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The Wrong Social Work


Sharon Shoesmith is back in the press again, after publishing a detailed account of how she was deliberately scapegoated for the tragic death of a child in the Borough for which she was head of Children’s Services. Through her own efforts and those of fellow social work professionals and academics, Shoesmith’s reputation has started to enjoy some degree of rehabilitation. The same cannot be said of the profession as a whole. As I write, a Bill is passing through the House of Lords which, if enacted, would take regulation of the profession away from a well-established, independent regulator and make it the responsibility of the state (specifically, the Department for Education). “Will the naughty profession please report to the Headmaster”. The same Bill contains a clause (15) that would allow child protection functions that are currently the responsibility of local authorities to be exercised by private companies. Are these two proposals related? Of course they are.

Back in May, we saw how the Brexit campaign exploited deeply held prejudices and dodgy theories to secure the wrong outcome. The dodgy economics, according to Professor John Van Reenen, consists of the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy (in which there are only a fixed number of jobs), and the idea that migration has put an unsustainable pressure on public services. The prejudice, obviously, is that ‘foreigners’ are a threat. As Van Reenen (and other economists) have repeatedly said, inward migration helps the economy to grow, creating more jobs (more than replacing those ‘taken by foreigners’) and generating more than enough tax income to pay for the additional welfare services needed. Except that the government didn’t spend the money on welfare services, creating a genuine shortfall that referendum voters mistakenly blamed on migrants. It has now emerged that Brexit is likely to be a massive own goal, at least in the world of public services. For example 55,000 NHS staff (including 10% of all doctors) have come from the EU, and leaving it could cost the NHS £2.8bn by 2020. Whoops!

So how does this resemble social work? The dodgy theory? That all child deaths are preventable. The prejudices ares that incompetent social workers and inefficient local authority Children’s Services are to blame. In 2014–15 there were 3,515 child death reviews. Most deaths had medical causes; 60 were the result of abuse or neglect. Overall, 24% had ‘modifiable factors’ or things that could have been done differently that might have resulted in a different outcome. This does not always (or even often) mean ‘mistakes’ were made by professionals. Since 2010, cuts to social care services (for adults and children) have totaled 8% in better-off areas, and 14% in the more deprived parts of the country. These cuts are not reported in the government’s strategy for children’s social care, although it does mention a 27% increase in child protection plans over the same period. In the same way that the shortage of public services is not the fault of migrants, the crisis in Children’s Services is more a product of over-work and under-resourcing than of a skills gap. As Noam Chomsky says, if you de-fund a public service it stops working and people get angry, which provides an excuse to do what you like to it. The government’s current proposals include taking over the functions of Children’s Services that receive poor OFSTED ratings and transferring them to a ‘different organisation’. They also involve direct control of who can and cannot practice as a social worker. This is the connection between privatisation and the narrative of failure in social work. It’s a smokescreen, a convenient cover that plays to people’s prejudices and fits with well-worn media rhetoric. A lot like blaming foreigners and the EU for everything that’s wrong with the UK.

In my view we are moving steadily towards the wrong social work, and the current proposals are another step in this direction. The organisations that provide social work functions are moving away from the control of the people who depend on them, and the skill-set required to practice is shifting from empowering and enabling to ‘intervening’ in ways that people will often experience as unhelpful or hostile. This is wrong, in my view, for a large number of reasons. Going back to the Brexit analogy, the main reason it’s wrong is because it won’t achieve the stated objectives. Taking the (now much more limited) resources away from population-wide prevention and re-allocating them to crisis management can only lead to more crises in the future. Privatisation doesn’t automatically improve performance: the privatisation of Secure Training Centres has led to failure and scandal. Centrally regulating the social work profession will make it more responsive to the needs of government, and less reflective of the needs of service users who already worry that threats to job security are making it difficult for social workers to speak out on their behalves. Factor in cuts to education, benefits and a £22bn black hole in the NHS, and we are stumbling towards a ‘care’ system that won’t provide help if you ask for it, but will quickly put you in hospital or take your kids away if you can’t cope. Do we want this?

Looking back at the Brexit vote, many are now wondering at the lack of a critical debate, and the way in which ill-informed prejudices have pushed us all towards an outcome that few people seem to want. Some are wishing they’d said more before it was too late. I’m one of them, which is why I’m writing this.


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