Social work needs to find a strong, collective voice. And fast.

The election result signals profound changes to public services. Social work needs to respond, argues Community Care journalist Andy McNicoll

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Whatever the election result, social care was always going to face a tough five years. All of the major parties pledged to curb public spending. None promised to give social care the same funding protections offered to the NHS or education.

Yet the shock result of a Conservative majority victory – at odds with almost every opinion poll carried out in recent months – signals deeper, faster cuts than would’ve been expected had a hung parliament left a Labour-led government needing the support of the self-declared ‘anti-austerity’ group of SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru or another Tory-led coalition dependent on Lib Dem backing.

If the last five years have been tough for public services, the next five will have no Lib Dem handbrake on the austerity programme. The Conservatives have pledged to cut £12bn from the welfare budget. Another £30bn of savings will have to be found from unprotected government departments, including social care.

The maths alone promise that there will be no let-up to the pressures being felt across the social work profession and those it works with.

Adult services

Adult services will face squaring the demand to deliver more preventative care under the Care Act 2014 with the requirement to find substantial savings from budgets that have already been cut by an estimated 26% in the past four years. Those savings were mainly found by squeezing providers, cutting care packages and rationing access to services. That combination has contributed to a race to the bottom in pay and conditions for care staff, concerns about financial stability of care markets, and at least 515,000 fewer people receiving care services (a drop of 29%) between 2009 and 2014.

Children’s services

In children’s social work, care applications hit their highest recorded level last year. Concerns remain over the outsourcing of key services. Ofsted’s inspection framework found that 70% of children’s services were either ‘inadequate’ or ‘required improvement’ and the government has shown an appetite to intervene at failing councils by creating new and untested service models. Child protection social workers have warned that children are being put at risk as thresholds rise. There’s been little appetite from government to address this. Instead proposals have been tabled to jail social workers who fail to prevent neglect.

Mental health

In mental health social work, services are also under severe strain. Acutely unwell adults and children are being shunted all over the country for beds. Community services to keep people well and out of hospital have been stripped back. The stress suffered by staff hit record high levels last year. And the damaging impact of benefit cuts, set to get substantially worse, has been flagged up as one of the most pressing issues facing mental health social work teams.

Social work will need to find a strong, collective voice to respond to these pressures if it is to play its vital role as an advocate for, and a profession that stands with, the most marginalised in our society.

Box harder and smarter

The whole sector, including Community Care, will need to box harder and smarter than it has managed to do before. We all have to up our game. At national level, social work must be less deferential and more effective in its campaigning. Local government leaders must review their tactics to make a more impactful case for social care funding. The growing division between the way the government handles adults and children’s social work will have to be confronted rather than tip-toed around.

There will also need to be less time spent navel-gazing about social work’s relationship with the media and far more effort spent uniting to gather hard evidence (not just surveys) of both the pressure on services and the real difference that good social work can produce when staff are backed with the resources they need to do their jobs.

Social work’s voice and that of the people it works with needs to be heard clearly and loudly. Get involved with your professional body – these organisations are only as strong as their members’ mandate and input. Write to your MP and inform them of the realities – good and bad – of your job. Tell us about the pressures you face and we’ll look to evidence them.

Above all, regardless of your politics, channel whatever you are feeling about the election result into something that isn’t apathy, because your profession looks set to be needed like never before.

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