The State of the nation

What are social workers talking about in Scotland? What
aren’t social workers talking about in Scotland might have
been an easier question.

Mental health, child protection and young offenders are hot
topics as are joined-up services and, increasingly, older people,
especially after the news that Scotland’s population is
getting older. By the year 2030 it is predicted there will be half
a million more pensioners in this country and an 80 per cent
increase in those aged 85 and over.

Most of these concerns are addressed in the action plan produced
in April by the Scottish executive. This 12-point plan pledges a
commitment to an awareness and recruitment campaign, a new honours
degree qualification as well as £3.5m extra funding to go into
staff training.

Since regionalisation there have been 32 local authorities in
Scotland dealing with social work as opposed to the previous 12. Of
course different parts of Scotland create different pressures. One
thing is certain, in every local authority from the Highlands down
to Borders staff recruitment is a major issue, with some councils
trying to outbid others by upping the ante and offering better
terms and conditions.

There are irritations as well – such as the fact that there is
now no minister for social work in Scotland. Responsibilities are
shared and, as a result, some feel, rather blurred: child care, for
example, comes under education, community care under health, and
crime under social justice. Each has its own budget.

Social workers complain of a lack of synchronicity with local
authorities feeling cheated by the fact that the executive funds
everything, making any sense of control difficult for individual

When announcing the action plan, minister for education and
young people Cathy Jamieson also unveiled the creation of a post to
progress “joined-up thinking” with responsibility for co-ordinating
policies that affect social services throughout the executive. This
post has now been filled by Kate Vincent.

Moving from the general to the particular, child protection is
in the forefront of concern. As a response to the Victoria
Climbié Inquiry, a ministerial working group was set up to
consider ways of improving work practices, and the executive has
just announced that it will introduce a child protection bill. The
Protection of Children (Scotland) Bill will create a list of people
unsuitable to work with children. The courts will refer anyone
convicted of an offence that demonstrates their unsuitability, and
it will be an offence for anyone on the list to continue to work
with children, or apply for a job working with children.

There will also be a legal duty on organisations such as
nurseries, schools, scouts and guides to check the list before
employing someone and it will be an offence for any of these
organisations to employ anyone on the list.

Another item on the executive’s agenda is recruitment and
retention. When Jamieson launched the action plan, she said:
“Social workers do a job that is difficult and demanding. Their
daily work is often unrecognised or taken for granted. That is why
one of our immediate actions is to hold a recruitment campaign to
raise the profile of social work and attract people to what is a
worthwhile and rewarding career.”

But talking is one thing – action quite another. Many
professionals are feeling impatient with ministers. For too long
there has been this notion that social work in Scotland is on the
verge of the biggest shake-up in history. But people have had
enough of empty promises. They want to see plans in action.

Action on mental health came as Community Care went to
press, when the executive published a new mental health bill which
will herald the most fundamental reform of Scotland’s mental
health laws for 40 years.

The key changes are:

  • New procedures for compulsory care and treatment which will be
    tailored to meet the needs of the individual patient.
  • New procedures for compulsory care and treatment, which will be
    tailored to meet the needs of the individual patient
  • A new mental health tribunal, involving doctors, lawyers and
    other experts, to make decisions about compulsory care
  • Stronger duties on local authorities to provide care and
    support services to people with mental health problems and learning
  • New rights for mental health service users to have their
    interests represented by independent advocates

The bill also updates the arrangements for dealing with the
small number of people with a mental disorder who become involved
in criminal offences.

Mental health groups have broadly welcomed the bill, although
some concerns remain.

The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), together with
54 other organisations across Scotland, is widely supportive of the
bill but it is calling for it to be closely scrutinised, and
amended, on its passage through parliament.

SAMH chief executive Shona Barcus says: “Whilst the proposals
are not as draconian as the legislation being proposed south of the
border, there are areas that cause concern including new powers of
compulsion in the community and safeguards around controversial

The new legislation follows a review of Scotland’s mental
health laws by a committee headed by the former Scottish secretary
Bruce Millan, and consultation was wide-ranging and thorough and
recommendations clear and succinct.

The fear remains, however, that the bill may run out of
parliamentary time. Mental health charities are concerned that next
year’s elections could scupper its chances.

Barcus warns that March 2003 is the cut-off point for any new
legislation ahead of next May’s Scottish parliamentary
elections. “It seems ironic that such a crucial piece of
legislation has only got six months to make its way through
parliament,” she says. “If everybody does not agree on its content
by If everybody does not agree on its content by next March it
could be too late and we may not have a new act – even after all

Another piece of legislation which is exercising minds is the
Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002, which introduced
free personal care and has sparked a debate about its

For example, in theory any pensioner who needs help preparing
food should have the service free. But the executive’s
guidelines to councils responsible for implementing free care says
the service should be provided free only to old people needing
specialist meals. The uproar continues.

The Criminal Justice Bill and the question of what to do with 14
to 18-year-olds who break the law is also controversial.

Should they be referred to a children’s hearing, a youth
court or an adult court? The bill seeks to set up a risk management
agency for violent offenders as well as drugs courts for repeat
offenders who commit crime to feed their habit.

Most professionals are well aware that it is more than three
years since the inaugural Scottish parliament promised all these
changes. First minister Jack McConnell pledged from day one that he
would instigate an overview of all social work in Scotland so that
Labour could fulfil its promise to help vulnerable people.

Inevitably, with so many changes in the wind, all has not been
plain sailing. In fact, observers have noticed a number of hiccups
in the programme of promised radical reform.

If the proposals are not implemented soon, many local
authorities will have to follow the lead of South Lanarkshire
Council, which now offers staff alternative therapies as a way of
helping them cope with stress.

But the British Association of Social Work’ s professional
officer in Scotland, Ruth Stark, is philosophical about the future.
“Social workers accept people without condoning the behaviour that
has brought them into conflict with their family, their
neighbourhood or the whole of society,” she says.

“It’s important to remember that social workers are on the
receiving end of all these changes …in mental health, child
protection, criminal justice and community care. We are responsible
for ‘effecting change with a person’ in the context of
their past, present and future environment.

“This is highly sophisticated work, requiring skills, knowledge
and experience. Hopefully, the new social work degree, the
recruitment campaign and the investment in the workforce as a
whole, will allow us to successfully effect this change.”

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