Our incomes are far more dependent on Government-run systems and subsidies. We simply take for granted the enormous benefits that come from the welfare state and the security – even its current inadequate form – that it provides for all of us.

We’ve gone to sleep and we’ve forgotten all that we’ve come to rely on.

The organisation you run is called the Centre for Welfare Reform. Can you give us some of your thoughts how the welfare state could be reformed for the good of all?

I do wonder whether it was a good idea to name the Centre as the Centre for Welfare Reform. The term ‘welfare reform’ is now so toxic and so closely associated with the changes introduced by the Coalition Government that it is quite confusing. However, I think that a civilised society will always want to ensure that it is organised in the best way it can be to ensure the welfare of all its members; so I think welfare reform – true welfare reform – actually improving how we take care of each other – will remain an important project – even if we’re not sure what to call it any more.

For me the central challenge of improving the welfare state was set out by the philosopher Jeremy Waldron:

Above all, I think the idea of citizenship should remain at the centre of modern political debates about social and economic arrangements. The concept of a citizen is that of a person who can hold their head high and participate fully and with dignity in the life of their society. (Liberal Rights, p. 308)

What this requires is up for debate, but I think we can mark out the two extremes that we must avoid – the Scylla (rocks) and Charybdis (whirlpool) of welfare reform between which we must steer:

  1. We must avoid the assumption that the state is some rational and benign entity who can be trusted to simply meet our needs and solve social problems on it own. This way of thinking is fundamentally undemocratic and it treats citizen as non-citizens – as passive, dependent and lacking in responsibility. The last 40 years, and particularly the last 7 years, have clearly demonstrated that the state cannot be left alone with this task of taking care of us.
  2. We must also avoid the assumption that we have no need for the welfare state, that we can all manage alone, or in our families. Citizens are not lone wolves, consumers or producers; they are people who need to live together and need to work together to build a meaningful and mutually rewarding world.

What this means is that we must look for welfare reforms that are going to encourage us to be the best that we can be both singly and together. We need to create a world where everyone is included, everyone is an equal, everyone is treated as a full and valued citizen.

So, what might some positive reforms look like?

Briefly I would suggest the following:

  1. The basic idea of the NHS remains sound – what we will want to do is bring it closer to our communities. Professionals sometimes forgot their core purpose – to teach, assist and enable.
  2. Schools needs to be freed from the tyranny of regulation and the phoney idea that they can prepare people for work. Education should be more inclusive and focus on building our capacity to be citizens.
  3. Income security needs to be radically reformed, and at its centre needs to be the idea of a basic income – a secure income that is enough for each of us to live a life of dignity.
  4. Housing needs to become a right and a fundamental responsibility of local communities must be to ensure everyone can live in their own community and not be forced out by increased housing costs. Citizens should belong where they live – and they should not be forced out of their communities by ‘market forces’. I believe a Land Value Tax, which ensure property owners support non-property owners will be the core reform required.
  5. Social care – or disability support – needs to be established as a universal, non-meanest-tested right for all of us. This is entirely possible and affordable.

Underpinning all of this – I believe – will have to be a resurgence of genuine democratic behaviour and of constitutional reform. People need to be free in order to be citizens, so that they can challenge, engage and collaborate in order to build the society we need. We will need new constitutional arrangements to establish, monitor and protect our human rights, and we will need a renewed civil society – with social organisations that are willing to speak out and stand up for justice.

I suspect that, along with secure social rights, established at a national level, we will need to pay much more attention to the local. Meaningful citizen action and community life can only becomes possible if some powers are decentralised and so people can focus on change at a personal, family and community level.

Of course much of this will seem a dream. But the post-war welfare state also seemed like a dream. I suspect it is only dreaming that will save us from years of further moral and social decline.

Australia’s Pride, England’s Shame

How Australia is taking the lead in disability rights and social care

I have just returned from 3 weeks in Australia where I have been working with disability advocates, families and support organisations. The question we were exploring is how can we best support our own active citizenship and the citizenship of others. I was also able to be part of the launch of Citizen Network Australia in Perth and it was fantastic to hear people’s enthusiasm about building a global movement for citizenship for everyone – for a world where everyone matters.

The trip was also a chance to reflect again on the development of NDIS. Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is without doubt the most exciting, most ambitious and most perilous attempt to reform disability support and to bring it in line with human rights and the principles of independent living. All around the world, we have a stake in this reform, because no other country has been brave enough to introduce such an important reform.

Critically NDIS aims to do three vitally important things:

  1. Properly fund the support needs of all people with disabilities (including many people with mental health problems) under pension age.
  2. Remove all means-testing so that every Australian has the security of knowing that the system will be there for them, no matter their income.
  3. Ensure all funding is individualised and under the control of the person or their representative, so that people can get support that makes sense and enable them to be a full and active citizen.

This is brilliant – if Australia achieves this it will have moved itself from the back of the pack in disability rights to become a true world leader.

This is in stark contrast to my home country, England. Similar reforms in England, which began with the Independent Living Fund (ILF), Direct Payments and then Personal Budgets all promised much in terms of increasing people’s level of control over their own support. However these achievements pale into insignificance alongside the vicious means-testing and the severe cuts that began in 2009. There are 700,000 fewer people now getting support than in 2009, a drop of about 40% – and these problems are only getting worse. The United Nations has severely criticised the UK for its failure to respect the human rights of its own citizens, and their criticisms are entirely justified. Social care in England remains a ‘Poor Law’ service – a poor service, for the poor, that keeps you poor.

We have still not learnt that genuine and positive reform is possible; but it begins by bringing together people with disabilities – all disabilities – families and support organisations to campaign and to explain – not so much to Government – but to the general public – why a right to disability support (what England calls social care) is a fundamental human right. I continue to work with the Socialist Health Association to encourage the Labour Party to develop a more positive and ambitious vision. I am extremely grateful to the Australian disability movement for showing us the way ahead – we just need to follow them.

However there are some major challenges ahead. Having a plan is one thing; putting that plan into action is something entirely different.

I was in Australia when the details of NDIS were first announced and I met with the design team – the civil servants charged with defining how NDIS was to be delivered. My analysis, which I went on to publish (with my usual tact and diplomacy) was that the design of the system was very poor indeed. There remains a severe danger that the system will become enmeshed in centralised bureaucratic controls that undermine the basic human rights that NDIS aims to respect.

Moreover, many of my friends in Australia are the people who called for these reforms and who continue to work to innovate and improve the system so that disabled people and families are put in charge of their own lives. They are now on a rollercoaster of emotions as they see enormous progress in some areas, matched by the development of systems that seem damaging or just plain peculiar. You can read a moving story from one woman’s perspective here.

It would be tempting to say “I told you so.” But I don’t think that’s the appropriate response, and my last visit to Australia has left me much more encouraged than down-hearted.

First of all Australia is living up to its promise to properly fund NDIS and this is no small achievement. Second, while many of the detailed systems do seem crazy, they can all be resisted and reformed. In fact even more encouraging than the progress around NDIS is the continuing sense of passion and determination amongst Australian advocates and disability leaders. They know that they can achieve so much more and they know that they can – despite all the obstacles – make the system accountable. Disability advocates have been able to achieve more change and have created more transparency than in any other countries that I am familiar with, including: England, Scotland, Finland, New Zealand and the USA.

What is more, I see increasing signs of collaboration between different kinds of disability advocates around the issue of genuine choice and control. For example, Vicserv has pulled together a wide-ranging alliance of disability leaders to explore how to define good practice in self-directed support. Likewise the Self Direction Collaboration Network brings together a range of brilliant advocates, leaders and facilitators for shared work on turning the dreams of NDIS into practical reality.

The challenge may be to simply to hold one’s nerve and to holdfast to the original intentions of the NDIS. The current system is changing and evolving in such a fast, complex and unpredictable way that it is easy to be mesmerised by it. When it does crazy things that don’t make sense then its natural to be disappointed and angry. But it is possible to fight-back and often it is possible to work around the problem.

I was struck by how the innovative organisations that I worked with in Western Australia, like Avivo and My Place, were also having to remind themselves that they’d already spent decades working around the rigidities of poorly designed systems. The capacity to respond creatively to bureaucratic rigidity hasn’t disappeared simply because the funding body has changed from the State to the Federal government.

It is important to remember that important changes and innovations do take time and that NDIS involves at least two distinct innovations, both of which are at different stage of their evolution. Innovations evolve over time and go through distinct stages as they (and if they) evolve. Partly NDIS is introducing a model for calculating need, and ensuring everyone gets a suitable package of support. This is priority for the system, and this is moving into the stage of mainstream implementation – Stage 3.

A graph showing how innovations develop

Where NDIS is on the innovation curve

But NDIS also promises flexible funding that people can control and here progress is at much more primitive stage – at best early Stage 2. This may seem disappointing, but it’s important to recognise the reality of how these kinds of changes take. Individualised funding began in the 1960s (in California) and the first UK models began in the 1970s. When I first came to Australia and talked about individualised funding in 1999 everyone looked at me like I was crazy. When I next came back in 2008 I found handfuls of people and families who had got self-managed supports, but they had been told not to tell anyone – they were ‘State secrets’ – in theory not allowed, and if you talked about it you might have it taken off you. Today the idea of personalised support and self-management has been normalised – although the reality is a long way behind. This is how progress happens.

I left Australia, not only encouraged, but also thinking that there is much more we could do to work together globally. The battles in Australia are the same battles that we’re facing in other parts of the world. In each country, where people have been inspired by the desire for citizenship, equality and inclusion, then people and families have been able to find a way through to create better support solutions. Countries can learn from each other, advocates can help each other, we can share the lessons we learn to speed up the process of change. For instance, we might be able to use Citizen Network as a global alliance; we can start to share examples of the very best practice to feed our courage and strengthen our confidence.

We launched Citizen Network in November 2016 and already there are 10 countries who with national coordinators and hundreds of people and groups have joined as members. It is still early days, but we have all the reason in the world to work together for a better world, where everyone matters, where everyone can become a full citizen. Why don’t you join us?

Equality – The Kind That Really Matters

or why status is not a zero-sum game

This essay jumps headfirst into a complex debate which deserves a more careful set of introductory comments. However, I am pressed for time, and so I merely want to offer a few philosophical thoughts in response to some of the practical work that I’ve been involved in over the past few months.

The limits of reasonable income inequality

One of the most important political philosophers at the end of the twentieth century was John Rawls. He asserts:

All social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage. (A Theory of Justice p. 62)

In principle Rawls offers us what appears to be a highly egalitarian starting point for social justice. However, in practice, the publication of his A Theory of Justice, his ground-breaking work in political theory, coincided with the end of a moderately egalitarian period in the political development of English speaking countries. Since the 1970s income inequality has grown significantly in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia and governments of all colours have abandoned any serious effort to promote income equality as a social goal. I am not blaming John Rawls for the collapse of egalitarianism and the rise of neoliberalism – but it is a curious coincidence.

The principle that Rawls is most famous for advancing, a principle that arises logically from the assertion above, is the maximin principle: Social arrangements should be so organised that the position of the worst off (the min) should be as high as possible (the max) and that if a certain level of inequality makes such an improvement possible then – only to that limited extent – such inequalities would be justified.

As someone who studied Rawls in the 1980s I remember this as a convincing theoretical position. How could I as an egalitarian resist a level of inequality that improved the position of the worst off? However looking back today I wonder what real effort we made to distinguish Rawls’ position from the idea of trickle-down economics: Let the rich make as much money as possible in the hope that the poorest would benefit – for a ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’

It turns out, if we examine the data of the last 40 years – as I did recently – this is a forlorn hope. It is very clear that growing inequality has not improved the position of the poorest, nor even overall economic growth. In fact, in the UK at least, as inequality increased so have the incomes of the poorest fallen. What is worse, because it is clearly intentional, is that the political system further reduced the incomes of the poorest by policy changes that were highly regressive. In fact we’ve stolen from the poor three times: First by allowing greater economic inequality; second by redistributing money away from the poor by political policy; third by pouring scorn and stigma on the heads of the poor through shameful political rhetoric.

Rawls’ argument was equivalent to saying: Poison sometimes improves our health and so we should sometimes be willing take poison. For, in fact, all medicines are also poisons – what is critical is to take exactly the right amount of the poison if you want the beneficial impact. However instead of taking care to find the correct dose of inequality we’ve been swallowing inequality by the bottle and declaring our overdose success.

Meanwhile, if someone did identify the sweet spot for a legitimate level of inequality, then I guess I missed the news.

Instead of careful efforts to limit and control inequality in the interests of poor we’ve seen trickle-down economics rise unchallenged as the economic philosophy of our time. Instead of attempts to quantify the minimum level of inequality necessary to lift the incomes of the poorest we’ve seen a number of other more dangerous arguments and assumptions rush to fill the vacuum in Rawls’ argument.

For instance, some argue that the economy needs a free labour market to efficiently allocate resources to promote the skills necessary for the economy: If we need to pay an extra £10,000 to get the right doctor, an extra £100,000 to get the right CEO or an extra £1,000,000 to get the right football player, then we must do so.

This kind of free market argument seems quite persuasive, if we don’t think too hard. After all this seems precisely the kind of reason why Rawls might allow us to release the hounds of inequality from their leash: To incentivise better performance and recruit people for essential skills – whether they be medical, commercial or athletic. But a moment’s thought must make us wonder whether we’re confusing the good of the worst-off with the good of a particular community:

  • If we need more doctors, don’t recruit doctors from Africa or Asia (where they are needed even more) to come to Europe (where we have plenty already and could certainly train more).
  • If your company needs a better CEO then train one, don’t bribe someone to leave their current job by simply offering them more money than they get now.
  • If you are a fan then you may be happy that the wealth of your team allows you to poach the best players from other teams. But none of this adds to the quality of football.

Incentives may offer a different kind of argument: There is surely a case for rewarding people for good work and discouraging people from doing bad work. But very low levels of inequality leave plenty of room for incentives. Good work is surely what we want everyone to do as a norm and inequality makes it harder to reward good work when everyone is working well.

In fact I think the case could be made that what is more important than positive incentives is the possibility of failure. Failure is what makes all forms of progress possible. Systems that makes failure impossible or too expensive are systems that do not develop and improve. The failure of state socialism in Russia was not an excess of equality, it was an excess of security, where rigid economic structures didn’t adapt to changing circumstances. (One of the arguments for basic income, which I support, is that it would make economic failure, and therefore improvement, much less risky.)

Another weak argument for inequality, but one that is heavily relied upon by advocates of inequality, is that economic goods (let’s call this wealth) are not created in a zero-sum game. If you are not familiar with the idea of a zero-sum game let me try and explain what this means:

Chess is a zero-sum game. I can win and you lose, you can win and I lose or we can draw. We can’t both win. Some things in life are much more like chess: winners are matched by losers. Zero-sum games can only redistribute a finite (fixed) amount of resources. Land is finite and hence the distribution of land is a zero-sum game.

Not everything is a zero-sum game. For instance, education is not a zero-sum game (unless you’re doing it very badly). Everybody can learn, and if I develop some ability at Latin, I do not reduce your ability to understand Latin or anything else.

Whether economics is a zero-sum game is a critical question, but also quite complex. When we look at the economy from some perspectives then it can seem a zero-sum game. For instance, the UK’s recent Coalition Government increased VAT, increased income tax thresholds and cut benefits. The combined impact of these changes was to reduce the incomes of the poorest 10% (6.5 million people) by 9% and to increase the incomes of those on middle-incomes. Government redistribution like this is, in the short-term at least, a zero-sum game.

Not all economic change is like this. If people begin to find new ways to organise things then this may increase the overall amount of wealth. Better farming techniques can improve productivity overall. Industrialisation and technology can increase the availability of useful products. These changes are much more like educational changes, new ideas and technologies change how we do things to make more possible.

However, sadly, these transformational changes, that certainly do accelerate economic production, are also associated with the greater levels of social injustice, uprootedness and insecurity. Often they led to riots, rebellions and revolutions. So, while such economic growth can potentially benefit the many, it usually seems to benefit the few, especially in the short-run. We are discovering the same today as global businesses and technologies demolish old ways of working, accelerate inequality and reward socially irresponsible behaviour.

I think this means that economics is not quite a zero-sum game; but neither are most economic goods infinite. Distribution remains a critical issue, especially for obviously finite goods like land and access to basic resources (like water, food, clothing and healthcare). It is also clear that we should be constrained by our respect for the planet as well as the needs of each other.

The evidence that economic inequality is good for us and is justified by its impact on the poor is very poor. In fact we don’t seem in much of a hurry to gather evidence on this matter at all; perhaps we are simply in awe of the power of money and don’t know how to put the dogs of inequality back on the leash. When money can buy public policy and research, as it does today in the UK, there may be few incentives to be honest about the limitations of inequality. Perhaps also, the glaring failure of socialist states like the USSR, has rather blinded us to the obvious success of democratic welfare states, like Denmark, at finding a much better balance of equality and productivity.

The importance of status

One other thing that strikes me, looking back on Rawls, is that most of the discussion about equality has tended to be highly materialistic. Perhaps we should have looked rather harder at what Rawls called the “bases of self-respect” for surely the respect in which we are held, particularly our status as an equal, is of much more importance to an egalitarian than the particular bag of money we happen to be holding.

In fact neoliberals often deploy a version of this argument when they propose that egalitarians are simply promoting the vice of envy: There is nothing wrong with inequality; inequality is helpful and essential; you are simply envious of the better-off and your envy is wrong in itself and damaging in its impact. You’ll drag everyone and everything downwards in your quest for equality.

Now, I think it is rather easy to show that income inequality (perhaps beyond some modest level) is harmful. It is also possible to show that income inequality is controllable – if you want to control it. However I do think there is something to the argument that income is not everything and that there is something worrying about a society fixated on achieving income equality as if that were the most important goal.

True equality does not meant I have exactly the same amount of money in my bank account as my neighbour: It is to live with my neighbour as an equal – for us to value and respect each other as equals.

Moreover the reason that this kind of equality is important is not that my neighbour and I are equal: We are not the same and we do not want to be the same; we are different from each other, along an infinite array of dimensions.

What we seek is an equality of status, of respect; perhaps we could almost say that we seek spiritual, not material, equality. Moreover there is a name for this kind of equality and that name is citizenship. For at least two and half thousand years, and possibly longer, some humans have sought to live together in a community of equals.

One famed example is ancient Athens, the home of democracy, where Pericles once said:

We regard wealth as being something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the polis (community) as well: even those who are generally occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics (community life) – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics (the community) is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all… (cited by Thucydides)

What mattered in Athens was to be a citizen, and as such you had equal status with other citizens. Of course, Athenian citizenship excluded slaves, women and foreigners, but it still offers an important example of a different approach to equality. Moreover, in many ways it was much more egalitarian in its actual organisation and spirit than is a modern democracy. Athenian citizens had much more influence over and involvement in the life of their community than we do today.

And is this kind of equality not a more fundamental kind of equality? We do not want people to be uniform; we do not want lives to be standardised; we should surely not care too much about differences in roles, resources or relationships. Surely, what we want is a world where everyone can flourish, in all their diversity, and where everyone is treated with respect – as an equal.

If you accept this argument then you might think that it gives some support to the neoliberal position: Stop worrying about inequality; stop envying the rich.

However, this is wrong. It is in fact precisely because status equality, not income equality, is the goal of a just society that we actually need to take income equality much more seriously.

At this point I’d like to quote an argument from C. S. Lewis. But we moved house last year and most of my books are still in the garage; so I will try and make his argument from memory. The reason we should take great care to limit the visible and obvious differences between us, like differences in wealth, is not that we are all equal, but that we are all different. It is because of our much deeper and wilder diversity that should ensure that we clothe ourselves as equals. The disciplines of equality exist to help diverse people live in a spirit of equality.

This may seem a paradox, but it is not. We are beings who are each unique and diverse, but who are also each of equal moral worth. In living together we must find a way to appreciate each other’s uniqueness and yet respect each other as equals. We can do this by choosing to live as citizens; that is we can choose to live in a society that honours our shared status as equal citizens. In so far as we discover that certain kinds of artificial differences (like income) can become excessive, that they can threaten our ability to treat each other as equals, then we should restrict or tame those differences. Excessive income inequality does threaten our ability to see each other equals, particularly by stoking the pride and greed of those with the most; but also by encouraging a sense of worthlessness in those with the least. Income inequality is corrosive of most of our virtues and it makes it much harder to live in a spirit of equality.

Status is certainly not a zero-sum game. Societies can exist with very low levels of status; in fact the twin concepts of meritocracy and aristocracy offer us a vision for society where the highest status goes to the ‘best’ and the lowest become the ‘worst’ – the scapegoat, scrounger or outcast. Meritocracies produce very low levels of status overall by using a narrow and highly rationed account of social value. Almost everyone’s a loser in a meritocracy.

Citizenship maximises the distribution of status by equalising that status – everyone can share in it. Moreover society can not only adopt equal citizenship as its goal; it can go further and also seek to welcome others into citizenship. If male Athenians had welcomed women as equals, allowed foreigners to become citizens or abandoned slavery then it would have advanced equal status for all. There would have been no loss of equal-status for male citizens. (I accept that this would have made the category of citizen less ‘special’ within Athens – but this kind of enhanced status is actually a form of meritocracy and is not essential to the kind of true and equal citizenship which I am arguing for). To feel you are an equal and to see others as equals is a real form of non-hierarchical status and it is the best form of self-respect – because it takes nothing away from anyone else.

It is this is inclusive account of citizenship what some of us have been exploring as we develop Citizen Network: How to build a world where everyone is a citizen, where everyone is equal and everyone is different.

How to find justice

So, if we return to Rawls, then I think my argument is that Rawls has made a fundamental error. He forgot that a just society does not start by redistributing resources in order to advance the bases of self-esteem. Instead it begins by commiting itself wholeheartedly to equality, and it does so by establishing equal and universal citizenship as the basic role which everyone can occupy.

Rawls tried to get to equality ‘by going round the houses’ – by focusing on economic goods first – and I think this is connected to another mistake that Rawls makes:

There is no reason to assume our sense of justice can be adequately characterised by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 47)

The fundamental problem here is that Rawls is seeking a formula for justice which must be applied to society from the outside. He is not offering us an attractive conception of justice, one towards which we can turn, around which we can rally and one which enables us to build a just society together. Instead Rawls is offering a complex and ambiguous template for ghostly civil servants or philosopher-kings to interpret on our behalf.

If we are not motivated towards justice by a shared conception of justice then no operating principle, however sophisticated will save us: For who is to interpret and implement such a principle? If we do not choose to live as citizens, and if we do not act to build a world for citizens, then we choose to live in a world where inequality is guaranteed.

If we are motivated towards justice then what matters is identifying it, living by it and disciplining ourselves according to its needs. Our fundamental principle must be that we are citizens, we are all equals and that we must welcome others into this world of citizenship.

What Do We Believe?

Many of us believe in justice, and we try and work for justice. But sometimes the “long arc of history” seems a very distant hope. For those of us who work to advance disability rights we see the tide of negative forces rising: cuts, hate crime, eugenics, prejudice and political leaders who have no shame in taking us backwards.

And it is not just disabled people who face intolerance and whose gifts are rejected. The immigrant, the asylum seeker or the refugees faces fear and hatred. People in poverty are increasingly treated as somehow less than human and are subject to political scapegoating. People of different faiths and different sexualities face suspicion and disrespect. Women and children faces ongoing disadvantage and economic systems that seem incapable of recognising true value.

We can see what’s wrong, but we’re not sure what’s right.

We live in confusing times and many of our assumptions about what true justice looks many need to be re-examined. Many of us feel tired and disappointed. The leadership offered by mainstream politicians seems inadequate to the challenges before us. We want a better way, a way more suited to the reality of things.

If we just take the United Kingdom as a case study the growing tide of injustice is obvious to many of us:

  • Disabled people face cuts in their income and services for no better reason than they lack political power. Changes to benefits are leading to illness and suicide. Institutionalisation is returning, with all the inevitable deaths, rapes, abuse and indignity.
  • The Government refuses to take its fair share of refugees escaping war and terror. It has created a “hostile environment” for asylum-seekers and seems unconcerned about sending people back to persecution and death. It rejects warnings about its human rights record from the United Nations and tries to minimise its international obligations.
  • People in poorer communities across the country are dying more than a decade earlier than their peers because of inequality, inadequate housing economic insecurity and air pollution.
  • Employment is high, but wages and job security is low. Government policy seems based on lies and prejudice; ordinary citizens are bullied in job centres and hit with sanctions for noncompliance. Carers and volunteers, mostly women, are treated as if all their hard work has no real value.
  • The state is centralised in London, while public policy is corrupted by private corporations. Democracy is limited to a 5 yearly choice between leaders who often seem totally distant from the communities they supposedly represent. Political debate is distorted by a media owned by billionaires or by a BBC that has been cowed into submission by political pressure.

The UK is certainly an extreme case. It is the most unequal country in Europe and is cursed with leaders who seem only to want to make things worse. But friends in other countries share some of our problems:

  • The USA must deal with the emergence of leaders like Donald Trump, who sees nothing shameful about reducing health coverage, a basic human right, abandoning efforts to protect the climate and the environment and declaring “America first”. Racism and xenophobia have been normalised as politicians pander to fear and economic anxiety.
  • In Europe right-wing parties are also encouraging hateful policies. Even in countries like Finland, racist parties are gaining support. At the same time countries like Greece are being crushed by economic policies that slash the incomes of ordinary people and mire the country in further debt.
  • Across the developing world large corporations are purchasing power, extracting resources and exploiting the local workforce. Old style imperial colonialism has been replaced with corporate colonialism.

Are these all different and distinct injustices or are they really same injustice, just looked at from different points of view?

Clearly there are important differences of details; however there is a strong case for seeing these problems as all stemming from the same kind of dangerous and bankrupt mindset.

Firstly many of these injustices are connected by a rhetoric of exclusion and scapegoating. Their message is that our problems are caused by them: the poor, the disabled and the foreigners. We need to keep them out, put them away or keep them down. And this message also contains an implicit threats: Don’t dare to stand alongside them. Stay inside the blessed circle. Trust us to look after you, or else…

When the powerful exploit prejudice in this way the result is never pretty. Rarely does it lead to unity amongst the oppressed. Too often it leads to infighting, fear and further scapegoating. In communities where there is severe economic decline and a lack of power then racism can raise its ugly head. When disabled people are attacked then some may choose to keep their distance from those who are seen as ‘too disabled’.

Malcolm X nailed it when he said:

If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.

So perhaps we can start with one obvious moral truth: everybody matters. Black lives matter, disabled people matter, foreigners matter, you and me matter. We all matter; we are all equally important.

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: We are all equal.

The UK gives further wicked twist to this rhetoric of exclusion. Politicians now proudly say that we should live in a meritocracy, a world where the ‘best’ rule the rest.

It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry when politicians use this term, for it’s a term of satire invented by Michael Young (who also invented the Open University and many other good ideas). As long ago as 1958 Young argued that, if we’re not careful then society will divide into two classes, and that those in power will increasingly come to think that they are cleverer, and therefore better, than the rest of us and that have the right to rule over us. Today our ‘clever’ politicians make use of the term, but they don’t seem to have the read the book or understood the argument.

Our well-educated elite don’t seem to have noticed that term meritocracy means, going back to its Latin and Greek roots: ‘rule by the best’. But there was already an older term, which in its original Greek form, means exactly the same thing: aristocracy. I wonder what the public would think if they heard our Prime Minister declare that we need to live in an Aristocracy.

Meritocracy is opposed to democracy: rule by the best, not rule by the people. The modern elites really seem to believe that some people are better than other people and these ‘better people’ should be ‘awarded’ with more power, money and status. This is a great philosophy if you already have more power, money or status. It tells you that you deserve what you already have and that those who lack what you have, don’t deserve to get it. You kid yourself that you’re not only richer, but you are better too.

Of course the idea of meritocracy exploits and misuses one important truth: We may all be equal, but we are certainly all different.

Humans are wonderfully diverse. We are blessed with a great range different gifts and needs, which together make us utterly interdependent. We need each other. Human life, at its best enables people to use, share and develop these diverse gifts through different forms of community life.

Instead of enjoying the beautiful reality of our humanity the meritocrat imposes their own stupid ladder of values: the clever (as they define themselves) should be on top.

But meritocracy is a wonky ladder to nowhere. Instead of building lives of true meaning, citizenship and love, we are invited to clamber up on top of each other, to rise up to the ‘top’. Quite what we’re expected to do once we reach the ‘top’ is not exactly clear. Perhaps they really do think money, power of fame is the point of life.

Against this nonsense we must assert: We are all equal, We are all different and our many differences are good.

Of course, we have been here before, although it is astonishing that we seem to have forgotten all the lessons of twentieth-century history. Racism, eugenics, extreme inequality and colonialism all fed into its wars, revolutions, the racist and communist terror and the Holocaust.

Out of the ashes of the evils of the twentieth century arose two great social achievements. First, we asserted the fundamental importance of human rights in the UN Declaration and in subsequent conventions. Second, we built systems of social security, education and healthcare to protect people from poverty, insecurity and exploitation. It is telling that today both human rights and the welfare state are under threat.

Today the powerful claim that human rights are dangerous. They want the right to abandon the rules set down in international law. They also claim that we can no longer afford the welfare state. In particular immigrants and disabled people are just too ’costly’. This is all nonsense. Despite all its problems, the world has never been so wealthy. The problem is that we are wealthy, but insecure. As economic anxiety increases then we start to believe those who lie to us and tell us that some ‘outsider’ is threatening our security. How easily we accept the lie that it is the asylum seeker, not the tax evader, who threatens the welfare state.

It is disturbing to see how weak the welfare state has started to become. It grew quickly, offering jobs and services to so many. Then its growth slowed and managers emerged to ration, re-organise and achieve efficiencies. Now, as cuts strike even deeper, many employees of the welfare state (and it doesn’t matter whether they’re employed by the state or by civil society organisations) find that they cannot resist, cannot challenge, cannot become ‘political’ or they will find their own jobs under threat. The welfare state has become a passive victim, going almost willingly to its grave.

What is the cause of this collapse in moral values and commitment to social justice? What can we do about it?

It is easy to invoke big concepts: capitalism, neoliberalism, debt, exploitation. All of these ideas do tell us something true. But if we are not careful we end up feeding our fears. We create an image of monstrous evil that is too big, and too mysterious. We start to feel that there is something inhuman and inevitable about the forces ranged against us. It is important here to remember another lesson from the twentieth-century: never trust anyone who talks about the inevitable march of history, the thousand year reich or the internal contradictions of capitalism. Ideology just means taking one idea to its crazy extreme.

At one level the motives that feed these injustices are all too understandable, all too human the: excessive desire for wealth, power or fame. At another level we know that all these human forms of greed become enmeshed in political, economic and social structures that seem like they’re no longer controlled by human action: bureaucracy, political manipulation, financial markets or corporate exploitation.

But we cannot allow ourselves to given into despair.

Moral collapse demands moral action, and this action needs to start by focusing on problems that we can solve. The good news is that there is much that we can do. There are many ways to make the world a fairer, more decent and welcoming place and there are solutions to our problems around which others can rally. There is no reason to wallow in doom. We need to pick ourselves up, shake off the dust of disappointment and look around and honestly evaluate the reality of our situation.

For those of us who care about people with learning disabilities we have already been taught so much by thinkers and activists who have been sharing their wisdom over the past decades. Wolf Wolfensberger showed us how to protect people from stigma and the threats of being turned into some inhuman ‘other’. Beth Mount and John O’Brien helped us understand how dreams and aspirations can be converted into lives of meaning. Judith Snow and her friends Marsha Forest and Jack Pearpoint helped us see that everyone is gifted and that even our needs are gifts, creating the opportunities for human connectedness. We have a great legacy we must protect and pass on to others.

We have many potential allies. So many other groups of people face exclusion because of illness, disability or being seen as ‘too different’. We need to understand what these groups can teach us so we can help a world that is welcoming of difference for everyone. Many people around the world are learning the power of community action and cooperation. Varun Vidyarthi’s work in India shows us that starting with small groups of people, even with the most minimal financial resources, is no barrier to positive social change. John McKnight’s work on asset-based community development helps us restore a sense of balance and possibility to our local neighbourhoods. Today communities around the world are declaring their willingness to welcome the stranger, the immigrant, refugee or asylum seeker. In my home city, organisations like Assist Sheffield support and protect asylum seekers from the dangerous policies of the UK Government.

This is not an infallible recipe book for social justice, but we know enough already to be hopeful and confident that justice can advance. We can also develop ideas for new social and economic structures that will advance justice for everyone. For example we could campaign for:

  • Constitutional change to safeguard human rights, including our social and economic rights
  • Shifting power back to smaller communities and increasing direct democratic control in those communities
  • Universal provision of a basic income so that everyone’s income is secured without stigma
  • Radical change in housing policy to ensure that local housing is available to everyone and no one is forced out of their community
  • Significantly greater income equality, locally and globally, eradicating worldwide poverty

The task before us is real and pressing. Even if we are not sure how to change everything then some of the most practical demands of justice are still clear:

  • Stand up for those who are endangered or excluded
  • Build alliances and connections with other oppressed groups
  • Act like a citizen yourself, now, before it’s too late

There are many great communities out there trying to help make a difference, but we’ve recently launched Citizen Network as a global cooperative to share experiences, projects and to work together to advance the cause of justice and build a world where everybody matters. Why don’t you join us?

Tilting at Windmills or Radical Hope

I was very lucky recently to get the chance to participate in an event organised by the University of Leeds and Hope Not Hate entitled: A Future for Post Industrial Communities? It provided much food for thought.

The reality of post-industrial decline

The central focus of the two days of presentation and discussion was the fate of all those many towns and villages across the North and the Midlands where heavy industry or mining had once been dominant: Bolton, Barnsley, the Black Country, County Durham and many other places, including the City of Sheffield, where I live. The people from these places established our industrial heritage, built our national wealth and fought for the social rights that established the welfare state, giving us the legacy of social justice that we are now so busily frittering away.

Many of the academics noted that in these places, typically Labour-voting communities, the vote for Brexit was high and the vote for UKIP had risen. It was noted that in these places, as the primary industry had declined, it had been replaced with very little. Today people survived by working really hard, but with no job security, multiple jobs and low pay. Today the UK is the most unequal country in Europe, and these communities were on the wrong end of that inequality.

It was also noted that that these communities lacked power. The UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world and these places have minimal democratic control over their communities and minimal representation in London. They have been abandoned by mainstream politics. Moreover the social structures, the meeting places, the pubs, churches, working men’s clubs and leisure facilities had all declined. People have few opportunities to meet, organise or advocate for themselves; poverty has been privatised. The opportunity to speak out, make change or even rebel has been diminished to the point that these communities present no threat to the status quo.

The consequence of these multiple injustices are severe and include the fact that people living in these places will tend to die many years earlier than the people living in places that have power and money. But it was more encouraging to hear that in other places, say Germany, industrial change has not led to this kind injustice. Communities can be supported to develop and to get back on their feet. There is nothing inevitable about decline; but Britain seems to be leading the way in heartlessness and inequality.

It was also noted that racists can take advantage of these injustices. Many felt that the Brexit decision was influenced by those who were frightened by immigration. Many feared that the problems of racism and race hate, which are bad enough already, could now get much worse.

Competing identities, complex injustices

It struck me how, when these multiple injustices pile up, one on top of another, it can become very difficult to work out which fight you are having and which injustice comes first. If we are not careful we end up tilting at windmills – nobly taking up arms against the wrong thing in the wrong way.

Just to be clear. It is clear that Hope Not Hate are not guilty of making this mistake. Their agenda is clear and important: to combat the rise of racism and to advance appreciation of our multi-cultural communities. They have already demonstrated that it is possible to defeat racism by using community organising strategies in local communities. It’s good to have a clear mission, a clear target and a clear strategy. They are an organisation worthy of support.

My fear is more for myself, and for others who like me, who want to see greater social justice, but who may not be quite so sure where to put our energies. As ex-MP Professor John Denham noted: we need to distinguish underlying causes and symptoms; we need to get the cart before the horse.

My own assumption is that racism is largely a symptom of other problems: it’s a cart pulled by the horse of social injustice. There are racists, and they can exploit the negative political and economic circumstances harming people in these places. But these places are not naturally racist, nor is racism the primary cause of their problems. Or at least, people in these places suffer from injustices which have some rather different root causes. In my own talk I stressed the powerlessness that had created the circumstances where injustice went unchallenged.

But this whole discussion can create a whirlwind of different perceptions. In particular discussions over the two days revealed wildly different assumptions about which of our identities are most relevant to our understanding of what is really going on. Our identities really matters; but these identities are also complex, disputed, sometimes useful and but often dangerous.

If we think about ourselves and we think about our beliefs, passions and prejudices then we can see how complex this whole business can become.

Race is clearly an important identity that plays a powerful role in people’s imagination. Racism is real and it feeds off this category of race. But race is a very peculiar identity. The racial categories that dominate modern politics were invented by racists largely for the purpose of justifying imperialism. Race is a possibly a fiction; but somehow we seem stuck with it.

And do we value our racial identity? I certainly don’t consciously value being white; I am not proud of being white and I wouldn’t ever want to organise my life around that identity. I cannot even bring myself to tick the ‘white’ box on forms seeking our racial profile. I’d rather live in a world where everyone is ‘other’ and not be parcelled up by such a useless concept.

But, if I was subject to vile racial abuse, I’d certainly want to organise around my racial identity in order to protect myself, my family and my friends. It’s no comfort to be told that your racial identity is an imperialistic confection when someone’s kicking you to death. These categories become important as a matter of self-defence because other people have made them vitally important. The same is true for disabled people, viciously under attack by the current Conservative Government. Not to use the concept of disability when your enemies are using it against you is a mistake.

Over the course of these two days I found my head whirling with all these competing categories. Victims and perpetrators seemed to change places and people were forced to wear or to shed the groups identities that clearly matter to some people, and some theory, but may not matter to people themselves:

  • White working class men are seen by some as a threat
  • White working class men are seen by others as victims
  • But do white working class men really exist?
  • Whose interests does this identity serve?
  • Probably not the people shoehorned into it.

There were many other fractured groups. Some academics stressed the changes in the world of work, the end of industry and to the loss of valued work roles. Others noted the unfair distribution of job roles and the way in which women were missing from so many of the histories of these places. I was left wondering whether we were sometimes mourning a model of industry that was deeply disempowering and patriarchal. Can we do no better than choose between giant top-down heavy industries or the precariat working in the fluid service service sector? Aren’t there better ways of cooperating and of being productive than working for some anonymous corporation?

Why local identities matter

Perhaps all of our identities are a bit like this – artificial and exploitable. In fact some argued that one of the identities that really does matter to me – my membership of various geographically defined communities is in danger of being exploited by those who pretend that we solve structural problems like inequality simply through creative community action. I have a great deal of sympathy with this critique of the Big Society Bullshit.

However, at a personal level, I must say that I don’t think my Northernness, my being citizen of Sheffield or my living in Nether Edge is quite as peculiar, or as artificial, as my ‘Whiteness’. The reason why I think such identities do matter, and are worth defending, is that as a citizen part of my role is to look out for the place where I am. Not because my place is better than your place, but because it’s my place. I am a Bolton Wanderers’ fan, because its my team, not because I think it’s the best team. We need people to care about our places (and particularly the people in those places) in the same way that football teams need fans. Without identities like these we lose attachment, passion and commitment to our people and our places. Without identities like these then these places and their people will simply cease to exist as valued places.

Of course this does not mean we should be so attached to any of these places that we lose our sense of proportion. I don’t want Barnsley to be treated better than any other place, I just want it to be treated fairly. As a matter of fact Barnsley doesn’t get its fair share of public spending: It is missing £0.84 billion of its fair share of public spending (50% of it actual spending). This is wrong and this is something we can change.

Justice demands that I can stand back from all these identities – but not for ever. For justice also demands that we use our identities to advance the cause of justice. The challenge is to know when to use our identities and how.

I was particularly struck by how suspicious many were to the idea that small local communities – not just Barnsley, but the small townships, villages, parishes and neighbourhoods from which its made – did not need or should not be granted more power or control over their own destinies. While many are prepared, at an intellectual level, to accept that the UK is a hyper-centralised state, I do not think there is a strong sense that this is a serious problem for social justice, in its own right. I am not sure why this it, so this is only supposal:

  1. Perhaps we are frightened that those of us who live in these places are simply not to be trusted with deciding important issues for ourselves. Perhaps we are thought to be too racist or too sexist. (In this sense, for many, the Brexit decision will have confirmed their prejudices about us.)
  2. Perhaps we are wedded to the dream that social justice requires that every decision be made by the Prime Minister or her minions. The idea that a fair welfare system is identical with one giant nationalised industry seems hard to shake off.
  3. Perhaps many of us enjoy a cosmopolitan lifestyle, moving between differences places, and expecting that these places will be looked after by other people or by the state. No place is our place, they are always some body else’s responsibility.

Colonising England

Another idea, offered by the brilliant Reverend Al Barrett, is that some of this refusal to take the local seriously is that we are still in an Imperial day dream: Britain is still united, Britain is still Great, our mission is noble, but sometimes the natives just get a bit restless. I was also reminded also of an insight by my friend Cheryl Barrott: Northerners have never really recovered from the Norman invasion.

This may seem fanciful, but the way in which we’ve responded to industrial change does seem like a form of colonialism – even strip-mining. I was particularly touched by the story from two ex-miners from Durham, where I grew up. They explained that, as the mines were closed, Durham’s pit villages were classified from A to D. Villages that rated D were to be abandoned – left to rot – but people still live in these D-villages today.

I was shocked by this and after the conference I told my mum about it. But it she knew all about it. She remembered that the policy was put in place after I’d gone off to university. However she was volunteering for Samaritans at that time and so she talked to lots of folk who were living in D-villages. Their sense of despair was obvious.

It also struck me almost all my friends from Durham chose to leave the area after university. My mate Antony is one of the few honourable exceptions. There was no meaningful plan to build community, economic security or new forms of economic development to the communities of County Durham.

The same colonial attitude can be witnessed inside some of those industrial cities that have supposedly ‘benefited’ from more investment. Recently the BBC and its money moved to Salford; but little positive changed for the people of Salford. Instead they saw the quality of their own housing deteriorate, just as shiny new office buildings rose up around them.

Some of the natives are left behind as the money train moves out. Some of the natives are forced out as the money train moves in. What is clear is that the natives lack control of their own homes, their land, their work and their destinies. They must simply adapt to the law of the master.

It was particularly striking in this regard to hear from Labour MP Hilary Benn. It was a shame that he only had enough time to give his speech, so he missed the chance to listen to the detailed testimonies that explained how so many communities had deteriorated – despite 3 consecutive Labour Governments. I often feel sorry for MPs. One of the side-effects of the massive concentration of power in Westminster is that the MPs are far too busy to actually find out what is going on. It may be unfair, but it seemed to me that the one social injustice that really got Hilary Benn riled was why it took him so long to travel between his constituency in Leeds and his home down South.

Anyway.

The main focus of Benn’s speech was to remind us of the importance of investment. Communities couldn’t thrive without investment. And if we, the people of the country, can’t afford to invest in our own country, then we would need to seek foreign investment in order to make good things happen.
This seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Until you think about it.

How can it be the case that a country of over 60 million people, with a long history, good education and at least the trappings of a democratic system, needs someone else to give them money in order to make anything good happen?

What’s more nobody just gives us money.

Instead they buy our industries, our towns, our resources and our people.

What’s the difference between foreign investment and colonial exploitation? The only difference seems to be that we choose to be exploited. The UK’s economic policy seems to be to make ourselves the most exploitable country in Europe: this is why our salaries are so low; this is why our job security is so low; this is why our benefits are so low and this is why our productivity is low. We offer other people high volume, low cost labour. We are the modern equivalent of the American South: the masters milk the profits, the rest of us do the work.

Perhaps, when someone says investment we should always ask: What have we sold-off now?

Radical hope

This whole approach to economics makes no sense. It locates human and economic value in money and in things – but not in people. Yet we know that people can thrive in any environment, if they have control, the ability to adapt, to create and build afresh. Technology and knowledge have never been so accessible. We don’t need to turn ourselves into somebody’s else’s slave class in order to survive.
It may be a long journey back to a proper sense of our own value. We may be tilting at windmills for decades, but we start with one radical assumption:

We, the people living in these places, are good people who have the right to shape the destinies of our own communities together.

We don’t need paternalism or meritocracy. We just need a fair share of our common resources and the means to shape them to our own advantage, to create a better and more welcoming world for everyone.

The Centre for Welfare Reform has over 80 Fellows all of whom have real experience in creating the kinds of solutions that combine justice and citizenship. Our radical hope is that we can finally abandon meritocracy and its wonky ladder to nowhere. We can start to build a world around the truth that everyone matters, everyone has value and everyone has a role to play.

Together we can create a world that works for everyone.

We also recently launched an international cooperative to connect up efforts like these around the world.

Why not join us at Citizen Network?

Addendum

I voted Remain. I am a Northerner and a European. I value my friends and colleagues in Europe and am saddened by Brexit. However some of the arguments against Brexit are a bit peculiar. For instance, Hilary Benn said that we will all be demanding visa rules that enable the NHS to recruit more doctors from abroad. Maybe we will.

But I would encourage Mr Benn and others to read Sir Nigel Crisp’s excellent book on global health economics: Turning the World Upside Down. As Crisp argues, there is something very strange about a technically advanced Western nation failing to train enough doctors and instead using its wealth to pay doctors to come to the UK from their native land. We should be exporting our technology and expertise to developing countries – not inviting their experts to come and work here. Perhaps he should ask the NHS and the BMA to re-examine their restrictive employment and training strategies instead.

Inequality is Inefficient

Over the past few decades inequality in the UK has grown considerably, by whatever measure you choose. After World War II, at the birth of the welfare state, inequality was at a very low level. Over time we’ve come to accept very high levels of inequality. In just a generation it has doubled.

And the UK is an extreme case. It is now the most unequal country in Europe. A land that prided itself on its sense of fair play seems to have readily abandoned the notion of a fair distribution of resources. It would be fascinating, in a rather disturbing way, to explore why the UK has been so particularly negligent of equality.

Often the explanations offered for inequality are economic. However it is particularly important to recognise that inequality is political, not economic. It is a social and political choice to accept or encourage high levels of inequality. Society can choose to control inequality – if it wants to. However the political nature of inequality is often wilfully ignored and inequality is often presented as being merely a matter of economics, as if economics was some natural and uncontrollable force, quite distinct from human decision-making.

Inequality is neither inevitable nor necessary; but this truth has been perhaps obscured by a rather different debate. Often the debate about inequality is confused with the debate about the role of the state in the economy: the conflict between dirigisme and the free market.

Now it is certainly true that some advocates of equality do believe that it is only possible to create equality if the state takes absolute control of the economy. Opposing them are advocates of extreme economic liberty who argue that any economic control is bad, taxes are theft and that the inevitable inequality that arises from free economic activity is utterly justified. In fact both sides share the same false view that there is no way to reconcile equality and freedom; instead they both believe we are forced to choose: so the Left choose equality, while the Right choose freedom.

But this is crazy. We need both freedom and equality. Even in economic terms we need a significant degree of freedom and of equality simply in order to make our economic system work:

  • Without freedom economies don’t develop: investment, risk, failure, success, learning and innovation all depend on our freedom to spend our time and money on things we value, even when others don’t.
  • Without equality economies don’t grow: fewer and fewer people have the resources necessary to purchase, consume or invest. An economy with only one consumer or only one producer is dead.

Even more importantly freedom and equality are not just economic variables. In life we need to be free, free to define a life of meaning for ourselves; and we also need to be an equal, valued as an equal member of the community. We reconcile freedom and equality by creating decent communities where we work together to create a better world for everyone.

One aspect of any decent community is that its members work hard to create the necessary conditions to achieve both freedom and equality. And, there are many ways to do this, ways that can combine a significant degree of economic freedom with a reasonable level of economic equality:

  • Create shared goods that are not distributed by the market, for example ensure everyone has access to high quality healthcare rather than making people pay for it.
  • Redistribute income, increase benefits to increase the incomes of the poorest, and increase taxes to reduce the incomes of the richest. Currently the net cost of benefits (benefits after tax) is very low indeed, hence the UK’s high level of inequality.
  • Exercise self-discipline when rewarding people for their work; keep the ratio between the best paid and the worst paid as low as possible. For example, Plato recommended a ratio of 1:5, but in the UK welfare state the best paid civil servants earn 50 times the average income of the poorest 6 million people.
  • Disdain greed and excessive wealth and encourage values that focus on other dimensions of human life. For example, Pericles, the great Athenian leader, suggested their society was best because it did not value people for their wealth, it measured people by their contribution to community life.

However interest in these disciplines is very low in the UK today. Redistribution is now treated with suspicion and excessive rewards for the rich are treated as the inevitable price to be paid for economic progress. There are many arguments of detail here and much evidence that can be provided to challenge the arguments for injustice and inequality. However I want to add just one argument, an argument from economics itself. I’m sure it’s an argument that someone else has made before, but I cannot remember seeing it, so I thought I’d try and outline it here.

Before I begin I’d like to distinguish my argument from two other important and valid arguments:

  1. Inequality is harmful – This argument has been made most effectively by Wilkinson and Pickett, and in great detail. In essence they have correlated economic equality with many other things that we find valuable and discovered that there is strong link between equality and many aspects of a decent society (better health, lower stress, less crime etc.). They show that inequality is bad for everyone – even the rich.
  2. Inequality is sub-optimal – This argument is often made by utilitarians and it rests on an observable truth. When you get something you want you feel some benefit; but the more you get the less you feel any increase in the benefit you get. Our desires are increasingly sated. Given this truth then the best distribution of any limited set of resources will be the most equal one. Inequality reduces the total level of happiness.

But the argument I want to offer is slightly different to these. I want to argue that inequality is also very inefficient.

At its simplest my argument is as follows. If I have a limited amount of money and I want to get the maximum amount of work done then paying people equally will maximise the amount of work that gets done. However, if I choose to pay some people much more than others then I will have to reduce the total amount of work I pay for.

This may seem obvious, but it’s perhaps worth underlining the point. Currently the false belief is that inequality is economically necessary – here I want to propose that inequality is inherently inefficient – in economic terms.

Imagine the distribution of salaries as a polygon. An equal distribution would be a rectangle, with salaries on the y axis and the volume of time purchased on the x axis. If some people have a higher salary then the polygon will be equivalent to a rectangle, with a right-handed triangle on top. Total spend is therefore equal to the volume of the shape.

Now if you assume that you have a fixed amount of money to pay for people’s time then the most efficient shape will be the rectangle. The more unequal the distribution then the higher the peak of the triangle and the shorter the width – in other words the less time you can buy.

In fact, if we make certain simplifying assumptions we can even calculate the level of inefficiency of increased inequality. If we describe the relationship between the base salary and the top salary as a ratio we find that efficiency is measured by the following formula:

e = 2 ÷ (R + 1) where R is ratio of base salary to highest salary

  • 1:1 means absolute equality and this has an efficiency of 100%
  • the 1:5 ratio was recommended by Plato this has an efficiency of 33%
  • public sector salaries are at a 1:15 ratio and have an efficiency of 12.5%
  • the ratio between the poorest 6 million citizens and the top civil servants is 1:50, which means that the welfare state has an efficiency of 4%

Now this exaggerates the size of the inefficiency. In practice the upward slope will be a long convex curves. Lots of people are on low salaries, fewer are on high salaries. However the basic truth remains, the higher the ratio the greater the level of waste.

Of course critics of equality will argue that we need inequality to buy the best. But this is a double fallacy. Of course, once you’ve allowed inequality to run amok, then you surely will have to spend more on some people to get them to work for you. But this is simply a side-effect of broken self-discipline: the Premier league may spend more to buy more of the better players – but it is not creating better football – it is merely skewing the distribution of better football away from one country and towards another. In other words inequality in incomes merely leads to inequality in skill distribution. This is not a good thing.

The second fallacy is that it assumes you have to pay people more to get them to do more complex or challenging work. This is clearly nonsense. Primarily people choose to do such work because it is intrinsically interesting, suits their talents and brings with it many other rewards. The things you should really have to pay people extra money to do are those things that are dirty, smelly and tiring (the things that in the real world people are paid less to do). If inequality has any real purpose it should be to compensate people for doing intrinsically unrewarding work.

The reality is that inequality suits those with the power to dictate the distribution. It is not the poor who set the salaries of the rich. Power – economic and political – is at the root of inequality. And power will be necessary to challenge and reverse it. The reason why inequality was low after World War II was that the poor had a lot of power and the rich knew it. Today the rich know the poor are weak and they exploit that fact.

Rebalancing things will take more than vapid debates about the state versus the market. It is not the market which is the real threat to equality, it is our low opinion of ourselves. If we choose to measure ourselves in terms of money then the state will not protect us, it will just adapt itself to our own low standards. We should instead choose to see ourselves as citizens who are worthy of equality – not because we are all worth the same money, but because money measures nothing of value. We should seek economic equality, not to pull anyone down, but to pull everyone up, to a higher level, to the status of an equal citizen.

Strangers in Alien Lands

This poem was written as a contribution to Sheffield’s Poetry-athon on 20th February 2017, a celebration of the contribution of migrants to our communities. You can read all the poems contributed here.

Let’s imagine our world,
Stopped still, without movement:
We all stay where we’ve come from;
No stranger turns up unexpected,
And we’re all trapped at home.

No Abel goes wandering with his herds,
King Cain reigns, planted in the ground.
And yes, some comfort can be found
In the same old gruel,
In the plain dishes of our youth.

Perhaps the Tower of Babel tempts us,
Ever rising skyward,
Still anchored in one place.
Here progress might be measured
By the backs upon which we climb.

Abraham will never leave,
Issac never marry
And Jacob never run away.
Our stories would run dry,
Our histories die out.

A world without movement ceases.
Hollow harmonies fall quiet.
Our world needs the traveller
To bring us something new,
To make our place a home.

We were all pushed out from Eden
To try and find a place on Earth:
To move, to build and welcome,
Strangers all, in alien lands.
For home comes only from the heart.

Living in the Ghetto

I was recently invited to speak to a room of commissioners for services for people with learning disabilities in England. This is a pretty rare event for me these days and so I was keen to make the most of the opportunity.

I called my talk ‘Who Put Out the Fire?’ and I wanted to talk about why there no longer seems to be any significant passion or momentum for inclusion or for further deinstitutionalisation. I do not mean that nobody is doing good work. As ever, there are brilliant people doing wonderful things across our communities. But overall the passion that used to exist to bring about positive change has evaporated. In fact, in some places, we see things going into reverse.

We are at a moment of change.

Progress is not inevitable and we should not be naÏve. Things are beginning to roll backwards and, unless we change our behaviour, things will get much worse. Eugenics is already back on the agenda, in the form of genetic screening for Down Syndrome, ongoing practice in neonatal care and abortion laws that abandon limits in the case of disability. These practices go hand-in-hand with the meritocratic beliefs of our elites – people who think that the ‘clever’ (themselves, by their own definition) deserve the ‘best’. Putting powerful technology in the hands of people who think that they are better than other people never ends well.

And the institution is back. Not only are thousands still incarcerated in private hospitals (at great expense) but also authorities are now being tempted by that old dreadful excuse for bad practice: economies of scale.

Some of this can be explained by austerity. Politicians and managers have always been tempted by the idea that ‘congregate care’ must be cheaper and that they have a public duty to manage costs and be ‘reasonable’. This is understandable when local authority funding has already been cut by 30-40% and is being further cut today. Local commissioners are only following the lead of national politicians when they shift the burden of the banking failure onto disabled people and families.

However, more controversially, I think that some of the responsibility for today’s failure of leadership lies with Valuing People. I do not mean that the Valuing People policy or its leaders were bad – quite the opposite – but I do think the whole process has led us up a creek and today everybody seems to have forgotten how to paddle. Genuine, community-based leadership, is missing in action.

In the 1960s and 1970s many leaders emerged, inspired by Wolf Wolfensberger’s ideas, shocked at the state of our institutions or simply keen to ensure their sons and daughters were able to get a better deal. These leaders challenged the norm and created new alternatives. Many of the organisations (like Mencap) which we take for granted today earned their leadership status through this process of challenge and creation. Later on other organisations, like the Campaign for Mental Handicap (which became Values Into Action) took on the role of challenging Government and of advocating for human rights and inclusion.

But Valuing People encouraged people to put their faith in two dangerous myths. First, that Government did care, and would continue to care, about the fate of people with learning difficulties. It didn’t, it doesn’t and it won’t. Second, positive change comes from Government and from the leaders it selects.

By this I don’t mean that Government is bad or hostile to the interests of people with learning difficulties. It isn’t. But Government is always late to the party. The job of a civil servant is to keep everybody happy, not to lead radical change. The job of a politician is to respond to democratic pressure, not to stand up for powerless minorities. Entrusting leadership to politicians and civil servants is to abandon leadership.

It seems to me that Valuing People killed the real drive to inclusion; just as Putting People First killed the drive to self-directed support. Killed with kindness, killed with money, killed by assuming an intellectual authority it could never possibly live up to.

This seems counter-intuitive. Too many good things, too much useful funding and too many opportunities are associated with Valuing People to believe that it was bad for us.

But look at England today.

Where is the self-advocacy movement? In tatters. Today the Government is about to take away the last piece of funding for the National Forum and for the National Valuing Families Forum. If this goes then can we look back on over 30 years of self-advocacy development and congratulate ourselves on our achievements? No. Self-advocacy is patchy, under-funded and lacks any agreed form of leadership.

What about service development and innovation? For some reason we now expect government and commissioners to lead innovation; but our systems of commissioning have effectively killed off innovation and creativity. Some people and families have escaped the system, using direct payments; but most of the money remains invested in the care home system (which is now protected from the impact of personal budgets).

Today the whole sector seems incapable of defending itself or of uniting with others to fight for justice. For example, there is no effective campaign to defend social care. Many of the leading organisations seem too dependent on Government funding and unwilling to speak out or get organised.

If you look upwards for rationality and for inspired leadership you’ll be a long time waiting.
The positive changes that began in the 1970s were led by people and professionals, starting from where they were then. Focused on what they could do with the resources they had to hand. They did not expect everything to be done for them. They got organising, supporting and campaigning. That’s how things really change.

Perhaps one thing that they also had back then was a strong sense that the current system was unacceptable. They looked at the institution – those systems of absolute exclusion – and they declared that it was absolutely wrong – and they then worked hard to build an alternative.

In practice that alternative is the world er have now: group homes, day centres, respite services and care services. This is a significant improvement over the old system. This is the system that is today’s ‘normal’. This is the system we are struggling to improve and which is now beginning to slip backwards into something worse.

Why can’t we do better than this?

What can’t we dream bigger than this?

People with learning difficulties are agents of social change. They can bring communities together, they can break down the barriers of pride and illusion that leave us dislocated and alone. They can offer the rest of us a different sense of the purpose of life and insight into the joy of living.

People with learning difficulties are just different. But we are all different… get over it.

Diversity is a good thing and to be welcomed. True equality is not found in sameness, conformity or compliance. Equality means treating each person as if they belong, as if their gifts have meaning and value. Equality demands we treat each other as citizens – working together to create communities that welcome and nurture our gifts.

If you believe this then this belief has real life consequences.

One of these consequences is that we must start to acknowledge that the community care system, that was developed during the period of deinstitutionalisation, is totally inadequate. It is a system of ghettos, small segregated communities, cut off from community life and communicating to people on both sides of its walls that people with learning difficulties don’t really belong in our communities.

Ghettos are not evil. Community care ghettos are not the same as the long-stay institutions that they replaced. Ghettos can even be fun and interesting. Ghettos can even convert themselves into places of community and inclusion. (It would be a mistake to confuse ghettos with institutions and it would be a mistake to ‘close’ ghettos using the same kind of process that were used to close the institutions.)

The architects of new and inclusive communities will be people themselves. But they will need help from families; and they will need help from the professionals who want to be true partners. And they will need help from fellow citizens who want to live in the kind of community that can welcome each of its members.

Is this progress inevitable?

No. Today it’s being undermined by powerful social, economic and political forces that are being left unchallenged.

Is this progress a pipe dream?

No. It is happening now, in small pockets. There are people and places that are showing us the way forward. Rising to this challenge takes work, it takes time and it takes creativity. But it’s worth it.

What I am trying to do is reframe the challenge that lies before us. We must stop treating the current community care system as if it provides an acceptable norm. It does not. We have to be honest about the limitations of what we’ve achieved. There will be no increased hope, passion and wider social movement unless there is both a compelling vision for inclusion and a growing sense that the ghettos we’ve created are unacceptable.

Can Socialism Reinvent Itself for the 21st Century?

I am a proud member of the Socialist Health Association. I feel strongly that decent healthcare is a basic human right and that nobody should be deprived of it because of poverty, nor should the wealthy be able to buy their way to longer or healthier lives. If this is socialism then I’m a big fan.

Recently, the Socialist Health Association decided to review its fundamental principles, and as a philosopher by training, I thought I’d try and help clarify what socialism, at the beginning of the 21st Century, really means. However this turns out to be a rather difficult task.

It is certainly clear that socialists are against greed, exploitation, inequality, capitalism (possibly) and injustice (certainly). But what are socialists for?

One clue might be found in the social- part of the word socialism. Socialists believe in society, and more specifically I think socialists believe that society should come before the individual, that individualism puts the cart before the horse. 1 Certainly, the Socialist Health Association’s first principle as it currently stands, reflect this:

“The claims of the individual should be subordinate to social codes that have collective well-being for their aim, irrespective of the extent to which this frustrates individual greed.”

Now, as a piece of English, this is somewhat dry, abstract and rather confusing.

First, there is the strange notion of “claims”. This is quite a peculiar word. What am I claiming and to whom? Why is anyone interested in my claims anyway?

Second, there is the notion of sub-ordination. In what sense are my claims meant to be subordinate? Must my desires, plans or projects be directed towards “collective well-being”? This seems totalitarian in its ambition.

Or, on the other hand, are my claims legitimate as long as they don’t directly contradict the “social code” which has (somehow) been identified as for the greater good? Perhaps I can claim the right to drink alcohol, but I must only do so to the extent allowed by the state. This is perhaps nanny-state socialism, a little more tolerant than the totalitarian version.

All of this seems to be far too strong and quite alien to my reasons for supporting the NHS and social justice. I don’t want to be slotted (tightly or loosely) into some social code for collective well-being. I want to live in a decent society where we treat each other as equals. I don’t want to tell people how to live; I just don’t want to be advantaged at the expense of others, or to see others so advantaged. I really like the fact that the NHS is organised to limit how someone can jump the queue to get a better or faster treatment than someone else with similar needs, but less money. It’s fair.

The third problem with this way of defining socialism is that we are often confused about which “collective” matters. We can be part of many collectives: the family, the tribe, the class, the nation or humanity as a whole. Sadly, it has not been too hard for the wicked to corrupt the ‘social’ inside socialism into one ideal group that should be valued above all others. There is more than a theoretical link between socialism and national socialism and the twentieth century has seen millions sacrificed on the competing altars of these deathly versions of socialism.

But it is possible to imagine a better kind of socialism and one clue can be found if we go back, beyond the word society, to its Latin root socius or friend.

Friendship has nothing to do with state power and control. C S Lewis was not alone in observing that, at its core, the relationship of friend-to-friend is not a relationship of dependence, assistance or charitable action. Friends get along, even love each other, but not ‘in order’ that they can help each other. Helping gets in the way of friendship, and this is why friends hate to be in debt to each other. An undue level of do-goodery and interference in the lives of others is also irritating and unhelpful. It is certainly not friendly.

The challenge for socialism, at a practical level, is to convert our commitment to justice and our proper sense of responsibility for each other into a way of living that is ethical and sustainable. People who live only for others are not much better than people who live wholly for themselves. Citizens understand that they have obligations to themselves and to other people.

In practice most socialists are not trying to create totalitarian states or nanny states and they are quite aware that all human being are equally important. Today, much of the moral imperative of socialism has been converted into support for the welfare state and for the social contract it seems to imply: I must be prepared to pay my taxes, and in return – and as an equal member of society – I become entitled to some rights, such as being able to get free healthcare.

Now this welfare-state-socialism seems relatively benign, however it still has some peculiarities. For instance, notice that in this example of day-to-day socialism, the agent of good is now no longer acting from any moral principle. The doctor is not treating you because she’s a good person; instead she is (very) well paid to treat you. It is not the doctor who helps you, it is the anonymous welfare state, it is the system. So, interestingly, in order to operationalise itself socialism, appears to have moved away from the notion of friendship or mutuality. If we are not careful, the whole thing starts to feel entirely mechanical or transactional. I do this in order to get that. But then what is the difference between this kind of welfare-state-socialism and the kind of left-leaning liberalism that sees the welfare state as form of national insurance: we all put something in (according to our means) and we all get something out (according to our needs).

What seems to be missing is any deeper sense of our responsibility to our community, or even a sense of our unique individual value. Society has been converted from human-sized communities into a vast state-run charity. This may be a charity from which we all benefit, but as Arendt says, “charity is not solidarity.” In the face of this monolithic system we each become one part donor and one part recipient, one part tax payer, one part service user. The uniqueness and value of ourself and of our community disappears from view.

Welfare-state socialism is much better than totalitarian or many-state totalitarianism and much better than heartless forms of liberalism and individuals. But does it not feel we’ve sacrificed too much? Is there not a better way of defining socialism for the 21st century?

The fact that the meaning of socialism can be corrupted is no reason to abandon it, nor to abandon the concerns that it was developed to address. The underlying reasons for socialism are as real today as they were yesterday. Economic forces and greed do not control themselves; even the minimal democratic control of the state which we ‘enjoy’ today is no guarantee of justice, particularly when power and influence seems so easy to purchase. It remains essential that we examine what is really to the benefit of society, and not to treat society as if it were merely equivalent to a mass of self-interest.

However, if socialism is going to thrive we must find a better version of socialism.

For me the best starting point is the idea of citizenship. To be a citizen is to be much more than taxpayer, much more than a voter and much more than a right-holder or recipient. Citizens make community; their actions, innovations and creativity are the source of social value. They may be prepared, in extremis, to die for their community – but actually, more often, they get to live for their community.

The model of citizenship I use has seven elements, and I think each could be explored to develop a reinvigorated and healthier sense of what socialism might mean:

  1. Purpose – Citizens have a sense of purpose which is encouraged and supported; today’s dreams are tomorrow’s solutions.
  2. Freedom – Citizens are free, free to do their own thing, free to work with others, free to do the unexpected.
  3. Money – Citizens have enough, they abhor poverty and they don’t like excessive inequality (Plato’s suggested 1:5 income ratio for poor to rich would be much better than today’s tasteless and destructive excess.)
  4. Home – Citizens have homes, roots, neighbours and a sense of belonging. They are part of the community and they construct that community.
  5. Help – Citizens help each other, need each other, and know there is no shame in getting some assistance. However, what citizens don’t tolerate is sacrificing their freedom in order to get that assistance.
  6. Life – Citizens live life to the full, they work (and they know paid work is only one kind of work) they rest and they play. Citizens seek balance and know that you can only get out of life what you put into it.
  7. Love – Citizens need love, cherish love and respect love. Family, friendship and loving partnerships are all aspects of life that citizens nurture and protect.

Defining 21st Century Socialism seems a worthwhile project. The key I think is to leave behind the paternalism of the welfare-state-socialism and to rediscover the spirit of citizenship and community which actually built the welfare state in the first place. This does not mean abandoning the welfare state; it means reinvigorating and redesigning the welfare state. We must build the welfare state again, but this time not bury its builders and architects beneath its edifice.

  1. This point has a long pedigree; Aristotle, for instance offers us an early version of socialism “…even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.” ↩︎

On The Desire For Citizenship

What connects
The child abandoned by his mother,
The mother beaten by her man,
The wounded soldier, and
The fleeing refugee?

Love,
Love certainly is needed.
But love alone,
Or love unguided,
May fail to hit the mark.

For we each need
To live a life
Of meaning, where hope can spring,
Where our presence takes on weight,
And where respect can be restored.

Perhaps
We long for citizenship
In heaven, or perhaps
Just along our street.
For the world may bear our absence,
But we know it could also be our home.

May we connect,
Like stars in constellations,
Offering guidance, and meaning in the dark.
May we weave a net for souls,
Haven or harbour, where love can work,
And reconnect us all.

Why We Are Launching Citizen Network

Hütia te rito o te harakeke, kei hea te kömako e kö? 
Kï mai ki a au, ‘He aha te mea nui i te ao?’ Māku e kï atu, ‘He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata’. 

If the heart of the flax is pulled out, where will the kömako sing? 
If you ask me what is most important in this world, I will reply, ‘It’s people, it’s people, it’s people.’Maori Proverb*

Last Thursday, in Auckland, at the international conference on self-direction, brilliantly hosted by Manawanui In Charge, we launched Citizen Network. I think this might be the most important initiative that I’ve been a part of and I want to explain here why we’ve come together to create Citizen Network, and why we hope you will join us.

The idea of Citizen Network began at the Vancouver Conference on self-direction in 2015. We wanted to find a way to connect up all the positive initiatives, around the world, that advance citizenship for people with disabilities, and for the many others who face oppression, stigma and exclusion.

Many of us have spent a good part of our lives working on important system changes (like closing institutions, creating community supports or developing systems of self-directed support) and we want to build on all of this. We want to get better at recognising and supporting positive innovation and be more effective at advocating for these changes within our societies.

However we also feel that these system changes are not enough. Even the best system can be corrupted when we lose sight of the deeper values that inspire our work and our own integrity in helping change to happen.

We need to understand what we are really trying to achieve and why it is important. So we have focused not just on self-direction, but on the broader goal of citizenship for all.

For while it would be simpler to have a narrow focus, on systems of self-direction (important as these are) we feel that this will fail to address the real challenges that we face. Even more importantly, we would fail to tap into the hunger for justice and for true citizenship that had originally inspired deinstitutionalisation and the creation of positive innovations, like systems of self-direction.

It is the values that inspire and fuel our appetite for making change happen. We believe people are ready for a more ambitious and hopeful vision of the future.

Now is a good time to stand back and think about the bigger picture. Now is a good time to break down the barriers, silos and categories that so easily divide us. Now is a good time to go deeper and seek the true source of our values. For so many of us want to live in a world where

  • difference is not just accepted, but rather it is cherished and celebrated,
  • where we don’t just treat people as if they were equal, we know that they really are equal, and
  • where everyone can be a true citizen, living a life of meaning, supported with love.

There is no better time to express these hopes and to try and act from them. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, politicians pandering to hatred and vicious austerity policies (especially in the UK) are all signs that the old ways of thinking are not working.

We cannot be satisfied by just focusing on changing systems when the world as a whole is going backwards towards increased social injustice. We must see our lives and our work in the light of this bigger picture – no matter how challenging that may feel.

So how can we respond to the challenges ahead?

Of course it is important for all of us to play our part in the ordinary political processes in our communities, to get involved and to support those advocating justice and citizenship for all. But even if we win the occasional victory in this way this won’t help us if we do not also understand the cause of our current problems. Winning power is only helpful if we know what to do with that power.

Those of us who have been fighting to close institutions, to advance disability rights, to promote self-direction and community lives, have a special responsibility to share what we’ve learned with others. We have two generations of learning about what it takes to support real citizenship. We must share that and try to reshape the assumptions of the political landscape around it.

For instance, we could make common cause with those who face others kinds of exclusion from citizenship. The migrant, refugee or asylum seeker, fleeing terror or just trying to build a better life, faces hatred and exclusion, just as have many disabled people. Can we not work with those communities and learn from them about what they are doing to achieve true citizenship? Can we not help them stand up against xenophobia and racism?

Also, if we do advocate inclusion into community, then surely we must also pay attention to the real state of those communities. We do not want to include people in communities that are rife with poverty, insecurity, inadequate welfare systems or where there are no decent democratic structures. Citizenship is a problem for all of us; we are increasingly living in an elitist society where the only source of value is a paid job. This is bad for all of us, and in our changing economy it is hard to see how this is even sustainable. Inclusion is not enough. It must be inclusion, with justice, that we seek.

Perhaps, at a deeper level, this is also about the kind of people we want to be. Do we think the worship of money, status and power will lead anywhere good? Lives of meaning and love, lives of citizenship, are possible for all of us. But we must leave behind the shallow values and insecurities that feed our fears and tempt us to blame other people for our problems.

We must be citizens, true citizens, thinking and acting with integrity and with a concern for other people and the natural world. We must value citizenship – and explain its value to others. We must act like citizens – cooperating and taking responsibility for the communities in which we live.

We must grow and safeguard the heart of the flax – the communities that nurture and sustain us.

This, at least, is our crazy dream; and this is what led us to form Citizen Network.

You can find out more by visiting the Citizen Network website. You can join for free, and groups or organisations who want to become part of a community committed to the values of citizenship will be listed on our world map.

It is early days, there is much to do and we are bound to make some mistakes. But we have already established networks in Australia, Scotland and England and we hope to have several other countries join us shortly.

What will it do?

Well to begin with I think the focus will be on innovation and advocacy.

There is much we can do already. There are great people out there doing brilliant work. We need to learn from each other. So Citizen Network will act as an international cooperative of people and organisations who are willing to learn and share with each other – share and share alike. We hope to end the pointless competition which so often closes down innovation. Instead we will focus on how we can help make positive change happen together. Events, webinars and practical projects are likely to be early first steps.

There is also much to challenge. Sometimes we need to change systems, change laws, combat injustice. Often this is too hard for one person or one organisation. But through cooperative international action we may have the ability to exercise more influence on behalf of justice. For instance international surveys can help us better understand where progress is, and isn’t, being made.

And of course self-direction and individualised funding will still be a very big part of things – it is still our strongest suit. I very much hope we can build on the great work started in Vancouver and continued in Auckland. Perhaps we can set a new date for an international gathering.

It’s early days, but I know that others will join us. There is a hunger for a more positive vision for society and we can play a part in helping to define and share that vision.

When times are hard and when so many seem to have forgotten the meaning of citizenship and justice then we must stand up and we must reach out to each other. We must not join in with those lost in hatred, nor can we stand by, expecting someone else to solve our problem.

Perhaps the triple call of the Maori proverb is to remind us that

People are valuable – there’s no place for rejection and exclusion

People are special – each of us can live a life of love and meaning

People are powerful – together we have what it takes to build a better world

Citizen Network may not be able to solve all the worlds problems; but together we can create a world where we recognise that everyone is different, everyone is equal and everyone matters.

Join Us

* By visiting Auckland library I discovered that the kömako is most probably the bellbird and the metaphor of the flax is related to the fact that new life comes from the heart of the flax bush; to pull out the heart of the bush is to leave the bush sterile and incapable of bring forth new generations.

From Cameron to May – Thoughts on the Invisibility of Justice

As we change our Prime Minister I’m wondering what we’ve learned about the battle for justice in the last six years. While I doubt we can expect a significant shift in policy, we must certainly take a fresh look at our strategies and amend them for a new period. The new boss, even if she’s the same as the old boss, can always disown previous policies, while continuing them under a new name.

First we have to accept that, for 6 years, Cameron got away with it, and we failed to stop him. We’ve had 6 years of the most vicious cuts, including direct attacks on disabled people, immigrants and on those in poverty. There is no need here for me to repeat his crimes. The United Nations has already successfully outlined his attack on human rights. Yet none of this ever became a political issue.

It was not Cameron’s injustice that was his downfall, it was his foolish gambling and vanity that brought things crashing down. Extraordinarily – our new Prime Minister has even praised his approach to social justice – Good Grief!

It seems injustice is invisible and his crimes have gone unnoticed.

We can of course blame our rulers. But I suspect that most politicians will say, “Well if this issue is such an important one surely it would have come up more. The electorate seems to care more about immigration and Europe than it does about social justice and equality. You’ve got to be realistic. You can only get elected by paying attention to what the electorate actually cares about.”

In fact one of my family, who I love dearly, is a Conservative and has worked closely with that Party in the past. After I explained to her the impact and unfairness of Austerity she said, “I know, it’s sad, but that’s politics, Simon.” And I know she’s right, this is our country’s politics – blind to injustice.

Austerity was purposefully designed to hurt those with no political voice and in ways that are very hard to see:

  • An array of welfare cuts were marketed as ‘reforms’, despite the deep harm they caused
  • Benefits were attacked by a series of salami slices, with cuts hidden inside complex technical changes
  • The skiver rhetoric played well politically and was used repeatedly on both sides of the House
  • There was no resistance to the attacks on local government, and hence on social care
  • Tax-benefit changes actually benefited middle-income groups
  • Interest rate policy created enormous and regressive benefits for the better off

In fact, for most people, Austerity was not Austerity. Most people do not even know what the term ‘Austerity’ means and never experienced any Austerity. What they did experience was a short sharp shock as the fragility of our debt-laden economy was briefly revealed in 2008. The political consequence of this was not that we started to question our crazy financial and economic system. Instead most went running to any politician who promised to clear up the mess and to safeguard our mortgages.

After this Austerity has just been a smash and grab raid on the incomes and rights of the voiceless. It hasn’t touched most people and it isn’t visible to most people.

But why has mainstream media failed to report on these issues?

Well of course, some of this could be considered corruption. Rupert Murdoch’s world view clearly frames the editorial policy of much of the mainstream media. Meanwhile the BBC seems to have turned itself into Pravda. Even The Guardian has been disappointing (despite some excellent individual journalists).

This may also be partly the result of economics. If the people who buy you, or advertise with you, do not want to think about social justice then why are you obliged to offer them something they do not want. Statistics, stories of hardship, analyses of policy impact – none of this is news, none of this is very interesting or entertaining.

You might be on the road to Hell, but if you go slowly enough it will never make the headlines.

The one honourable exception here, in my opinion, has been the Daily Mirror. Only The Mirror has been willing to call a spade a spade on welfare reform and on the cuts. Perhaps this is because it’s readers are much more likely to recognise the reality of the cuts, the sanctions and the everyday heartlessness of Government policy.

But it is not just economics and corruption that has led the media astray. The abject failure of Labour under Balls and Milliband was also critical. I am sure that many in the media assumed that, if Labour didn’t seem to think cuts, inequality and growing poverty was important, then it probably wasn’t important. Labour’s symbolic role has always been to stand up for social justice; when it doesn’t then the media draws the logical conclusion – nothing too much is wrong.

Assuming that they would continue to get the votes of the downtrodden, Labour marketed themselves to swing voters and pandered to their fear that Labour might prove irresponsible and put at risk their mortgages. In the process they lost votes to the SNP, UKIP and Greens, while convincing hardly anyone to come in their direction (they merely picked up some votes from disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters). Given the gift of the most extreme Right-wing Government in over 75 years Labour’s strategy was to merely legitimise the Coalition’s policies, by offering milder versions of those same policies. Poison is still poison, even when it’s watered down.

There is one more reason why I think we have been struggling to defend justice. Too often we are defending an unlovable version of social justice. When the Government attacks justice it does so by attacking ‘welfare’ and it is true that what people often experience as ‘welfare’ is rather hard to love:

  • Bureaucratic and impersonal systems
  • Incompetent and unaccountable services
  • Disempowerment and rightlessness

The welfare state has been deformed by its centralised and paternalistic starting point. We are all its beneficiaries, but those who come in regular contact with it often experience it as an alien force. It does not feel part of the community and it does not treat us as citizens or as its co-creators. What Hannah Arendt says of ‘charity’ could equally well be said of the post-war welfare state:

“But charity is not solidarity; it usually helps only isolated individuals, with no overall plan; and that is why, in the end, it is not productive. Charity divides a people into those who give and those who receive.”

I can probably keep this finger of blame moving. But in the end it will come back to point at me. What have I done? What could I have done differently? Are we just doomed to injustice? Is the rise of greed and inequality just another phase of our history? Must we turn fatalist or Marxist, and merely await inevitable doom or inevitable paradise?

I don’t think so and there are perhaps a few crumbs of comfort to feed on.

Unite the Union recently created Community chapters, in order to recruit into the trade union, people who were not workers, but who wanted to campaign for their communities. This seems to be a crucial development. It is an example of a trade union thinking beyond the immediate and short-term interests of one group of workers and reaching out to include families, neighbours and allies for justice.

The attempted coup within the Labour Party is, on the surface, a disaster. But in a funny way it’s much better that this all happens now. From my perspective what we are watching is an effort to restore democratic control of the Labour Party to its members. To those who think Blair’s New Labour strategy was a high point for the Labour Party then this will seem like madness; but for those like me who think New Labour is part of the problem, then this process is inevitable. I think it is inconceivable that Labour’s new members or the trade unions will fall for another version of New Labour.

In this respect the Labour Party and the Conservatives are very different. The internal politics of the Conservative Party is always about victory first; for they can divide the spoils afterwards. The rich and powerful know that, whoever is leading the party, they will always get a hearing, if they have the money to pay for it. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything can be purchased.

The same is not true for Labour. Like Odysseus’s crew, they must tie their leader to the ship’s mast, so that he or she does not jump overboard to be drowned by the Swing-Voter Sirens. Policies should emerge from the Party, because the Party represents the people and their experience of life. If the Party has not been persuaded in advance then why should it trust it’s leaders to make the right decisions once they get into power.

I can see why some might want their leader to be free of such a restriction. It is clearly more convenient not to have to worry about what Labour Party members think or want. But such leaders ask too much of us. To have reached the top of the slippery poll is certainly a remarkable trick; but it is no guarantee of integrity or a regard for justice. As G K Chesterton said:

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”

The third crumb of comfort is that we are just beginning to see how the welfare state can be reformed to become a local and citizen-friendly welfare state. Last week I was listening to people in Barnsley explain how they are connecting the Council to real community action. Councillors are becoming community champions, and instead of ‘deploying services’ into their communities they are co-creating sustainable solutions within their communities.

If the welfare state can become loveable then it can be defended. This is not easy, and it is not going to be quick, but it is not impossible.

These reflections help me refine my own understanding of my own path and the path of the Centre for Welfare Reform. Sharing and publishing social innovations or accounts injustice may be fine, but we must increasingly seek to engage directly with the groups and organisations who really care about justice and whose destinies will ultimately be bound up in any positive reforms.

I think the Centre must start to think of the audience, which it must serve with integrity, as:

  • Trade union members and other collective bodies
  • Members of progressive political parties, and this must particularly include the Labour Party
  • Local community groups and umbrella organisations that connect people and communities

I suspect that justice cannot be made directly visible, but the institutions of justice can be seen and these can made more loveable. Simone Weil claimed that only a few things can be loved absolutely: truth, beauty and justice. But when it came to her own country, as its leaders prepared to rebuild France after the war:

“…give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.”

Let us try and imagine what might make our country (whatever shape that ends up being), our communities and our institutions worth loving. Perhaps then we can make justice somehow more visible and more defensible.

Image from Darren Cullen

Why Is It So Hard? It’s Time for Action

Last year I was lucky enough to attend a ceremony in London where Jean Vanier received the Templeton Prize. Vanier (the founder of L’Arche and many other great initiatives) said to the assembled audience:

“There is a revolution going on. We are beginning to realise that everyone, every human being is important. We are beginning to see that every human being is beautiful. At the heart of this revolution are not the powerful, the wealthy or intelligent. It is people with disabilities who are showing us what is important – love, community and the freedom to be ourselves.”

This is so true. Despite austerity, despite confused and damaging Government policies, despite a culture of consumerism and ongoing prejudice – people with learning disabilities and their families continue to show that they not only belong, but they can lead the way to a better, more civilised and respectful society.

John O’Brien and Beth Mount, in their brilliant book Pathfinders, describe how the leadership that only people and families can provide, is constantly undermined by systems that keep people poor, drain them of energy and limit their potential. Yet even still, the sun keeps breaking through, for instance, they cite research from Canada where families were asked about the impact of the child with a disability in their lives:

  • More than 70% said their family was stronger
  • Almost 90% said that a wonderful person had come into their lives
  • Almost 90% said they’d learned what was really important in life
  • Over 50% said that they now laugh more

My rather childish response on first reading this was to shout: “Suck on that Peter Singer!” [Peter Singer being the eugenic philosopher who wrote Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants.]

But it can still seem so hard. It can still seem so unfair. There are so many odds stacked up against families. Money continues to pour into dreadful institutional services – demeaning and abusing people. The system continues to control people, to place barriers before them and burdens on their backs.

Why is it so hard? Why do so many of the systems that should be there to help people get in the way, often doing harm, rather than good?

One concept that many of my friends and colleagues use to describe this problem is Serviceland – they picture the strange systems and assumptions of professionals, managers, social workers as a peculiar world unto itself. A world divorced from community, a world where limited assumptions have become normal, a world where small problems become huge barriers to change.

But while I recognise the truth of this description I also worry that if we are not careful we can end up further burdening families by failing to challenge services and professionals to offer the right kind of support. It may not be normal, but it is still quite possible for professionals to:

  • Listen properly and offer good advice
  • Form meaningful and supportive relationships
  • Organise assistance which the person and family can direct
  • Reduce the burdens on people’s backs

In fact I know many people who are doing this and I know many people who welcome this kind of respectful and effective support. Service providers and professionals are not the enemy – even if they spend too much time listening to the system and too little to people and families.

The question is then how can we get better at offering good help and assistance?

The most important answer to this is to put the person and their family in the driving seat. Professionals can only lead the way in emergency situations and for very short periods – ultimately power must reside with the person.

New systems of control, like direct payments and personal budgets, have made a difference here. It is now possible for people to take control and organise the support they need. This is good – it is a valid option – but surely it cannot be the case that the only way people and families can get good support is to do everything themselves.

We know that some service providers are able to offer what I’m going to call Personalised Support:

  • They work with the person to help them get a good life that has true meaning
  • They listen to the person and put them in control, but don’t leave them without support
  • They help people pick and manage their own assistants, and don’t force them to be employers
  • They create systems that are tailored to the person and keep them safe
  • They respect and protect the person’s money, they know that they work for the person

I know that there are organisations and supporters working like this all over the world. I’ve met them in Scotland, England, Canada, the USA, Finland, Australia and New Zealand and I’m sure they are many more elsewhere. There are not enough, but these kinds of organisations do exist and we need to develop more of them.

It is for this reason that the Centre for Welfare Reform has decided to start actively supporting the kinds of change that will make a real difference to people and families. Not just for people with learning disabilities, but also for older people, children, people with physical and mental health problems and many more. It is time for us to start to learn from each other – to share best practice and to set our standards higher.

To begin this process we have launched an international survey to begin to map and measure good practice in Personalised Support around the world. This first survey is targeted at service providers – we want to find out who out there is trying to do this right and what they’ve achieved so far. We want to understand the problems people face – so we can begin to work together to move things forward.

If you are a service provider then please complete our survey.

[No longer active – survey is finished – report due soon]

If you know a good service provider or an organisation trying to change then please share the survey with them too.

We are already well into the 21st Century. We cannot keep waiting for change to begin. We must start acting according to our values and beliefs. If we say that people are full citizens, if we believe in inclusion and community, then we need to get organised and start to do the work.

Questions about Disability Cuts

I was recently asked by the Almeida Theatre company to answer a few questions about myself and my point of view. I wasn’t sure what to do with what I had written to them, so thought I might publish the questions and my answer here out of interest.

1. Could you tell us a little about yourself and the job you do?

I am the Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, which is an independent think tank, formed in 2009, to try and develop ideas and policies to strengthen and reform the welfare state. We believe everybody matters and work to help build a world which values human diversity and where we treat each other as equals. The Centre mostly relies on voluntary efforts from citizens to research and share good ideas or to examine policies and injustices. Personally I split my time between research, writing and helping people solve social and system problems.

2. Could you tell us (assuming we know nothing about it) how collective cuts are impacting the lives of disabled people and how they are being targeted by the government?

 When the Coalition Government came to power it announced a series of cuts across most areas Government, although largely protecting pensions, the NHS and education. These cuts were particularly severe in two areas: Benefits and local Government. What the Government did not say, but which anyone who understands the basics of Government finance would know, is that severe cuts to benefits and local government will directly impact disabled people:
  1. 60% of local government spending is for children and adults with disabilities – what is called social care – and local government was cut by 30% by the Coalition Government and is being cut again in the Conservative Government. More than half a million people no longer get adult social care – a cut of 30%.
  2. Once you exclude pensions, which the Government did, cuts to benefits means cuts in income to the poorest and particularly to disabled people. In fact only a small percentage of benefits is spent on the unemployed, most of the rest is for disabled people and carers. Disabled people have faced an array of cuts – the picture below perhaps shows it best.
  3. In addition the Government increased the rate of VAT and changed the rules on benefits so that they would lose value over time. Both these policies severely impact on those living in poverty. This policy has continued for the last 6 years, and the cuts get deeper each and every year.

3. Could you tell us a little of the difficulties that disabled people may face when using the job centre service? 

 I think you could break down the difficulties as follows:
  1. The current system is very complex and many people don’t even know that they are entitled to any benefits because of a disability.
  2. If people are aware that they might be entitled to support they need to get through a complex benefit system where entitlements vary because of a whole range of different factors: age, impairment, income, family status, previous employment status.
  3. If people are told they are not entitled to support or if the system just seems too off-putting then many people simply won’t claim money they are entitled to [approx £17 billion is never claimed].
  4. If people do claim then the process of assessment can be very negative and harmful.
  5. If people feel they have been treated unfairly its very difficult to appeal.
  6. Once people are deemed to be entitled to support they can then become part of a Work Programme which may sanction them. The Work Programme has so far given more sanctions than real jobs.
  7. Overall the whole process is depressing, stigmatising and underlines a sense of unworthiness.

4. What is ESA and how are disabled people affected by sanctions?

ESA is the benefit that you get if you are unemployed, disabled and without any other source of income. ESA stands for Employment and Support Allowance and it replaced another benefit called Incapacity Benefit. This benefit has been chiselled away over the past 6 years.
Disabled people confront sanctions in a number of different areas:
  1. Some people are not deemed to be disabled enough for ESA and may instead only get Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). If this is what they get then they must obey rules set by the DWP and the private contractors who run what are called the ‘Work Programme’.
  2. Some people are deemed as eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) but also must join what is called the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). This also means being part of the Work Programme and being subject to sanctions.

5. What is the purpose of a benefit sanction?

 Benefit sanctions are meant to make people compliant with the DWP and its private contractors plans and objectives. They are punishments, taking away benefits, for failure to follow ‘the rules’. There are many examples of these punishments (against which you cannot easily appeal) being imposed for obviously stupid reasons.

6. Our play is about poverty and it’s affect on people. Could you explain how and why people on lower incomes are being targeted by the government?

 This is a big question. In brief I would say the reason that people on lower incomes are being targeted would be as follows:
  1. They are a politically weak group who do not always vote, who are not perceived as a swing voter group and who are (particularly now) no longer well represented by the Labour Party.
  2. Since the end of communism the rich and powerful no longer fear revolution and have persuaded the media and many in the public that growing levels of inequality are ‘economically necessary’.
  3. People on low incomes lack systems to organise and mobilise. Trade unions, working mens clubs, churches and other community groups have diminished in strength or don’t reach out to the poorest. In a sense poverty has been privatised.
  4. The systems that support folk in poverty are often detached from universal systems. e.g. a benefit like JSA is poorly understood and stigmatised. The majority of the population see themselves having no stake in the benefit system – it is for ‘others’. Even those needing benefits are divided from each other e.g. disabled people get different benefits to other people on low incomes.

7. Social and financial inequality is at the highest it’s ever been – why is this and what do you think it points to in the future?

 In addition to all the points above there is the problem that the world is changing in other unpredictable ways – climate change, technological change, growing debt (which is just a special kind of socially constructed inequality). Often we don’t know what we can change, what we can protect and what is worth fighting for. Since the development of the welfare state we have often entrusted what is important to government and to politicians and hoped that they would ‘do the right thing.’ Sometimes they have, often they haven’t.

Strangely I think that – after the development of the welfare state and after the cold war – we somehow managed to forget what we were fighting for during the turbulent twentieth century, which was: equality, rights and democracy. Now we seem to have gone to sleep and we expect some mysterious powerful elite to take care of us.

For me the question is whether or not we will wake up and start behaving like citizens: people who take our responsibilities to each other seriously.

If we do not then small problems, that are essentially easy to solve, will grow into cancerous problems that will overwhelm us. We are the key to our own future.

8. How has the bedroom tax affected the lives of people in this country either living with a disability or without?

The bedroom tax is just one other unjust attack on the incomes of the poorest. Its impact includes:
  1. Disabled people losing the space they need for carers or assistive flatmates
  2. People going into debt because they can no longer afford their rent
  3. People moved out of their home community because there is no suitable housing in their own
Essentially the bedroom tax symbolises our deep disregard for community – we can now be ‘priced out’ of our own place, our own history. Local government is not answerable to us – but to the money invested in our homes.

Czars, Commissioners or Just Us?

For readers outside the UK I must do some scene-setting. In 2011 the television documentary programme Panorama did an exposé on the crimes committed against people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View, a private hospital in South Gloucestershire. This was the first time in a long while that people with learning disabilities had come the attention of the UK’s mainstream media.

In fact my own emotional response to the crimes at Winterbourne View may seem peculiar. I wasn’t shocked by the abuse scandal. I was glad that this long-running scandal had finally been revealed. Places like Winterbourne View have been around since the early 1990s and this kind of abuse is typical of what happens in those kinds of systems. In fact, when carrying out some research in South West England, I met several families whose children had been at Winterbourne View and they said that it was the ‘least bad place’ that their children had been forced to live.

I am sure that most professionals working in the system know that these things have been happening and have been happening for a long time. Certainly my own work has been inspired by a strong desire to get rid of such institutions and to ensure people are treated as citizens instead.

The physical and mental torture imposed on people at Winterbourne View isn’t even the worst of the crimes committed against people with learning disabilities. Far too many people die, either because of abuse, poor healthcare, over-medication or negligence. The fact that there are now some powerful advocacy groups putting pressure on the Government over these issues is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak scene. The UK Government is getting away with cuts in support, cuts in housing, cuts in income and cuts in employment for people with learning disabilities. But at least it is not quite getting away with funding services where we know people are likely to be tortured and where they may even die.

The irony is that, of all the political problems faced by people with learning disabilities today, this is about the only one that has not caused been by our current extreme right-wing Government.*

These attacks on the lives of people with learning disabilities typify institutional service provision. Long-stay institutions, with their regimes of power and control, encourage criminal and immoral behaviour. Treat people as if they do not belong, treat people as if they are not worthy, are not fully human, then this will be the almost inevitable result. [Not quite inevitable, for nobody is ‘forced’ to act badly; but put people in the wrong environment and the temptations to act badly will grow quickly.]

I have written about this at length in my book The Unmaking of Man.

The first large scale institution to close in England was Darenth Park Hospital in 1988. The last to close, Orchard Hill, was closed in 2010. The Centre has published a number of reports describing these places and the experiences of people and staff.

In international terms England closed its institutions early. However there were many problems that we did not manage to resolve during this process and much of the early momentum towards inclusion ended once the hospitals were closed. Today’s scandals reflect important limits to this early progress:

  • Limited public understanding – Hospital closures were inspired by family advocacy, but largely led by professionals (who were often inspired by Wolf Wolfensberger’s theory of ‘normalisation’). As the process of closure began it also became largely a professional matter – campaigning diminished and the public started to think of deinstitutionalisation as some kind of weird Thatcherite plot. Public understanding of, and commitment to, genuine inclusion has remained weak.
  • Institutional community services – The typical model for post-institutional care has been group home plus day centre. Most people leaving institutions were simply forced into this new (milder) institutional environment. We made the classic mistake of thinking that the institution was the building and we failed to see that we were rebuilding institutions within our communities. Many organisations that had once campaigned and advocated for people’s rights became major service providers.
  • New extreme institutions – Unsurprisingly some people from the old institutions could not ‘fit’ inside the new community institutions. So a profitable business developed as entrepreneurs (often ex-nurses) set up private care homes and hospitals to house those whom this early form deinstitutionalisation had failed. This process had begun by the early 1990s, and these business picked up new ‘clients’ whenever local community services failed to provide the right support. The NHS set also up what it called Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) to try and limit this problem, but often these services simply replicated the same problem.
  • Crisis-driven eligibility – While many private and charitable businesses boomed during the period of ‘community care’ there was an on-going failure to address the fundamental issues of rights, power and control that shape the future. Families still face the same fundamentally unfair choice with which they were confronted during the institutional era: either ‘carry on taking care of your child by yourself’ or ‘hand over your child to us’. That is, we have continued to offer families responsibility, with minimal support or to have provided services over which families have had little control.

It is these combined factors that have led to the creation of places like Winterbourne View. When carrying out the research described in Returning Home and Getting There a clear pattern emerged to describe how people ended up in abusive environments costing an average of £175,000 per year:

  1. A family struggles with minimal support and then something happens which brings them to a point of crisis.
  2. At the point of crisis their son or daughter is offered a place in some kind of ‘community institution’ (usually a group home).
  3. The young person hates it; they feel a mixture of anger, sadness or fear and they start doing things to hurt themselves or hurt others.
  4. The young person is deemed to have ‘challenging behaviour’ and is then moved to a more ‘managed environment’ further away from home.
  5. The young person hates that too and so a cycle begins which leads to increasingly professionalised, expensive and institutional services.

So we end up where we are in England today. Not only do we have 3,500 people forced to live in private hospitals and ATUs, we also have about 8,000 people living ‘out of area’ and many thousands more in prison.

And none of this is necessary.

I know this is not necessary, not from theory, but from practical experience. In 1996 I set up a new type of service provider, Inclusion Glasgow. This organisation ended up working with some of the most challenging people leaving the institutions in Scotland. Together with my friends and colleagues we developed a very different kind of deinstitutionalisation process where we provided personalised support:

  • Individual service design – Everybody is treated as a citizen with the right to a home of their own, living with people they choose and living a life that makes sense to them.
  • Empowerment – Power and control is shared with the person and their family to make sure that decisions are made quickly, appropriately and as close to the person as possible.
  • Personal assistance – People get support from the right person for them – recruited by them, employed for them – but with support and employment coming from the organisation.
  • Individualised policies – Rules and ways of working are designed with and around the person to keep them and everyone else safe.
  • Individual Service Fund – People have a personal budget which is protected and can be used to support flexible and creative service design.

Basically our approach was – treat everyone like a unique individual and support people to be full citizens with all the rights of citizenship. This is an approach that works. We went on to help establish two more organisations to carry out this work: Partners for Inclusion and C-Change for Inclusion. We also worked with a network of other smaller and inclusion-focused organisations in Scotland.

But while this process worked it did not really spread very far.

Personally my work from 2000 onwards focused on taking some of the lessons from Inclusion Glasgow into the development of systems of self-directed support. I wanted to help social workers work in the same way that we had – to empower citizens and families and to design support that was flexible and community-focused. First I took the model I’d developed to North Lanarkshire and then I took it to In Control in 2003.

Perhaps negligently, I trusted that the Inclusion Glasgow approach would flourish naturally in the new world of self-directed support. I was clearly wrong.

Reflecting on all of this now some things strike me as worth more attention.

Change requires not just better systems, but real leadership. There has been no significant ‘market’ pressure for real innovation by services. Organisations have been allowed to continue with old forms of practice because commissioners know no better and families have not been encouraged to demand better from service providers. Instead families have simply been encouraged to take over all responsibility – becoming employers, accountants, brokers and innovators – all for free.

The early successes of self-directed support all relied upon the willingness of some families to take this difficult path. It is testament to the power of love and family that so many have succeeded. But why should this be necessary? Why cannot services learn to work with families as true partners?

The other thing that strikes me is our peculiar image of leadership.

From 2001 we had a Learning Disability Czar. Does anyone else not think that this is the strangest choice of language? Why would we think this a useful image of leadership – to be the head of the failed Russian Empire? For me the idea of Czar suggests a range of problems:

  • An enormous faith and power invested in one – democratically unaccountable – individual.
  • The corrupting role of patronage – funding being directed wherever the Czar feels it should be best spent.
  • A culture of submissiveness, solicitation and supplication that inevitably arises around any charmed central figure.

I cannot see why anyone would think this would help. Instead I think the creation of the Czar during the New Labour era helped to put us all to sleep. We learned that obedience and compliance would be rewarded with extra funding. We stopped seeking fundamental legal change, instead we expected wisdom to come down from Central Government. But what in our experience might lead people with learning disabilities and their allies to believe that Government is the font of all wisdom?

In a recent report emerging from the Winterbourne View crisis it is suggested that the answer to our problems might be to appoint a Learning Disability Commissioner. I don’t know about you but the word ‘Commissioner’ always reminds me of Commissioner Gordon in Batman. May be this is preferable to a Czar; but as we already have an enormous ‘care policeman’ in the form of CQC I don’t quite understand how another policeman will help us. Perhaps we do need Batman – but unfortunately I am not sure he is going to swing to our assistance. However a commissioner is certainly more in tune with the austerity era – no money, but perhaps some additional power to bully people.

As with all efforts to centralise power and control, the fundamental flaw in these dreams of Czars, Commissioners or any other such ‘magical leadership’ figures is the notion that transferring power and control away from people, families or communities and towards the new king-pin figure, will improve things. We naively assume that just by creating this king-pin role then it will inevitably be filled by the ideal figure of our dreams. But in reality these characters often make things worse.

In our efforts to improve things for real we must accept that there will be no Batman, no Commissioner and no Czar to solve our problems. Perhaps we need to take responsibility ourselves – in whatever role we find ourselves.

In particular service providers, social workers, advocates and charities need to think about how they can take responsibility for offering people and families much better support. Nothing stops us from offering people personalised support – the power to change things is in our hands. We know – at least many of us do – how to do this better. It’s time to get on with the job at hand.

For myself I’m thinking hard about how the lessons from Inclusion Glasgow and from other forms of personalised support could be shared more effectively in the future. I’m thinking about how families could be given a much better deal in future. I’m thinking about how we might develop the momentum to return to a focus on inclusion and citizenship – not failing services or institutional systems.

* I say ‘extreme’ not only because it’s true, but because our media seems to be branding the current Labour leader as an ‘extreme’ left winger. This seems very peculiar, as his policies seem rather moderate to me, so I use the term simply to try and balance out the impact of media slurs. I encourage any of you so minded to do likewise.

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