Debate: are our values safe?

Social work values remain a powerful force and there is no evidence that closer
working with health will erode them.

The values we associate with social
work took shape in the great charitable foundations of the eighteenth century and
were consolidated into parliamentary and political thinking throughout the
nineteenth century. They have survived their incorporation into the state
organisation of welfare during the past 50 years.

Those values are predicated on the respect we
offer social care users, seeing them as unique individuals in their own right:
people to be enabled to take control of their own lives and become fully
responsible for their own decisions. “Enabling” and “empowering “ are our
current take on those values.

When discussing, a year ago, apparent
government plans for the health service to “take over” social services, the
Association of Directors of Social Services warned that such a move would pose
a threat to those values. Subsequent discussions with government and our
partner organisations have been fuelled by a determination to ensure their

Those talks have borne fruit: there will be no
“take over”. Closer integration will take more than one form. Nor is it clear
what impact such integration will have on the quality of front-line working
relationships of local authority and NHS staff, and their wider relationship
with the public they serve.

There is no evidence so far that closer working
with health colleagues has led to erosion of those values, despite concern from
some quarters that “checklist” social work is making deep inroads into
professional standards – concerns which should be treated seriously.

Indeed, there is every reason to hope that as
social care values are brought up against attitudes to users that tend to see
them exclusively as patients awaiting cure, it is those latter attitudes which
will struggle to survive.

And no one should underestimate the
significance of the establishment of the Social Care Institute for Excellence,
the General Social Care Council and the National Care Standards Commission as
indicators of our determination to root social work values in principled
institutions which will support them.

Nor should one too easily discount the
influence of those voluntary and local government organisations in which social
workers are, and will continue to be, employed. Despite their imperfections,
they have been, and will go on being, vital institutions within which the very
best the profession has to offer can be organised and delivered.

Moira Gibb is president, Association
of Directors of Social Services.

Social work risks losing confidence in itself and, if it does, its values
will be the first casualty

am now a senior social work manager, social work is my profession, and a
strong value base underpins my practice. If social work values do not survive
in the emerging organisational structures in which social workers are being
located, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Much has been lost: procedures have become more
important than process; social workers can spend more time facing a computer
than a service user; many senior managers, who have been social workers, seem
to have forgotten social work values; and, of course, an increasing number of
senior managers come from a non-social work background.

We also have an identity crisis to some extent.
What is a “care manager”? The title is shared by a range of allied professions.
Have we lost confidence in ourselves and does that explain concerns about
retaining our value base? Yet social work in Northern Ireland has had long
experience of working in joint organisational arrangements and remains strong
professionally, positive, and confident about the social work task and its
ethical basis.

Our health colleagues have much to learn from
us in the age of consumerism and the extent to which patients are treated as
persons with rights and their own views, as anyone who works in a
health-related setting will know. We have the experience of involving those who
use our services in staff recruitment, training, service management and

The Third International Conference on Social
Work in Health and Mental Health in Finland earlier this year came up with a
new definition of social work: “The social work profession promotes social
change, problem-solving in human relationships and the empowerment and
liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human
behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the right points where
people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social
justice are fundamental to social work.”

I recently met a manager who has had cards of
this statement printed for her staff.

If we don’t believe in ourselves and
the value base which underpins our work, who will?

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