Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Year: 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Further Apologies for the Complex RAS

This is a copy of a recent letter I wrote on the topic of the RAS or Resource Allocation System in social care.

Dear John

I have written this note to you so that you can share it with others if you think it’s useful.

First of all I wanted to just congratulate you and all the family on all the work you’ve done to help your brother establish his life in the community. I still tell the tale of how your family was the first to use the system of Self-Directed Support that we piloted all those years ago. Your family’s courage and commitment was fantastic.

In fact, although we did not call it a ‘RAS’ [Resource Allocation System] your family were the first to try out this approach which involved having a budget ‘up-front’. The budget was based on my past experience of offering community support to people like your brother. We told your Mum and Dad the budget and then they could work with you and him to develop the plan that brought him back home to Scotland from institutional care in England.

There was never any intention that this first guess at a budget should be fixed, like some scientific fact. Instead the idea was that by giving you a figure to start with it would easier to be realistic and creative. It’s very hard to plan without a budget, and it’s easy for people to spend too much time guessing what the authority will go on to approve. The purpose of telling people up-front was to help people plan what they really thought would be best, instead of second-guessing what might get approval. In my experience this is still a helpful starting point; but it is no more than a starting point.

I have described the development of the RAS in this academic article:

Duffy S (2015) Commentary – what is a resource allocation system? Tizard Learning Disability Review, Vol. 20 Iss: 4, pp.207 – 212

The idea of up-front budgets was always challenging, and many felt it would threaten the authority of the social worker to carry out assessments and shape budgets. As you know, in 2002, feeling unable to make further progress on Self-Directed Support in Scotland, I went back to England.

In 2003 I began a project in England called In Control and there I came up with the term ‘RAS’ as part of an effort to persuade an English local authority to do the same kind of things we’d tried in Scotland. So we began to develop more complex systems to make it clearer what that initial budget should be. Again, this began as an empowering process, and it often helped people to be more creative.

However, I also came under pressure to make these systems more and more complex. In particular I found that managers of social workers didn’t trust their staff to make a reasonable judgement. Instead they wanted the exercise to be more ‘objective’ or ‘scientific’. Sadly, instead of resisting this pressure, as I should have done, I gave in to it. I helped develop systems that became increasingly more complex and which assigned points to needs and money to points. I have published a public apology for creating the ‘Complex RAS’ here:

Duffy S (2012) An Apology. Sheffield, The Centre for Welfare Reform.

The big problem is that the Complex RAS pretends to be scientific and reliable, and yet there is no scientific basis for it at all. At its very best it is a machine for producing guesses. If these budgets are treated as guesses then there is no problem. But when times get tough the danger is that people forget that these figures were just guesses and they start to try and get savings by applying the RAS in ways that are wrong.

Sadly you are not the first family I’ve helped who’ve come back to tell me that the RAS has turned out to be part of the problem – not the solution. So, here are few key points to remember:

  • Your budget needs to be enough to safely meet your needs in a way which is dignified, respectful and consistent with the law.
  • To my knowledge there is no RAS which has been tested by a scientific evaluation and which provides 100% reliable results. Any RAS, at best, produces a first guess at a reasonable budget.
  • If you have needs which are higher than normal then the RAS will be particularly unreliable as your situation will be more unique and influenced by factors that have not been included in the RAS itself.
  • If you already have an individual budget then there is no need for a RAS. The only discussion needs to be about the budget that was previously agreed and the outcomes currently being achieved. In that situation the RAS is irrelevant and dangerous.

The only legitimate role for a RAS is to help people who currently don’t have an individual budget or individual service and who need some additional information when they begin to plan. Once planning has begun then the RAS becomes redundant. Once support is in place then the RAS is redundant.

It’s like using one of those measures in a shoe shop that tell you what size of foot you have. It’s useful, in that it helps you get roughly the right shoe size. It saves you from trying on every size of shoe. But once you’ve got a shoe on then the feel of that shoe on your foot will determines whether it’s the right size or not. You wouldn’t think much of a shop assistant who kept telling you that the shoe ‘should fit’ because the foot measure says its right.

I hope this is helpful. You are very welcome to share it with the Council or with anyone else.

Best wishes


In Praise of Doubt by Bertolt Brecht

My thanks to the wonderful Charlie Barker-Gavigan for sharing this poem with me. A wonderful discovery.
Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I'd like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance.
Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.
Thus one day a man stood on the unattainable summit
And a ship reached the end of
The endless sea.
O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor's cure
Of the incurable patient!
But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent
Raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.

There are the thoughtless who never doubt
Their digestion is splendid, their judgment is infallible.
They don't believe in the facts, they believe only in themselves.
When it comes to the point
The facts must go by the board
Their patience with themselves
Is boundless.  To arguments
They listen with the ear of a police spy.
The thoughtless who never doubt
Meet the thoughtful who never act.
They doubt, not in order to come to a decision but
To avoid a decision.  Their heads
They use only for shaking.  With anxious faces
They warn the crews of sinking ships that water is dangerous.
Beneath the murderer's axe
They ask themselves if he isn't human too.
Murmuring something
About the situation not yet being clarified, they go to bed.
Their only action is to vacillate.
Their favourite phrase is: not yet ripe for discussion.
Therefore, if you praise doubt
Do not praise
The doubt which is a form of despair.
What use is the ability to doubt to a man
Who can't make up his mind?
He who is content with too few reasons
May act wrongly
But he who needs too many
Remains inactive under danger.
You are a leader of men, do not forget
That you are that because you doubted other leaders.
So allow the leader
Their right to doubt.

Does the Sound of the Crash Exist?

There is a very famous philosophical puzzle which asks:

“When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is near by to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Charles Riborg Mann & George Ransom Twiss.

I had always assumed that this puzzling question was asked by the philosopher George Berkeley. However, on closer examination, while this issue does relate closely to his philosophy, it was actually posed in this form by Charles Riborg Mann and George Ransom Twiss.

For some people this question is no puzzle – the answer is obvious. For instance, I once watched the TV programme QI where Stephen Fry expressed his shock and disbelief at the notion that the crash of the falling tree made no sound. While the show’s producer tried to explain the puzzle to him he was outraged at what appeared to him to be nonsense: “Of course there’s a sound!”

In fact, as philosophical puzzles go this one is fairly straightforward, and can almost be treated as a question of science. For instance Scientific American answered the puzzle like this:

“Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.”

Scientific American

This seems to me obviously correct: the crash makes no sound when there’s nobody to hear it. But the anger and disbelief of Fry touches on a deeper question: “What is really real?”

Some philosopher’s, like Berkeley, insist that what is really real is the sound of the crash. We know, better than we know anything, what we experience – colours, sounds, sensations – these experiences are what make up reality and they assures us by their very vitality that they are real. This kind of perspective is sometimes called idealism – because it locates ultimate reality in those mental experiences that provide us with our sense of reality. However, as the poet Knox observes, idealism also seems ‘ exceedingly odd’:

There once was a man who said ‘God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.’

Knox’s poem reflects the conflict between idealism and our common-sense. We may concede that the sound cannot be heard. We may even recognise that all the sensory properties we associate with the tree (its colour, its texture etc.) must rely on a sensing being who can sense those properties. But we still want to say “Ah, but behind all that, there must be the real tree the thing we actually do sense.” We want to insist that there is a reality to the tree that persists even when there is nobody there to sense it.

However this is so odd isn’t it? We are now insisting on a reality which we can only know indirectly through our senses, and yet which is quite distinct from those senses. The real tree is divorced from the sound of the tree crashing, from the feel of the bark on my fingers, from the green leaves and brown trunk. The properties of the tree that that we actually experience (what John Locke called the secondary qualities) seem to be just the results of our interaction with that deeper reality (the primary qualities) of the underlying tree. So from this more materialist perspective, the real tree is the very tree we don’t directly experience, it is the tree that we imagine to exist and which ’causes’ our experience of the tree.

So, is the real tree the tree we actually experience or is it the tree we imagine to exist and which we believe causes our actual experience of the tree?

Things get even stranger as science gets to work in trying to describe what that real tree is actually made of. I can’t keep up with the latest versions of atomic theory, so just deploy the tools of O-Level Physics, we are told that the tree is made up of biological substances, which can then be described as complex chemical substances, which can then be described as molecules and atoms, which can then be described as tiny elementary particles or forms of energy, and then there is the vast void which contains them. Under scientific analysis the real tree becomes phantasmagorical.

Is the real tree the tree we actually experience or is it the complex reality that science tries to describe to us in terms of its ever-changing models?

We are pulled both ways. We know the tree is there – because we can see it and touch it. Yet somehow these sensory experiences are not the real tree itself – they are merely signs given to us, expressing a complex reality which we imagine to lie behind our experiences.

So which is real: the sound of the tree crashing which we experience directly or the molecules and atoms which we are told exist and which we use to explain why we see the colour brown?

Today materialism is our dogma. There is less room to question whether we really know what exists. Characters like Stephen Fry would laugh to scorn those who wonder whether matter really exists, or who imagine we have souls, spirits or minds. Fry’s materialism is our modern orthodoxy and all the great thinkers of the past are the heretics. Yet it seems to me that this common and everyday materialism is unsustainable. It wants to have its cake and it wants to eat it too: We assert the ultimate reality of things that we do not experience on the basis of signs that lack the very reality we assert. It is like giving someone food, but then claiming that the ultimate reality is the cookery book that describes how the food was cooked.

Berkeley and other idealist, like my old philosophy professor Timothy Sprigge, believed there was a different way of thinking about reality. It is possible to imagine that our experiences themselves are real, if we recognise that God is the organising principle of reality. As this anonymous poet puts it:

Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God.

I am no master of metaphysics and I am not trying to judge between idealism and materialism, or any other metaphysical theory, but I think it a shame that modern thought has become so diminished that people cannot even see the paradoxical strangeness of the human experience of reality.

Customers or Citizens

I put up this little item on Facebook recently and it seemed to strike a chord with lots of people. So I thought I’d share it here.

The other day I received an email asking me to answer some questions about leadership in health and social care by a major service provider. I won’t say which organisation sent me this, as that would possibly be unfair and misrepresent their true intentions. However I did find their questions so peculiar,  and so unremittingly consumerist, that I felt moved to share the questions I was asked, along with my answers:

Dear John

I’m afraid my answers may not be as useful as you’d like, because I suspect I can’t quite see how to frame the challenge quite like that. But here are my answers to your 6 questions:

Q1: The overarching question we are seeking to address is: “How do we consistently lead and deliver high quality, high impact [services] for people that lives up to the brand?”

A1: If we are too concerned about ‘the brand’ then we should be worried about our underlying values. Moreover, largely brands in our sector are complex and contested. e.g. a brand like the ‘Mencap brand’ is not necessarily a ‘good brand’ to which we’d like people to live up.

Q2: How do effective leaders in health and social care ensure that their staff are customer focussed? (Thinking about all people issues, from recruitment, performance management etc..)

A2: Customer-focus in our sector is a deeply unhelpful way of conceptualising what we are doing and why we do it. People are citizens, not customers. People do not shop for human services and they certainly don’t shop for a life. We build a good life together.

Q3: How do effective leaders in health and social care identify what their customers want?

A3: We explore what we want to achieve in life through a process of internal and real world discovery. You are either on that journey with someone or you are not. There are few effective short-cuts and those there are can come at a high cost to your integrity (e.g. misusing person-centred planning).

Q4: How do effective leaders in health and social care measure their customer’s satisfaction?

QA: I suspect that measuring satisfaction is mostly done for effect. It can be useful as part of showing people the value of an innovation, but in normal circumstances it is fraudulent, as the underlying power relations distort the value of the data. True leaders listen and respond, but mostly they empower others to act. Ideally the last thing they want to do is appear as a ‘leader.’

Q5: How do effective leaders ensure consistent quality across an organisation which may span the country?

A5: Top-down control for quality in human services leads to bureaucracy, elitism and managerialism. Its impact is to rob power from the lives of disabled people and those working closely with them. An effective organisation ‘manages’ by liberating innovators, enabling good practice and dealing urgently with real problems when they arise – learning as transparently as possible as they go.

Q6: How would leadership in an organisation which delivers consistent high quality, high impact for people differ from one where this is not achieved?

A6: Such leaders would show humility, facilitate mature conversations and seek to explore how they can improve things further.

I hope that helps.

Best wishes

Simon John Duffy

I am not sure what else to say. However I think this divide, between seeing each other as citizens, or seeing each others as customers, is fundamental. The customer model obviously connects to many modern trends (positive and negative) but it seems such a fundamentally unhelpful way of thinking about disability and human services. The fact that something seems so obviously right to some, while it seems so obviously wrong to others, is indicative of the profoundly paradigmatic issues at stake. I suspect we won’t be able to just explain our way out of this problem. I think we will need to act as citizens in order to show others what citizenship means and what citizenship can do.

We’re Getting Older – Don’t Panic, Don’t Panic!!

Some days seem to have a curious symmetry to them, and this week I have had one of those days. It began in the heart of the Whitehall and it ended in a community radio station in East London; but the theme at the heart of the day was constant: what does it mean that we are now living longer?

The first discussion was a roundtable with some of the leading academics and experts in health and social care. (If you are wondering why I was there then you are not alone; I don’t know either, but I was certainly happy to have been invited.) It was chaired by the excellent Professor Martin Knapp of the London School of Economics and we were being asked to think about the implications of ageing on health and social care.

I was asked to say a few words about the impact of longer lives on our ability: “to provide and procure care” although, as I tried to argue, I think this is entirely the wrong way to frame the question. The real question is “how do we support each other as we live longer.”

What I tried to communicate was that there is no evidence that our growing health, and our longer lifespans, will create any crisis. These facts should be a source of celebration. Yet, there is almost no social change, even social progress, which cannot be turned into a crisis if it’s handled in the wrong way.

In my presentation I used data from a report by The Centre for Welfare Reform that we will be publishing in a few months. I had carried out an analysis of of disability, healthcare, social care and community capacity in Barnsley, where:

  • 2% of the population were in very bad health
  • 7% were in bad health
  • 13% had a disability (this group will overlap with the first two to some extent)

Barnsley spent £60 million on social care, however this figure is dwarfed by the care that the citizens of Barnsley provide to each other without pay.

If Barnsley had to pay for the support that is already being provided free, by carers (the official jargon for family and friends) then it would have to spend about £600 million. In other words the support provided by families is about 10 times greater than the support paid for by the community via taxation.

Furthermore, we can go on to estimate how much time and energy is potentially available to the town – what we could call its ‘community capacity’. You can do this by looking at how many people live in Barnsley (about 250,000) and then taking away all the time spent on being a child, time lost to paid work, time in education, time spent caring and time used for ordinary amounts of rest and leisure. This leaves you with an estimate for how much ‘community capacity’ is available. For Barnsley that is equivalent 65,000 whole time equivalent people, with an economic value of over £1 billion.

There is an army of community capacity potentially available to any community (unless its working too hard) and this capacity is probably over 20 times greater than what is spent on social care.

We are society with immense financial wealth, in addition we already have all the human capacity necessary to provide the care and support that we need to look after each other. We will all go through the shared human experiences of sickness, age, disability and death; but we certainly have the resources necessary to ensure that we can all do this in ways that ensure our dignity and mutual respect.

If we focused on our immense community capacity available then there would be no sense of crisis. However community capacity is undermined by a series of negative factors that are driven by Government policy and by the interests of the powerful:

  1. Cuts to social care – Local government funding from central Government has fallen by more than 30% in 6 years and is projected to fall further. Central Government funding used to provide 75% of local government finance. Cuts to social care have been deep and we have seen the number of people supported fall by well over 30% in the same period. I assume that local Government has had to cut its most efficient and low cost supports first, leaving it with a growing percentage of its budget invested in expensive and institutional provision, which is harder to cut. I do not see how the obligations of the Care Act 2014 can be balanced with the desperate situation of local government.
  2. Means-testing of social care – The extreme means-testing of social care does what all means-testing does – it reduces social solidarity and encourages people to divest themselves of their own wealth if they are at any risk of needing social care. This further undermines community capacity and faith in the community’s capacity to support people to get the necessary additional finances they need when illness or disability develops.
  3. Inequality and poor productivity – The UK is the most unequal country in Europe with low productivity and high employment rates. Or to put this another way, more people are having to work longer hours to maintain even a very modest income. For instance, increasingly both partners in a typical family need to work to maintain a modest income, leaving less time for caring or for citizen action. Economic inefficiency and extreme inequality both have the impact of minimising available time for citizen action and community capacity.
  4. Workfare and the collapse of the voluntary sector – There are two powerful but inane dogmas that dominate public policy in the UK: (1) the only useful activity you can do is earn a salary and so pay taxes and (2) the best people to find people work or volunteering opportunities are the DWP or their private-sector agents. Clearly these ridiculous assumptions undermine our ability to tap into people’s real gifts and skills.

So it seems we are in the process of turning what is an opportunity for a longer richer lives into a severe social crisis. We lock a higher proportion of our increasingly limited financial resources into professionalised and institutional care; so we will then be only able to offer support to fewer numbers of people who will be in severe crisis. Alongside institutional care, micro-institutionalisation and the misuse of technology to ‘keep people safe’ will probably grow. At the same time fewer families will feel that they can afford to take care of their own relatives and will so demand ‘care’ from a system that will not be able to offer them support until they reach breaking point. The ongoing pressure to allow euthanasia is consistent with this crazy system problem.

The sad thing is that, while there are so many clever and well intentioned people in the central and local government, it just seems impossible to shift discussion away from the minor problem of ‘funding social care’ to the major opportunity of ‘supporting community capacity.’ It is cynical to think that this is only because a crisis is much more useful to the political elites, but Mencken’s often quoted proposition does sometimes feel so true:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

H L Mencken

Perhaps, but I hope this is not true, the powerful do not want to recognise that releasing community capacity is about freedom and empowerment. The real solutions we need – those generated by people, families and communities – all require freedom and creativity in order to exist. The great innovations we are seeing from organisations like PFG Doncaster, WomenCentre, IBK Initiatives, Best Buddies UK, and so many more, are all rooted in an awareness that we are free citizens who can choose to act to benefit ourselves and our community.

Capacity is rooted in the actions of free citizens, working together in community. Such capacity cannot be bought, it cannot be bossed, it can only be enabled, supported and liberated.

Despite my fears it was encouraging that so many in the discussion did share my sense of disquiet at the danger of accepting inequality and an on-going public service crisis as the inevitable background to policy-making. But one could still feel the gravitational pull in our discussion of these hobgoblin problems: the fear of increased costs, the fear of increased rationing and fear about what will happen to us at the end of our lives.

After this discussion I was lucky enough to be invited to East London Radio, to be interviewed by Mervyn Eastman. Mervyn Eastman is an inspiring leader and social worker who has established the Change Agents Coop with the wonderful Cheryl Barrott. The Centre for Welfare Reform has recently joined the Coop as an organisational member.

Together we discussed how the idea of citizenship must become central to our thinking about ageing. Citizenship, everyday citizenship, is the foundation for building a good life for ourselves and building good communities together. We explored how old age was not a problem; but a society that insists on treating it as a problem will certainly end up creating one.

What made this radio interview especially sweet was that I was able to indulge my love of music. A rather sad admission on my part is that I have always dreamed about what I would choose if I was ever invited on Desert Island Discs or on Radio 3’s Private Passions. For East London Radio I picked:

  • Communication Breakdown by Led Zeppelin
  • The Nightwatch by King Crimson
  • Anyway by The Roches
  • A Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schoenberg

As I left the studio, to head home to Sheffield, I found myself in the community cafe and bookshop that was also the home of the community radio station. On the shelves were some fantastic European novels I’d not heard of and so I indulged myself by buying 4 books to take home.

So my day ended with this sense of contrast. On the one hand, in the bowels of Whitehall, intelligent people were struggling, against the grain, to stop the system turning old age into a new social problem. Meanwhile, on the streets of East London, ordinary people were busy building, sharing and supporting one another to lead richer, better lives.

As ever Christ’s words help. The Vulgate puts it as “sufficit diei malitia sua” which could be loosely translated it as: Start by tackling today’s injustices.

If Government really wants to help us ensure that we can take good care of each other in the future then there are four pressing problems it could tackle now:

  1. Protect social care funding
  2. End social care means-testing
  3. Radically reduce income inequality
  4. End the stigma and control of the DWP’s benefit systems

Do those 4 things and human capacity will flourish and many of tomorrow’s problems will never arise.

Time to Rethink Charity

Charities are in the news. Many seem to be failing, failing as businesses, failing in standards or failing in their role as advocates. Standing back, we can see two tendencies, one very negative, the other potentially positive, although currently much weaker.

The negative trend in the UK is the on-going collapse of the public and voluntary sectors and the invasion of large private organisations who are privatising Whitehall, the NHS, schools, local government and even the voluntary sector. For some this is called ‘modernisation’ but it is hard to see what is so modern about disastrous and corrupting inefficiency of projects like the Public Finance Initiative, the Work Programme or the inane procurement regimes which drive out community organisation and true innovation.

Again and again we find that when the public sector tries to harness the ‘dynamism’ of the private sector it often finds itself on the losing side of the deal. This is not surprising, when one side of the deal comes motivated to maximise profit, while the other is just following procedures, then expect a mess. Neither side is to blame – oil and water do not mix.

One of the saddest features of this collapse is the way in which so many charities, many with long and noble histories, have found themselves climbing on board the privatisation bandwagon. Today many charities are no more than inefficient private business – with high CEO salaries, poor terms and conditions for staff and bureaucratic cultures. There is nothing dynamic and creative about this new kind of voluntary sector – often there is nothing particularly voluntary about it either.

However this is not the full story. There are also a new forms of organisation emerging, ethical businesses, who do not just focus on profit; and community organisations that are dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative. For organisations like these the old charity model no longer seems to apply.

This old charity model still dominates our legal structures, and it fits into an understanding of civil society which goes something like this:

  1. The public sector provides core public services – from policing to healthcare. The sector is managed and controlled by politicians, who are accountable to the public (every few years).
  2. The private sector provides services or goods that people pay for. It is commercial and focuses on profit. It survives only when we buy what it offers.
  3. The charity sector harnesses our citizenship, enabling people to give, time, money or passion to supplement core public services.
  4. In particular the governance of charities must be voluntary, for this is meant to make it immune to the profit motive (and hence it is protected from corporation tax).

This model may have worked reasonably well in the past. But it is not clear how these distinctions hold when:

  • Government stops providing services and starts to buy them (what is called commissioning).
  • Instead of services people are given budgets to buy their own support (what is called personalisation).
  • Some business are choosing ethical objectives (what is called social enterprise).

It would be easy to declare the whole thing a farce, to dissolve the distinctions and to leave the market to sort everything out. Let people and government buy what seems best, let businesses grow, transform and become ethical. Let charities wither, if they no longer offer ‘good value’.

But, as G K Chesterton said, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” In this case the reason for the strong distinction between the profit motive and the ethical motive is that it doesn’t take long before the profit motive wins hands down. Profit enables businesses to buy political influence, control and even the appearance of being ethical. This is the reason that the likes of SERCO, A4E and G4S keep winning contracts from the public sector, while the small, the local and the ethical struggle to survive.

Instead of abandoning the distinction between the profit-seeking and the charitable it may be better to redefine it. In fact there may be a much better distinction available to us.

Today, when we use the word ‘market’ we usually think only of commercial exchange – buying and selling. The term has become captured by narrow liberal economics. However if we go back to ancient Athens and revisit their version of the market – what they called the ‘agora’ then we find, not just commercial exchange, but a whole range of human activities: teaching, praying, playing, politics, government. The agora is a public space and it was marked off by a series of sacred marker stones which could not be moved and beyond which no private property could be claimed.

So Athens, one of the most creative and fruitful places in human history, protected its public spaces from private enclosure. However Athens did not put all of the activities of the agora under control of the ‘demos.’ It was not public (or democratic) control that made something public – it was its appearance in the public space. It was the transparency of these affairs, as opposed to their privacy, for privacy is the essence of the private. The agora was a space in which we came outside and behaved as individual, diverse and interacting citizens.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the assembly, where the people met to make democratic decisions in together, was actually outside the agora – on a hill called the Pnyx. The Pnyx overlooks both the agora and the Acropolis, which was also a distinct site, and which was protected for the sacred purpose of worship. The agora, the space for free citizen action, was therefore distinct from both those areas where people came together to act as a whole people – in making decisions or worshipping God. The agora was plural, diverse and sacred.

Can we then replace the profit-voluntary distinction with a different public-private distinction?

Perhaps we should distinguish what makes something public from what makes something private, and in particular we should work hard to define and protect those things which are public – which we all share together – from those things that are private.

Here are some thoughts on what measures we might use to guard the public:

  • Local – Things that are rooted in the local are more reliable than the national or international where only a brand, a logo or profile is visible.
  • Transparent – When we aim to serve the public we will be quite happy to let people know our salaries, our savings, our funding and our workings.
  • No copyright – If we are interested in the public interest we will not want to protect private property rights and milk citizens for years to come.

Perhaps a further advantage of this approach might be to help us think about what David Miliband used to call “double devolution” the shift in power back to people and to communities. Devolution to the individual means that some public services need to be converted into private entitlements – in particular incomes sufficient to meet our basic needs. However other public services need to be converted into public goods – resources that communities themselves can examine, support or transform.

In this way we can overcome the reductive simplifications of Marxism with its ludicrous suspicion of private property and the very natural human activity of trade. Yet we can also remember that we also need public goods, safeguarded from the invasion of the private, that there to be enjoyed – in one way or other – by all of us.

Assisted Dying or Nazi Eugenics

Spot the difference…

Here are the words of the Assisted Dying Bill 2 which is currently being promoted by Rob Marris MP in the UK Parliament:

Subject to the consent of the High Court (Family Division) pursuant to subsection (2), a person who is terminally ill may request and lawfully be provided with assistance to end his or her own life. Subsection (1) applies only if the High Court (Family Division), by order 5 confirms that it is satisfied that the person:

1. has a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to end his or her own life;

2. has made a declaration to that effect in accordance with section 3; and

3. on the day the declaration is made: (i) is aged 18 or over (ii) has the capacity to make the decision to end his or her own life; and (iii) has been ordinarily resident in England and Wales for not less than one year.

Assisted Dying Bill 2 (2015)

Susanne E Evans, in her book Forgotten Crimes wrote:

“…a [Nazi] Ministry of Justice Commission on the Reform of the Criminal Code drafted a similar law sanctioning “mercy killing” of people suffering from incurable diseases. The law read, in part:

Clause 1 Whoever is suffering from an incurable or terminal illness which is a major burden to him or others, can request mercy killing by a doctor, provided it is his express wish and has the approval of a specially empowered doctor.

Clause 2 The life of a person who because of incurable mental illness requires permanent institutionalisation and is not able to sustain an independent existence, may be prematurely terminated by medical procedures in a painless and covert manner.”

Cited by Suzanne Evans

We are not quite at the point where most people agree with Clause 2. However the proposed Assisted Dying Bill proposed by Lord Falconer is essentially identical to Clause 1 of the Nazi Bill described by Suzanne Evans and which was the first stage in the legitimising the T-4 Action (which killed over 100,000 people with disabilities). The gas chambers which had been used to kill people with disabilities were then disassembled and taken to concentration camps and used on the Jews.

The connections between euthanasia, eugenics and the Holocaust are profound. Either life is sacred and its dignity should never be undermined or all is relative and we will leave the powerful to decide who counts as important and who doesn’t.

If someone really believes their life is worthless they are just wrong.

Dr Andrew Lucas and Perpetual Life – A Film

I awoke this morning from my dreams with the idea for a film in my head. I am no script-writer and I will never find time to complete this project, so I share it here. If you want to turn it into a film or something else then please be my guest.

A shot of London – subtitle: Year 2166

We pan over London which now appears even shinier, and the streets are full of people celebrating the victory of England in the World Cup. An open top bus (suitably modernised) floats through the crowd. On the top are many familiar faces, including Wayne Rooney and many other members of the current England team.

Now cut to inside St Paul’s Cathedral, where there is a celebratory service going on, again we see the heads of Rooney and his team mates, we also see that the audience is full of beautiful young people, happy and genuinely attentive. They watch a young and handsome Archbishop of Canterbury who is giving a sermon.


“How great is Great Britain! Yet again we are victorious at football. Yet again we prove that, truly, we are building Jerusalem here, in this green and pleasant land.

“And it is here in Britain that the great discoveries have been, the great steps forward in human progress. 400 year ago St Adam Smith uncovered the workings of the market. Only then did men come to understand that progress depends upon selfishness. This revelation then opened up the age of progress, industry and happiness.

“300 years ago St Charles Darwin uncovered the true workings of nature. Now we understand that we are not, directly, creatures of God, but of evolution, and that progress comes from the on-going battle of the strong to overcome the weak.

“Then, just 150 years ago, our living saint, Dr Andrew Lucas, made the next great British discovery.

Cut to an earnest young man sitting amidst the congregation who nods and smiles modestly in recognition of the Archbishop’s comments. Cut back to Archbishop who is continuing with his sermon.

“Dr Lucas has discovered the essence of life itself, the life force, the vital link between physics, chemistry and biology. Lucas has discovered that element of our life blood which makes life possible. Using his discoveries Britain then began its programme of extending Perpetual Life to everyone. The doors of heaven are now truly open.

“All these great discoveries have had to be matched by an evolution in our religion. Today the New Church of England has managed to uproot the heresy of life after death. We’ve gone back to the Bible and demonstrated the real meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. It was not some mysterious life after death that he was offering us – instead it was a message about the real possibility of heaven on earth. Today more and more people are taking advantage of the opportunities of Perpetual Life, as Dr Lucas and his team work to make this new technology available to everyone.

“So, let us thank God for England’s victory in the World Cup. Let us thank God for Dr Lucas and his brilliant discoveries that have made all this possible. And let us thank God for Great Britain, the country that has opened the doors of heaven.”

Congregation enthusiastically clap the Archbishop. The Camera pulls back from St Paul’s and pans to St Thomas’s hospital which is now one of the grandest building along the Thames. We are in a teaching theatre, where junior doctors are being educated, and are being addressed by a beautiful young (female) professor of medicine.

Professor of Medicine:

“Welcome everyone to your first course in the medicine of Perpetual Life. As trained doctors you will already know much of what I am about to show you; but it is always helpful to be reminded of the foundations, that underlie our vital science. So let us begin by watching this short film.”

We now watch the first scenes of an introductory teaching film on Perpetual Life. Suitable documentary images accompany the narration.

Film narration:

“In 2016 UK Parliament began the process of legalising euthanasia (or as it is now called Happy Death). The first step towards Happy Death was to allow people the right to end their life, under medical supervision.

“It was then that a brilliant young doctor, Dr Andrew Lucas, decided to specialise on end of life medicine. At first his programme focused on helping people be genuinely happy as their life ended, new drugs were developed and the process was made not just painless, but pleasurable.

“However, naturally, Dr Lucas also began to wonder whether there might not be other advantages to the Happy Death programme. A dead body can teach us much, a dying body can give up its organs to help others. But what if a living body could give up it’s very life force? What if life itself could be transferred from one individual to another?

“It was this profound insight that opened up the field of Perpetual Life (or PL). Today a willing patient can transfer their life force to another person, to extend their life and even to maintain them in state of perpetual youth and health.

“Dr Lucas himself, as a brave pioneer, first began to carry out these experiments upon himself and so he became the first person to benefit from PL. Then of course he turned to the leading minds of the time to win support. If it was not for the support of Heaven TV and the vision of its owner Mr Rupert Murdoch then his discoveries may have gone to waste. But after joining the PL Programme Mr Murdoch became its primary patron. Leading politicians joined him on the programme, and so his support grew. Today all our leading writers, scientists, film stars and sporting heroes are proud participants in the PL Programme – staying young, living longer and working to build a better world for everyone.

“Of course there are still mysteries to uncover; for just as it took many years to discover DNA, and so explain the truth behind Darwin’s theory of evolution, so we have not yet fully understood the mechanism by which the life force exists.

“Dr Lucas is continuing to work on the development of an artificial version of the life force. He will be successful; but until that time the PL programme must continue to exist in partnership with the Happy Death programme. We still need some people willing to give up their lives, in order to extend the lives of the best, the beautiful and the successful.

“We are also still limited by the constant of life – the 70 years rule. For while the life force can be transferred, the transfer value of life is set at a maximum of 70 years, and varies in accordance with how much life has been sacrificed. Life is extended by 70 minus the years already lived. So this means the most useful lives are those of the youngest.

“So while everybody wants to join the PL Programme we are not yet able to offer everyone the joys of the programme. Instead we must appeal to those who are ill, who are disabled or unhappy. We must offer them the chance to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Fortunately the technology of Happy Death has so improved that many more people are willing to step forward and offer their lives in sacrifice. For many people a few months of extreme happiness is well worth the loss of many years of life.

“Today the systems of Quality Adjusted Life Prices (QALPs) enables people to evaluate their options and to choose to trade in their life for a Happy Death. This is a independent, market-based system, all carefully overseen by NICE (the National Institute for Care Excellence).”

“Life and death has always seemed like a lottery. The best of humanity can be unfairly struck down, while the worst can hang on for decades. Today, thanks to the expertise of doctors like you, thanks to the patronage of Mr Murdoch and Heaven TV and thanks to the good people at NICE, death is being tamed. Death is now fairer and perpetual life is possible for the brightest and the best.”

At this point the film could develop in a number of different ways. Here are three options:

  1. We follow Dr Lucas becoming angrier with himself and with the system he has created, as he discovers, yet again, that he cannot overcome the life constant or develop the life force artificially. The film follows his efforts to pull down the system around himself and the way in which powerful forces within the media, politics and economics will not allow him to do so. [or]
  2. We follow the story of one of the members of the PL community who is finding that they can no longer earn the money necessary to stay on the programme. They become convinced that the high price and limited supply of PL is a plot to enrich the rich. However, by exploring what really happens to those outside the programme, and those on the Happy Death programme he discovers that in fact everything possible is being done to extend PL to as many people as possible (e.g. people are encouraged to give up their babies for HD at birth, people are being paid to join the HD programme, their family are being assured places on the waiting list for the PL programme, mental illness and suicide are being encouraged in low income families.) He then tries to share what he’s learned – but he is discovered and he is forced to join the HD programme himself. [or]
  3. We focus on a revolutionary movement, perhaps based in the North of England (say Sheffield), where people organise to overcome the powerful forces of the PL programme. This could involve a love interest story, where there is love between someone on the PL programme, perhaps in a position of influence, and a terrorist trying to tear the system down. This could also build on the idea that heretical religious groups continue to exist underground, who continue to spread their belief that life is sacred and that everyone is of equal value.

You may have much better ideas about where to take this story. But if you decide to make a film, book or play from this idea, don’t worry I promise not to sue you. However, if you do make any money please donate some to the disability campaigners who are fighting the Assisted Dying Bill at Not Dead Yet

Robocop and the Civil Servant

I recently watched the remake of Robocop. It was not a very good film, but it did remind me of the plight of the civil servants in Whitehall and the challenge of how and when to use your conscience.

Hannah Arendt defined bureaucracy as Rule by No One. It is the office that is accountable, not an individual, and that really means no one is responsible. Who, for instance, was responsible for making up fake stories that give the impression that sanctions for people on benefits are fair and reasonable? No one. It was just another bureaucratic task required of a civil service that must carry out the ‘will of the people’ who, in this instance, have been ‘realised’ in the form of Iain Duncan Smith.

Back in 1988, as a young man, having left University with little idea of what I wanted to do, I applied to be a ‘fast-track’ civil servant. I got through the exams, but then went to Whitehall for an intense couple of days trial by interview and workshop. One of the interviews was with a psychologist who asked me what I would do if I was asked to do something that I thought was wrong.  My simplistic response was that I wouldn’t do it; but the psychologist argued that this would not work in the civil service, for you would have to work with politicians of every colour and they were accountable to the democratic process. It was not for me to insert my sense of right or wrong, like a spanner, into the workings of Government. The psychologist also went on to suggest that guilt was a bad thing and that perhaps I took it too seriously (a proposal I didn’t accept). I was then offered a job as a Tax Inspector (which I turned down).

While I can understand the logic of this argument for a neutral civil service it was clear to me that this was not my cup of tea. Moreover, I do wonder whether we really need a civil service.

This came back to me watching Robocop. For those of you not familiar with this science-fiction classic, a policeman, who suffers severe trauma is encased in a robotic suit – hence Robocop. But most importantly, to increase his effectiveness as a policeman, his conscience is ‘turned down’ by a combination of drugs and computer over-rides so that he cannot really be in control of his actions. Of course, it turns out that he is working for a corrupt system and he has become a tool of injustice. The story hinges on his ability to break free and assert his own will and conscience.

I know most civil servants are good people in a difficult situation. They are being asked to do bad things by a legitimate Government that has been elected by 24.4% of the electorate. They are well paid (civil servants have the highest median salary of any group – public or private) and they live in the wealthiest part of the country. They are surrounded by the powerful, the famous and the persuasive. It is hard to imagine circumstances more liable to put conscience to sleep.

Yet, stirring inside them, many must be this question: Did I really enter Whitehall to impoverish the poor and bully the weak?

And those of us outside Whitehall must be asking a further question: Do we really need civil servants if they can do things like this?

The model of the neutral civil servant, the tool of Government, seems so reasonable. But do we really want politicians to be given this kind of power over us? Could we take back this power and make decisions ourselves – in our lives and in our communities? How might we limit or discipline the spread of this kind of unaccountable power?

The ancient Athenians actually filled many public office by lot – subject to some vetting – like jury service: “It’s your turn to head up the collection of customs.” The main thing, as Aristotle observed, was to make sure that nobody had any personal interest in the decisions and so no temptation to cheat. And as they were only in post for a short while, and could be held accountable by the public – their fellow citizens – this system worked well for several hundred years. Perhaps we should try it too.

The Soul in Dialogue with Time

Let us suppose that each of one us has been given a gift, a soul. This soul is unique to us, and we cannot be parted from it.

We might imagine that soul turning to Time and saying:

“I know Someone mightier than you. You cannot hold me, you cannot change me, I am eternal.”

We might also imagine Time’s response:

“That is true soul, I am not your master, I do not define you. But only through me can you find yourself. You live in me and if you disregard me you diminish yourself and you disrespect your True Master.”

See also:

“Quid tam tuum quam tu, quid tam non tuum quam tu” (Augustine) – What is so much yours as yourself, and what is so little yours as yourself? The most individual element in us – the only thing that belongs to us in the last analysis – our own “I” , is at the same time the least individual element of all, for it is precisely our “I” that we have neither from ourselves or for ourselves.

Benedict XVI citing St Augustine

Why We Mustn’t Murder Beethoven (or Anyone Else)

One doctor asks another:

“About the termination of pregnancy – I want your opinion. The father was a syphilitic, the mother tuberculous, of the children born the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was tuberculous. What would you have done?”

“I would have ended the next pregnancy.”

“Then you would have murdered Beethoven.”

Story from Maurice Baring

The power of this story is twofold. First the story reminds us that our genetic pedigree is a poor basis for predicting talent. The doctor thinks he knows the likely outcome of the pregnancy, but he does not. Life and nature is still, thankfully, too unpredictable for such doctors to be able to predict such things.

But much more importantly the story asks us to examine our values. What if this young Beethoven had not been the great composer, but had been a child with disabilities. The doctor would have been just as wrong to end the pregnancy. The real arrogance of the doctor was to presume to judge the value of a human life, in advance and without being able to appreciate that person’s own story.

Let The Power Fall – The Value of Fripp

Last week I met with Simon Barrow of Ekklesia and Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network. It was a productive meeting on many levels, but I was particularly excited when Simon mentioned the thinking of the guitarist (and beating heart of King Crimson) Robert Fripp.

Back home I dug out the postcard Fripp included in his excellent album Let The Power Fall (guitar meets echoing tape loops). Here is Fripp’s mixture of philosophy and system theory.


i) 1. One can work within any structure.

ii) 2. Once one can work within any structure, some structures are more efficient than others.

iii) 3. There is no one structure which is universally appropriate.

iv) 4. Commitment to an aim within an inappropriate structure will give rise to the creation of an appropriate structure.

v) 5. Apathy, i.e. passive commitment, within an appropriate structure will effect its collapse.

vi) 6. Dogmatic attachment to the supposed merits of a particular structure hinders the search for an appropriate structure.

vii) 7. There will be difficulty defining the appropriate structure because it will always be mobile, i.e. in process.

i) 8. There should be no difficulty in defining aim.

ii) 9. The appropriate structure will recognise structures outside itself.

iii) 10. The appropriate structure can work within any large structure.

iv) 11. Once the appropriate structure can work within any large structure, some larger structures are more efficient than others.

v) 12. There is no larger structure which is universally appropriate.

vi) 13. Commitment to an aim by an appropriate structure within a larger, inappropriate structure will give rise to a large, appropriate structure.

vii) 14. The quantitative structure is affected by qualitative action.

i) 15. Qualitative action is not bound by number.

ii) 16. Any small unit committed to qualitative action can affect radical change on a scale outside its qualitative measure.

iii) 17. Quantitative action works by violence and breeds reaction.

iv) 18. Qualitative action works by example and invites reciprocation.

v) 19. Reciprocation between independent structures is a framework of interacting units which is itself a structure.

vi) 20. Any appropriate structure of interacting units can work within any other structure of interacting units.

vii) 21. Once this is so, some structures of interacting units are more efficient than others.
Let The Power Fall by Robert Fripp

This was often pinned on my bedroom wall as child and student and I suspect it has a profound impact on my own thinking. In particular I think it has encouraged my (often naively optimistic) belief that you can always bring about positive change – wherever you are situated. Also the notion that we must be conscious of the consequence of the structures we work within. I continue to seek the more “appropriate structure” despite knowing that there is no utopia, and time undoes everything.

At a time when it feels our “larger structures” are less and less appropriate, less efficient, it is encouraging to believe that action with integrity and authenticity remains the key to meaningful change.

At The Heart of A New Welfare State

Last week I attended a very interesting meeting in Sheffield. The event was part of the farewell tour of the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA). After ten years of campaigning for the voluntary sector to retain its integrity, its founders have decided to close down the organisation. I suspect many in the voluntary sector will breath a huge sigh of relief, for their message was robust and rarely welcome.

Primarily NCIA argued that the voluntary sector had abandoned its proper role and become complicit with the dismantling of the welfare state. This is not a recent problem, but it is certainly a problem that has become sharper today. Key elements in the decline of the voluntary sector include:

  • Taking over the work of public services – often by diluting or reducing the cost of those services.
  • Entering into a cosy relationship with Government – failing to challenge and advocate on behalf of the welfare state or of oppressed minority groups.
  • Accepting the nostrums of managerialism and becoming increasingly unequal and bureaucratic in form – aping the private sector.
  • Collaborating with the private sector (the likes of A4E, Serco and G4S) as they dismantle public sector services.
  • Abandoning respect for the principle of citizen action, even using labour from the dreadful workfare scheme – failing to keep volunteering voluntary

Andy Benson, one of the founders of NCIA challenged the audience. He argued that today the voluntary sector must choose between increasing compliance and ultimate irrelevance, or it must stand up for local communities and resist the temptations offered by government. I must say that my sympathies were largely with Andy, although with some caveats.

My own experience of this process began when, as ‘Contracts Director’ for Southwark Consortium we began negotiations with the NHS to take on their learning disability services. I do not feel bad about this. I think the nature of NHS services (and their image) was inconsistent with the ideals of inclusion and of empowerment. After all, it was the NHS that ran the institutions – not everything done under the banner of the ‘public sector’ is good.

I also spent much of my time working on systems and writing in an effort to ‘interpret’ the emerging purchaser-provider split in a way that could be empowering and innovative. This led to the publication of my book Unlocking the Imagination and the Citizenship Model. However, looking backwards, none of this was taken up. Instead the voluntary sector has become captured by the crazy world of tendering and commissioning. Power moved upwards, not downwards; and those in power rarely knew what to do with the power that they’d been handed.

Today I spend much of my time on campaigning work, trying to help people stick up for social justice and exploring how we might redesign the welfare state in a spirit of justice. 20 years ago I would never have believed that any Government could have attacked disabled people and those in poverty in the way that ours has over the last few years. I would have expected charity leaders to speak out, to get on the media, to resist these bad practices, in the strongest possible terms. However, as NCIA has correctly argued, this is not what has happened, instead:

  • Many in the voluntary sector have tried to use this moment to negotiate for an increased share of business as the state’s role is dismantled (a battle it is largely losing to the private sector).
  • Senior leaders tell me they cannot speak out because they will lose their place of influence at the table with politicians and civil servants.
  • Other say that the Lobbying Act ties their hands – they cannot both appeal for donations and appear as a ‘lobbyist.’

Whatever their reasons it is clear that many of the charities that are closely connected to Whitehall and Westminster are not prepared to resist. They do not think that this is their role.

Personally I am not sure what where we go from here. The last 5 years saw a bubbling up of important and innovative grass roots organisations: Justice for LB, Spartacus Network, New Approach, Pat’s Petition, WOW Campaign, DPAC and many others. These groups – in different ways – have used the internet and social media with great skill to mobilise support, draw attention to issues and offer thoughtful solutions. However none of us can yet call these efforts an outright success. On their own they seem to lack the necessary clout.

A slightly different technique, perhaps a hybrid approach, has been developed by Learning Disability Alliance England. Drawing together groups and individuals has enabled the communication of some powerful and radical messages, often with support behind the scenes from the more traditional organisations that are too fearful to speak out on their own. There is a power in numbers and in national and regional structure. However this is also, on its own, inadequate.

My suspicion, and I am still musing on this now, with no sense of certainty, is that we will need to try and pull off at least 5 difficult things at once:

  1. We cannot rely on a mere defensive or negative vision of the welfare state we want to protect – we need to be able to define and communicate a more powerful vision of a modernised welfare state.
  2. We need to organise around key groups and build creative alliances between these groups. For example advocates of the rights of people with learning disabilities need to make common cause with advocates for the rights of asylum seekers. But without merging the issues or obscuring different perspectives and ensuring that it is people themselves who lead the way.
  3. We need to build alliances with other parts of civil society. I still believe, some charity leaders can display the necessary courage to speak out, but they need to be part of a broader alliance. The churches have all offered some of the best resistance to date (although still very muted). Trade unions need to become important allies.
  4. Above all we need to avoid the temptation to demonise politicians or refuse to be political. Most politicians are not bad people, they want to do the right thing (while of course achieving power and glory). They are very sensitive to what ‘sells’ and what people ‘think they want.’ We live in a democracy (of sorts) and if we want a just welfare state we cannot be afraid to get political – to make friends – as well as the odd enemy.
  5. We do need to bring in the big numbers – the people. Petitions have been a good way of doing this to date, but these are at their most effective on relatively simple issues. Politics is about the people, not just the ‘elites.’

The first task if of course critical. It is near impossible to build any alliance if there is no shared vision. But building an alternative, positive and inspiring vision for the welfare state in the twenty-first century is far from easy. Especially when power and money is poured into developing the kind of bastardised version of welfare reform that is now on offer.

However one positive starting point may be this. A new welfare state must be a welfare state that is easier to defend from injustice and in which civil society plays an active part. In other words, by trying to fight for justice now we will learn what it takes to protect and sustain a just welfare state into the future.

In a sense the voluntary sector should be the beating heart of a new welfare state, capable of speaking out and keeping us true. Redesigning the welfare state, in a spirit of justice, means getting that heart beating and ensuring that it can beat strongly into the future. So, in the process of fighting for justice and resisting the attacks on the welfare state we must also build a voluntary sector, or more broadly, a civil society, that is capable of keeping the welfare state true in the future. That will be a different kind of civil society – a living ‘constitution’ for the welfare state.

I hope then that the work of NCIA is not in vain. If they lay down the torch now then others of us must pick it up. But when we do so we must see ourselves as not just defending something in the past, but as building something anew.

Clever Clever Tories

Recently I was asked on Twitter what was the best rebuttal for the Government’s policy of setting a Benefit Cap; this was shortly after watching a Labour leadership candidate back the Benefit Cap when challenged directly by a BBC journalist.

Clever, clever Tories.

If anyone doubts the cleverness of those in power then consider this:

The Government has devastated the income of the poorest, not by the Benefit Cap, but by a whole series of technical changes to how benefits are claimed and calculated. The poorest 10% of families lost 9% of their post-tax income in the last 5 years – down from a mere £100 per week. Yet the policy which the BBC uses as a litmus test for welfare reform is the Benefit Cap – a policy which applies to very few people (0.1% of families) most of whom live in London and where benefits are simply being used to subsidise excessive rents and therefore actually fund landlords.

Clever, clever Tories

There is no doubt indeed that we are dealing with some very intelligent and cunning people.

This Government’s policy can usefully be divided between:

  • Real policy – which is hard to see but which largely functions to impoverish the poor and to pander to the wallets of middle-earners and the truly wealthy.
  • Apparent policy – which is easy to see and which panders to social prejudices, the need for simplification demanded by journalists and which puts social justice on the back foot.

Of course one of the advantages of Government is that you can instruct your civil service to do most of the work of designing and defending these disgraceful policies. It is hard to compete with the billions invested in defending injustice.

However, perhaps we should think like Sir Frances Drake, when faced by the Spanish Armada: small and sprightly ships, connected by strategy, but attacking from different directions may be what we need.

There is a Revolution Going On

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.

Jean Vanier at Templeton Prize Giving Ceremony

This was the message of Jean Vanier as he received the Templeton Prize – at St Martins in the Fields on Monday evening. His acceptance speech was powerful and direct.

For me it was a blessing to feel the blast of his optimism. As he said, in 1945 we had Hiroshima and the uncovering of Auschwitz; and of course we don’t have to look too hard to see further ugliness. But surely he is right to claim that something of importance did happen then – a new chapter did open. Not only did we begin to recognise the importance of human rights but also – slowly, all too slowly – we began the liberation of all those ‘others’ who had been trapped in institutions, deemed unworthy, by a society that had lost its moral compass.

This is a particular blessing only a few days after a UK General Election when the worst government in 75 years – a Government that has targeted disabled people for cuts and chosen to impoverish the poor – has been returned to power. Vanier captures exactly the fundamental flaw in the thinking and behaviour of the powerful – they behave as if the point of life is to climb higher and higher, to even clamber up upon the backs of the weak. But where are they going? What will they find when they get there? They will be empty and alone.

What must we do about our leaders, who are lost? Well – to begin with he suggests – we must pray for them.

A powerful message for me at least – for I know my own pride is such that I’d like nothing better than to enumerate their many failings. But he is right. They are lost. They know not what they do. Their cleverness is ultimately at their own expense – however many years in power they gain, however big the pile of money they amass. There is no joy in it. There is no beauty in it.

Despite our current problems I do not believe the current attack upon the human rights, the welfare state and justice will succeed. We have come too far to turn back to the hell that we’ve left behind. There are still signs of hope, amidst the darkness.

I have been particularly inspired by how many people have come together to support Learning Disability Alliance England since its creation in the Autumn of 2014. In just a few months we’ve united hundreds of people and organisations in a movement to stick up for the rights of people with learning disabilities. And this movement has been led by people with learning disabilities – friends like Karen Flood, Simon Cramp and Gary Bourlet have called upon different people to unite and work together. They have welcomed the respectful support of families, professionals and other allies. They’ve shown how much can be achieved when we come together in community.

This was so striking when we ran the Citizen Jury event to mark the political parties. It is true that the Conservative Party refused to attend (given their record this is not too surprising); but the others who attended, including Labour’s disability spokesperson Kate Green, engaged in an intense and respectful debate with people with learning disabilities and their families about the details of policy.

An old friend of mine, Virginia Moffatt (now at Ekklesia) reminded me that back in 1992 when she’d suggested that there be a hustings for people with learning disabilities in Southwark (where we both worked) that she had been faced with blank incomprehension. Today we are capable of having real and important debates with senior politicians. The election result may not have gone the way LDA England would have liked – but life is not always about winning and getting what you want. This development still marks another important step towards full citizenship for people with learning disabilities.

I am also encouraged by an event just a few days away – the wonderful punk rock band PKN – a band made up of people with learning disabilities – will be representing Finland at the Eurovision Song Contest. [Please cast your vote!] Again people with learning disabilities are refusing to be held back by other people’s ideas about what they can and cannot do. I have also just learned that Gavin Harding, a leading self-advocate with learning disabilities, has just become Mayor of Selby.

For me Vanier has already had a tremendous impact on my own thinking. In his commentary on the Gospel of St John Vanier writes:

Frequently it is only when those who are powerful experience failure, sickness, weakness or loneliness that they discover they are not self-sufficient and all-powerful, and that they need God and others. Out of their weakness and poverty they can then cry out to God and discover God in a new way as the God of love and tenderness, full of compassion and goodness.

I must say that for myself it has been a transformation to be in L’Arche. When I founded l’Arche it was to “be good” and to “do good” to people with disabilities. I had no idea how these people were going to do good to me! A bishop once told me: “You in L’Arche are responsible for a Copernican revolution: up until now we used to say that we should do good to the poor. You are saying that poor are doing good to you!” The people we are healing are in fact healing us, even if they do not realise it. They call us to love and awaken within us what is most precious: compassion.

Jean Vanier

Trying to ‘do good’ can quickly be a trap – it becomes about us, our pride, our glory, our achievements – and we can quickly tire and turn to blaming others. When we’re tempted in this way, we must see how empty all of this is. We all know we must die, and all our moments of power and glory are just vanities – that quickly pass away. What abides – is love.

Personally I am interested in exploring further what this Copernican revolution might look like for the welfare state as a whole. How can we live together in a way that accepts and honours mutual dependency? How can we invite contribution and challenge from those of whom society expects too little? How can we live in community? As Vanier says we need community, but real community is mucky, a little bit crazy and often quite annoying. But it is only this kind of community that can create the beauty, truth and the love we all need.

These kinds of questions demand that we reconsider many of our common assumptions about how best to organise society and the welfare state:

Income security – Does it make sense to impose the highest taxes on the poorest, and to load people with stigma or try and control them with sanctions and the patronising Work Programme?

Education – Why do we need to regulate teachers and schools as if Whitehall knows best? Why do we rank and exclude children who need more help to learn?

Health – Why do we heap unrealistic expectation on doctors and nurses? Why do we keep people in hospital when they would thrive better at home or in community?

Disability – Why do we force people to give up freedom just because they need some assistance? Why do we load special taxes on disabled people and the elderly?

Housing – Why are only some able to buy their own home? Why is it acceptable that some people can no longer be able to afford to live in their own communities because prices or rents have gone up?

The social problems we face today reflect the challenges Vanier describes. Justice means not just a fair set of rules and rights which individuals enable people to live decent lives; much more it means living together, valuing each other and creating a better world.

I will end with the Benediction (blessing) which was composed by Jean Vanier’s sister Therese and which ended the award ceremony:

May oppressed people and those who oppress them, free each other.
May those who are disabled and those who think they are not, help each other.
May those who need someone to listen, touch the hearts of those who are too busy.
May the homeless bring joy to those who open their doors reluctantly.
May the lonely heal those who think they are self-sufficient.
May the poor melt the hearts of the rich.
May seekers of truth give life to those who are satisfied that they have found it.
May the dying who do not wish to die be comforted by those who find it hard to live.
May the unloved be allowed to unlock the hearts of those who cannot love.
May prisoners find true freedom and liberate others from fear.
May those who sleep on the streets share their gentleness with those who cannot understand them.
May the hungry tear the veil from those who do not hunger after justice.
May those who live without hope, cleanse the hearts of their brothers and sisters who are afraid to live.
May the weak confound the strong and save them.
May violence be overcome with compassion.
May violence be absorbed by men and women of peace.
May violence succumb to those who are totally vulnerable, that we may be healed.

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