The people’s peer

Published

Tom Bonnick speaks to Lord Adebowale, chief executive of Turning Point social care network about disability, discrimination and the growing economic crisis.

It is difficult to reconcile first impressions of Lord Victor Adebowale with one’s notions of a typical peer. He does not own large tracts of land anywhere in the Home Counties; nor does he possess the accoutrements of wealth – a quadruple-barrelled surname, a wing of the National Gallery – that I like to believe are so beloved of the titled class.

Most noticeably, though, he is not elderly, blindingly white, nor a card-carrying Conservative. Lord Adebowale was one of the first so-called ‘People’s Peers’, elevated to the House of Lords for his work as Chief Executive of Turning Point, the UK’s leading social care network.

Turning Point provides services for people with a whole variety of complex needs – drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems and learning disabilities for example. Along with its sister project here, Turning Point Scotland, it has helped almost 200,000 people in Great Britain in the last year alone.

The first thing I want to know is how Turning Point’s work has evolved since Adebowale took charge seven years ago – what problems are the organisation responding to that they weren’t before? His response takes me slightly by surprise: “The needs haven’t really changed, but our understanding of them has, and therefore our service is more sophisticated”. I’m not entirely certain what this entails, and Adebowale obligingly elaborates. “I guess what has changed is the general view that public services need to be more integrated and personal, so we’ve become more bespoke in our intervention. And we’ve grown because the problems haven’t gone away.”

When I ask for an example of how exactly this change has manifested, the answer is a damning one. Adebowale talks with a disarming candour: “Well, there are 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the country, who get a really bad deal. If they were all black, it would be like apartheid.”

A waitress comes to our table and appears slightly alarmed to hear us discussing modern parallels to apartheid, and there is a moment of silence during which the implications of this statement are considered, before he continues. “People with learning disabilities are just like everybody else – they need a healthcare system, they need education, it’s just that they don’t get them. And there’s an awful lot of discrimination and hatred. One of the things Turning Point does is campaign against that.”

Given Victor’s position in the Lords – the enviable one shared by his fellow peers which allows him to be relatively unafraid of controversy, unlike elected MPs – his perspective regarding the government’s handling of social care is a unique one. He is keenly aware of the short comings of present and previous administrations, and does not shy away from making criticisms.

I ask whether government relies too heavily on charities like Turning Point to provide what has typically been thought of as public sector welfare and I am surprised again: “It doesn’t rely enough on them – it relies too much on the private sector, and private sector business models in an area that should be about public service.” And how far does this sort of policy affect Turning Point and other NGOs who share a similar position? “Even though we turn over £100 million, when I get up in the morning I am legally obliged to improve the life of my clients. If Turning Point were a shareholder company, I’d be obliged to improve shareholder value. The difference is quite fundamental.”

Inevitably, our conversation turns to the subject of Britain falling into the middle of the biggest global recession since the ’80s. The implications of economic downturn are huge for the marginalised groups in society whose lives depend on state benefits or individual social care, and my immediate question concerns how financial crisis will affect the most vulnerable people in Britain.

To this, I am presented with a stark picture. “In a lot of ways, their lives couldn’t get any worse. What we are going to see, though, is people making choices of whether to feed their kids or heat their homes – and people will be driven to acts of desperation.”

Of course, what will be of equally significant concern to Turning Point’s clients will be the impact of the recession not only on their immediate lives, but also on welfare policy. Will government become more complacent now that everyone has begun to feel the pinch? “I’m not sure complacent is the right word. There’ll be a reassertion of the idea of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor – certainly some of the rhetoric coming out of the Tories leads me to think that they believe the public are OK with them saying ‘It’s your own fault’.”

I wonder, then, how far this mentality extends into general Conservative mindset, and the response reveals an interesting truth – “In times of stress, what happens is we start to create excuses for abandoning people.”
So does he see any difference between the provision of services in Scotland as opposed to England and Wales? Could he, for instance, characterise Glasgow according to its needs?

The answer, if there is one, is not that simple. “I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between us really. The Scottish system is different in that it’s more individualised; there’s more reliance on not-for-profit intervention in social care. But in terms of needs – the problems are the same.”

Does he consider the model in Scotland to be a more efficient one? “The issue is how the state differentiates in its treatment between not-for-profit and profit organisations. There is a greater tendency for Scottish Government to be –” at this moment he pauses to choose his words carefully, “less in awe of private sector business, which I don’t think is a bad thing.” He is eager to qualify this statement further: “It’s not that I’m anti-private sector, but it has its limits.”

I am curious about Adebowale’s peerage, about which he remains remarkably unfazed, despite it being a rare and outstanding accomplishment. I want to know whether it is a position of which he is proud to achieve, and he answers with a reply that is both philosophical and characteristically blunt. “I’m not sure I’m proud. That’s a funny thing. I think it adds value, but never confuse access with influence. It has its uses.” And how difficult has it been to get to where he is now? “Well, I’m a six foot black guy. I’ve overcome a few barriers.”

As we come to the end of our time together, I ask how he would like to change social policy, and what he sees as its most fundamental flaws. According to Adebowale, our problems with welfare policy and the recession can both essentially be explained by our relationship with tax. “Taxation is the fairest form of distribution, but successive governments have mugged people into thinking that paying it is a waste of money. What they should be saying is, ‘Actually, it’s pretty good value’.”

How, though, has this lie been so successfully disseminated? Surely, I think, the general public would have no qualms with raising taxes against those being rewarded with seven or eight figure salaries. “The super-rich own the means of debate, and it’s impossible to get another view across. And the government now are so frightened by the media they go along with it.”

I am fairly confident that this is not an accusation being levelled specifically towards the Glasgow University Guardian, so I ask what this illusion will do to our economy, to the poor and the vulnerable. “The lie is to pretend it can all be waved away, which it can’t be. It’s really very dangerous.”