Policy, Policy, campaigns & research

Don’t shoot the messenger

A great frustration of the current political crisis is that pressing social problems are pushed on to the back burner, shelved in the ‘too hard to fix box’, or simply denied altogether.

Instead of our politicians cracking on with solving these problems, or at least trying to understand and alleviate them, we’re now on the verge of a full-blown (and self-inflicted) constitutional crisis with tectonic implications not just for our relationship with the EU, but the nature of our democracy, the integrity of the union, and our collective economic prosperity.

Consider social care – a human crisis worsening every day that affects millions of vulnerable people.

It’s not just creating pain and suffering but massive inefficiencies in the health system that cost millions if not billions. This is a systemic problem involving demographic change, drastic long-term cuts to local authorities, and demand pressure on the NHS. It needs a comprehensive solution, which will take lots of political (and financial) capital to achieve – yet what capital that does exist is being squandered. Fresh promises from the latest government again ring hollow – can they even be worth the paper they’re written on?

You don’t need reams of data to see what’s going wrong, just go to any hospital and witness the number of older people, many with dementia, who are stuck on wards because there’s nowhere else safe for them to go. There simply aren’t sufficient places in care homes or support in the community that can give them the care they need to the right standard – or local authorities are too cash-strapped to pay for it adequately. Is this really so hard to figure out?

Take another example: the damage to the lives of tens of thousands of vulnerable and low-income people by benefits reforms – in particular Universal Credit.

We’ve seen a colossal increase in the use of (and dependency upon) food banks which is directly related to these reforms, in particular delays in receiving benefits payments under the new system. The Trussell Trust in particular has bravely stated the facts again and again (and been attacked for it). The latest Spending Review tinkered around the edges, but avoided any fundamental reform.

Britain is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and nobody living here should need a food bank. Full stop. End of. There is no acceptable explanation or excuse for children not having sufficient food to eat in the UK. None. Yet politicians either deny the problem or spin food banks as evidence of the strength of civil society (which in a way they are, but this is deliberately missing the point – and Orwell is rolling in his grave).

Or homelessness – just walk around any urban area in Britain and count the number of people living on the street.

It is visibly a bigger problem than it was three or five years ago. Or cuts to youth services and skyrocketing problems with young people’s mental health. Or climate change – we broke the record temperature in Britain just this summer, glaciers are melting across the globe at a rate we’ve never seen, and Hurricane Dorian just nearly wiped out much of the islands of the Bahamas.

Charities see the impact of policy decisions on people’s lives every day – whether through policy action or inaction – across all aspects of society, at home and abroad. Often, they’ve been set up to respond to these very consequences or to address specific failings in the system. And they have been ‘the messengers’ to political leaders of all stripes for years. Yet their warnings, pleadings, arguments and solutions have too often been patronised, ignored, denied, forgotten, not acted upon.

Too often, politicians’ response to any criticism is to shoot the messenger.

The tactics are all too familiar: attack the credentials, deny the evidence, find fault with the method, spin some small-scale policy proposal as the fix-all to get through the news cycle. As opposed to listening, taking evidence on board, understanding the problem, and developing some solutions that might actually work.

At the moment it seems like our democracy is on fire and it’s easy to despair – that any efforts we might make will just be sucked into the Brexit inferno. But we have to remember if and however we leave we will get through this crisis. Things will be different for sure on the other side – in fact we might even wind up with a realignment of our political system not seen in decades. That could eventually produce some big new opportunities for change.

We can’t forget that things can change for the better – in fact our work shows that it can. We’ve got keep gathering the evidence and pushing it in politicians and policy-makers’ faces, even if they simply can’t listen to it, don’t like it, or attack us as a result. And we have to somehow invest in information and advocacy skills to make the case (‘how’ is in part a big question that funders need to ask themselves).

We’ve got to be determined, brave and relentless advocates for the people we serve. We can’t give up or become demoralised. And above all, we must trust ourselves and the truth we witness.

We must not, as Orwell said, and our politicians so often do, ‘ignore the evidence of our eyes and ears’.