First Person: Tony Hipgrave -The cared for now reliant on whistleblowers
For well over half a century, we have rightly taken pride in what our welfare state stands for. The moral position that through public funding we assume shared responsibility for the care of our most vulnerable citizens remains an admirable ideal, even if changing demographics make it harder to sustain.
Take social care, for instance. Local authorities – democratically elected and publicly accountable – have for decades provided services and personnel to identify and support those who are unable to manage their lives independently.
Not that long ago, the authority would have employed most the staff involved in the daily care given to people and also owned much of the bricks and mortar.
The relationship between the person being helped and their local authority was a relatively simple one.
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If we did not like what our local authority was doing for us or our loved ones, we usually knew where to go or what to do – including exercising our democratic rights in elections.
Now, all that has changed. The care of vulnerable people is increasingly outsourced to profit-making companies, with the social worker's role frequently reduced to that of intermediary.
The bricks and mortar might be owned by a housing association or private landlord, with varying effects on the degree of long-term security offered. A similar story is happening in the health sector.
New regulatory bodies have evolved, partly in response to the complicated chain of relationships involved in the care of a vulnerable person.
But can they really protect us from possible daily abuses, of the type highlighted by the Winterbourne View or mid-Staffs scandals?
Anyone who has complained to ombudsmen or regulators knows the internal complaints procedures of the organisation in question must first be exhausted. Proof is often difficult and the process often involves months of obstructive or defensive communication. Meanwhile, the abuse may be continuing.
As consumers of services for our disabled adult son, we have arrived at the worrying conclusion that his protection depends ultimately on private-sector staff with the courage to blow the whistle on their colleagues or managers.
At the same time, our experience is that, understandably, staff fear the loss of their much-needed jobs, or other forms of retaliation.
In the future we will all be increasingly dependent on the heroics of whistleblowers. But who, ultimately, is going to reward the whistleblower?
Tony Hipgrave is a former lecturer and consultant psychologist and a voluntary worker and parent of a disabled adult.