Tory talk of family values covers another betrayal

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The Independent Online
The cockles of many a heart may have been warmed over yesterday morning's breakfast tables. No sooner had John Major uttered the cursed words "family values" than one of his own better-known married back-benchers was revealed in a scandal sheet to have been canoodling with an 18-year- old boy. Broad grins broke out, no doubt, in many households. Tee hee.

But in fact Major had been careful in his use of words when he wrote the article last Friday in The Daily Telegraph to launch his new election themes. So careful indeed, that he in fact said nothing at all. The windy nothingness of his words may be a dismal harbinger of the low level of debate we can expect: family and nation, that's all.

There is not a sentence in it that might not have been said by any politician anywhere. Certainly Blair and even Ashdown could have spoken the very same words: "Both the family and our nation are central to the security of the individual." "The essential purpose of Conservatism (or Labour, or whatever) is to conserve what is good and tried and reform when it is essential to do so ... A society which is generous to those in need, but does not tolerate those who seek to abuse that generosity". (Lack of a verb in a sentence is universal politispeak.) "... A society in which individuals are much more than statistics to be patronised, sorted and ground down by impersonal state bureaucracies". And so on.

These days politicians say less and less. They leave no fingerprints; they preserve deep deniability. If challenged, they never quite said it. They are Macavities who write in invisible ink. And so the significance is all in the spin, telling us what the Prime Minister meant but never in fact said.

This is the Telegraph front page spin from "close aides" and "one source": "Fresh help for families and parents to reassert themselves over faceless bureaucrats and politically correct social workers is to be pledged by John Major as a key theme of the Tories' election campaign." He will offer the "family" and "nation" as a counterbalance to Blair's "stakeholder" society.

But what does that mean, in practical terms? "Mr Major has already pledged a reform of the adoption system in an attempt to stamp out political correctness ... There is concern that too much of what social services are doing in the way they intervene in family life is driven by politically correct views ... It is not their job to focus on every minor disadvantage a child might suffer."

Now all this is distinctly odd. What are the pressing social problems that worry the voters? Crime? Poverty? Fecklessness? Unemployed youth? Neglected or truanting children? Schizophrenics abandoned in the community? Old people failing to get community care? No, apparently none of these. Too many social workers are the problem - interfering with our children, checking on safety in the home, bothering perfectly happy grannies, annoying the weirdos who shout in the street, pestering the homeless in their sleeping- bags, breathing down all our necks and dominating our lives. The new slogan is Free Us From Social Workers! If this is an election winner, well, the mind boggles.

Now "Social Worker" may be an amusing Telegraph portmanteau term of abuse, but out there in the real world, this is what actually happens:

There are children on "At Risk" registers with no allocated social worker. There are now fewer on the register, but probably no fewer children at risk, just fewer social workers to register them. Fewer children are in care, but it is doubtful that there is less need. Many children in foster homes and residential care barely see a social worker from one month to the next. Foster parents at the end of their tether complain they get no help until the relationship has broken down irreparably.

In schools, education welfare is almost a thing of the past. Most teachers struggling with children causing mayhem or with appalling home problems cannot reach a social worker unless the child is in serious danger. The growing number of excluded children roaming the streets often have no social workers, or perhaps one whom they barely see.

Families, (yes, those families Major is pledged to preserve, under stress from illness, drink, depression, drugs, mental problems, and handicapped or sick children) can often get little help until the problem reaches the point of family collapse. Some social workers have a case load of 40 children at risk, where each family should be visited at least once a week and in times of crisis may need much more. If a child dies, who gets blamed first? The social workers.

Seriously mentally ill patients are all supposed to leave hospital with care plans and a named social worker or community nurse. As we know from a host of murders and suicides, it often doesn't happen. Old people who used to be in residential homes can manage in the community only if they have social workers to arrange the right services for them. But many do not.

The Government is in the process of reviewing social services, while boasting that there has been a real increase in resources over the last 15 years. But the closure of thousands of long-stay NHS geriatric beds, council residential homes and mental hospitals means that the extra money is nowhere near enough.

The Telegraph's interpretation of the words of John Major indulges in the dreams of the good old days when no one needed social workers. Responsible adults used to stop children in the street to ask why they weren't in school. They used to look out for their elderly neighbours. "Now, this is seen as the Government's job." This is, of course, social history as utter bunk. If the Telegraph is right in its interpretation, John Major's family values means the state abandoning families in all sorts of trouble.

"Family" can sound like a warm word, or a threat, depending on who's talking. In the mouths of politicians it's always a threat. A good family for all is not something that governments can offer. Tougher divorce laws or tinkering with the tax and benefits system will make no difference.

The one really useful thing that governments can do is to provide enough highly-trained social workers and support services to keep disaster families on their feet. The alternative is to allow them to collapse, and take the children into care. And that, for all his new rhetoric about family values, is what John Major, it seems, now intends to do. The consequence for thousands of children will be wretched.