Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.
It seems odd that social workers do not have their own trade
union. Here is one of the most maligned and overlooked professional
groups in society lacking a designated public body to speak up on
its behalf .
Some social workers have become frustrated at the split in
responsibility for representation between the British Association
of Social Workers, the body which leads on professional issues, and
the public sector union Unison, which deals with pay and
conditions. A dissident motion was up for discussion at last
month’s BASW AGM calling for the establishment of a
breakaway union. Feeling has run particularly high in Scotland
where local pay deals have meant social workers in some cities are
being paid thousands more than others.
The motion was lost, to the obvious relief of Unison officials. But
there are still rumblings of frustration among social workers about
representation, which feeds into worries about a loss of
professional identity arising from the greater merging of the
social work role into health and educational work.
The dissatisfaction is understandable. The 40,000 or so social
workers who are Unison members clearly form a valuable core of the
public sector giant. But browse through the Unison website; there
you find social workers listed as part of the sub-section of local
government, wedged between housing and meat hygiene. In unity there
is strength, but in mass there can be dilution.
But whoever represents social workers, and whether two bodies
really can do the job better than one, it is clear that the public
voice of the profession is not as strong as it should be. Yes,
there is plenty of periodic finger pointing when things go wrong.
But I can’t remember the last time a senior social worker or
representative was treated with any sort of respect in a national
broadsheet or, even, ferociously grilled (a different marker of
respect) by a Paxman or a Humphries on more general
Sometimes, it is useful to think about absences, to analyse the
public conversations we are not having. For instance, there is
little debate about the pay and conditions of social workers, and
the connection between financial reward and the deeper social
meanings of the job.
Compare this omission to the steady stream of discussion about
rewards and incentives for nurses and teachers – both of which
professions have their own unions – or the police force, which is
socially honoured and financially well looked after.
Many agree that social workers are the target of unfair hostility
but we never get much beyond a dazed repeat of the same dismal
point. In a recent debate in the Scottish parliament, it was
suggested that the term “social worker” itself was the problem. A
change to “social carer” was mooted, to help show the public, and
politicians, the real nature of the job: concerned, rather than
But hostility to social work surely goes much deeper than the mere
matter of job titles. Social work is the profession most directly
involved with two of the most criticised sectors of society; the
poor, and the fractured family.
Clearly these two groups do not always overlap (think of several
junior branches of the royal family, for a start) but where they
do, there is a double dose of condemnation. Hostility to the poor
is a constant feature of the social landscape; and while there have
been periods of British social history where a more liberal,
exploratory, less condemnatory attitude has prevailed, we are not
living through such a period now.
Social work also shows up the eternal problem of lack of funding
for public service work. Unlike a teacher or a nurse or doctor, all
of whom we consider to be doing a clear, contained task of healing
or educating, the social worker undertakes the more random, if
crucial, task of damage limitation. But he or she is then tarred by
a kind of crazy guilt-by-association which makes public money
harder to argue for.
But that is exactly why we need to hear the reflective – and
collective – voice of social workers more publicly. Again, it’s odd
that we don’t, given society’s episodic fascination with the
marginalised and the troublesome.
Think how often we read the work of journalists and campaigners who
give up comfortable lives for anything from a month to a year in
order to get close to the “bottom of the pile”. Yet we barely
attend to the accumulated experience of a group of professionals
who are in constant touch with that same constituency and, what’s
more, trying to effect some positive long lasting changes to
people’s lives. It is about time that we did.