Opinion

The False Promise

by | 15 Jan 2024

Weekend revelations about profligacy in the body which is supposed to be redesigning children's care services is just another symptom of the profiteering which is undermining Scotland's public services

Regular readers will know I have a particular gripe with The Promise. It is hard to emphasise how terrible a piece of policy-making this was or what an utter waste of resource. And now, inevitably, we learn that Scotland’s governing elite is making bad policy lucrative for themselves. This is why Scotland is failing.

The two key documents (if you’re interested in this further) are Marion McLeod’s report for Common Weal Empty Promise and the weekend’s reporting by the Ferret in the Sunday Post on how The Promise has been burning through money. They are, between them, a damning indictment of the very way Scotland has been approaching government.

In fact I’ll go further than that; they are the culmination of and a concise condemnation of Sturgeonism. If Scotland is to sort itself out it needs to find a way to get away from Sturgeonism and to start again.

Since all the information is in the two documents I mentioned above, I’ll keep this brief. First, why is this such a bad policy? I’ve explained this before, but let me repeat. Throughout the world there are and will always be children who, for whatever reason, cannot be raised (or raised safely and successfully) by their birth parents. Where other family members cannot take on the responsibility, these children end up in some form of care system.

And children in care is an emotive issue, which means it has been studied to more than an average degree. Indeed, there is an enormous body of international academic work on how to get positive outcomes from a care system for young people.

If you go and you look at that work you will find one concept dominates; attachment. During childhood (especially early childhood) children need consistent support and care figures in their lives to enable them to feel the continuity and trust that enables their own cognitive development. A child who is constantly scared or uncared-for or neglected does not have a stable foundation for development.

With older children the issue is much the same; as they move towards their teenage years the nature of their development changes (from more personal to more social), but again the best outcomes will emerge from consistency and security in who they have to turn to.

Any respectable policy expert asked to implement The Promise should have objected on principle since it is terrible policy

This idea of having people there consistently and reliably on your side is at the heart of understandings of positive care outcomes. What none of this literature says is that ‘attachment’ and ‘love’ are the same thing. Parents can love their children very much but, perhaps because of mental health or addiction problems, be chaotic, unreliable and not there when a child needs them.

Likewise, a good carer does not need to mimic or simulate ‘love’ (which you can’t define never mind legislate for) to get very effective care outcomes. They just need to, well, be there, calmly and consistently when a child needs reassurance, protecting, comforting or just someone to turn up at school meetings. It absolutely does not have to be one specific person throughout.

That’s what actually works, a body of knowledge to which Nicola Sturgeon did not seem familiar at the time of her ‘Promise’ speech at the 2016 SNP annual conference. In this speech Sturgeon ‘promised’ that every child in care would be ‘loved’.

At the time Sturgeon was really hammering her ‘mother of the nation’ persona; I noted at the time on just how many of her carefully-arranged photo-ops cast her in a ‘motherly’ role and just how often she posed with children. So the fact that she had a dozen kids from the care system in the front row of the audience with matching cut-out hearts to wave when directed made me slightly nauseous.

So she makes a speech with ‘her promise’ and in one of the most hubristic things I can remember in politics, she actually renamed the policy around early years care services based on this ill-informed personal pledge. Thus we got The Promise.

Understanding how bad this is as policy should be straightforward from the above and you can get a lot more info in Marion’s paper. But it is here that we depart from the ‘policy as image management’ aspect of Sturgeonism to it even less palatable side-kick – the trough.

Any respectable policy expert asked to implement The Promise should have objected on principle since it is terrible policy. But in Scotland, the worse a policy is, the more money there is to be made from it. The list of external consultants sucking millions of pounds out of the care service via The Promise reads like the bog standard Who’s Who of the Scottish gravy train, with reliable indicator of shenanigans Charlotte Street Partners at the top of the list.

Now quite what a lobbying/corporate image management/political consultancy firm is doing anywhere near the delivery of care services is extremely difficult to understand – but that is the norm. Quite why any of these consultants were engaged is a mystery given that Scotland is filled with professionals who know what they’re doing.

What is really disgusting about this whole show is who they are diverting the money away from – every penny going to wealthy consultants is penny not being spent on helping children in care

Or perhaps that’s the problem, because another aspect of Sturgeon’s bogus policy was that everything would be designed by those who experience care, not those who understand it. To give you a direct analogy, that would be like if all the cancer specialists in Scotland were cut out of designing cancer services and instead it was the patients alone who had to design treatment.

Making this whole pile of rubbish stand up involved not only millions being syphoned out of the budget and dodgy governance arrangements (natch – this stuff all goes hand in hand in Scotland) but the plethora of people earning more than £100k a year out to pretend this whole thing isn’t punk. Bad policy, fill the mouths of the elite with gold, publish glossy documents – we’ve seen this before so many times.

What is really disgusting about this whole show is who they are diverting the money away from. Every penny going to wealthy consultants is penny not being spent on helping children in care. It is grim enough when the parasites are cannibalising IT budgets or diverting cash from the NHS, but when they are directly syphoning off money needed for kids in care? That’s hard to stomach.

Inevitably The Promise is failing and Sturgeon knows it. It is failing because there was no chance it was going to work. Her defence this time (it’s never her) is that there are ‘vested interests’ trying to stop it. As best as I can tell she doesn’t mean the parasites; what she means by ‘vested interests’ is care experts who know how fatuous this whole thing is.

This is Sturgeonism in a nutshell. Vanity and image manipulation leading to vacuous fridge-magnet slogans passing for policy which are propped up by giving a management elite opportunities for self-enrichment on condition that they keep faking this policy through.

If I had any power one of the first things I’d do is scrap The Promise completely and give the money to child social work services where it belongs. The same is desperately needed in her National Care Services proposal, but at least a National Care Service is, in principle, a good idea.

The Promise should never have existed and it should never have been tolerated. It should never have become another opportunity for the public sector elite and their consultant friends to stuff their pockets. And yet, not far from a decade later, this farce is doing exactly what it was meant to do.

It was meant to make Sturgeon look compassionate and caring. It was meant to push a bunch of woo-woo theories about how care works based on a consumerist model of care. And it was meant to bribe the delivery elite enough to keep them 100 per cent on board with the Sturgeon project.

On all three counts it has worked exactly as planned. For kids in care? It has been a pointless waste of time and money.

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