‘They viewed these girls as an astronomer would look through a telescope at planets.” That’s how MP Simon Danczuk brilliantly, savagely describes the attitude of social service bosses towards victims of abuse in his constituency of Rochdale. Rochdale, Jimmy Saville, now Rotherham, these child sex abuse scandals should be shaking the government of Britain to its foundations. Instead we have hand-wringing and inquiries, no doubt we’ll see new rules and new guidelines, but real change seems as distant as ever. We still seem to view the world from outer space.
Rotherham reveals three things.
Firstly, as Danczuk says, Britain is governed by people who care more about theory than practice. Too many of our senior administrators follow rules and tick boxes but have no common sense and precious little civility. Too many of our politicians share the same approach, getting obsessed by abstractions rather than things that really work. They’ve both been created by a culture of fear, in which job security depends on wrapping yourself up in red tape, meeting targets, and getting decent headline however bad things might be in the real world.
Compliance beats compassion; due process matters more than doing the right thing. Initiative and common sense have been annihilated in the hunt for a good score or good soundbite.
Second, this is a world where challenge, dissent and argument are silenced, where meaningless worlds like ‘improvement’ and ‘excellence’ are wielded by senior managers – and their political leaders – to assert power. Four years ago a UNISON report said 75% of employees felt bullying was a serious problem in Rotherham social services. Children were ‘treated as numbers’; social workers ‘pressurised just to turn the clients through a mill’. The response of this council, this Labour council to such a damning indictment, was simple denial. The pressure came from desperation to meet the abstract targets needed to get three stars from central inspectors, the Care Quality Commission. Rotherham was made to conform to a set of abstract measures which might have been dreamt up from a distant planet. In space, no-one can hear you scream.
Third, and most importantly, is the total absence of any shared sense of citizenship, any real common life. Complaints about ‘political correctness’ are partly right. But the trouble is far deeper, it’s with an elitist attitude that assumes other people are so radically different they don’t deserve to be treated as decent human beings. The result is moral blindness: Pakistanis are not treated as accountable for rape (‘it’s cultural’), the complaints of working class girls are not worth listening to (cultural too, perhaps?). What cuts through all this is the sense different groups aren’t worth listening to. Society seems to be a series of separate blocs that don’t communicate, and are managed by the bureaucrats. ‘Multiculturalism’, as Slavoj Zizek puts it, “turns into a form of legally regulated mutual ignorance or hatred.”
I was a councillor for four years in a London borough that shared some of the same demographic characteristics as Rotherham. There was no sex abuse crisis, but my experience makes what happened in Rotherham plausible. My political masters thought what mattered most was how many stars their services got in the next inspection. Local democracy seemed to be a platform for senior officers and politicians to prove how good they were at meeting central government criteria. There was no attempt to engage with challenging voices which came from outside. This was a council on the edge. In my first week I discovered the child protection register could be edited by every member of the council’s staff, and blew the whistle on a big corruption case. But our job was to shut up and tell everyone how marvelous it all was.
From this centralist perspective, people from ethnic minorities had their diversity ‘celebrated’, or were courted as members of vote banks – but not treated as citizens whose each individual voice needs to be incorporated into the conversation shaping the life of the place we shared.
My best friend for the first couple of years on the council was our 60-something deputy leader, a man whose father was an activist in the Indian railway workers union, who set up a students union in his school in Pakistan, and then fought for racial equality as a bus driver in Birmingham in the T&GWU during the 1960s. No-one had better Labour credentials, but few listened to these stories. To many middle class white party members, all Pakistanis, my friend included, were seen as conservative and corrupt. The fact they thought all Pakistani politicians were corrupt meant they couldn’t take action at those few who were.
I’m angry I live in a country where 1400 children can be the victims of sex abuse in one town, with so little action from those in power. But I’m not surprised.
As long as we think big abstract systems have all the answers – as long as we allow public officials to wield unaccountable power, to hide behind official procedure rather than use common sense – these crimes will continue. Instead, politics needs to create and nurture public spaces where people can debate, accuse, challenge. Rotherham shows that central regulation doesn’t work. The Care Quality Commission missed the crisis. It’s right party members are expelled for this. But instead of more central inquiries by well-meaning but irrelevant judges, the response to Rotherham should be to open up our institutions. We should force council leaders and officials to justify their actions to public gatherings, and use our political powers to encourage those who are silent to find a voice.
After the succession of shocks we’ve faced, trust in public institutions will only be restored if their leaders stop viewing us all like planets, are forced to get out of the observatory, and have to face the rage of those who suffer. If they can’t, they should go.