Yvonne Roberts says workers are well placed to warn of impending
trouble in our cities…..so we should listen.
Andrew Kernan, a 37-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia was
shot dead by police marksmen in Liverpool last week after CS gas
failed to subdue him. His crime was to wave a samurai sword while
David Blunkett, the home secretary, has said he wants to bring
forward plans to use tranquilliser guns. The police are expected to
react warily in the belief that different types of weaponry will
lead to confusion in tense situations.
In Bradford, just as in Brixton 20 years before, it has taken a
riot – several riots – to finally allow the views of the
disadvantaged and unemployed young Asians to be heard. It is also
clear that many members of the white community feel that they have
been pushed aside in the creation of Labour’s “New Britain”,
despite of the surge in neighbourhood renewal, the drive against
social exclusion and the government’s anti-poverty rhetoric. Their
views are also being heard.
But why must it take yet another death of a mentally ill man at
the hands of the police and the destruction of so many local
communities before the establishment actually takes real notice of
the marginalised? For years, coalitions of local activists and
politicians, community workers and social workers, had been issuing
warnings in Bradford and other troubled areas but with little
The government has affected deafness in the face of these
warnings but that would be so much more difficult if social
services in particular had a stronger voice and a higher profile.
Instead, as health and social care become more integrated, so the
role of the social worker, already much maligned, is in danger of
fading into obscurity in the public’s mind.
Thirty years ago, among graduates, social work was one of the
three top options for life after university, alongside journalism
and dropping out. The social worker then was viewed, in our
idealistic eyes, as the engine of radical change; the empowerer;
the David who could take on the Goliath of the state; the advocate
of those who were without words.
The national training organisation CCETSW says social workers
“assist people to have control and improve the quality of their
lives, and are committed to reducing and preventing disadvantage.
They intervene in the lives of people whose life chances may be
adversely affected by poverty, ill health, discrimination and
Or, to put it another way, they cohere precisely with this
government’s alleged aims to champion rights and social justice in
a holistic way, putting the individual’s circumstances in a social
context. If, that is, the social worker has the time, resources,
training opportunities and energy to do so. Labour has said it
wants to improve the image of social services – certainly,
something radical is required to boost recruitment and to remind us
all why social work is so much more than “interfering”.
Like it or not, in the 21st century, image and branding matter
but perhaps what’s more important than a fresh face for the sector
is the emergence of a coherent voice. One which fights to make
itself heard in the national arena and which reminds us why a fair
and decent society simply can’t afford to have social services
sitting neglected in the back row of policy-making .