Responsibility: A matter of morality or necessity? (With guest co-writer, Jack Nicholls)
I am grateful to Jack Nicholls for originating the idea for this blog and for doing the vast majority of the work on it.
A recent press release from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) speaks of a ‘national emergency for social care’ and asks for people to take a range of measures to mitigate the crisis presented by a double whammy of increasing demand for support and staff shortages as a result of the surging Omicron variant of covid-19. These include a plea to people to ‘provide care and support for family members who need it’.
The release is stark in its analysis, raising the possibility of deaths as a result of councils struggling to meet people’s needs:
‘We are making incredibly difficult decisions about who gets care, how much care they get and who misses out — with obvious concerns that this will lead to people becoming isolated and, ultimately, to the loss of lives.’ (ADASS, December 22nd 2021)
The unacknowledged backdrop to this remarkable, unprecedented plea is the years of politically-chosen austerity that has had local authorities struggling to meet the social care needs of their populations long before the onset of the global pandemic. If the tipping point was reached some time ago, we are now surely falling headlong into the abyss, with dire consequences for people who need care and support.
A few weeks prior to the ADASS press release the Conservative leader of Peterborough City Council, Wayne Fitzgerald, was reported in the media as saying that, because of financial constraints on the council’s budget, Peterborough local authority would be seeking to ‘manage down’ demand for adult social care among Peterborough’s population.
Local authorities having to make this kind of decision in the face of years of politically chosen austerity is, regrettably, nothing new. For years, councils of all political stripes have had to apply constraints on their budgets for vital services to avoid ruinous overspends. What was particularly noteworthy in this case, however, was Fitzgerald’s reference to expecting people — particularly the families of those who might otherwise receive support from the state — to take greater responsibility for providing support to their relatives.
This use of the language of ‘responsibility’ warrants critical examination. If it goes unchallenged, it risks contributing to conditions for a Frankenstein-ian fusion of morality, legality and necessity that can be rhetorically woven together to cover and justify extremely troubling ethical stances. In social work, we highly prize our rootedness in ethics and values. It is therefore germane to our professional identity, and day-to-day activity, to examine what this discourse of responsibility means for us as a way of gaining a deeper understanding of what it means for the people we hope and aim to support.
There are two broad ways to look at responsibility in relation to any issue, and certainly in respect of meeting social need. If we take a moralistic view of responsibility, we are arguing that it is generally right for a person, group, community, or institution to take responsibility for managing or resolving an aspect of life in almost all circumstances. For example, if we were to make an argument that, in having a family, a person has by default a responsibility to meet the care needs of the members of that family up to a point or threshold of severity, we are taking a moral stance about the nature and reach of responsibility. In this moral argument, it is irrelevant whether the council has sufficient funds available (or not) to meet that need, because it is generally morally acceptable that a person be responsible for meeting relatives’ care needs up to a certain point. In other words, the morality of that responsibility stands under all circumstances, regardless of resources.
This responsibility-as-morality argument stands apart from the argument that families must take more responsibility for their loved ones’ needs as a consequence of insufficient local authority funding. Rather than positing people as being inherently morally responsible for the care of their relatives, irrespective of other factors, this second argument starts from the position that only people who have a given level of need are entitled to have that need met (vis a vis ‘eligibility criteria’). It follows, then, that someone must be responsible for meeting that need. However the precise division of responsibilities in meeting that need (how much support the local authority provides versus how much family and friends provide) is largely determined by the resources available to the local authority. So, when the local authority has fewer resources, more responsibility for meeting social care needs is passed to families and communities. This is the responsibility-as-necessity argument. Following the logic of this argument, it would therefore be reasonable to assume that as soon as the local authority has access to more funds it would be in a position to lift that responsibility from family members and once again take it upon itself to ensure that social need is met. It is both unethical and illogical to conflate responsibility-as-morality with responsibility-as-necessity. Yet this dangerous conflation is increasingly deployed by those who advocate shrinking the state’s role in the meeting of social, and other, needs. It is paradoxical to seek to justify a reduction in state provision of services both on the basis of a lack of resources and on the basis of a moral imperative.
Put it this way, if it is a person’s responsibility to look after their relatives because the state doesn’t have enough money, it cannot also be the case that it is their responsibility to look after their relatives because it has always been the right thing to do. It can be argued that we have a right to expect our care needs to be met, but that is not the same as saying we have a right to expect our care needs to be met by our relatives. An increased burden of responsibility-as-necessity placed upon a person to meet their relatives’ care needs because the local authority cannot meet that need, does not fit with the responsibility-as-morality argument that the state should not meet that need, families should. As the leader of Peterborough council has it, the local authority has no choice but to abdicate its responsibility-as-necessity and seeks to justify this by invoking citizens’ responsibility-as-morality.
Apart from being philosophically absurd on its face, and detrimental and unfair to people in need of social support and their families, this rhetorical contortion of ‘responsibility’ effectively tears up the social contract between the LA and its citizens, which is bound by the legal frameworks which delineate the duties and responsibilities of each. It also puts statutory social workers in a truly invidious position. They are being asked — nay forced — to become the arbiters of responsibility. Using whatever frameworks and structures the local authority may impose (or choose to disregard), social workers are the ones who are going to have to navigate a two-faced discourse of responsibility governed by neither rights nor needs, but by rhetoric that shifts between morality and necessity in a way that is convenient to the powerful. The citizen here is neither rights-holder nor empowered market consumer — they are a vassal, with no say whatever over changes in the terms of lease.
A consumerist mindset rarely sits well with social work discourses, but let’s dangle our feet in those waters just for a moment. In the Queensgate shopping centre in central Peterborough there is a McDonalds. If a person were to go there, order a bacon double cheeseburger and be told that they’re very sorry but they’re out of bacon today, they will likely accept that reality and make a choice based on that new information. If however they were told that if they wanted a bacon double cheeseburger, they would have to go and secure their own bacon — and by the way the restaurant was keeping the money it had just charged them for said bacon double cheeseburger — that would be simply ludicrous. Peterborough council, grappling with an unenviable financial reality and doubtless doing their best in the circumstances, have not just told their citizenry that there is no bacon; they have told them that despite having already paid for it (through National Insurance, income tax and council tax) they will need to source their own bacon, and that doing so is the morally correct thing to do. If that responsibility is being placed on people without their consent, they’d be justified in asking for their money back. Here, the great central myth underpinning the marketisation of care is laid bare. There is no choice. And there is no receipt.