If only the radicals had stayed that way

I have retired, if looking after grandchildren four days a week
can be classified as retirement. The project I have been involved
with in Easterhouse, Glasgow can run without me, so I have come off
its committee.

Looking back on my life, I feel privileged to have witnessed two
outstanding welfare developments but I regret that social values
are now given such little prominence.

When I was born in the 1930s, the Poor Law was still functioning.
My grandmother used to plead, “Don’t let me finish in the Union
(the workhouse)”. But the second world war stimulated a demand for
a fairer society, and one of the last enactments of the wartime
coalition government was the Family Allowances Act 1945, which led
to non-means-tested benefits for all children and contributed to a
reduction in poverty.

In the general election that year Labour swept to power and, over
the next five years, abolished the Poor Law, introduced decent
unemployment pay and pensions, and increased taxation on the
wealthy. My parents were delighted with the National Health
Service, which gave the whole family free medical treatment. It
also became possible for working-class children to go to
university. I benefited from the modern welfare state and I remain
thankful for it.

I lived through an era in which child care workers developed
personal relationships with children in care. Before the 1940s, the
responsibility for deprived children was split between a number of
statutory and voluntary bodies and many were placed in
unsatisfactory institutions. The wartime evacuation of more than
one million children and young people (I was one of them) drew
attention to the needs of children separated from their parents.
The Children Act 1948 created local authority children’s
departments to provide personal care for “children deprived of a
normal home life”. When I started as a child care officer in 1962,
the area officer made it clear that, although administration was
important, my priority was to relate to children.

I hold in honour the child care champions of that time: Lady
Marjory Allen, who campaigned for the Children Act; Clare
Winnicott, who taught the skills of child care; John Stroud, who
insisted that separated children needed contact with their
families; and children’s officers, such as Barbara Kahan, who were
national advocates for children.1

Amazingly, many social work students today do not appear to have
heard of them. They should have: these champions conveyed the
central message that organisational reforms are of limited use if
they do not encourage social workers to build professional
relationships with children.

So, I observed the establishment of the welfare state and a
specialised children’s service. In lesser vein, I have participated
in two more modest advances.

First, in the early 1970s, I made the first study of private foster
children – that is children placed by their parents with carers of
their choosing. It called for better protection for children and
better support for private foster parents. But it had little impact
and my further study in 2002 showed that local authorities were not
taking seriously their duties towards the 10,000 privately fostered
children.2 Fortunately, Baaf Adoption and Fostering had
by this time established a private fostering interest group to keep
the issue alive and at last the government is to ensure that local
authorities carry out their duties.

Second, even more progress has been made in the realm of community
action. In the late 1960s, I used to travel in from a suburb to
help at an adventure playground in Handsworth, Birmingham. I was
called a “white missionary”. I feel I took the lesson to heart and,
since leaving academic life, I have spent 27 years living in
deprived areas, and have helped to set up two locally run community
projects. They may not be unusual, but a recent study has concluded
that local groups “make a distinctive contribution towards
transforming deprived communities”.3 “Transforming” may
be an over-statement but my experience is that neighbourhood action
of this kind is significant for three reasons.

  • It strengthens communities by drawing in local residents as
    staff, sessional workers and volunteers.
  • It promotes prevention. Local projects cannot eradicate poverty
    but they do offer practical services such as credit unions, cheap
    food and advice on debt, which lessen the family stress associated
    with insufficient incomes. Local action does prevent some young
    people entering care and custody and it does help some families
    stay together.
  • It enables residents of deprived areas to have some control
    over their circumstances. They – not outsiders – decide what the
    projects should do.

Sadly, New Labour has neighbourhood regeneration out of balance.
It has given priority to large-scale partnerships which have
spawned a regeneration empire. This is not to underestimate their
contribution, particularly with regard to housing renewal and
sports facilities. But, while pouring billions into partnerships,
the government has neglected local groups which are expected to
cope with small handouts. Even in neighbourhood regeneration, the
rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Nonetheless, when I meet unemployed residents whose potential has
been developed, when I chat with young people who have come through
local projects and are now leaders themselves, when I am at camp
and see scores of children who would not otherwise have a holiday,
then I am encouraged by what local people have achieved.

Perhaps my greatest regret is that values and principles are not
high on the social agenda. In the 1960s, R H Tawney’s marvellous
book, Equality, published in 1931, was still being debated. Social
workers emphasised the importance of respect for all clients and
their rights to self-determination. Radicalism was a part of
university life and I remember social science lecturers and
students who loudly condemned those who took the large salaries and
high positions which reinforced inequality. A few have stuck with
their beliefs but for many their radicalism was no more than a fad.
Within a few years they were just like the people they had
condemned. If the majority had put into practice the principles
they claimed to hold then I believe we would now have a different
and better society.

But there are glimmers of hope. In the 1960s, churches were
dismissed as conservative bodies. Today it is often members of
faith groups who opt to live on modest incomes in the inner cities
and council estates. They do so because being alongside deprived
people is an expression of their belief in loving their

My wish for the future is that values will be the starting point
for social and community work. Welfare staff should be more than
skilled technicians. Their practices should stem from an
identification with, a concern for and a fellowship with those most
in need. I believe that social reformers should be like the
Christian socialist leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s –
George Lansbury – who would take no perks and enjoy no advantages
or privileges which were not available to the most deprived members
of his constituency. His past deeds should inform our present and

1 B Holman, Champions
for Children
, Policy Press, 2001

2 B Holman, The Unknown Fostering. A study of
private fostering
, Russell House Publishing, 2002

3 C Botham and L Setkova, Local Action Changing
Lives: Community Organisations Tackling Poverty and Social
Exclusion – A Guide for Donors and Grantmakers, New
Capital, 2004

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