Who should be the true voice of social work?

Social work voice graphic
Social work voice graphic

“In part I hold my hands up and say we should ask social workers to speak up more, but I find there hasn’t been a strong enough sense of the profession and their voice, demands and views – and that needs to change.”

It may not be surprising that someone says they don’t know what social workers want, but it is worrying that the man in question here is children’s secretary Ed Balls, speaking on the BBC’s Panorama programme “Baby P – The Whole Truth?” last month.

There is however some justification for gaps in Balls’s knowledge. When a major news story breaks involving nurses or doctors, the public know the Royal College of Nursing or British Medical Association will be on hand to talk to politicians and the media. Who does that job for social work?

Complaints

The obvious names are little known beyond the sector. It was a common complaint from delegates at Community Care LIVE last month that the British Association of Social Workers had failed to defend the social work profession during the Baby P case, but it has a limited mandate to represent social work when it has only 12,000 members.

Unison represents 40,000 social workers and is a national voice for its million-plus members, but it represents so many professions that it cannot realistically become synonymous with social work.

The General Social Care Council was criticised as being quiet during the Sun’s coverage of baby Peter but has repeatedly said it is a regulator, not a representative body.

p15, 4 june box

Unfair criticism

I called BASW to ask whether it had an effective media operation to convey the social work voice to the public. Unfortunately, chief executive Hilton Dawson (BASW does not have a press officer) was on holiday, with no mention of that on his voicemail or e-mail. In practice, a hard-pressed news reporter with little knowledge of social work will not get the social worker’s perspective.

But Ruth Cartwright, BASW professional officer for England, did answer her phone. She says criticism of the organisation is unfair. “I think that’s a bit of a cheek. No one could have got blanket coverage during Baby P and, given our size, we did well.

“But that’s with the proviso ‘given our size’. If there were more members, there could be capacity to cover more outlets.”

Unanswered phones aside, the organisation has increased its efforts to promote social work. Dawson is starting a UK tour to hear what social workers have to say. BASW is also looking to have a dedicated PR person working on a forthcoming project.

The biggest shake-up would come from the links that BASW is currently exploring with Unison. That would potentially allow social workers to pay far less than they do now to join both bodies separately, which could boost BASW’s numbers and allow it to claim a mandate to represent social work.

Other bodies

Unison has also spent a lot of time representing social workers in the media and Helga Pile, national officer for social care, has been at the forefront. However, she says there are limits to what she can do herself, and that employers need to allow social workers to talk to the media if the public are to hear what they have to say: “Our experience has been that media want ordinary frontline social workers. [Employers] have to lift the gagging order because it doesn’t help anybody for social work to be seen as a profession that can only ever speak anonymously. We need social workers to be able to talk about their work.”

Cartwright says BASW has faced the same problem, even when social workers want to talk about positive news stories. But it is difficult to see how line managers can be convinced to allow frontline social workers to speak for the greater good of the profession, when there is a direct – albeit small – risk to their own department.

Positive appearences

On the positive side, Pile and Cartwright agree that media appearances that both organisations have made in the past six months mean that journalists know they can call them to talk about social work.

One organisation where arguably that has not happened is the GSCC, which has been criticised for doing too little to make itself known during the Sun’s campaign to have social workers in Haringey sacked for their involvement in the baby Peter case. But the GSCC says that whenever a substantial article about social workers and baby Peter was printed without mentioning its conduct investigation, it would contact the journalist to make them aware of it.

The GSCC remains firm in its belief that it is a regulatory body that cannot represent the workforce. “Our aim is to promote the professionalism of social workers and the fact that they are regulated, something that we do regularly through the media, at events and in our work with stakeholder organisations and parliamentarians,” says chair Rosie Varley. “Through our work to ensure high standards and weed out those who are unsuitable to work in social work, we are supporting the workforce by safeguarding public confidence.”

Impartial role?

But that isn’t enough for Tower Hamlets social worker John Davies. In March, he wrote a column in Community Care criticising the GSCC for failing to defend the profession. Although he now acknowledges that, as a regulator, it must be impartial and has the potential to help improve social work’s public standing, he still believes it can only do that if it makes more effort to speak up. “If the GSCC’s work raises public confidence in social work by 1%, then 100% is taken away by a campaign by the Sun,” he says.

In the meantime, the political figurehead to represent children’s social work should be Balls himself. Cartwright is critical of his comments on Panorama, and for his slow response to letters from BASW sent at the end of last year. However, Balls is due to meet Dawson soon, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families says it is “very grateful” for the work that BASW does in representing social workers, notably through the Social Work Task Force.

There are other bodies with a lesser claim to being the voice of social work, notably the Social Care Institute for Excellence. The Department of Health is now reviewing the roles of the GSCC, Scie and Skills for Care, and should report soon.

Those changes, alongside whatever the conclusions of the Social Work Task Force will be in the autumn, may alter the institutional landscape of who will be able to speak up for social workers.

But for now, Pile says that it is down to BASW and Unison. “If we can create this partnership,” she says, “then it will be a pretty powerful voice for practitioners.”

• View the Panorama programme

• John Davies’ column

Tell us what you will do in your area to stand up for social work

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