Are independent social workers better able to defend core values?

Last month an independent social worker raised the spectre of a
two-tier workforce, divided between more experienced self-employed
and the less experienced employed practitioners.

Helen Ogilvy, co-chair of the British Association of Social Workers
Independents’ Forum, said experienced staff were increasingly
choosing self-employment, attracted by better working conditions
and the opportunity to practice free from organisational

She said the adult green paper’s call for social workers to become
care navigators – who guide service users through social care
services – not gatekeepers of services also offered opportunities
for independents.

Verifying these claims is far from easy, as there are no
authoritative figures on independent social work.

Training body Skills for Care’s annual workforce survey, published
in April, has no such category.

Instead, it divides social workers into council staff (71 per
cent), those employed in other public bodies and the voluntary
sector (17 per cent), those in the private sector (7 per cent) and
agency staff (4 per cent).

Independents are, most likely, buried in the last category. One
clue to their size is the fact that the Independents’ Forum has 380
consultants on its books, compared to an overall BASW membership of
10,000. If this proportion is representative, we are a long way
from a two-tier workforce.

According to Gail Tucker, the forum’s other chair, independent
social work has a short history. When she became self-employed 11
years ago “it was a relatively new field”.

The forum’s website makes clear that self-employed social workers
are already doing a wide range of jobs, in courts as expert
witnesses and children’s guardians, as trainers, advocates, interim
managers and inspectors.

Tucker says the forum receives applications every day from people
who have “had enough of the politics of organisations”.
But Jo Cleary, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social
Services’ human resources committee, says she sees “no sign of a
mass exodus”.

She adds: “There’s a handful of people who choose to work in a
different way. But at the moment I’m not aware that there are any
figures to say it’s more than that.”

While criticisms of the working conditions of employed staff – lack
of pay and supervision, excessive caseloads and bureaucracy – are
well-worn, Ray Jones, director of adult and community services at
Wiltshire Council, says self-employment is not a complete
He says: “As an independent social worker there’s still bureaucracy
– you need to keep your records.”

But he has some sympathy with the argument that social work’s core
values – defined by BASW as human dignity, social justice, service
to humanity, integrity and competence – may be better protected in
the independent sector.

He says: “To work independently you have to have a very strong
professional identity…It does mean you define for yourself much
more what your role is.”

Tucker says: “You can determine to a much greater extent that your
work will be ethically what you want it to be. Our colleagues who
are not self-employed say to us that they are being put in a
position where they have to break their professional code.”

Part of this problem is the gatekeeping role the green paper claims
many social workers have been forced into by the need to ration

Tucker says: “Local authorities put naked pressure on individual
social workers and care managers to assess only those needs for
which they can provide a service.”

But, as Cleary argues “the green paper is a little light on
workforce implications”, with no pointers as to where care
navigators will work – in councils, the voluntary sector or as
self-employed practitioners.

Jones sees the dawn of a revival of social work values within the
directly employed sectors – particularly in new settings like GP
surgeries and intermediate care teams – and thus a barrier to staff
going independent.

Ironically, he argues, organisations have independent social
workers to thank for this resurgence: “They have helped drive
forward a reaffirmation of the professional role and competence of
social workers.”

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