hope is there for the government’s initiatives to promote social inclusion when
social workers, who are best placed to act as advocates for vulnerable groups,
are themselves feeling excluded? Rachel Downey reports, while service users
explain how social care workers have helped them to turn around their lives.
government has missed a trick in its attempt to tackle social exclusion. It has
dealt out a hand of new schemes, initiatives, and programmes but has failed to
deal social workers in.
of using social workers’ expertise to combat social exclusion, the government
has decided on a top-down managerial approach. It has placed social workers –
one of the main agents of reaching out to the socially excluded – in a position
where they are now estranged from local communities.
despite the myriad of new strategies and schemes – action zones, new starts,
fresh starts – thousands of people are still isolated from society, living in
difficult and often poverty-stricken circumstances with little hope of
improving their situation. Not only has the government social inclusion
strategy failed to improve the lives of many of the people it aimed to help –
as Community Care’s survey of those living in the 10 most disadvantaged areas
in Britain reveals – it has omitted many socially excluded people. Many of the
people with whom social workers work – people with mental health problems;
people with learning difficulties; people who misuse alcohol or drugs; carers;
ethnic minority groups; older people; people with Aids and HIV; disabled people
– have been left out.
social services clients are overlooked and dismissed but are meant to be
grateful" was the view of one of a sample of social workers surveyed by
Community Care. Paul Henderson, director of practice and development at the
Community Development Foundation, agrees. "These groups have not been
profiled at all in the various announcements and policy statements and reports
of the social exclusion unit. They should be as much a part of any community as
anyone else. Given that the thrust of the neighbourhood renewal strategy is to
work with neighbourhoods, these groups have as much a right to be in there.
Social exclusion is not just about homeless people and unemployed people."
government’s insistence that social inclusion can be achieved by employment
ignores groups such as disabled people and those with learning difficulties. In
order to take jobs they need far more than the minimum wage to replace the loss
of benefit. They are trapped.
only have many groups been overlooked by the social inclusion strategy, the
government’s initiatives can actively work against the inclusion of some of the
most excluded people in society. For example, sweeping the streets clean of
homeless people and putting them into hostels often means they lose critical
links with a local community. Pressuring people with mental health problems
into what are basically poor jobs can intensify their problems. Forcing single
mothers to leave their children in second-rate child care to stack shelves in
Safeway is not the answer to social exclusion.
a number of 18 to 24-year-olds who cannot cope with the New Deal,"
according to Bob Holman, a community worker in the Easterhouse estate, east of
Glasgow. "They cannot cope with the discipline, they see it is going
nowhere. They are waiting around and there’s a danger that they become
criminals and get into drugs. They are very bitter about their New Deal
experience. If you ask them has the government improved their lives, they will
laugh at you. Somehow they have to be reached."
is social workers who are in prime position to reach out to disadvantaged
groups. In Bradford, the Empowerment Project, run by NCH in partnership with
the council, is doing just that. Project manager Munaf Patel argues that
inclusion means listening to excluded groups. He works with young people who
have little or no faith that any services will take on their views. "By
the time they get to their teens, they are so far removed from services, it’s
very difficult to get to them," says Patel. "They are on the
periphery, are excluded from school or are in care or disenchanted with the way
they perceive services are delivered to them."
the riots during the summer, the project conducted a series of focus groups to
ascertain the views of young people on crime and disorder. "We identified
a number of hard to reach groups," says Patel. "Young people involved
in substance misuse; young people in care; Afro-Caribbean and Asian young people;
a group of young people from a predominantly white housing estate; and gay and
lesbian young people."
networks of professionals developed over four years – social workers, community
workers, youth workers – staff gathered about 70 young people together to
ascertain their views. These will be fed back into the council to influence its
policies. They expressed fear and anxiety about venturing outside their own
areas. They outlined the racism they were experiencing, towards both Asian and
white youth. Patel says the project is enabling the authorities to gather ideas
about what the excluded youth are thinking. "We tell them that there are
ways of getting involved and expressing your views without firing petrol
bombs," he says.
in Coventry, Harjeet Matharu, who works for the Coventry Voluntary Service
Council, was employed by Coventry Council via the Better Government for Older
People initiative to find isolated Asian elders and ascertain what they wanted
from council services. Her search ended up as an unofficial befriending scheme.
The men broke down in tears when she asked them about their lives. Some did not
get out at all. "It was about getting the anger and the depression
out," she says.
most isolated were those who spoke little or no English. Only five of the 24
Asian elders she identified could speak English. "You could tell how
lonely and depressed they were," she says. "They could not have their
own way. I found that some people who lived in residential care were better
off. They had to ask so much for the necessary things that they feel guilty
asking for anything else."
of the people Harjeet found was Ram Deol, who spends much of his day sitting in
an armchair less than a foot from his wife Jagir’s bed in the living room. She
needs constant care, which Ram provides with some home care support. "I
would like to go out – just for the shopping or a walk. But I cannot leave her
alone. Once I went out for half an hour and came back to find her lying on the
kitchen floor where she had fallen."
couple are very isolated. He has few friends and doesn’t know his neighbours.
Ram had to stop using the local carers centre because there was nobody to sit
with Jagir. "Sometimes I cannot leave her because someone may not
understand her unless they are experienced. She could have an epileptic fit in
the toilet – I would feel it’s my fault."
well as reaching out to the very isolated, social workers can be advocates and
empowerers in disadvantaged communities. As those who participated in the
Community Care survey commented: "We’re the ones with the insight,
information and knowledge"; "social workers have an increased ability
to see the world through their [disadvantaged people’s] eyes"; and
"we can represent a wider view of that particular person’s situation than
any other agency".
despite this expertise, the government has left social work out of its
inclusion strategy. Nick Johnson, assistant chief executive of the Social Care
Association, puts it down to "at best a misconception and at worst a
mistrust in the social care workforce". Perception of social work matters
greatly, he says, and "New Labour was looking for a new solution and new
methods of achieving the solution but social care is seen as an old
Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers, argues that
the government has deliberately omitted social workers because they would not
tackle it the way ministers want. "The government is being prescriptive
about the process. They see social workers as not following their
because social workers hold an unconditional commitment to the people with whom
they work but "the government is epitomised by zero tolerance" and
the two do not correspond, Johnston says. "They talk about consultation
and choice but everything they do is quite different." As one worker puts
it: "The essence of social work values is empowering people, giving them a
voice, independence, the means to fight for what they believe in. Very little
energy has been generated in politics to give the oppressed a voice to speak
with and define their own problems the way they see it."
the Community Development Foundation’s Paul Henderson, it is not so much that
the government has excluded social care workers from its social inclusion
strategy but the lack of resources, the child care pressures, and the
"bureaucracy stranglehold" which have combined to prevent social
workers from becoming involved.
compares the profession in Britain with its European counterparts, in which, he
says, the association with community is still pretty resonant. "Whereas in
this country, there’s been a flight from communities by social workers,
particularly from community development." CDF runs training courses on
community development but only a tiny fraction of the attendees are social
workers and they work in the voluntary sector where they have a bit more
latitude. Its assessment is that most of the new jobs in tackling social
exclusion have been taken up by health professionals rather than local
authority social workers.
even if the government had encouraged the profession to join the battle against
social exclusion, social workers are under such intense pressure they do not
see themselves in a position to do so. Respondents to the Community Care survey
believed that the social work role had been diminished to such an extent that
they could no longer work successfully with disadvantaged people. "We used
to help people set up on their own, now it’s very much statutory work with
unwilling clients," said one. Another remarked: "There can be no
benefit unless resources and staffing increase."
bar one said they did not receive sufficient government support. Said one:
"We’re not backed well at all. There is too much of a culture of blame,
rather than understanding the dimensions and difficulties of such a grey
area." A dearth of resources, poor pay, no time for preventive work,
demoralisation and a complete lack of recognition by government were mentioned.
managerialism in social services; performance assessment; new targets and
standards have all forced social care staff to move away from working directly
with disadvantaged communities and remain stuck in their offices form-filling.
What has been lost is not just the ability to reach out to those who are
socially excluded but the preventive work which is crucial to maintaining
Semahimbo, unit manager of east Birmingham Family Service Unit, points out that
building links with communities is a way of protecting children but this is
under threat. "Years ago, we were able to build a relationship which was
about helping families but it was beginning to be eroded in the early 1980s and
we ended up in a child protection/policing king of role, and the backlash was
that we lost our community role. Those kinds of community development bits have
disappeared almost entirely off the agenda.
new social workers have been trained and older people retire, people have not
had that on their agenda. Statutory social workers cannot do the community
development work and therefore they cannot take up the job offers in the new
initiatives because they do not have the experience." Semahimbo, who used
to work in a local authority, says the only place where this kind of preventive
work can take place is in the voluntary sector.
majority of the social workers surveyed by Community Care argued strongly that
the millions spent on new inclusion initiatives would be better spent on
adequately funding social services. "People who are delivering bread and
butter services feel they are being left alone while all the emphasis, cash,
and spotlight is focused firmly on the myriad new initiatives," says
BASW’s Ian Johnston. They watch while others try and reinvent the wheel, he
Henderson at the Community Development Foundation believes the social work
profession must also take some responsibility for its exclusion. "The
profession has to put itself through some kind of review. It needs to ask how
social workers can relate their responsibilities and their values to social
inclusion and regeneration. How can they act as advocates for people with care
problems and point out their struggle?"
the voices of the profession are extremely sceptical. Ian Johnston believes the
whole strategy will fail and levels of social exclusion will remain unchanged.
Nick Johnson fears the same scenario because the government has no idea of what
an included society would mean. "What will it look like when they are
included? A socially included person is confident, has enough money, feels they
have equal status and are treated fairly, and has access to services and
systems and their environment is designed with them in mind. Nobody has said
the government is serious about improving the lives of the most excluded in
Britain, then it must also end the constant battle that is the everyday
existence for social care clients – the battle against bureaucracy,
officialdom, the state. It must deal a fair hand to those at the bottom of the
pile. As one social worker stated: "Stop being patronising to the
vulnerable, listen to them instead of telling them what will help them."
government’s refusal to abolish the discredited social fund is just one example
of how far it has to go to understand that central heating, new windows, and
the promise of a low paid, insecure job are not the answer to the needs of the
most disadvantaged in society.
care workers know this; they have been saying so well before Labour made social
inclusion its mission. But nobody’s listening.
‘They saved my life’
is Janice Findlay’s verdict on the social workers who helped her to come off
drugs and get her children back. "They made me feel I was worth something,
not just another junkie. I never had that kind of support before."
has three children, who are 14, six, and eight months old. She was separated
from her two older children because she was using drugs and her life was
chaotic. By the time she was 15, she was regularly injecting heroin and other
drugs. She describes herself as being "out of control". She became
pregnant and had her son when she was 18. When he was five, he went to live
with her sister.
life continued to be fuelled by heroin. She had another child who went to live
with her mother. Her life was spiralling downward. She ended up staying in a
homeless hostel for men one night after taking heroin with one of the
residents, as she had nowhere else to go. Janice shows the scars which remain
from the time she tried to kill herself two years ago. It was then that a drugs
counsellor found her a place in drug rehab and after three weeks, she was moved
to another to be assessed for Aberlour Child Care Trust. "I was scared to
trust anyone," she recalls. "But Geraldine (one of the Aberlour
workers) made me feel dead relaxed."
trust runs a range of projects across Scotland. Three provide places where
mothers can be with their children while they are undergoing residential
just after she went into one of the Aberlour projects, Janice discovered she
was pregnant. Four weeks in, she left. "It was nothing do with them – they
were really good. I was trying to run away from being pregnant." She
arrived at her sister’s but had to leave and ended up in a homeless unit, and
finally her own flat.
may have left Aberlour but the organisation had not left her. The staff
continued to provide an outreach service, visiting her regularly. They
supported her in staying off drugs while the pregnancy advanced and she gave
birth to a daughter. She had planned for the baby to be adopted but just before
the birth, she decided to keep the baby, confident that she would stay off
drugs. They also provided support to Janice’s oldest child.
has just passed a six-month probationary period for her tenancy which means she
has secure accommodation in a close. Her three children are back with her. She
is optimistic about the future.
has nothing but praise for all the staff who worked with her: Tricia, her drugs
counsellor; Christine, the family support worker; and Veronica and Joan, two of
the social care workers in the Aberlour project. "If it wasn’t for
Aberlour, I would be in the gutter."
Staff are ‘very supportive’
Ferguson doesn’t venture out of his studio flat in the afternoon or at night.
He is scared of the gangs of youths who hang around his council estate.
fear crime. I worry about the youths attacking me. People have been mugged on
the estate. The estate has a reputation for drugs. Needles are thrown in
people’s front gardens – it’s very dangerous."
is isolated. He lost a lot of friends when he "went through a long period
of extreme mental health". He was talking to himself, would walk the
streets in an agitated state, and would not be able to find his way home. Now
36, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia five years ago. In the last five years
he has been admitted to the local psychiatric hospital seven times. His GP
referred him to social services in 1993 and he was referred on to the Impact
team, an outreach service run by the mental health charity Mind. He describes
the staff as "very supportive".
used to drink a lot but says he cannot afford it now. "I used to drink
heavily. All the money went on drink and I would eat in soup kitchens. Now I do
not drink anything in the mornings." He receives £102 a week in benefits
made up of income support and disability living allowance.
days have a very similar pattern. He rises, eats breakfast, and goes for a
walk, returning at about 2pm. "Then I settle in for the afternoon and
evening." Once a week he goes to the Impact team’s office to collect his
drugs and have a chat with one of the staff. They discuss day-to-day things.
"No emotional stuff just practical."
is buoyed only by the possibility that he will be accepted into a therapeutic
community in Dorset run by the Anglican church for people with mental illness,
or substance misuse problems.
knows nothing of the government’s social inclusion initiatives but is very
negative about their chance of success. "Schizophrenics are excluded
because people do not want them around. All people with mental illness are
excluded from society."
‘She made a big difference’
Smith used to spend his days alone in his bedroom.
is 29, has learning difficulties, and lives with his mother. He had what he
terms "bad anxiety" and had to resign from his job as a dishwasher in
a chain store caf‚. But one initial contact set in motion a series of
interventions which reduced Paul’s isolation.
Burke was key. She is a family adviser employed by learning difficulties
charity Mencap. She met Paul when his mother contacted her looking for support.
"She was at her wits end."
began visiting Paul and organised for a former Mencap job coach to find him
work experience at the local football club. He is still working there part-time
and is in the process of applying for the kit manager’s job.
was at the forefront of Maria’s mind when she set up a drop-in club at the
local Mencap branch earlier this year. Paul needed to get out of the house and
to meet people. "I was coming across others like Paul, with mild learning
difficulties and mental health issues. They needed a place where they could
regularly rings Paul to see how he is doing. "When people are quite
isolated, even if they know I’m on the end of a phone for 10 minutes, it
says attending the drop-in helped him to regain his confidence after losing his
job. She encouraged Paul to attend a seminar for people with learning
difficulties earlier this year, where he met Emma, one of 30 enablers employed
by Mencap thanks to a £2m award from the National Lottery’s Millennium
Commission. The scheme’s aim is to help people with learning difficulties meet
new people and have a voice in their community. Now she meets up with Paul
every week. Paul says Emma has "made a big difference" to his life.
‘Tell them you save lives’
Campbell had it all – he headed a major engineering firm, had a big house, a
company car, a partner and three children, as well as the respect of his
colleagues and friends.
intense difficulties at work resulted in extreme stress and he began to have
panic attacks. He found that alcohol relaxed him and helped him to cope. But it
wasn’t long before drink began to take over his life. The upbeat high-flier who
prided himself on always being in control was soon unable to make a decision.
to resign, he had nothing to do but wonder where the next drink was coming from
and how he would pay for it. "Everything in my life was coming off the
rails," he recalls. "My self-esteem was dropping like a brick. I was
sitting at home feeling really sorry and not being able to communicate with
people. I was afraid to open the door."
weeks into 1998 he told himself he couldn’t face another similar year. He
contacted an alcohol counsellor who suggested a 10-month residential
rehabilitation programme run by the voluntary organisation Turning Point. It
was there that he made the crucial decision never to drink again. "They
let you do it yourself and build up your confidence." After finishing the
programme, John worked as a volunteer for the organisation. Six months ago
Turning Point demonstrated its own commitment to social inclusion by employing
John as its communications and fundraising co-ordinator for the organisation’s
is adamant that without Turning Point, he would now be dead. When his colleagues
bemoan the fact that saying they work in substance misuse, mental health and
learning difficulties is a conversation stopper at parties, John says:
"Just tell them you save lives."
‘I was fed up ’til I met her’
Byrne is frustrated. She is deaf and has learning difficulties. She lives in a
house with four other people with learning difficulties, none of whom are deaf.
There are four support workers who are provided by the local authority. Only
one knows a little sign language. Another is doing a course.
who is 50, spent all her adult life in a convent until it shut five years ago.
She didn’t want to live with the nuns but was given no choice. "I didn’t
know what happened. I was just put there, I was there."
wants to live with other deaf people, people who can sign, or by herself.
"I have just got one room and it’s quite small.
get very frustrated. There’s nobody to communicate with in sign language. I sit
there and all I can do is my word puzzle book. It’s boring." Mary spends a
lot of time alone in her room. "The staff are all right. What I do not
like is that all the people talk but they do not use my language."
works as a volunteer for Change, the national campaign for people with learning
difficulties and sensory impairment. It was here that she met Viv Fox, the
director, who joined in September 1999. Viv sensed Mary’s intense frustration
and began to help her. She learned how to use sign language the way Mary did.
She showed Mary she had rights to expect proper treatment from people in
authority and she taught her life skills.
has applied for her own place and the support staff. Viv agreed to attend
meetings with Mary about her housing application. "I told Mary it’s all
right to complain, to stand up and be strong."
was fed up and totally bored when I met Viv," Mary recalls. Now she
attends an English class and a social group for deaf people.