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‘Social work is losing influence when we need it the most’

Disabled man Fotex Rex Features


Government policies have made disabled and older people more in need of social work than ever, just as the profession is becoming more and more irrelevant, says  Blair Mcpherson.


The suggestion from the Audit Commission that councils should save money by replacing qualified social workers with non-qualified staff for undertaking assessments and reviews is just further evidence that the profession is becoming increasingly irrelevant. 


In recent years the social work profession appears to have lost its influence on government policy and the values that the profession promotes no longer seem to inform the way people are treated.


A profession is a body of knowledge plus a set of values. The medical profession doesn’t just have knowledge about illness and how to treat, it has a set of values about treating patients. The Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors and healthcare professionals includes a commitment to act in the patients’ best interest, respecting the individual’s right to decide whether to accept treatment and the right to confidentiality. 


The social work profession’s body of knowledge is also supplemented by the principle of being non-judgemental and the values of choice, dignity and respect. It is these values that inform how professionals use their skills and knowledge. A doctor does not operate or give treatment against a patient’s wishes even if to refuse a blood transfusion, a transplant or chemotherapy will lead to the death of the patient. Social workers must balance the right of someone with a learning disability to be independent with the risks that this might involve, and no matter how chaotic an individual’s lifestyle or how self-destructive their behaviour the individual still retains the right to dignity, privacy and choice. 


Government policies and local authority budget cuts make these professional considerations irrelevant. The government’s welfare reforms are a threat to independence, an affront to dignity and portray disabled people as work-shy scroungers. No wonder disability hate crimes are on the increase. Year-on-year budget cuts have reduced adult social work to rationing scarce services. The eligibility criteria in almost all local authorities now restrict help to those whose need are ‘substantial’ or ‘critical’. 


It does not require three years of training to establish if an elderly person ticks all the boxes to be eligible for help and such tight criteria leaves little scope for professional judgement. In fact the professional judgment is often that individuals who do not meet thresholds do have unmet needs, are at risk and their independence, dignity and privacy are being compromised; but there is nothing social workers can do to help. 


The irony is that at a time when the Audit Commission queries the need for qualified social workers and local authorities talk of changing the skill mix in their teams to employ more non-qualified staff, the poor and the vulnerable have never been more in need of the profession to champion their needs.  


Blair McPherson was a social worker and council director. He is now a writer on equality and diversity and management and leadership. 


Image: Fotex/Rex Features


Mithran Samuel

About Mithran Samuel

Mithran Samuel is adults' editor at Community Care.

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2 Responses to ‘Social work is losing influence when we need it the most’

  1. bernie hanley 12 April , 2013 at 3:21 am #

    Good article. The issue that is not highlighted and glaring are of breach of Human Rights articles 8 to name one, not being adhered to or unlikely to be. I think it is well above time that social workers started to take back ownership of their role and stand up for the code we all signed up to, and if need be to start shouting louder – until we are heard. I worry we are becoming part of the problem.
    I am increasingly concerned that the professional role is more of a policing function baring no resemblance at all to the values held dear by most…I may be rattling on here but I am so very tired of the apathy within the profession. It is time to get off our knees.

  2. Anon 12 April , 2013 at 3:21 am #

    The ideals of social work described in this post bear no resemblance to the reality of having social work interventions when elderly or disabled. As some Court of Protection cases have highlighted risks and ‘best interests’ decisions for those deemed to lack capacity are often based on poor judgements and lack of understanding an individuals particular position with respect to risk.

    There have been blogs on the BBC website where elders have reported they are not being listened too by young social workers who decide what is best for them. Many disabled people report the same. There is a world of difference between the rhetoric to promote a ‘profession’ and the reality from the perspective of those who have to have social worker assessments before services are provided- that is the system without any other way of getting a service.

    Things need to change as adult social work is denying people their right to self determine on their own basis. The whole picture of care assessments, personal budget care assessments and well being assessments is a time consuming joke and meaningless that senior managers have imposed to play up to prevailing government policies, even implicating that unless all these forms are filled the assessment is ‘not complete’.

    Good on the Audit Commission.