After the election – next steps for the Labour Social Work Group

After the deeply depressing results of Thursday 7th May-   we have to find a way forward for another five years through the bleak reality of a far right Conservative government, bent on destroying public services that are publicly accountable and further attacking the quality of life of those who are already suffering the worst effects of austerity.

Our proposed Manifesto for government becomes a Manifesto for a Labour Party (and new leaders in England and Scotland) as the official opposition – and we would like to think for all the left of centre opposition parties as well as many of the cross-benchers in the Lords.

More than ever an articulate and well-informed opposition is needed to fight for the sort of social work service that our ‘labour manifesto for 2015’ argues is essential if social workers are to continue to be effective in confronting deprivation in all its aspects and working in partnership with the increasing numbers of adults and children who need their help.

There seem to us four very urgent issues the group should discuss.

At government department level, accountability for social work is split – mainly between DoH and DfE, but also DCLG (local government funding and cuts have had a huge impact, but also responsibility for the ‘Troubled Families’ agenda – now extended to 400,000 families and including those eligible for ‘in need’ and CP services- plenty of scope for confused accountability or ‘buck-passing between Departments there);  MoJ (with responsibility for the large numbers of social workers employed by Cafcass and the Family Courts) and Home Office (with its crimes against children and vulnerable people remit). This means that, unlike other public service professionals including teachers, nurses, doctors and police, social workers do not have a clear ‘champion’ (or even spokesperson).

Since the election, government and opposition have called for- more and better trained nurses, GPs, teachers.  Has anyone seen a similar call for more social workers (other than the now hackneyed ‘we support Frontline’ – a policy that does not have the support of the majority of social workers and educators, with very few of whom the Labour party has sought discussion. In labour’s very welcome policy for the integration of health and social care services for the elderly, there is no clear plan for the role social work will play, where social work will be best-placed to fulfil that role, and most importantly, where the larger numbers of social workers will come from since numbers have been so savagely reduced by local government cuts.

This brings us back to the parlous state of qualifying and post-qualifying education and training for social workers. A generic, ethically-based, broad social work education is under threat- by 2016, almost 1 in 5 new entrants to social work training will be on a fast-track ‘apprenticeship-model’ specialist training (in which the broader educational and analytical aspects of social work education as it is recognised in the other UK nations and across Europe are cut to the bone). Some very good people are entering these fast-track programmes (who can blame them, the financial incentives are huge compared to the other routes) but they are being sold-short, under-educated for a very demanding career. Once qualified, the opportunity to think around and read more widely, debate, analyse is rarely available- post qualifying education focuses (has to) on the direct skills and specifically focused knowledge for the tasks in hand.

Labour’s approach to ‘child protection’.  During the election period Labour’s focus was (appropriately enough) on sexual abuse and exploitation by people in positions of trust, or by criminal ‘groomers’ and ‘exploiters’. Hence what might seem like an obvious response ‘mandatory reporting’, and with an emphasis on law enforcement.  As far as we know, social workers were not involved in the development of Labour’s policy towards child protection, yet social workers are the ones in the firing line when things go wrong. There has been a narrow focus on ‘child protection’ (as in protection from the worst excesses of child abuse) rather than on a broader approach to helping struggling parents and children. Certainly any proposal to criminalise, teachers, health visitors, GPs social workers who miss the not always obvious signs, will result in more children removed unnecessarily from home, and social workers even more stressed by impossible workloads.

Metal health services have been the subject of much rhetoric, but very little detailed discussion about the role of mental health social workers when compared with the ‘column inches’ on ‘therapy’ and ‘counselling’. Questions that need serious policy debate include whether mental health social work is best housed within Local Authority Adult social services (where at least social workers are respected as a specialist professional group, but where they may be too separated from the other mental health professionals) or within Health Trusts, where integration is achieved, but often at the cost of being able to fulfil their role as professional social workers.

So let’s get involved in a serious debate about all these and any others our members want to prioritise.  After launching the group 6 weeks ago, we have been putting the word about in a quiet sort of way. We already have over 100 members or supporters, and over 250 Twitter followers.  We now want to consolidate support, encourage local groups, and have plans to be involved, with other labour affiliated groups, in meetings at the Party  Conference. We are also planning a meeting with MPs in Westminster, (probably in October) so let us know if you can come. And if you will be at the Party Conference anyway, get in touch so we can let you know about anything we are able to arrange there.

So we really want to hear your thoughts and ideas, and especially are looking for volunteers to take on different aspects of the group’s work.

June Thoburn, Sam Earl, Clive Sellick

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