Manifesto on social hypocrisy

11th March 2005 at 00:00
We claim to be a caring lot, yet we are failing to protect and nurture the vulnerable. A lamenting critic has David Self convinced

The Moral State We're In

By Julia Neuberger

HarperCollins pound;16.99

In Britain we now jail more people proportionately than Libya, Turkey or Burma. We keep more than 2,000 children under the age of 18 in prison. Half of these have, at some time, been in care. A quarter of them have the literacy level of an average seven-year-old. Some 3 per cent of children live in a home where at least one parent or carer has a serious drug problem. Twenty per cent of teenagers have experimented with class A drugs such as heroin, ecstasy or cocaine. The unemployment rate for 16 to 18-year-olds is nearly 20 per cent. Britain is not a nice place.

That is the premise of Rabbi Neuberger's "manifesto for a 21st-century society". In it, she considers the plight of five vulnerable groups: the elderly, the mentally ill, the young, prisoners and immigrants. She writes partly from her experience as a south London rabbi in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when she "came into contact with the care system for children more often than I would have believed possible in a middle-class congregation". More recently, she draws on her experience as chief executive of the King's Fund, a charity devoted to the health and healthcare of Londoners, and as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. She is unwaveringly liberal, in favour of care in the community despite its failings: "For every murder by someone with a psychiatric disorder, 70 people are killed in car accidents." She is supportive of social workers, convinced that prison should be as much about rehabilitation as punishment, and against smacking.

But, like all good liberals, she has the ability to see the other side of an argument, and she is careful to support her arguments with evidence. The result is a reasoned rather than a passionate book; one written more in sorrow than in anger. It is also a book with a plethora of statistics. But it is a necessary book in the way it considers the extraordinary contradictions that have developed in our society over the past 20 years.

As she points out in her introduction, many of us personally will face or have faced questions about the proper care of our elderly relatives. We are probably aware of people with mental health problems; we may, indeed, have suffered periods of clinical depression ourselves. We have read "horrendous stories about children in care and what happens when they leave". We know our prison system is a mess and many of us know someone whose family came to this country as refugees. Yet, at the same time, she argues, we have become a less caring, more callous society. "Kindness is not what we value most, nor does it drive the system."

Nowhere are these contradictions more apparent than in our attitudes to children. "We still relish the thought of the family if it is the two-parent conventional model." Yet Britain, she maintains, is not a family-friendly country. So much so that many of us are now loath to have children. "We are so negative about children in Britain that our fertility rate is below China's, which has a one-child policy."

But then, if we do have children, we desperately want to preserve their innocence, while on the other hand allowing them to dress in adult-style clothes, often provocatively. We want to protect them, but simultaneously turn them into "a generation of lazy, unadventurous, computer-loving slobs". We want them to be confident, but we mollycoddle them to such an extent that "ordinary children carry a daily expectation of being kidnapped, sexually abused, or a victim of terrorism". Going to Spain is no big deal for these children; going on London's Underground is.

Our society is superficially caring, yet nevertheless fails "to protect its most vulnerable children from poverty, imprisonment and neglect". Neuberger quotes a wealth of evidence, including the suggestion that anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) are simply sticking plasters that do nothing to heal a sickness. "Asbos may make those who are terrorised by kids feel better, but what will happen to the young people themselves?" She cites the example of a 13-year-old, who has never been charged with a crime, though he is said to be "wild and difficult". As the subject of an Asbos, he cannot now stand in a prohibited street without becoming a criminal.

She produces many other instances of our inconsistencies. Parents and the press suggest a ban on smacking is absurd, yet they throw up their hands in horror at parental "violence" towards children. Last year, the Government supported a compromise that suggested any smacking that caused a "reddening" of the skin should not be allowed, without grasping that black legs and black bottoms don't redden.

Similar stories emerge from our hospitals. A nurse is permitted to insert a line into an elderly patient to allow drugs to be administered intravenously. That same nurse will hesitate to help a dying person drink a glass of water in case choking is precipitated, or even think twice before holding a patient's hand or stroking an aching back, in case the physical contact might be construed as assault.

The author may describe her book as a manifesto, but its tone is that of an understanding preacher rather than a politician trying to secure votes. Her conclusions tend to be generalisations rather than specifics: we should befriend rather than fear the mentally ill; we need to differentiate between the imagined and the real dangers faced by our young; discharged prisoners need a home, a job and a chance not to re-offend; asylum seekers should be treated with respect ("Abuse should be seen for what it is: ugly, racist and cowardly"); and, towards the end of life, older people need to know they can control the circumstances of their own death, be protected from discrimination and expect kindness.

Yet we should not seek to eliminate all risk. Otherwise, as Julia Neuberger argues, we end up in the situation encapsulated by the question: "How many care workers does it take to change an old person's light bulb?" The answer, in one local authority, is four. One should hold the ladder, one should turn off the electricity, one should stay with the old person and the fourth should change the bulb.

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