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It is ironic that the service endlessly ridiculed in the backlash against political correctness is now being slated...
It is ironic that the service endlessly ridiculed in the backlash against political correctness is now being slated for racism.

Social services got a lashing from the Association of London Government's race, health and social exclusion commission this week. The report on health and social services for black and ethnic minority people, Sick of being excluded, found every single service user from this group who gave evidence had experienced discrimination from social services because of their race or background.

Although the commission's report refers to the capital, there are lessons in it for councils across the country. Numerous national Social Services Inspectorate reports have come to the same conclusion.

In fact, social services are way ahead of other areas of the public sector in grasping the depth and complexity of racism. They have known for decades that it is difficult, even painful, to address.

They understood in the 1970s that what people from different backgrounds want and need is . . . well . . . different. Well-meaning Becky Bourgeois from Buckinghamshire might have a few shocks in store for her when she tries to solve what she imagines are her clients' problems.

Hence the gruelling and much-criticised training for new social workers in dealing with different cultures. This is not to suggest social services has all the answers. It is likely to be institutionally racist to some degree, although this was not talked about in the ALG report.

It must listen to the findings of the report, which reasserts some old solutions, such as culturally appropriate services, but suggests some new ones too. In particular, councils and health authorities must involve more black and ethnic minority citizens in planning these services.

The report illustrates, like all such reports, the complexity of racism.

It serves to remind us it is not simply about attitudes but about an interlinking set of social conditions that makes life difficult for people.

It shows too often those who most need the services, such as asylum seekers, do not know how to use them, or get a second-rate service when they try.

It shows that even though services have been thinking through these difficulties for some time, the progress they have made is pitifully inadequate.

This is an augur of what is to come for councils in tackling social exclusion, a government priority which will soon be expected to show results. Getting to the most excluded members of society and bringing them back in is no small challenge, even with a concerned and generous government behind you - and this government is only the former.

Councils' weaknesses are going to have to be exposed if real advances are going to be made, particularly if they are to be made without spending more money.

This report was set up by local government and draws on local government's front-line experience of social problems. Let us hope its ideas are allowed to flourish without being ridiculed, or used as yet another excuse to undermine social services.

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