What would social work look like in an independent Scotland?

As Scotland decides, SASW manager Trisha Hall looks at the future of social work

scottish flag
Scotland decides- but what would it mean for social work? Photo: REX/Amer Ghazzal

By Trisha Hall 

Whether it’s a “yes” or a “no” this Thursday, after Scotland’s referendum things will never be the same. But what effect will these changes have on social work?

A devolved system

The immediate impact might not be obvious: social work powers in terms of planning, implementing, delivering and monitoring are already devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

In social work education in Scotland, there  is no desire to emulate English fast-track approaches. Instead robust post-graduate courses are being developed in response to identified need, such as the new child protection course at the University of Stirling which accepts its first cohort this November.

There are good working relationships between the public sector, third sector, voluntary sector and academic institutions in Scotland. Alan Baird, the chief social work adviser to the Scottish government has united representatives of all the sectors within the Scottish Social Services Strategic Forum which aims to set a direction for those working within social services.

We have our own unique mental health and criminal justice social workers and our professional representation in SASW (Scottish Association of Social Work) has a seat at the various tables. Our voice counts. I often consider myself very fortunate to work in Scotland.

A history of promoting social welfare

Scotland has a history of community-based responses to people in need. The community works together to take care of children and families and set them on a path intended to ensure a better future.  A duty on local authorities to “promote social welfare” is enshrined in Scottish legislation and remains in force to this day. Yet how can we promote social welfare within a society where welfare reform is being “reviewed” without reference to need, and where we are subject to ever increasing national cuts?

Although Scottish councils currently decide on specific social work funding, much recent policy is perceived as increasingly centralised, for example in adult support and protection. There is a growing concern about privatisation creeping in.

Held back by Westminster

Social work delivery in Scotland has been significantly affected by the impact of welfare reforms imposed by Westminster. Our members have to deal with people’s confusion about universal benefits and the resulting penalties that can leave children and families in increased poverty. Our SASW members in Highland recently organized a day seminar on the impact of austerity and welfare reform in order to have a better understanding of how the users of their services are affected. It was humbling to hear the stories of some of the people who find themselves at the receiving end.

As council tax has been frozen, money is tight and this has impacted on the recruitment and retention of qualified social workers. Caseloads are excessive and direct contact with users of services can get devolved to cheaper third sector partners, as social workers have to focus on assessment and report writing. We want workers to get back to doing what they were trained to do best: working with people. The debate on independence has made this possibility more real.

A time of change

The debate on the referendum has been taking place across all sections of society. It truly is a grassroots exercise and the politicisation of people from all walks of life participating in this debate has been fascinating.  Whether you are convinced that the Union and increased devolution will deliver, or if you think only an independent sovereign state can achieve this, people are realising, in stark contrast to how they perceive traditional elections, how this vote actually counts for our communities’ future.

There is no doubt that society in Scotland is divided over the matter of independence. Social workers are skilled in dealing with human rights and conflict resolution, and whichever way the referendum goes, we will have an important role to play in the developments from September 19 onwards.

Trisha Hall is a social worker and manager of the  Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW), part of BASW UK

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One Response to What would social work look like in an independent Scotland?

  1. Jim Greer September 16, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

    A Yes result for Scotland or even a narrow No result will increase demands for devolution across rest of the UK. For too long much of the country has felt that all that matters to Westminster is London. A federal UK with developed states would allow more diversity in approach to social welfare and in the north east that would hopefully lead to greater priority to social care and socially beneficial projects.
    I think the Scottish referendum offers a lot of hope for change to people in the rest of the UK who value public services.