Combatting loneliness in a climate of self-isolation for older housing residents

By Paul Willis, Ailsa Cameron and Brian Beach.

In the current climate of self-isolation, keeping social and staying in touch with others is vital to our health and wellbeing. This is even more important in later life when people’s social networks may start to shrink in size.

Older adults can experience feelings of loneliness due to the loss of intimate connections, such as the death of a spouse or relationship separation, and the transitions associated with later life, such as retirement, the onset of chronic illness, or changes in living environments. We also know that social isolation (being separated from the company of and contact with others who are important to us) over a protracted period of time can trigger feelings of loneliness and have an adverse impact on older adults’ emotional and mental wellbeing.

The current government policy response requiring older housing residents aged 70+ to self-isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic can potentially exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Below are some key messages for those providing support to older residents in housing with care schemes [1]. These messages have been distilled from research projects led at the University of Bristol over the last four years on extra-care housing, loneliness in later life, and social inclusion in housing schemes for older adults.

1) Supporting residents to maintain daily contact with significant others, such as through telephone calls or online messaging, is essential. Many older residents in housing schemes will live alone in their homes. While living alone does not mean every resident will experience loneliness, residents may be missing regular face-to-face contact with family (e.g. adult children and grandchildren) and good friends within the same scheme and the wider community.

Housing staff need a good understanding of each resident’s social networks – who is important to them and who do they call on for practical and emotional support when needed. For example, we know from previous research that older LGBT+ people may regard friends as close family members and hold close friends in equal esteem as biological kin. Supporting residents to maintain the connections that matter to them is really important during this time of self-isolation.

2) We know that some older adults may equate loneliness with thoughts of being socially discarded, not having a purpose, and being no longer valued by others. Now more than ever, residents may value having a clear role they can play to contribute to the lives of others and the scheme where they live. While volunteering outside the scheme is not a viable option, residents could be supported to help other residents, such as keeping in daily telephone contact with those who lack social contact or experience illness or poor health. Other ways of contributing could be through gardening or maintenance activities around the scheme where tasks can be completed solo.

3) While some older residents may already use social media on a regular basis and be confident to extend their use into new media such as community-based WhatsApp or Facebook groups, we should remember that many will have no access to the internet and as a result may become more isolated over the coming weeks and months. For example, preliminary findings from our DICE project suggest that around a third of housing with care residents never use the internet, in contrast to over half using the internet at least once a week.

Our recent research into older men’s experiences of loneliness with Age UK highlighted how much older men who were single or living alone valued social connections with other people through groups, whether that be through clubs, societies, sports groups, or learning with others. While some men were online, it was routine, face-to-face contact outside of the home that was valued and helped keep loneliness at bay. Where feasible within public health guidelines, staff may explore ways in which residents within schemes can meet together each day for a short period of time while maintaining social distancing, for example in open courtyard spaces or gardens.

4) Our previous work with older people living in housing with care settings illustrates how the impact of austerity had already exacerbated older people’s experiences of isolation and loneliness because of a lack of public funding to support social engagement. For these older people, calls to self-isolate may reinforce their sense of isolation and marginalisation from wider society; regular resident contact with housing and care staff is critical more than ever.

In addition, as a result of the new Coronavirus Bill 2020, many local authority obligations bestowed under the Care Act 2014 (for example, in relation to assessing an individual’s needs, determining an individual’s eligibility for services, and care planning duties) have been suspended. As a result, care and support staff will need to be attentive to the additional care and wellbeing needs that residents may have, and housing with care providers may have to provide additional care and support to those older people in need without local authority involvement.

Concluding messages: Other groups have recently commented on the many problems of adopting blanket policy approaches based on chronological age (e.g. see the British Society of Gerontology’s recent statement). We echo these concerns about the ageist assumptions within this policy approach, while recognising that the mortality risk from COVID-19 is associated with age. More than ever, older adults need support to keep in regular social contact with others. If that must be in their homes, they will need assistance to access online technology to facilitate this, and it should not be assumed that digital resources and broadband access are automatically available to them. At the same time, maintaining face-to-face contact, at the recommended physical distance, is equally important and should not be underestimated or forgotten.

[1] By ‘housing with care’ we mean housing schemes that support older adults with independent living while providing care and support if needed, for example extra-care housing, sheltered housing and supported living schemes.


About the authors:

Paul Willis and Ailsa Cameron are Senior Lecturers at the University of Bristol and Senior Research Fellows of the NIHR School for Social Care, England. Brian Beach is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Longevity Centre UK. For more information contact: paul.willis@bristol.ac.uk

Related research:

The Provision of Social Care in Extra Care Housing, 2015-17, University of Bristol, funded by NIHR School for Social Care Research. More information: https://www.housinglin.org.uk/_assets/Resources/Housing/OtherOrganisation/ECHO-summary.pdf

Older Men at the Margins: Addressing older men’s experiences of loneliness and social isolation in later life, 2016-2019, University of Bristol with Age UK, funded by NIHR School for Social Care Research. More information: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/older-men-at-the-margins-how-men-combat-loneliness-in-later-life/

Promoting social inclusion in housing with care and support for older people in England and Wales (the DICE study), 2019-2021, University of Bristol with ILC-UK and Housing LIN, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. More information: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/sps/research/projects/promoting-social-inclusion-in-housing-schemes/

Isolation: The emerging crisis for older men. A report published by the International Longevity Centre UK in 2014. https://ilcuk.org.uk/isolation-the-emerging-crisis-for-older-men/

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Self-isolating and domestic violence and abuse

Dr Emma Williamson, from the Centre for Gender and Violence Research highlights the concerns of the Coronavirus pandemic and self-isolation for people who experience abuse and points to research, resources and actions that can help make a difference.

As many of you will already know, home is not always a place a safety for those, predominately women and children, who experience abuse. The Centre for Gender and Violence Research has been researching abuse for 30 years and the impact of control, manipulation, and isolation on victims-survivors has a profound and lasting impact.  For many survivors going out to work, or going about their daily lives away from the abuse, is what sustains them and keeps them safe.

Whilst everyone is anxious about the current Coronavirus pandemic, for those whose homes are not a place of safety, this is a deeply difficult time.  Calls to specialist helplines often increase after holidays where families spend more time together.

So what can people do?

Be conscious that for some people self-isolating might be dangerous.

Support on-line services. For those isolated at home, possibly with a perpetrator, it may not be possible to call a helpline. On-line services, like that run by women’s aid, is therefore a crucial lifeline and they need support: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/urgent-appeal/

Friends and family members can make a big difference. If you are aware things ‘might not be right’ at a friend or family members home – give them a call. Let them know that they have support, particularly in this time of isolation. More on the impact that domestic violence and abuse has on people providing informal support to a survivor.

There is no doubt that many families will be financially impacted by the current crisis.  Financial abuse and poverty can also impact on families where abuse is an issue. More on Poverty and domestic violence and abuse (DVA) in the UK.

Finally, whilst many survivors will cope and get through this crisis, as they do everyday, the impact of self-isolation might be a catalyst for change.  Support services for survivors of domestic violence and abuse are already suffering from significant funding cuts over recent years and a lack of commitment to their long-term funding.  Ensuring that these services are given the funds to pick up those who need support after this crisis is going to be crucial.  https://www.womensaid.org.uk/what-we-do/campaigning-and-influencing/campaign-with-us/sos/

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Corruption research: Hunting for glimmers of light in the gloom

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Dr Caryn Peiffer, Lecturer in International Public Policy and Governance in the Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research, and her colleague Rosita Armytage of the University of Birmingham reflect on findings from their current project Islands of Integrity.

In most countries that struggle with endemic corruption, discussion of corruption is everywhere. It dominates national newspapers and is the subject of political infighting and point-scoring between politicians. Corruption scandals and allegations are discussed in family homes, social gatherings, and on street corners. Strong opinions and rumours are easy to come by.

But the challenge for researchers is to find people who can shed objective light on where and why it happens. Corruption is located ‘elsewhere’ – always attributed to other sectors, organisations, units, or individuals. For obvious reasons, few will admit their own involvement.

We thought we would have better luck focusing on anticorruption success stories. If people are generally willing to join in a conversation about corruption but reluctant to blame or attribute responsibility, we thought – perhaps naively – that it might be easier to start a discussion about what is going right. Not so.

We have just completed the second phase of our Islands of Integrity research project. In the first phase we scrutinised data from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer and statistically identified potential anticorruption success stories. These are sectors within countries – whether the courts, education, or healthcare, for instance – where the data show a significant reduction in bribery, despite static or rising levels of bribery in all other sectors. In the second phase we have contacted people familiar with each of our potential cases in an effort to vet a handful of these apparent success stories to assess whether they are likely to represent a real reduction in bribery on the ground.

The third phase will focus in depth on whether and how bribery reduction was achieved. In the process of narrowing down to two cases for this fieldwork phase, we’ve had some surprising reactions from a handful of in-country experts.

For a start, most people we talk to are adamant that things are just as corrupt now as they ever have been, regardless of what the data might appear to say. Sectoral experts (NGO officers, advocacy experts, practitioners, academics, and specialists such as criminologists) in almost all the countries our project has looked at have expressed significant reluctance to discuss or even examine data which might suggest that there has been a reduction in bribery in their sector.

Many of those who have been willing to look at what the data suggest have pulled no punches about how suspicious they are of its validity and statistical soundness. Some have refused point-blank to discuss what factors might have been at play during any given period when there was an apparent reduction in corruption. And some, of course, simply didn’t reply. Why, we find ourselves wondering, is it so hard to get a conversation going with the people who might know what really works – and why – in the fight against corruption?

What might all this hesitancy be about? Some clues have been offered by our more communicative (though no less sceptical) respondents. We discovered, for instance, that if we were very clear that our data might only be detecting temporary reductions in corruption, and didn’t necessarily suggest that these improvements had continued or were ongoing, some of our respondents were more willing to get involved and investigate further.

Critically, as other correspondents pointed out, the sectors we are looking at – ranging from land use and health services to policing – are often the focus of intense political contestation. For police forces in particular – our focus in three of the countries we considered – there is the real danger that data that indicate even a temporary improvement might be appropriated to neutralise anti-corruption work. It might be commandeered for public relations efforts by incumbent administrations, or by anyone with a vested interest in prolonging and sustaining corrupt practices.

We wonder if all this adds up to a kind of pessimism. Perhaps experts who feel that there is still a long, long way to go on the anti-corruption trail find it hard to recognise even small or temporary improvements, particularly where apparent shifts are marooned in a sea of nationwide and worsening corruption.

Of course, it is also possible – as one of our most vehement correspondents has told us – that nothing has changed and our data is deceiving us. It may be that the success we think we have identified is an illusion created by poor data, and statistical outliers are, of course, notoriously clouded in this type of suspicion. But it may also be that those fighting corruption on the ground are fearful that any stories about corruption reduction will undermine the urgency of their work and erode the political will to combat the very serious corruption that still remains.

Some pertinent questions have recently been asked by Duncan Green about how the anti-corruption movement can sharpen up its act. But it turns out that researching corruption is almost as challenging as reducing it. And researching success can be particularly politically challenging. Seeking to locate improvements in contexts of ever-worsening official abuses of power can easily appear foolhardy, naive, or downright counterproductive. As researchers, we must consciously balance the need to find out what works in the fight against corruption with the imperative to do no harm.

Nevertheless, we will continue to investigate these glimmers and gleams of apparent improvement further. If we do discover some small – even if only temporary – improvement in one location, it might provide a clue to the circumstances, policies, or politics that can reduce corruption in other contexts too.

This post is cross-posted from the DLP blog (posted 25/07/17).

(Image: Darkday via flickr under Creative Commons)

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Are we really witnessing a great ‘devolution deception’?

Ben-HarrisonjpgAs part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science, a debate took place in Bristol on 9/11/15 on the impacts of directly elected mayors on cities, including contributions from Baroness Barbara Janke, former Leader of Bristol City Council and Member of the House of Lords, Thom Oliver, Political Scientist, UWE, David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol, and Ben Harrison, Centre for Cities.  A lively debate included reference to George Osborne’s plans for cities and city regions, and particularly whether we are witnessing a ‘devolution deception’.

Here, Ben Harrison argues the case against such an interpretation. 

To dismiss the Government’s devolution agenda simply as a “deception” is to opt out of a debate at the very time that real change is finally possible.

I was recently in Bristol earlier this week speaking about the merits of directly elected mayors, when I heard a familiar refrain during the audience Q and A. Far from being a significant redistribution of power from the central state to local areas, the Government’s entire devolution agenda, the attendee said, was nothing more than a “devolution deception”.

This is far from the only time I’ve heard this kind of critique put forward, not least from the national Labour party and its new leader, and earlier this week from the leader of the Liberal Democrats. But does it really stack up – is the Government really deceiving people when it comes to its intentions on devolution?

Let’s examine the biggest concerns that tend to underpin claims that devolution is but a fig leaf for other, hidden policy agendas.

  1. The Cities Bill does not specifically commit the Government to provide any additional powers to local government

A key part of the parliamentary opposition to the Government’s agenda has been that despite the rhetoric, the Devolution Bill does not identify a list of specific policies that will be devolved to a specific set of places, and therefore it won’t allow for the devolution of anything at all.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The Bill is a deliberately generic and enabling piece of legislation that essentially allows for the devolution of almost anything – housing, health, welfare, policing and more – to a local level, and allows for different settlements to be reached in different places depending on local appetite and capacity. The only limit on devolution under the model will be the willingness and ability of local and national politicians to reach agreement on what will be included. And of course the experience in London, where the powers of the GLA has grown significantly since the turn of the century, suggests this picture can and will change over time.

  1. The Government is driving this process from the top down

Yet despite the potential expansiveness of what is on offer, many still struggle to equate the current policy process with devolution because they see the Government setting the agenda and criteria for what will or won’t be devolved within the framework set by the Bill. If it’s a ‘top down process’, how could it possibly be devolution?

The major factor that has led to the current round of city-region deals, featuring more substantial devolution than previous attempts to decentralise, has been the active involvement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne has had to deploy his own substantial political capital to set clear criteria that must be met to achieve devolution, and most critically, in order to prise control away from Whitehall departments (including the Treasury) who instinctively look to control and constrain any moves to push power down from the centre.

That’s why it is not contradictory for the process of decentralisation to be set out and driven from the centre – in fact, in a country where central Government holds almost all the power, it is necessary if we are to see tangible progress made. In 21st Century Britain, the dominance of Whitehall departments, coupled with the lack of power held by UK cities, means that only the authority of the highest offices in the land can drive the devolution of real power to cities and city-regions across the country.

  1. The process has taken place entirely behind closed doors with no public scrutiny

A separate concern relates to the lack of transparency that has characterised the deals currently being negotiated between the Government and city-regions. Unlike in previous rounds of city and growth deals, proposals have not always been made public, and with goalposts shifting, councils have struggled to communicate to their communities and colleagues in the private sector what devolution will mean for their place.

These concerns are understandable and should be addressed as a priority in the months to come – indeed already places are engaging in more detailed consultations on new arrangements for their places. But it is also important to recognise that these deals are being negotiated by politicians at a national level with a manifesto commitment to do so, and locally elected politicians with a mandate to represent the interests of their constituents. Equally, while other approaches may have been possible, the reasons why the process has to date been undertaken in this way are also understandable.

The Government has deliberately eschewed setting out a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to devolution, and has encouraged places to come forward with their own proposals in time for them to be implemented during the coming Parliament. Agreeing these proposals requires political compromise and a willingness to take on, share, and give up different powers and responsibilities. The political reality is that these are often difficult and uncertain conversations that benefit from a degree of privacy, to allow for more honest and frank conversations to take place. It would be much harder, if not impossible, to conduct these negotiations in public.

  1. This isn’t about the devolution of power, but the devolution of budget cuts

Finally, and perhaps most significantly in terms of an accusation that the Government has a “hidden agenda” when it comes to devolution, is the issue of cuts to local government budgets. Many believe that the Chancellor is in essence giving a little with one hand, but taking dramatically more with the other, while leaving councils with the responsibility to deal with the consequences for public services.

There can be no doubt that local government has undergone significant resource reductions since 2010, and as we heard from the Chancellor this week, there will be more pain for the sector to come in this Parliament. Observers are right to suggest such moves signal a concerted effort to change the size and scope of the state, and that doing so raises profound questions regarding the future of public service provision. But to suggest this is some kind of hidden agenda is, I think, misjudged.

Firstly, the Chancellor advertises his ‘austerity credentials’ proudly – they are a key part of his own personal brand and no one can have been surprised that the forthcoming Spending Review will feature more cuts. Secondly, whether one agrees with the ambition or not (and many do not), I think the Chancellor sees devolution as a necessary and complementary factor required to deliver a smaller state. The thinking here is, yes budgets will be dramatically smaller in the future, but the ability of (and imperative on) local leaders to drive efficiencies and new models of public service provision will be enhanced. Of course this is a political and financial judgement, and the merits of it can and will be contested, but on the Chancellor’s terms at least, devolution is not a distraction from austerity, but actually goes hand in hand with it.

It is to be expected that many are suspicious of the impact devolution will have across the country, and that many remain sceptical regarding the Government’s commitment to truly give power away. We have, after all, been here many times before, and failed to see control wrestled away from the central state. Equally, given the scale of public spending cuts planned, concerns regarding the future provision of public services are also understandable.

Yet to dismiss the Government’s devolution agenda simply as a “deception” is to opt out of a debate at the very time that real change is finally possible. It’s true that the prizes on offer today may seem modest, particularly when compared to the kinds of powers wielded by cities in Europe or America. But after decades of centralisation, the real questions those with doubts about the current agenda should be asking is how can we make sure that the incremental reform that is on the table today is delivered; how do we ensure that places do have greater ability to shape the way in which the forthcoming cuts affect them; and how do we ensure that, bolstered by newly established city-region leadership across the country, the devolution deals of 2015 mark the beginning of the story, not the end.

This was first posted on the Centre for Cities blog.

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Why how we measure poverty matters

Tessa Coombes: @policytessa

Tessa Coombes, PhD student in the School for Policy Studies, former councillor, ex-policy director at Business West, and part-time blogger considers the latest debates in poverty measurement as illustrated in an event organised by the Centre for Poverty and Social Justice

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

This blog was first posted on Tessa’s own blog

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Nothing about us without us

medium-313746Agnes Bezzina, Teaching Fellow in social work in the School for Policy Studies, discusses her research on service user involvement of people with a disability.

Parliamentary discussions last month featured an interesting debate on the setting up of a Sign Language Council to advise government on issues related to the development of Maltese sign language.

There was a level of excitement that Maltese sign language, the language of the deaf community in Malta, may receive deserved recognition.

Yet, there was also a sense of disillusion as questions arose concerning this council’s five-member composition, with a requirement for only one of these to be a deaf person.

How can this token representation be considered acceptable in Malta, one of the first countries to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities? Should there not be a legal requirement for the council to be made up of a majority of deaf persons as experts of their language?

The Nothing About Us Without Us collective slogan advocated by people with disability worldwide and radically promoted in Malta at the turn of the millennium contributed to the interest in studying service user involvement (SUI) in social work.

Through my research, I tried to identify the major prerequisites for nurturing service user participation in social work education, policy and practice by using a mixed methods approach in my doctoral study entitled ‘Service user involvement in social work: emergent dynamics in the Maltese context’.

Initially, an online survey was undertaken with social workers in Malta, examining their attitudes towards SUI and their experiences of it. In the second phase, semi-structured interviews were conducted with social work senior managers, educators and policymakers, reviewing their understanding of SUI and its implementation at an organisational level.

Finally, semi-structured interviews were carried out with actively involved service users, exploring their conceptualisation of SUI and their involvement experience. One of the objectives of my study was to examine the nature and extent of SUI in the social sector.

The study exposed the lack of SUI in social work and services in Malta. Despite various conferences and seminars on the subject being organised by social work organisations, its implementation remains sparse.

While the majority of social workers (97.2 per cent) agreed that service user involvement is of value to the social work profession, 80.7 per cent believed that there was room for more contribution by service users in their particular agency or department.

An examination of the social and cultural factors that may impact on the development of SUI revealed three central factors: the smallness of Malta, the dominance of patronage and paternalism and the prevalence of charity and voluntarism.

An analysis of these features brought to light the importance of face-to-face personal relations within a small country. There were indications of the enduring nature of patronage systems highlighted by research in the 1960s, with evidence of patronage and paternalism also permeating service user relations. The charity model was still seen to prevail, although voluntarism was considered essentially desirable and deemed to differ from a patronising charity perspective.

This research also brought to light the difference in perspectives of service users and professionals in relation to SUI. Professionals generally adopt a consumerist perspective, one in which participation is outcome-oriented, has a functional purpose and in which there are no power considerations.

In contrast, service users advocate for a more democratic outlook to SUI, one that is motivated by principle, in which the participatory process itself is crucial and where the focus is on transforming power relations.

Interestingly, the disability sector emerged as an exemplar of SUI in the social sector. Advances in the 90s and the first decade of the new millennium saw individuals from a range of impairment groups, including physical and sensory impairments, as well as intellectual disabilities, being actively involved in various forums. This brings us back to the initial questions regarding the setting up of the Maltese Sign Language Council and the potential impact of not including – or, rather, excluding – people with disability in issues that relate to them.

My research revealed that it was generally the activism of individuals from select service user groups that generated the momentum for greater participation and influence. Participation gives rise to increased involvement and control.

Non-participation, however, results in powerlessness and an acceptance of the ‘observer’ status. This timely research challenges the authorities to reflect on the proposed minimal – arguably tokenistic – involvement of deaf persons on the Sign Language Council and to consider instead a genuine participation on this important body.

Only with such concrete measures will the Nothing About Us Without Us slogan translate into effective SUI that rebalances the power disparity between the social services bureaucracy and those whose well-being depends on it.

Agnes graduated from the University of Nottingham with a PhD in social work. Her degree was funded by the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (Malta), which is part-financed by the EU Social Fund under Optional Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, ‘Empowering people for more jobs and a better quality of life’. This was first posted on the Times of Malta.

 

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Keeping children in care out of trouble

Dr Jo Staines outlines the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies’ involvement in ‘Keeping children in care out of trouble’, an independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.

JS

Some statistics that cause concern: only 3% of children in the community offend in any one year, yet over twice this number of looked after children do so (7.9%, Department for Education, 2011a). Furthermore, despite less than 1% of the UK’s child population being in care (looked after by local authorities), almost 50% of the children in custody are, or have been in care. And, while girls constitute only 5% of the youth justice secure population, 61% are, or have been, in care compared with 33% of boys (Prison Reform Trust 2014).

Along with professional associations, service user groups, academics and practitioners working across the care and youth justice systems in England and Wales, we have been invited to join the Prison Reform Trust’s recently established review of looked after children in the criminal justice system.

We have nine months to explore the intersection of the care and youth justice systems, and how involvement in one correlates with involvement in the other. This will encompass a broad range of care settings, from foster care to local authority residential care and private care settings. To do this we will synthesise and analyse existing research, both national and international; identify current good practice and local protocols; and seek the views of children and young people, their families, foster carers and residential staff about their experiences of both care and justice.

From this evidence base, the review will develop recommendations for national policy and practice and, importantly, an implementation strategy to ensure that the findings of what promises to be a significant review are widely disseminated and embedded within practice.

The State has a legal and moral duty of care to these looked after children, but it is clear that their needs are not always met nor their rights upheld.  This duty of care continues until the young person reaches the age of 21 but many looked after children move into independent or semi-independent care much earlier, and may be at a heightened risk of becoming involved in offending behaviour during this period of transition to adulthood.

Understanding the relationship between care and youth offending is complex: many of the risk factors for involvement in offending behaviour are the same as those that precipitate entry into the care system, such as the experience of abuse, neglect or violence, family instability and poor parenting, disadvantage and deprivation.

However, research also indicates that becoming looked after can both reduce and increase the likelihood of being involved in offending behaviour – the former through providing high-quality, stable placements that promote children and young people’s resilience (Schofield et al, 2012), the latter through looked after children being inappropriately drawn into the youth justice system through processes that may ultimately label and criminalise them for what, in other situations, would be considered ‘normal’ teenage rebellion.  Practitioners are able to cite many examples where looked after children have caused damage to their foster or residential home, or their carers’ property, and have been charged with criminal damage or other offences – action unlikely to be taken by parents against children in their own families (Schofield et al 2014).

Rates of recidivism (repeat offending) for children and young people, particularly post-custody, are high, suggesting that involvement in the justice system itself can exacerbate, or at least fail to address, the difficulties and disadvantage that these children experience.  The need to alternative ways of responding to children who offend is clear and the review will also consider how approaches such as early intervention and restorative justice can be used with looked after children to limit their involvement in offending behaviour.

The key challenges facing the review include maintaining a sharp focus within the intricacies of the two systems, both of which operate within complex and changing legislative frameworks.  Both are bound by the welfare principle embedded within the Children Act 1989 and are guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but other aspects of welfare and justice legislation may, at least at a surface level, appear to be contradictory and to have competing aims.  Tensions exist between promoting the welfare of the child and upholding principles of justice, victims’ rights and public safety, but it is imperative that we find a way to realise this balance both in policy and in practice.

References:

Department for Education (2011a) Outcomes for children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Department for Education (2011b) Children looked after by local authorities in England year ending March 2011

Prison Reform Trust (2014) Bromley Briefings Summer 2014, London: PRT

Schofield G, Biggart L, Ward E, Scaife V, Dodsworth J, Haynes A and Larsson B (2014) Looked after children and offending: Reducing risk and promoting resilience, London: BAAF

Jo Staines is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the BSc Childhood Studies programmes and a member of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.    She is a member of the Prison Reform Trust’s independent review of looked after children in the criminal justice system, and author of ‘Youth Justice’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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Deprivation of necessities has become more widespread in Britain since 1999

134179Deprivation of necessities has become more widespread in Britain since 1999

The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures have seen the most sustained decline in household incomes since the 1930s. In this post, Eldin Fahmy examines their impacts on public perceptions of minimally adequate living standards, and on the extent of deprivation. Based upon analysis of survey data for 1999 and 2012, it seems that as households have been forced to ‘tighten their belts’, perceptions of minimum living standards have become less generous. At the same time the extent of deprivation has increased dramatically.

The 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion survey (2012-PSE) is the latest and most comprehensive in a series of household surveys conducted since the early 1980s adopting a ‘consensual’ approach to poverty which reflect public views on minimally adequate living standards. Since our last survey in Britain in 1999, public perceptions of what constitute the ‘necessities of life’ have become less generous.  Nevertheless, the proportion of adults in Britain deprived of these necessities has increased substantially since 1999.

Poverty in Britain today is widely understood in relative terms as an inability to take part in lifestyles and activities which are customary or widely approved in contemporary society due to insufficient resources.  This requires direct observation of living standards and cannot be established simply be using arbitrary income thresholds. Since Mack and Lansley’s ground-breaking 1983 survey, surveys on poverty in 1990, 1999 and 2012 have therefore examined public views on minimally acceptable living standards and have incorporated these views within the definition and measurement of poverty itself.

One consistent finding emerging from these surveys has been the striking degree of public consensus across social groups (e.g. by gender, age, social class, income level, etc.) concerning the relative importance of different items and activities.  Nevertheless, as deprivation is here understood to be relative to prevailing societal standards we should expect that perceptions of necessities will vary across time to reflect changing living standards, tastes and customs. What, then, do the British public view as necessities of life today and in what ways has this changed since our last survey in 1999?

Table 1 (below) shows the percentage of adults in 2012 and 1999 describing a comparable set of items and activities as ‘necessities’. In both 1999 and 2012 there is widespread agreement on many items, and perceptions of necessities extend far beyond what might be described as ‘basic’ needs to encompass a range of ‘social’ necessities.  As predicted by relative deprivation theory, perceptions of necessities also reflect changes in prevailing living standards and consumption norms, for example, in relation to technological items which have become more widely available (and widely encouraged) over the 1999-2012 period.

Table 1: Percentage of people viewing items as necessities for adults in 1999 and 2012 in Britain

 

table-1

However, one implication of a relative approach is that during periods of declining living standards public perceptions of necessities may also become less generous.  Given the sustained decline in household incomes and living standards arising from the 2008 financial crisis, it would be astonishing if this was not also reflected in public attitudes to the necessities of life.  Table 1 suggests that this is indeed the case.

Many items record a substantial fall in the proportion of respondents who view them as necessities in 2012 compared with 1999, with those items where public support was more equivocal in 1999 witnessing an especially dramatic decline in approval. As household incomes have become more constrained, more basic necessities (towards the top of Table 1) are increasingly prioritised over more discretionary items.  As we argue in our preliminary report, it seems that the public have scaled back their expectations regarding minimum living standards in ways which reflect the prevailing climate of austerity and pessimism.  One consequence of recession and austerity program may be that the British public have ‘tightened their belts’ and now consider many things which in the past were viewed as essential to no longer be necessities.

However, even though public perceptions of minimum living standards became less generous, the extent of deprivation of necessities has nevertheless increased for adults in Britain over this period.  Table 2 (below) shows the percentage of adults in Britain who lack different necessities in 1999 and 2012 because they cannot afford them.  The proportion of adults unable to afford items and activities considered by the British public to be ‘necessities of life’ in 2012 has increased dramatically compared with 1999.  For example, the percentage of adults unable to adequately heat their home has increased seven-fold, and the percentage unable to afford a damp-free home, or to replace broken electrical goods, or to afford appropriate clothes for job interviews has at least doubled over this period.

Table 2: Percentage of adults lacking items because they cannot afford them in 1999 and 2012 in Britain

 table 2 Eldins blog

There is now widespread agreement on what constitutes a minimally acceptable diet for adults, including two meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables daily, and meat and fish every other day.  However, an increasing number of adults are unable to afford to eat properly, with the percentage of British adults who are unable to afford at least one of these dietary essentials increasing from 5% in 1999 to 8% in 2012.  Since Table 2 focuses on the same items measured in comparable ways in 1999 and 2012, there has been an absolute increase in social and material deprivation over this period amongst the British adult population.

Underpinning the growth in deprivation over this period has been a rising tide of income inequality over the 1999-2008 period which ensured that despite a period of sustained economic growth until 2008, the benefits of growth were for the most part not enjoyed by poorer households whose incomes and wages fell further and further behind those of the better-off in relative terms.

Following the 2008 recession there has been a modest decline in income inequality and relative income poverty, but this reflects an overall decline in societal standards rather than any absolute improvement in the circumstances of poorer households.  Although this decline in living standards is also reflected in more restrictive public perceptions of necessities, the extent of social and material deprivation amongst adults in Britain has clearly increased substantially since 1999.  Indeed, these findings reflect the situation in 2012 before the majority of proposed changes to welfare benefits came into effect.  Since these measures are set to hit the poor hard, our findings almost certainly underestimate the true extent of social and material deprivation in Britain today.

Note: A longer version of this article was published in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice (Vol 22, Issue 2) in October 2014.

This post was first published on the British Politics and Policy blog

About the Author

Dr Eldin Fahmyis Senior Lecturer in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. He is a member of the ESRC-funded 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey research team (Ref: RES-060–25–688 0052).

 

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Election Brief: Living standards in the UK have fallen

Professor David Gordon discusses coalition arguments relating to living standards, a key aspect of tomorrow’s general election 

A copy of the full Election Brief is available at: <http://www.poverty.ac.uk/editorial/uk-living-standards-pse-election-briefing>

The change in UK living standards is one of the key contested issues in the May 2015 General Election.  The Coalition Government argues that living standards have increased since it came to power in 2010.  The Labour Party and other opposition parties claim that living standards have fallen.

In March 2015, the Chancellor George Osborne presented evidence in his final Budget that living standards have increased.  This evidence is misleading.  Research from a range of reputable academic studies has shown that average income has fallen over the past five years and poverty has increased.

The latest available data clearly show that the living standards of the UK population have fallen, particularly since the April 2013 cuts in Social Security and other austerity measures took effect.  More people in the UK are now in financial difficulties and increasing numbers are unable to afford both the necessities of life (such as two pairs of shoes) and minor luxuries, such as a one week holiday away from home.  Both fuel poverty and utility bill arrears have increased.  These are the stark conclusions from a comparison of the change in UK living standards between 2009 and 2013, based on early release data recently provided by the UK Government to the European Statistical Office (EUROSTAT).

In 2009, 45 per cent of people lived in households which did not have sufficient money to pay an unexpected expense; by 2013 this had increased to almost half (49 per cent) of the UK population (see Table 1).  The figures also show that, for every single indicator of financial difficulty, more people were having problems in 2013 than in 2009.  It is clear that both serious and more minor financial difficulties are increasing amongst the UK population, with over a third of people in 2013 having difficulties in making ends meet and over one in five people finding their housing costs a heavy burden.

Table 1: Financial Difficulties in the UK in 2009 and 2013

2009% 2013%
Cannot pay unexpected expenses 45 49
Difficult to make ends meet 31 35
Housing cost are a heavy burden 17 22
Cannot afford a small amount of money to spend on yourself each week 14 21
In arrears on rent/mortgage, utility bills or HP during the last 12 months 9 13

The data also compares how the richest two-thirds of the UK populations’ standard of living changed between 2009 and 2013 (see Table 2).  The percentage of people who could make ends meet without any difficulties fell from 69 per cent of the UK population to under two thirds (65 per cent).  Only the very richest (those who could make ends meet very easily) saw no perceived fall in their living standards.

Table 2: No difficulties Making Ends Meet in the UK in 2009 and 2013

Ability to make ends meet? 2009% 2013%
Fairly easily 39 36
Easily 19 18
Very easily 11 11
Total – no difficulties 69 65

The Chancellor’s claim that living standards have risen is fallacious as the National Accounts household sector data that he used are primarily a measure of the movement of money not the living standards of households.  Real Household Disposable Income (RHDI) measures the total income of households compared with the rest of the economy.  There is no information about how the total expenditure or income is distributed at the individual or household level.  Thus, if only the richest 1% have a rise in their incomes, this will also increase the average income in the household sector by exactly the same amount as if the increase had been shared equally by everybody.  RHDI cannot provide a good or adequate measure of living standards.  By shifting attention to the Real Household Disposable Income (RHDI) GDP measure, the Coalition Government has obscured the real impact on peoples’ lives of fallen living standards.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from the available scientific evidence – the majority of the UK population has suffered from a fall in their living standards during the current government’s term of office. Both the poor and the majority have indeed ‘all been in it together’ – only the richest appear to have escaped.

It is a shame that the Coalition Government was not prepared to release the latest statistical information on living standards to the public before the May 2015 election – fortunately, it has recently become available via the European Union.

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Co-production and change for disabled people

VW

Val Williams discusses research around support for disabled people

Social practices can be enabling or disabling

Imagine you are the woman in this picture, a patient going to your doctor to talk about symptoms you’ve been having. The patient here is a disabled woman who is sitting directly in front of the doctor, with her personal assistant taking notes for her, out of the doctor’s direct line of sight. This might seem a trivial thing, but going to the doctor might not always work so well for some disabled people. The doctor might talk exclusively to their carer or to a family member, instead of engaging directly with them. Or of course, they may not have a third party to help them remember what has been said. All these things are important when you want to get good health care, and they may require just a few changes in the way things are routinely done. Kerrie Ford, in the picture above, set up this scene back in 2010 as part of a training pack arising from a research study about support practices, in which she was a researcher.

Although disabled people might traditionally be seen as part of the problem, they can find their own solutions. For instance, in our research about support practices, disabled people suggested and developed ways of getting their messages across, to shift practices and to enable them to challenge inequalities. Disabled people have their own movement, which is now a global one, and have banded together to re-define some of the problems that confront them, and to redress the power imbalances that they face when professionals, practitioners and medical authorities dictate what is best for them. The most pressing issues are to find better ways to understand how to change disabling practices, while we listen to and work with disabled people themselves.  Our new study is aiming to do just that.  ‘Tackling disabling practices: co-production and change’ has been funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) which I lead at the Norah Fry Research Centre at Bristol. Disabled people’s organisations, represented by ‘Disability Rights UK’ (DRUK) are joining with us to explore the ways in which we can understand and theorise change, in a way that really makes a difference to disabled people’s lives, on their own terms.

Disabled people of all ages experience inequalities in society, in every part of their lives. There is strong evidence that disabled people are often amongst the poorest, as the recent poverty survey carried out at the University of Bristol has revealed and that they face abusive or inadequate support practices in everyday settings (Antaki et al., 2007).  Further Pauline Heslop and her team found that people with intellectual disabilities were dying prematurely, with men dying 13 years earlier than non-disabled men, and women some 20 years earlier. Health care is simply not adapting to meet the needs of all. In the UK, most of these problems are the subject of intensive investigation, resulting in legal and policy reform. For instance, in 2011, a Panorama television documentary exposed the abusive treatment being perpetrated against people with intellectual disabilities in an ‘assessment and treatment unit’.  Following this, that particular hospital was closed down and a Government Concordat was signed in 2012, which pledged a reduction in hospital placements for people with intellectual disabilities and ‘the closure of large-scale inpatient services’. Support was also provided for commissioners and practitioners in the form of workforce development, guidance and toolkits to ensure better practice. However, in 2014, a further report acknowledged that:

For decades people have argued for change and described what good care looks like, and how we can commission it….. but the problem remains. Why?  (Bubb, 2014: 17)

The conclusion in the 2014 report is that we do know ‘what good looks like’, and indeed we also know how to get there, but that it is simply too easy to ‘do the wrong thing’.  Yet again, a further series of recommendations ensued, which invoke the rights of disabled people and their families to better community services, along with a system for holding local authorities and other agencies to account.

Why then are some practices so difficult to shift?  Our new project starts in April 2015, and aims to interrogate the turn towards ‘practice’ in social science, in order to see what it can offer to our understanding of what is going on in practice and how the goings-on could be malleable, could be shifted, and maybe made more productive. We do not want to demonize those who are there to provide health and social care support. Indeed, we know that all of us could be inadvertently discriminating against disabled people by the way things are set up – even in our own Higher Education institutions. One of the strands of research in our new project is being led by Sheila Trahar in the Graduate School of Education, to explore the experience of disabled students, from their own point of view, while Sue Porter will lead on research about the experience of disabled academics. Other strands will be led by Beth Tarleton, building on the ‘Working Together with Parents Network’ working with Nadine Tilbury, Danielle Turney and Professor Elaine Farmer, to analyse how to achieve better support for parents with intellectual disabilities; by Pauline Heslop, who examines reasonable adjustments in healthcare provision; and by Val Williams and David Abbott, who build on the approach to micro-analysis of interaction (Williams, 2011) collecting videos and recordings of what goes on between support workers and disabled people. All our research work in this project is about how we can make a difference, and how we can theorise those changes in a way that is useful for social science and for disabled people themselves. Therefore Bernd Sass at Disability Rights UK is central to everything, and in the research strand based at DRUK will be taking forward the notion of ‘user-driven commissioning’ to see how disabled people’s own actions can have an effect on changing local authority and health care structures.

We are particularly pleased that our ESRC project is based on several partnerships. Not only is the DRUK a key partner, but the project will also include Professors Charles Antaki from Loughborough University, Celia Kitzinger from the University of York, Chris Hatton from the University of Lancaster, Alan Roulstone from Leeds, Dr Stanley Blue from Manchester, and Sue Turner from the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTI), as well as Professor Andrew Sturdy from our own Department of Management at Bristol.  We are working with experts across the disciplines, who have different ways of conceiving of practice – from the high level policy and strategic decisions made by government, to the micro-detail of front-line support offered to disabled people. Instead of pointing fingers of blame at particular individuals or institutions, we want to find out more about how to understand social practices, so that we can enable them to change.

Val Williams is Reader in Disability, Policy and Practice in the Norah Fry Centre the School for Policy Studies

References

Antaki, C, Finlay, W.M.L., Jingree, T and Walton, C.(2007) “The staff are your friends”: conflicts between institutional discourse and practice. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 1-18.

Bubb, S. (2014) Winterbourne View – Time for Change. http://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/transforming-commissioning-services.pdf

Heslop, P. et al. (2013) Confidential Inquiry into premature deaths of people with learning disabilities (CIPOLD): final report. http://www.bris.ac.uk/cipold/

Williams, V. (2011) Disability & Discourse: analysing inclusive conversations with people with intellectual disabilities. Wiley-Blackwell.

 

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