Together we seem pretty bad at caring for a small number of vulnerable people and those with needs that are not the experience of most of us. Few of us are ever likely to end up in a police cell or police custody, few of us spend much of our lives on such restricted funding that only state benefits or other financial support stands between us and the loss of a place to live. Few of us are so poorly served by our educators that we are in a worse place when we come out of School than when go in. However if we do fall into one of those categories or many others that I could mention, then it seems we can be inept at caring for one another. Sadly some people want to reduce our capacity to do the good work that is possible, even further because they believe that together we are less suited to carrying out such activities, than we are to addressing our own needs.
Because we tend to use institutional language when we are speaking about the mechanisms of the State, it is easy to forget that we are the State. In 2012 I stood in an election to become a Police and Crime Commissioner and it was impressed on me by the many police officers I met how important the words of Robert Peel are. “The Police are the Public, and the Public are the Police”. The same sort of attitude needs to be applied to those who provide benefits and those who educate and who provide health care. We need to rail against a small number of people whose newspapers and policy documents and speeches want to paint such people as being ‘The other’ just as they want to paint those who tragically die in custody or whose benefits are cut as ‘The other’ until it suits their political agenda to focus on a small number of individual cases for good or bad.
A life lost in custody or in prison is an appalling tragedy for families and friends, it is a tragedy for all those professionals who cared for the person concerned. Sadly we know that occasionally some of the people involved in such cases did not care as much as they should, indeed a few may have gone out of their way to damage the person concerned. In effect the death may be on their hands. By the same token a life lost because someone is so traumatised by a process or a set of decisions that they cannot face tomorrow, or who is expected to carry on with an activity that they are clearly unsuited to is a tragedy. A child placed in the custody of their grandparents, or other relatives without the same form of checks that would be applied to strangers, with a speed that prevents the checks and balances to be applied could so easily be a tragedy. It is clear from the news yesterday that our Home Secretary is disturbed by the 17 deaths in custody or soon after custody over the last year. She and we are right to be disturbed by these deaths. However as a senior police officer stated on the radio yesterday, far too many mentally unwell and young people end up being detained in environments that are unsuited to their needs. This is as much a failure for those people, even if they do not lose their lives in the process. This is something we the state need to address. Colleagues of Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Iain Duncan Smith are men who should be sharing her sense of concern. Both men are responsible for departments of Government that lead to matters that are deeply concerning. As a result of decisions within the NHS, our mental health provision is woefully underfunded and leads to far too many individuals being detained by the Police when their needs should be addressed in a mental health facility. Only three days ago Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel who works in his department, were speaking critically of Labour MPs who want to know how many deaths have been caused as a result of withdrawal of benefits and obliging ill people to return to work when they are clearly not well enough to go. As an Independent review of deaths in or after custody is to be held, perhaps we can have the same sort of review into the way in which our state has failed to care for other vulnerable people. The problem with an ideology which speaks about a small state, is that all too often it overlooks the need to care for people who actually need quite a large state to do the job properly.