A lack of compassion

It's Saturday afternoon, and I have just returned from singing Evensong at Rochester Cathedral. The first reading was the dreadful story of Laban's deceitful behaviour towards Jacob. Laban made Jacob work for seven years in return for a promise of his daughter Rachel's hand in marriage. But at the end of the seven years, Laban palmed Jacob off with his other daughter instead, then made him work for another seven years to claim the hand of the woman he loved. This story is horrible not just because of Laban's underhand behaviour, nor even because Laban treated his daughters as his property, but because of the damage it did to Jacob's family. The rivalry between Rachel and her sister set up deep divisions that led to attempted murder and the disintegration of their family.

Writing in Unherd, Giles Fraser complains about disintegration of family. "Our social care crisis is a crisis of family and community life," he says. And he blames it on what he calls the "Remainers' golden cow," namely the freedom of movement that makes it possible for people to seek better lives in other places:
Ideally...people should live near their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. Instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.
State and private care services, damned in one paragraph. Giles rejoices at the idea that No Deal Brexit might, by shutting the doors to immigrant labour, force people to care for the elderly themselves.

But who should do this caring, if not professional care services? Why, women, of course. Fraser gives an example of what he regards as abdication of caring responsibility:
A South London GP friend told me a disturbing story last week. I paraphrase, but this is roughly it. A woman in her fifties called up the surgery. Her elderly and confused father had soiled himself and she wanted to know if the surgery could send someone round to clean him up. “Did you have children?” my friend asked her. She did. He went on: “When they were babies did you ever contact the state to see if it would come round to change their nappies?” She went quiet. Ouch, what a question.
This made me see red. Fraser says he is "spitting blood" about what he calls the "arrogance and callousness" of the Evening Standard's question "Who will look after our elderly post Brexit?" Well, I am spitting blood at the sheer arrogance and callousness of the GP's response - and Fraser's evident approval of it.

The clear implication was that the woman should give up whatever else she was doing and dedicate herself to caring for her confused elderly father. But women (and men) in their fifties are usually working, often full-time. Many have dependent children. If they give up work to care for relatives, how will they live? How will they support their children?

For me, it was telling that Fraser's example was a woman. In our society, we are quick to assume that a woman's work is less important than that of a man. Her income is not vital to her family, and she shouldn't be concerned about such minor matters as job satisfaction, social bonding with fellow workers and career progression. Her duty is to give up her job in order to care for her relative. As Fraser puts it:
it is the daughter of that elderly gentleman who should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.
Heaven knows how she will survive, if she can't subcontract the care of her relative. Presumably, she will have to rely on her husband to support her - if she has one. I am spitting blood about this, too. Women have fought to be independent of men, to earn money in our own right, to have careers, to use our skills and intelligence to the full. Why must we give up what we have gained? Why must we relinquish our hard-won right to determine our own future? Why should we again become dependent on men? Why bring back the unequal, misogynistic society of the past? It is not so long since even in the UK, women were considered property, at the disposal of men, just as they were in Laban's time. A male Anglican priest telling a woman it is her "duty" to care for her confused elderly father at the expense of her work, her income, her independence is not that far removed, is it?

I could easily have been that woman. I discovered after my father's death that in the weeks before his brain tumour was diagnosed, he had become doubly incontinent. He was managing it himself and concealing it from me. He didn't want me to know. He was a proud and independent man who would have found it deeply humiliating for his daughter to have attended to his personal needs. Fraser makes no mention in his piece of how the elderly feel about the role reversal implicit in a child caring for a parent, and the way in which this distorts the fundamental relationship between the two. Yet on Twitter, hundreds of people who have been in this situation have commented on how hurtful it is, and how much healthier using professional carers is for the relationship.

Anyway, had my father soiled himself while I was with him, there would have been little I could do on my own. I would have had to call for help, as the woman in Fraser's piece did. My father was six foot tall and weighed 14 stone. I could not even have lifted him to clean him up. In the nursing home where he lived for the last three months before his death, it took at least two people to deal with his personal needs. Cleaning up an incontinent elderly man is nothing like changing a baby.

So where Fraser sees a lazy woman who can't be bothered to clean up her father, I see a desperate woman calling for help. Where Fraser sees a reasonable response from the GP, I see a callous slapdown. Instead of Jesus's compassion for a woman struggling under an intolerable burden, I see Pharisaical judgment of her for falling short of impossible standards. Where is your compassion, Giles? Where is your Christianity?

Since publishing this piece, Fraser has insisted repeatedly that he did not mean that carers should only be women. But his dream is even more fantastic than that of the unregenerate misogynist GP who thinks a woman should care for her father as if he is her baby. On Twitter, Fraser said that other family members should participate in the care:

Like hell they will. The evidence from around the world, throughout history, is that extended families don't support elderly relatives or their carers. Both the cared-for and the carer end up impoverished. In some cases, the elderly person is abused, neglected or abandoned.

Nor does relying on families to care for relatives reinforce social and community bonds, as Fraser imagines. Both the cared-for and the carer often feel socially isolated. Depression is common among unpaid family carers. Young carers, of whom there are many, can also find it difficult to continue in education, with devastating consequences for their future. Wrecking state and professional care services by slamming the door shut on immigration can only make matters worse for families with caring responsibilities.

Our social safety net is a combination of state and private care services that provide essential support to families and in some cases replace them as carers. Imperfect though it is, it compensates for the fact that some families cannot or will not care for their elderly themselves. Because of it, elderly people here are less likely to be abused or neglected than they are in countries where there is no safety net. But in the last ten years we have done our level best to shred this social safety net. Why is Fraser blaming "family disintegration" for the parlous state of our safety net? Why does he want to impoverish people, especially women, and put elderly people at risk, instead of restoring the safety net?

Underlying this piece is a thoroughly nasty, divisive message. "Remain is all about ever new opportunities for the rich," says Giles. "Brexit seeks a reclamation of something we have lost. The ability to stay put and care for each other." Fraser's argument is essentially that Remainers are only interested in becoming rich, and will sacrifice family and community to do so. Brexiters, in contrast, will care for family at the expense of riches.

 No, Giles. Staying put and caring for each other is a luxury of the rich. Only those who have money can stop work. Only those with wealth can choose to live where they grew up. If Brexiters can afford to stay put and care for each other, it is because they are rich. For the rest of us, it is not an option.

The scattering of families is not a Remainer "golden cow". Brexiters are just as likely as Remainers to have moved away from where they grew up. My three brothers live hundreds of miles not only from where they grew up, but also from the place where my parents lived in their retirement. I live closest to my place of origin and also to my parents' home. I was my father's carer in the last two years of his life: my brothers seldom visited. Yet I voted Remain, while all three of my brothers voted Leave, and one of them campaigned for it. I am spitting blood about Fraser's notion that Remainers don't care about family. I have cared more for my family than any of my Brexiter relatives.

Freedom of movement has given many of us better lives than we might otherwise have. But we have paid a heavy price for that. In this respect, Fraser is right. In 1988, I left the place where I grew up. I will never be able to return. Nor is there any reason to do so, since the rest of my family are also gone. My brothers moved even further away than I did. And when my parents retired, they too moved away - as do many elderly people. Fraser says "social mobility is very much a young person’s value." But attenuation of family relationships is not entirely due to the desire of young people to look for work in many places. What of the elderly British who have retired to rural areas, to the seaside and to the Mediterranean sun, leaving their families far behind? Is this not "social mobility"? And how are their distant families supposed to care for them?

It took many years, and a natural disaster, for Jacob's family to recover from the disintegration caused by the hatred sown between Joseph and his brothers. Similarly, it will take many years for Britain to recover from the disintegration caused by the hatred that Fraser and others are sowing. The lack of compassion so evident in Fraser's piece is becoming pervasive.

We are all affected by the atomisation of society and the shredding of our social safety nets. Remainers do not rejoice over this, any more than Brexiters do. Most of us desperately want to fix it. We just don't agree that slamming shut the doors to the world, and undoing all the progress that has been made on the rights of women and the support of the elderly, is the way to do it. In the words of the murdered Remainer MP Jo Cox, we have "far more in common" with Brexiters than that which divides us.

Related reading:

The sandwich generation
Market failure
It's not an NHS crisis, it's a social care disaster
Family values and Brexit - EU Law Analysis
A shit argument for Brexit - Wee Ginger Dug (a harrowing description of what it is really like to care for a loved one who is incontinent)


  1. It isn't just giving up work that's the issue, it also means the carer will be unable to save for their old old age and who is going to do the vacated job the carer has left? And just why he tied this problem to Brexit in any way shape or form is beyond me. Thanks for writing this as it was intensely personal for you.

    1. Because Brexit is a conduit for him to express the rage at the changing social fabric of a country that has become more progressive. For those he most express contempt "the working class" aka those below him, he chimes perfectly with the parvenu types who think of themselves as the "elites". Jonathan Portes got it right- know your place

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Why bring back the unequal, misogynistic society of the past?

    I am not sure that its really a thing of the past, especially for low income women. I am not sure that their circumstances has changed much at all in the past 100 years

  4. While nursing homes would be better, I'm very surprised at the question "How will they live"? If they care fulltime then they can claim Carer's Allowance of course. I'm surprised you seem not to have heard of it considering how much you've written about the welfare state and if you've talked to hundreds on Twitter about this problem.

    As for immigration, I don't see why overall reducing it after Brexit (if it happens) is incompatible: workers in social care could be given the right to work here if we choose to write the law that way. But since I think elderly care should be paid for by taxes, and you've written in another post that you think mass immigration is bad for wages, I don't see why one group of health/social care workers should be underpaid.

    1. Carers' allowance is less than JSA. It is not enough to live on.

      I have never said that I think mass immigration is bad for wages. There is substantial evidence that it makes little difference.

    2. It is certainly enough to live on when so many carers are in fact living on it! The best part of a million. That's what the phrase means. And they have little ability to top it up using work since to get CA they have to be caring 35 hrs a week, for those with it as their sole income it's obviously enough to live on.

      On immigration, then I take it here you were considering something hypothetical in the oldsters' mental model? "many people would welcome higher wages. But the other side of higher wages is higher prices. We have become accustomed to cheap food, cheap consumer goods, .... when the middle-aged and old can no longer afford to replace their cars every three years, because manufacturers have weaned themselves off their diet of cheap labour; when they have to cut down on their meals out because pubs and restaurants have put up prices in response to the higher wages demanded by their British staff; .... when the cost of Granny's care home shoots through the roof..."

      The labour is *not* actually cheap because of immigration?

      You also seem to agree with Krugman's model of agricultural periphery to industrial core, applied more broadly to migration between low and high wage countries. If you believe this makes the fortunes of rich and poor countries diverge, then if it ends up holding back economic growth in the poor countries, does it not mean wages in *those* countries will end up lower than they would otherwise be, even if rich countries are unaffected?

    3. I've just realised a working-age CA claimant could usually get Income Support (as then was) as they would meet the IS criteria (low or nonexistent savings or other income), that means at the end of the day their total income would be brought up to £109 a week, plus whatever HB they could get. Unsure how to find the figure they would get under UC into which it's not subsumed, but you get the idea.

      That's quite some difference, and means they would be living on quite a lot more than a JSA claimant. https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/income-support

    4. Anonymous, you have read all sorts of things into my previous blogposts that are not there.

      Firstly, the quotation does not anywhere say that low wages are due to immigration. The causes of low wages include all of the following:
      - the ability of companies to offshore production to lower-wage countries (see Dyson)
      - systematic dismantling of organised labour and weakening of bargaining power
      - systematic reduction of employment protections and workers' rights
      - the growth of shadow employment ("gig economy") and self-employment
      - minimum wage treated as the wage ceiling for unskilled workers in the care and hospitality sectors, eliminating pay progression and differentials
      - the entry of women to the workforce (jobs predominantly done by women tend to be lower paid)
      - the entry of sick and disabled people to the workforce (companies can pay them less by claiming they are less productive)
      - high availability of cheap unskilled labour in some sectors (there is some evidence that immigration depresses wages in industries such as fruit picking, but not across the board).

      Secondly, as far as countries suffering emigration are concerned, those who remain tend to be the unskilled, so have lower wages anyway. The remaining skilled would if anything be able to command higher wages than without migration, because there would be so few of them. The real problem is the hysteresis effect that depresses growth in those countries. This is what concerns me, not migration per se. I think people should have the right to leave their country in search of a better life if that is what they want to do.

      Seems to me you want to build a specific case against immigration. But I do not. Please do not misrepresent my work to promote your own agenda.

    5. Re carer's allowance. Family carers are working full-time and thus often not able to take on other work. The maximum income a full-time family carer can have is £120 per week. The national living wage is currently £7.83 per hour, rising to £8.21 in April. A full-time job (35 hours) at the national living wage thus pays £274.05 per week. Carers thus earn less than half the amount the Government says is enough to live on.

    6. Frances, I was not trying to build a case against immigration there at all, and I resent your jumping to that conclusion. The confusion was caused by your own use of the phrase "cheap labour" to describe immigrants. Especially when you follow that by discussing what higher wages would mean.

      Depressed growth through hysteresis for those countries would be a side-effect of emigration, but lower growth does mean lower future wages there does it not? We want economic growth so we can have higher real wages.

    7. As for the amount the govt says ppl can live on, the applicable amount in benefit calculations is literally described in award letters as "the amount the government says you need to live on"! IS claimants are receiving that amount. You began the post with "how will they live?" switched to "CA is lower than JSA" and have ended up at "it's lower than the minimum wage". You also mentioned full-time carers with dependent kids, and of course on IS or UC the applicable amount will be increased accordingly for each dependent child.

      This is not to say carers on benefits have a good income, and by all means propose increasing it if you like, but that they can and do "live" today! And you apparently thought they were entitled to far less benefit (or benefit plus wages) than they in fact are. I don't think either Fraser or you should be making such big assumptions without looking it up and thinking it through properly.

    8. I found a thing with stats about the caseload, I will post sth about it when I get home.

    9. Anonymous,

      1). Please sign your post with your name. I do not like talking to an anonymous account,

      2) it is very evident that you are trying to build a case against immigration by misrepresenting my work. Indeed you have just done it again. Nowhere have I equated cheap labour with immigrants.

      3) Family carers are working full-time as carers, therefore the correct equivalence is not with benefits but with earned income. The National Living Wage is the minimum amount that the government says those who are working need to earn in order to live. Family carers earn less than half that.

      It's a bit rich you complaining about assumptions when you make so many yourself.

  5. Anonymous, I have deleted all the comments signed "Sine Language", since this is not a name. Please respect my request to identify yourself.

    1. Well that's really not good Frances when bill 40 and institutional economist are using pseudonyms. Will John Smyth, not my real name, do?


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