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VIEWPOINT: Why social services will dominate the mayoral agenda, eventually

VIEWPOINT: Why social services will dominate the mayoral agenda, eventually

🕔03.Nov 2011
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HERE’S the elephant in the room.

Birmingham kills people.

Every year, children, old people and vulnerable adults die in the care of Birmingham City Council, and sometimes it’s the council’s fault.

What usually then happens is that the director of social services (or whatever the post is currently named) falls on his or her sword, and an interim director is flown in to sorts things out. They fail and leave eventually, and a permanent director is appointed again after the original fuss has died down, and the cycle begins again.

What the citizens of Birmingham never see, however, is a senior politician taking the blame full-on. Responsibility is devolved and diluted away from the leader’s office, it gathers briefly around the feet of the cabinet member responsible, who handily stands back while the officer cadre in the council takes the hit.

Birmingham’s social services department has been in special measures for two years – meaning the Government doesn’t trust it to sort out its problems on its own. Following the death of a little girl from starvation, inspectors found social workers failed to intervene adequately. The case of Khyra Ishaq was one of a few over a number of years, though given the scale of Birmingham and the number of vulnerable people in the city, some argue it’s remarkable that the actual number is as low as it is.

But that’s not the point – and this argument will be of no use to any newly elected mayor of Birmingham anyway, who will have to stand up and face the public and the media every time another Khyra hits the headlines.

One of the greatest arguments in favour of an elected mayor is that they will be elected on a clearly articulated manifesto, and will be held directly accountable for its delivery. But  no mayor can afford to ignore social care in a city the size of Birmingham.

It’s a problem that neither Boris or Ken have had to face as they’ve blazed the mayoral trail in London. There, the borough councils empty the bins, educate the kids and look after the elderly, leaving the mayor free to win the Olympics, build Crossrail and provide free bicycles. Neither of London’s mayors have been held directly to account for some of the most notorious care and child abuse scandals in recent years.

But Birmingham’s mayor – as well as their core city counterparts – will have no choice. They will be as responsible for the death of a little girl in care as they will be for persuading a company to bring 500 jobs to the city.

And there’s the danger, particularly for candidates from outside the normal party political system, with the perhaps biggest risk to independent ‘business-friendly’ candidates, with little or no experience of the minutaie of town hall politics and the sheer grind of social services.

It will be easy to campaign on the ‘sexy’ stuff such as transport, jobs and Birmingham’s place in the world, but it’ll be the everyday issues faced by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Brummies that will define the success or otherwise of the mayor.

If any budding candidate doesn’t have social services on the top of their policy agenda already, they need their head examining.

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