If there’s one thing that disabled and chronically ill people in Scotland have learnt about Westminster in the last four years, it’s that Westminster has totally fucked them. You don’t need me to regurgitate the harrowing assaults of Bedroom Tax, ATOS and Personal Independence Payment which our United Kingdom’s “welfare state” has besieged upon some of the most vulnerable people within our society but, yeah, it happened and it’s vile. At Westminster we have a government which prioritises the needs and wants of big business, bankers’ egos and the richest in our ranks over those of those struggling day in day out with constant pain, isolation, abuse and mental turmoil and by fuck, does it show.
Social workers across Scotland know this only too well as they spend every day scraping together what they can for service users, delivering painful news that people are just going to have to do without, running from client to client in the face of horrendous workloads, and going home feeling fucking shite and guilty at being completely powerless to do more. Scotland’s social services are in a worryingly precarious position. Not only is it heading to an integration with health services which although logical in theory is truly terrifying given the creeping privatisation of the NHS if we stay in the UK, but social work structures themselves are struggling to make the leaps which need to be made in order to grow into a system which can truly work for and with its disabled, elderly, and mentally unwell citizens.
Social work has always been underfunded but with local authorities being forced to make unrelenting cuts in this age of individualism, it has been inevitable that social work and social care has felt the bite just as grimly as other council services. There has been a lot of talk of many a PR exercise in “protecting frontline services” but in many cases that has translated merely into retaining the bare minimum staffing and protection for social workers from compulsory redundancies. All fair and well coz, like, we need people to coordinate, but not so great when there’s no money for anything to, well, coordinate. What is so ironic is that 1970s and even 1980s British social work had an almost exclusively radical agenda where the focus for workers was on challenging and attempting to systematically dismantle the structural inequalities in society. Yet at the hands of neoliberalism and the concerted attacks of the UK government on the poor and vulnerable, social work has become increasingly depoliticised, service-driven and resource orientated.
With a never ending cycle of poorer and poorer standards created by the tender and bargaining process which is now so integral to how councils deliver care, social work departments are working with scraps which are barely able to scratch the surface when it comes to addressing the extent of people’s needs, let alone their wants. This is the scourge of neoliberal social policy at full throttle – the ideology that if you remove responsibility from the public sector and put contracts out to tender in the private and third sectors then you are sure to return both lower running costs and a better services. Anyone with a progressive minded brain however, knows that this is total bullshit and the reality is nothing short of dangerous.
These are businesses, driven by profit and gain, and what is forgotten in the haste to make immediate savings is that care is a unique “service”, not one which can be quantified through input-output data. So yes, for X amount cheaper, agency Y can promise to get your disabled partner up and washed in the morning but they will cram it into the smallest time frame possible (whilst charging council Z for double, triple that time), with little to no space or incentive to build a relationship with that person which will afford them dignity, respect and something to wake up for. If you’re a disabled or chronically ill adult with few resources and no-one to advocate for you, you’ll probably be kept safe *enough* but you’ll most likely be merely existing between 15 minute visits from some disillusioned lassie on minimum wage who’s texting with one hand and passing you your medication with another; or being bussed to a day centre so you can be kept out of trouble and vaguely amused in a fiscally responsible manner. (P.s You’ll also be charged for the pleasure also because as if being shafted by welfare reform wasn’t enough, councils are now so poor that more and more services have become chargeable so that they can actually be delivered).
Staff in these agencies are underpaid, undertrained and treated like shit, with zero hour contracts, no job security, and crappy pensions and terms and conditions. It would be hard not be disillusioned in a job like that, and even if you’re not jaded and cynical, you haven’t the time or resources to install best practice. What results is “care” which is mechanical, unreliable, impersonal and utterly undignified and it galls me that as a society we can accept that this for our elderly and our disabled citizens. Often people don’t even realise until this reality is upon them. Relatives stare aghast, enraged at how little the state is able to offer them in terms of help to do the most basic tasks in life – they’re fine with it until it’s their granny with dementia or their sister with Motor Neuron Disease and they experience first-hand just how dire our “safety net” has become.
It has to be said that in Scotland, social policy has taken some fairly fundamental steps in attempting to tackle some of the key health and social care inequalities which impact heavily on those living with disabilities and chronic ill-health. Free personal and nursing care for over 65s and free prescriptions for all Scottish residents have been major developments and we’ve gone further than the rest of the UK to protect those physically and mentally disabled adults most at risk through Adult Support and Protection legislation which allows social services to intervene in situations of harm and abuse even when that adult has capacity. These are social policies which are really quite progressive and intervention-led, and which make clear statements about the type of society Scotland wants to be.
Now with Self-directed Support legislation the Scottish Government have again made their commitment to social justice and equality for disabled and chronically ill people clear. By creating a mandate which allows individuals to have far greater control over their care, who provides it and how, this is policy making which is undeniably progressive in its spirit to empower service users, to no longer infantilise and de-voice disabled people, to value and give precedence to their lived experiences of their disability and/or health conditions. However, no matter how progressive in its intent, the core of self-directed support is completely stifled in practice. Our devolved powers might allow us to create the legislation, but we are utterly limited by our lack of resources. It’s all very well telling people that they now have the power to decide how and by whom their care is delivered but pretty fucking pointless if you give them a shitey budget and so there are only shitey options to pick from and you’ve got nae money to top it up because the DWP decided that you’re not quite disabled enough for full Personal Independence Payment. So empowering. Nawt.
What’s even more disturbing is that by being restricted by resources, the way of working under self-directed support and outcomes focused structures is very close to slipping neatly into the “big society” mentality pushed by Westminster. Rather than putting actual real meaningful resources into the hands of disabled people, self-directed support is in very real danger of becoming another exercise in taking way responsibility from the state and putting more responsibility and strain on unpaid carers and volunteer-run services. That is not ok. I’ve written about this with regard to foodbanks before – communities and individuals creating emergency responses does not mean that the state can wash its hands of all responsibility, call it the “big society” and allow the goodwill of people who don’t want to see their fellow citizens basically perish to become the a replacement for the welfare duties of the state.
never gets old
The time is well overdue to truly challenge this grotty state of affairs which is only crumbling more and more beneath our feet. If we are a society which believes that the care of the disabled, those with long term conditions, and those with mental health difficulties – our grandparents, our friends, our siblings – are those who should be prioritised by the state then we need independence. An independent Scotland has the potential for truly progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth, away from the Westminster Groundhog treadmill, Tory or Labour, which consistently prioritises our collective wealth towards preserving the interests of the rich, big business and nuclear weapons. No-one expects to wake up to a socialist utopia on the 19th, and I’m certainly no believer that SNP policy alone will ever get us there. But what independence offers us is an opportunity, a new space free from the archaic, classist, Etonian Westminister where we can truly and meaningfully lay the ground for a progressive, radical politics, social policy which is grounded in true social justice, and social work where relationships, empowerment and therapeutic intervention are genuine components rather than tokenistic bullshit buzz words.