Will MPs vote to go back to social work?

Social workers becoming MPs is nothing new, says Ray Jones, but what do they do when an election doesn’t go their way?

It is not only Gordon Brown who will be surveying the opinion polls with a personal interest about future employment. What about all those Labour ministers and other MPs who may be feeling vulnerable to their volatile voters?

Quite a few of these MPs were working in the public and paid voluntary sectors before their election to parliament. There is a cluster of health service and housing professionals and managers, a gaggle of teachers and lecturers, an array of voluntary sector fundraisers, development workers and chief executives, and a swarm of social workers and social services managers.

Just look, for example, at the social workers. On my count there are 23 current MPs with a previous career in social work and public sector social care. There is nothing new in this. Clement Attlee was an early social worker and even wrote a book published in 1920 called The Social Worker. And Virginia Bottomley in the days of Thatcher was a former social worker who became health secretary.

Of the 23 current social work and social care MPs one is Conservative, one is Plaid Cymri and the rest are probably slightly more anxious Labour members. And some of them are pretty senior politicians. They include Hilary Armstrong, who was Labour’s chief whip; Tessa Jowell, the minister for London and the Olympics; Beverley Hughes, the minister for the North West and for children; Jonathan Shaw, the minister for the South East and for rural affairs; Sylvia Heal, deputy speaker; and Paul Goggins, Northern Ireland minister. And Meg Munn, who was the assistant director for children’s services with York Council, was only elected in 2001 and has progressed swiftly to be a foreign office minister.

Ivan Lewis, the current minister for social care in the Department of Health, comes close to being added to this list, as he was the chief executive of Manchester’s Jewish Social Services, and John Denham, the secretary of state for innovation, industries and skills, was formerly a charity administrator. Julie Morgan, the MP for Cardiff North since 1997, and the wife of Rhoddri Morgan, replaced me in 1987 when I moved on from my then role as assistant divisional director for Barnardo’s in Wales.

As the political tide turns, they may be washed up on the post-election beach, so what will they do? It will be difficult for most to accept slotting back in to roles where they are bossed around by local councillors and maybe managed by others. So, what are the options?

There is a track record of recycled senior politicians moving into top governance roles within big charities and quangos. Estelle Morris, for example, a teacher who became education secretary, then became Baroness Morris of Yardley, chair of the Children’s Workforce Development Council, president of the National Children’s Bureau and pro-vice chancellor of Sunderland University.

There are also chief executive roles which come up quite regularly in charities and voluntary organisations. When Hilton Dawson, a former children’s services manager and social worker in Lancashire, stood down as an MP in 2005 he became chief executive of Shaftesbury Young People, and chair of the National Parenting Academy.

Ministers and MPs, in addition to the professional skills they acquired before entering parliament, will also now have enhanced skills in absorbing information and being briefed about a wide range of issues, championing causes, building agendas and alliances, negotiating and networking, and in working with the media.

They will have heightened experience of seeking to be principled pragmatists, a skill required by all senior managers and trustees as they seek to retain their value base in a context of finite resources and fickle media comment and public opinion.

So, when the wave of political discontent releases a flotsam of ministers and MPs looking for new roles and responsibilities they will bring with them competencies and contacts which will position them well for key local and national roles in the public and voluntary sectors, although the lure of highly paid directorships within the new market private sector entrants may be too enticing to resist.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St Georges, University of London




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