Dump the poor law

As the year draws to a close, social care pivots between the
debates over children’s services unleashed by the death of Victoria
Climbie and the implementation of the children’s green paper which
the Laming report inspired.

The year to come will be about how we reposition social care and
how we build the public’s confidence in our effectiveness in
providing services on their behalf. The social care world has
somehow to get across to the public the reality that millions of
people rely on our organisations, day in and day out.

But while the ink is still drying on the children’s bill, expected
in February, there remains a question about what the government’s
big idea for the future of social care really is.

The short answer is that there is no single unifying plan. The
government needs us, but is not sure what to do with us. Social
care is seen as part of a lot of other plans – for families, for
children, for health, crime, antisocial behaviour and for building
communities. Where would we start from if we were starting again
with social care for children and young people, for instance? From
where we are now? Would we invent social workers and social
services departments?

All these questions are pertinent to the sweeping changes to social
care and social services now being considered. Social services
directors have been committed to working with ministers to help
shape and deliver their emerging vision. It has been a great
opportunity and a huge responsibility. But if this vision is to
become a reality we need time to understand and work on some of the
detail of the proposals.

If we are to get it right, we must ask realistic and challenging
questions. We need to sort out how to hold a director of children’s
services to account for those services they don’t manage and can
only seek to influence. We need to ask how the new children’s
services dovetail with adult services and where disabled children
fit in. Nor can we forget the importance of their parents’

With new responsibilities come new costs. Where will the new
workforce come from? Average social worker vacancies are at 9.2 per
cent. But to get to a normal turnover level of 5 per cent we need
50,000 more social workers. There are 2.4 million staff already in
the children’s workforce covered by the green paper. Growth needs
unprecedented co-ordination, as well as time and money.

Since 1990 there has been a huge variation in the way social
services are delivered, particularly with the new Welsh and English
unitary authorities. The “whales on the beach”, as Terry Bamford,
now a member of the General Social Care Council, described social
services departments 10 years ago, are still there, still alive,
but the tide is going out. It is difficult to see them ever being

They have been viewed with some suspicion by politicians locally
and nationally. Demand and costs rise at a rate that outstrips
inflation and government funding – much less than the same
pressures within the NHS – but at an alarming rate nevertheless
compared with other local government responsibilities.

Although most councils give services a high priority, they remain
stretched and unable to deliver to expectation. Social services
departments have also been bypassed in the creation of many of
Labour’s major programmes, such as neighbourhood renewal, Sure
Start and the Children’s Fund, with which we have a natural

Social services have been damaged and blamed for drawing our
boundaries too clearly, for not being outward-looking enough. They
are known only for a comparatively small number of highly
publicised failures – with serious implications for the

During the 1980s and 1990s, the constant changes in legislation and
organisational structures – and perhaps the performance assessment
framework – standardised the job of social workers and other social
care staff. The irony is that while the organisations that deliver
services are as unpopular as the beached whales were in 1990, the
need for those services is not questioned. Social work and social
care skills and values are as relevant as ever, and there have been
repeated assertions of confidence in social work and social care.
They will survive even when redistributed across what is as yet an
unclear map of organisations and initiatives.

There does not need to be a mass refloating of the beached whale.
But nor should they be absorbed into education departments or the
NHS – services that have consistently failed to deal with the
people who need our services.

To be radical and comprehensive, social care must be brought back
into the mainstream in its own right. How? We don’t want a
structural or organisational solution but one based on a framework
of relationships and partnerships instead. Social services
directors and their staff are viewed as the natural supporters of
community development and social regeneration. We are the bridge
between the NHS and wider local government, for example. Councils
should be given broader responsibilities to build active and
sustainable communities based on social justice, mutual respect,
choice, independence and inclusion. In short, communities that
care, backed up by services that deliver.

Social care should cease to be required to compensate for the
failure of other services to be available to all. Services for
older people must emphasise the importance of independence,
participation, care, self-fulfilment, dignity and choice. Older
people need the resources to plan their own lives and to take part
in decisions about the full range of local services. The NHS is not
the answer for social care. Social care may have some answers for
the NHS.

It is time our services for adults and older people came out of the
backwaters of the Poor Law and the workhouse. The National
Assistance Act 1948 that replaced the Poor Law did not empower
councils to supply a full range of services, even to older people,
blind people, those with mental health problems or to children.
There was no comprehensive family care set-up and little was done
for people outside those categories.

This limited response still affects the way we operate. We are
fenced in too tightly. The long shadow of the Poor Law has remained
over social care to its detriment, a shadow which brings a familiar
armoury of measures to sort out the deserving from the undeserving:
rationing, eligibility criteria and means-testing.

Direct payments (where they are available) often have to be capped.
Carers are not getting assessments and, if they do, can only
receive a limited range of services. The best councils are offering
choice, diversity of service provision, and promoting user-directed
services but they are still based largely on individual needs and
means tests. They are no less constrained by the Poor Law than
those councils which are doing less well.

In this context, legislation to promote direct payments and the
rights of carers sits uncomfortably. These are 21st century
concepts in a financial and organisational context where demand is
still managed through Poor Law principles.

Let’s dump the Poor Law. The time is right to replace the framework
of social services legislation, including the National Assistance
Act, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 and aspects
of community care legislation that have governed our adult

We should replace them with a statutory duty for local authorities
to promote the economic, social or environmental well-being of
their communities, built into a consolidated community care act.

Andrew Cozens is president of the Association of Directors
of Social Services.

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