New research suggests that the work-shy scroungers who many in government believe live off benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ may not actually exist. This follows a recent suggestion that we are now a ‘Downton Abbey style’ society and a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which identifies a ‘cosy club’ of those in powerful positions. The report suggests the UK is “deeply elitist” following an analysis of the backgrounds of more than 4,000 business, political, media and public sector leaders. Small elites, educated at independent schools and Oxbridge, still dominate top roles, suggests the study. I’m not sure we can compare contemporary society to that of Downton Abbey’s Britain at the end of the First World War and into the 1920’s, however, I agree we are headed in a direction reminiscent of the inequality of a hierarchical past founded on privilege and wealth. Worse still, from my perspective, is the growing impoverishment that accompanies the growing inequality in our society and the ease with which those in power seek to demonise those most vulnerable. We have already had government implying the growth in food bank usage is due to individual moral defect when their own research, conducted by DEFRA, suggests turning to a food bank is the strategy of last resort once all other possible strategies have been exhausted by those unable to feed their families. Then we had Ian Duncan Smith’s tall tale of ‘feckless layabouts’, who are characterture villains of the ‘B’ movie variety designed to simplify issues which require significant structural change in approach to education, housing, employment, income and taxation. Then there are Mr Cameron’s ‘troubled families’. They are another stereotype beloved of successive government to blame the woes of their world upon. Sadly, for government, locating problems with individuals is a doomed simplistic approach, as the trouble families programme is discovering. Troubled families are actually people whose lives are out of control due to multiple inter-related problems none of us could cope with easily i.e. poor mental and physical health, poor education, low incomes, rent arrears and poor housing. However, if we look beyond the labels of troubled families and feckless layabouts research suggests many others in society today are also struggling to attain a basic level of control over their lives. Concerns over how to feed the family and heat the home this winter will be the focus of many parents’ efforts. Add to this that many of those homes are damp and in poor condition with families experiencing increased financial insecurity, related to zero hours contracts, and it is apparent that our elected political elite are failing us as a nation when they resort to simplistically blaming individuals. These are actually the price some pay to maintain an economic approach that widens the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society. That inequality thrives within a free market economic system is not really debatable if we accept Thomas Piketty’s analysis in ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’. However, whether inequality matters is debatable, and this is a debate we are yet to have openly in this country. Economist Friedrich Hayek (beloved of Mrs Thatcher) compared the free market to a game in which there is no point in calling an outcome just or unjust. In this context the Food Bank co-exists on the high street with the designer shop and banks for the wealthy without shame. The problem is whether we play the game or not, it is being played with us. Whatever we do or abstain from doing, our withdrawal will change nothing. In essences many in society today are engaged in a game made up of make believe free players where the appearance of freedom masks the dynamic and unpredictable process by which sudden economic change, and ultimately disadvantage, may visit upon a citizen at anytime. With a general election looming it is time to raise the level of debate and decide are we happy to live in an unequal society and are we happy to continue to blame individuals for their own misfortune? If we are happy with ‘B’ movie heroes, villains and solutions we had better hope no such misfortune ever befalls us lest we become those characterture villains so beloved of tabloid headlines and government ministers.
Frances O’Grady suggests we are heading for a ‘Downton Abbey style’ society…..well she would say that, would she not m’lord.
I’m not sure we can compare contemporary society to that of Britain at the end of the First World War and into the 1920’s, however, I agree we are headed in a direction reminiscent of the inequality of a hierarchical past founded on wealth.
Alan Milburn recently suggested the UK is “deeply elitist” following an analysis of the backgrounds of more than 4,000 business, political, media and public sector leaders. Small elites, educated at independent schools and Oxbridge, still dominate top roles, suggests the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission study.
Commission chairman Alan Milburn said the UK’s top jobs remain “disproportionately held by people from a narrow range of backgrounds”. “The institutions that matter appear to be a cosy club.” Some 75% of senior judges, 59% of the Cabinet, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 38% of the House of Lords, 33% of the shadow cabinet and 24% of MPs hold Oxbridge degrees. In contrast, less than 1% of the whole population are Oxbridge graduates while 62% did not attend university, says the study. However, this does not mean such people should not be in these positions, just that not everyone has the same opportunity to reach such positions of power.
One of the reasons ‘ordinary’ people do not get into such positions of power is related to poverty, and the associated powerlessness that accompanies poverty. Research suggests many in society are struggling to attain a basic level of control over their lives, concerns over how to feed the family and heat the home this winter will be the focus of many parents’ efforts. Add to this the fact that about half a million children of school age do not have a computer or internet at home to do their homework, and that many of those homes are damp and in poor condition, and we can begin to understand why for some in society O’Gradys comments may seem very pertinent.
Factors such as poor housing, food and fuel poverty and relentless financial insecurity has a detrimental affect not just the life chances of those who experience them but on wider society. Not many of those in the ‘cosy clubs’ headed by Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg or Mr Miliband have any understanding of how grinding poverty feels. How could they when it is estimated Mr Cameron has a net worth of nearly 4 million, whilst Mr Clegg lives in a £1.5 million townhouse (no worries over a cold winter for either of them I’m guessing, well apart from whether it will affect their election chances), and with suggestions Ed Miliband is also a millionaire maybe Frances O’Grady has a point after all……
Not only were the children of Rotherham sexually exploited, they were abused by the system that was meant to protect them. Structural abuse is defined as ‘the process by which an individual is dealt with unfairly by a system of harm in ways that the person cannot protect themselves against, cannot deal with, cannot break out of, cannot mobilise against, cannot seek justice for, cannot redress, cannot avoid, cannot reverse and cannot change’ I think this adequately sums up the experience of those children who were systematically sexually exploited by their abusers and those same children who were systematically emotionally abused by the individuals and system that was meant to protect them.
The independent inquiry by Alexis Jay should give us all food for thought. Those who had the power to step in and protect those most vulnerable will have to consider engaging in some serious, and brutally honest, professional reflection whilst those now charged with bringing about change are required to ensure they understand the core issue at the centre of this scandal otherwise history will repeat itself. But what is the ‘core’ issue? Certainly some of the media have clearly highlighted the existence of a ‘racial’ element , although, it’s been overly simplified for my subjective taste. We need to also highlight the individuals in powerful positions, from national government to local government, and especially within the police force,who supported the structural abuse which ensured the sexual exploitation of children thrived for so many years. Then there is the core issue of ‘culture’. Cultural issues are incredibly important. Ruzwana Bashir reframes the issue when she speaks eloquently of the under reporting of sexual abuse of Asian girls by Asian men due to entrenched cultural taboos within her community. Arguably, the authorities were also influenced by entrenched cultural taboos attached to the victims of abuse in Rotherham. Alexis Jay outlines the stereotypical views of the young victims which the police and CPS used for not pursuing prosecutions against perpetrators. These included
- the victim used alcohol or drugs and was therefore sexually available – Remember, these were children, 11,12,13 years of age who had been lured into substance misuse by their abusers and/or used substance to block out the horrors of their situation
- The victim did not scream, fight or protest so they must have been consenting – Remember these were CHILDREN, the perpetrators were adult men…..
- Children can consent to their sexual exploitation – yes a teenager may be able to consent to consensual sex, but not exploitation surely?
- Only girls and young women are victims of child sexual abuse – in fact many of the victims were boys
(Read page 75 of the inquiry, if you can face it, for more of the same) Then there was the saddest ‘culture’ of all, after years of widespread knowledge of the sexual exploitation of children one young person told the inquiry ‘that ‘gang rape’ was a usual part of growing up in the area of Rotherham in which she lived’ (p31). This young person is a potential future parent, will she think it ‘normal’ for her children? There are more ‘core’ issues, many more. For me, however, the underlying issue revolves around power. Foucault suggests power is socially constructed and the manner in which power is exercised creates the ‘rules’ within which individuals experience a sense of powerfulness or powerlessness. These ‘rules’ then govern future interactions. For ‘Child H’ ( and many others) the ‘rules’ were writ large when she was found drunk at the age of 12 in the back of a car with a suspected perpetrator (who had indecent photos of her on his phone) and she was not protected, and then again later when she was found in a derelict house with another child and a number of adult males. She was arrested for being drunk and disorderly (none of the males were arrested). Her sense of powerlessness had been well and truly established by this time, reinforced by all her abusers, at every level.
A central tenet of any ‘answer’ to this, or any other abuse, is to understand power is not fixed, power relations are not inevitable, unchanging or unalterable. If we change the ‘rules’ we can change the balance of power. Individuals do not have to be ‘victims’ of power, they can also be vehicles of power, but first they have to be given the tools to change the ‘rules’. Children have to be listened to and believed. Then the wider community have to see clearly that by speaking out the childs’ abuser(s) will be removed from society. For this to happen the ‘rules’ of safeguarding those most vulnerable in society require drastic and fundamental change, at an individual, structural and cultural level and I believe we need to start at a structural level if we want long lasting change.
I do not believe for one instance the professionals involved in decision making wanted any of this to happen, however, I do believe that when exposed to certain organisational cultures their role and practice are corrupted by new social constructions of child protection which are a far cry from those they developed when training to become a professional.