The Big Picture: Long ago, but not far away

Gordon Brown has had a few weeks to settle in as the new prime minister, the question now is what should his priorities be for the future of social care? Change is certainly in the air, with a government review of the role and tasks of social work in England Dame Denise Platt’s review of social care a Tory commission on social work and a recent survey from the British Association of Social Workers, highlighting practitioners dissatisfaction with social work’s increasing bureaucratisation. New Labour doesn’t seem to have been keen on learning lessons from history. Perhaps Brown could break with this tradition in social care and take a look back to where we have come from to be clearer where he might be going.

If so, I’d recommend Sir Henry Newman’s 1941 English Social Services, a 40 page volume which I recently found for a pound at a second hand bookshop. He was an important Quaker and public health reformer. We could still do a lot worse than his definition of social services as those ‘fundamental to human needs’ which help the ‘mind and spirit win the happiness, power and competency with which (they are) potentially gifted’. Here’s the commitment to wellbeing and a holistic approach that’s crucial for future policy.

There’s the same practical recognition that state, private and voluntary sectors all have a contribution to make. Today’s unbalanced emphasis on the private market is unlikely to be any more helpful than old aspirations for state monopoly. There’s an understanding of the importance of the life course and the centrality of what happens to a child at an early age for the quality of their later life. He places particular emphasis on policy integration, not only between health and social care – which we still can’t get right – but also with other areas.

Of course there is much that is outmoded and anachronistic here and an appreciation of the service user had yet to come. But as fears grow about the consequences of damaging diets, the isolating effects of individualising public policy and exclusionary housing policy, our new prime minister will do well to start by seeking an over arching vision for social care. This should signal his recognition that it is a key priority area for the future, fundamental to the achievement of all our rights, needs and potential.

Peter Beresford is a professor of social policy at Brunel University and a long-term mental health service user.

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