03 October 2008
Social care should be available to everyone just like the NHS, the president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services tells Vivienne Russell
Not many prominent public sector figures can say they started out as a painter and decorator. But John Dixon, the new president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, has form in this regard.
After an education at a 'very undistinguished' public school and a degree in classics and English from Trinity College, Cambridge, Dixon eschewed the usual career paths open to academic high fliers and went into business for himself.
'I wanted to do something practical,' he says, adding that 'it's improved my DIY no end!' But a couple of years spent running a business, employing other people, pitching for work, delivering the service, controlling costs and so forth all turned out to be a 'surprisingly useful' experience, he says.
Dixon is in London for a day-long round of meetings, so we meet in an anonymous room at the Local Government Association's Westminster headquarters. The room might be dull but Dixon isn't, and he reflects on both his career and the vexed question of social issues with surprising candour.
There's a startling admission. Despite 11 years as director of social care at West Sussex County Council, Dixon says he would have difficulty in finding his way through the social services maze if his own relatives needed care. 'Although I know the big picture, I wouldn't know how in detail to go about securing those services for my own family in my own area,' he says.
That social services are impenetrable, and there is little help available to assist people in making good decisions, underlines just how urgently social care is in need of reform and a matter of social justice, he says. 'Social care is the missing part of the welfare state. People love the NHS, not because the NHS is perfect but because it is there for everybody. Social care isn't there for everybody.'
Of course, the government is trying to replace this missing part. A national debate is under way to try to get a sense of what the public wants and how much it is prepared to pay for. When the debate ends in November, conclusions will feed into the long-awaited green paper, due for publication early next year, which promises a new settlement for social care.
Dixon replaced Anne Williams (now the Department of Health's learning disability czar) as Adass president in April, and association insiders say he has done well to maintain the high profile she created. 'John's extremely acute,' they add. 'He's businesslike and his grasp of his subject goes without saying. He also has a delightful, mischievous sense of humour.'
Indeed, Dixon jokes about being 'very grateful' to ministers for starting the debate barely three weeks after he took over as president, but the timing was actually quite good. 'This is something I've really been thinking about and working on for months and years, and here we really have an opportunity to contribute.'
Dixon was invited to join Health Secretary Alan Johnson and care services minister Ivan Lewis on the Department of Health's platform when the debate was launched in May. He agrees that the invitation was 'pretty significant'. It demonstrates that ministers are willing to engage in an equal dialogue with social services leaders and that this time they are serious.
'I think they are genuine about it. Whether they're going to be able to follow through is a very big issue, mainly because this is a really difficult problem. There have been figures of £6bn being tossed around. I don't think £6bn is going to do much more than scratch the surface.'
But for Dixon, the subject of who pays is less important than what the social care deal is going to be. What can the state guarantee to provide?
The limited number of people who are able to access state-funded care are probably getting a better service than ever before. However, those shut out from it an increasing number, thanks to ever-tightening eligibility criteria are left with nothing.
'It's arguable that self-funders get the worst deal because they are left without good-quality advice and support, and the money that they do spend may not be securing anything like the best deal to meet their needs,' he says.
'So the system is not really working for anybody at the moment. What I think we should be seeing is a universal offer, at least up to a certain level.'
Dixon speaks with an openness and honesty that is refreshing, especially on a topic about which politicians can be frustratingly non-committal, and he is clearly passionate about the issues.
Reflecting on his decision to embark on a career in public services, he recalls a visit to the Cambridge Union by a group of social services managers in the early 1970s.
'They were saying just because you're a first-class graduate doesn't mean you'll get into social work. We're looking for people who have a vocation, are more rounded and a whole load of other attributes and that was the approach to public services in those days,' he says. 'Quite a lot of my generation went into social work because we wanted to change the world.'
After three years of running the decorating business, Dixon worked at Cranstoun, a residential home for drug addicts, then trained as a probation officer. In the early 1980s, together with social workers and voluntary groups, he helped to set up and run a multidisciplinary youth justice team in Surrey, offering intensive alternatives to custody for the most serious young offenders.
He describes this as one of the best jobs he ever had. 'We were wildly successful. When we started in Surrey we had 90 kids going into custody and within four or five years we'd reduced it to five a year. Outcomes for offenders were undoubtedly better.'
Then came a move into social services, and he worked his way up at Surrey, first to head of commissioning, then to deputy director. In 1997 came the move to West Sussex as director of social services.
Dixon's role has changed, as the focus of the service has shifted. The decision to divide social services into children's and adults' services, following Lord Laming's inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, was a good one, he says.
While the split has been fuelled by children's issues, it has given fresh impetus to adult social care. 'There's a very different role for local authorities than there was,' Dixon says.
'Social services departments did tend to concentrate quite narrowly on social care for adults and children, and since the separation there has been an explosion of involvement in adult social services directors and departments away from simply social care. In fact, there has been a question of whether social care is a good term or not.'
With the focus now on community wellbeing, social services directors are increasingly taking on responsibility for services such as housing, leisure and community regeneration. Children's services are also beginning to creep back into the fold. Dixon himself has recently reabsorbed responsibility for children's services in West Sussex, in an attempt to support families in a holistic fashion.
'Children don't come without, normally, some attachment to adults, good or bad,' he says.
Dixon has no children of his own, but is step-parent to his partner's children and has a foster daughter. His experience led him to make some changes to West Sussex's fostering system, including better pay for foster carers.
Fostering, he says, is 'absolutely brilliant. My foster daughter has turned out brilliantly, but she was statemented and regarded as having learning difficulties,' he says. 'But she's passed exams and bought her own house.
'It shows that having support makes the difference.' l