‘If we’re strong, you’re strong’

Ray Jones, the new chair of the British Association of Social Workers, tells Simeon Brody why social workers should join the body

The TV pictures of nurses heckling health secretary Patricia Hewitt at the Royal College of Nursing conference last month will be hard to forget. Teachers have also given ministers a hard time over the years but it’s difficult to recall social workers haranguing policy-makers with such enthusiasm.

Ray Jones, the new chair of the British Association of Social Workers, does not think social workers necessarily should be more “stroppy”, but he does believe they should be stronger.

Jones stepped down from Wiltshire Council as director of adult and community services last weekend, after 14 years, because it was forced to make service cuts as a result of cost-shunting by health authorities.

Before joining Wiltshire in 1992, he worked for Barnardo’s as well as in the local authority sector. He also spent six years as a social work lecturer at Bath University and believes he brings a broad knowledge base to the year-long BASW post.

He says: “I bring experience of practice and of management and research and education, but most important, I have a commitment to social work.”

Jones will be responsible for setting BASW’s strategic direction on behalf of its 11,000 members.

It’s important there’s a strong professional voice for social work,” he says. But if BASW is the authoritative voice of the social work profession, it has not imprinted itself on the public consciousness in the same way as the  ursing or teaching unions have done.

Jones points out that nurses and teachers were always likely to have a stronger voice because they work in universal services that everyone will come into contact with.

They are also much larger professions, with the UK’s half a million teachers and 350,000 nurses dwarfing its 87,000 social workers.

“Having said that I am impressed with how often BASW is asked to make comments on crucial issues about policy,” Jones adds. He also points out that nurses and teachers may have such a powerful voice because they consider it important to join their national organisations.

“Social workers also ought to look to grab the opportunity of making the voice of their profession strong. They can help to do that by making their professional association stronger by joining it.”

Only one in eight social workers are BASW members but they are in something of an unusual position in that their main representative body is not a trade union. Many social workers belong to Unison but the public sector union has a much wider remit than social work.

In that respect social workers are more akin to doctors, represented by professional body the British Medical Association, than teachers or nurses, primarily represented by unions.  But Jones rejects the idea that social workers would have a stronger voice if their main representative body was a union.

“What a professional association does is promote the professional interests of people not as employees of a particular organisation, but in terms of their profession,” he says.

He believes a professional association is best placed to represent  someone if their performance or behaviour is challenged, perhaps in the context of registration, rather than their terms and conditions.

Representation for social workers as individuals and as a profession is particularly important in the current climate, argues Jones.

With the re-organisation of social services departments in England and the expansion of multi-disciplinary teams, social workers’ professional identity is seen as crucial.

Jones also believes there are tensions created by areas of government  policy, such as on asylum seekers,which staff must challenge.

“The voice of social work and social care within the Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills has become weakened over the years,” he says.

“Although it may be built up again now, having a strong, independent voice for social work is very important in making sure the views of social workers are heard and the contribution of social work recognised.”

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