Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Putting the record straight

New media is a great way of bringing to wider attention the work done by 'old media' in dissecting and judging claims made by politicians during the campaign. Here, for example, is James Purnell's piece for Channel 4 about the Tories' pledge to cut benefits for people who refuse to work. (Not so much 'dog whistle' politics as placing a great big juicy steak right under Fido's nose.) As James points out, there have always been sanctions. The Tories "are railing against a problem that doesn't exist." He also goes on to expound on some interesting work he's been doing for Demos, on what he dubs 'Liberation Welfare'. Left Foot Forward however, point out that the Tories are proposing far harsher sanctions, and that actually, DWP research shows that sanctions have very little impact on behaviour.

One of the things I've found most - not rewarding, that's the wrong word, not satisfying... interesting perhaps, but more than just interesting... the most interesting and enlightening and heartwarming if that's not too soppy a word, over the five years I've been MP for east Bristol, has been spending time visiting organisations that work with welfare claimants, advising them, encouraging them, and giving practical support to enable them to move off welfare and into work. It's not something that produces immediate results, it takes resources and time, but it's so worthwhile seeing how people's lives can be turned around.

Obviously things like childcare and making work pay (and Labour's manifesto includes a pledge that we will ensure anyone would always be at least £40 per week better off in work) and the logistics of travelling from A (home) to B (work) via C (school or nursery or the childminder) are important, and I've blogged before about how we need to take such things into account, but equally important is a focus on boosting confidence, and just making people realise that, yes they can sort things out, that their problems aren't insurmountable, that they do have something to offer. I've seen this in the past fortnight at the Bristol Drugs Project, at Hartcliffe and Withywood Ventures, and at the Terence Higgins Trust, to name just three, talking to people who at times felt they'd reached rock bottom but have been given a helping hand up.

One of the things that struck me when I was talking to the Terence Higgins Trust though, was that it's these organisations that are actually the frontline services we need to protect under a future Labour government. It's easy just to think of frontline public services as doctors and nurses in hospitals, and teachers in schools, or staff in the job centres. But the Terence Higgins Trust is also on the frontline: face-to-face contact, hand-holding where necessary, being an integral part of service users' lives. And although they get some charitable funding, they also receive a lot of their funding from the Primary Care Trust. (Some criticise this giving of grants to third sector organisations as 'privatisation' of public services, but I've seen so much evidence of them doing excellent work, better and more personalised than a more bureaucratic public sector organisation could.

My fear is that when we talk about protecting frontline services in the face of cuts, the focus will all be on teachers and nurses, class sizes and hospital beds. Of course these are important, and Labour has pledged to protect them even as it seeks to reduce the deficit through efficiency savings. And they will have trade unions fighting for them and so they should. But let's not forget the community-based organisations who are doing valuable, publicly-funded work too, who can't shout as loud and might not be as obviously missed were the axe to fall.

I could now stray into a discussion of Cameron's plans for the 'Big Society' here, and why I don't think it's the same thing at all as what I see and admire in Bristol, but seeing as senior Tories are now saying it doesn't exist, or if it does "it's boiled vegetables that have been cooked for three minutes too long" (eh?) I really think I should preserve my energy.

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