Let’s be hearing you.


    Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.

    It seems odd that social workers do not have their own trade
    union. Here is one of the most maligned and overlooked professional
    groups in society lacking a designated public body to speak up on
    its behalf .

    Some social workers have become frustrated at the split in
    responsibility for representation between the British Association
    of Social Workers, the body which leads on professional issues, and
    the public sector union Unison, which deals with pay and
    conditions. A dissident motion was up for discussion at last
    month’s BASW AGM calling for the establishment of a
    breakaway union. Feeling has run particularly high in Scotland
    where local pay deals have meant social workers in some cities are
    being paid thousands more than others.

    The motion was lost, to the obvious relief of Unison officials. But
    there are still rumblings of frustration among social workers about
    representation, which feeds into worries about a loss of
    professional identity arising from the greater merging of the
    social work role into health and educational work.

    The dissatisfaction is understandable. The 40,000 or so social
    workers who are Unison members clearly form a valuable core of the
    public sector giant. But browse through the Unison website; there
    you find social workers listed as part of the sub-section of local
    government, wedged between housing and meat hygiene. In unity there
    is strength, but in mass there can be dilution.

    But whoever represents social workers, and whether two bodies
    really can do the job better than one, it is clear that the public
    voice of the profession is not as strong as it should be. Yes,
    there is plenty of periodic finger pointing when things go wrong.
    But I can’t remember the last time a senior social worker or
    representative was treated with any sort of respect in a national
    broadsheet or, even, ferociously grilled (a different marker of
    respect) by a Paxman or a Humphries on more general

    Sometimes, it is useful to think about absences, to analyse the
    public conversations we are not having. For instance, there is
    little debate about the pay and conditions of social workers, and
    the connection between financial reward and the deeper social
    meanings of the job.

    Compare this omission to the steady stream of discussion about
    rewards and incentives for nurses and teachers – both of which
    professions have their own unions – or the police force, which is
    socially honoured and financially well looked after.

    Many agree that social workers are the target of unfair hostility
    but we never get much beyond a dazed repeat of the same dismal
    point. In a recent debate in the Scottish parliament, it was
    suggested that the term “social worker” itself was the problem. A
    change to “social carer” was mooted, to help show the public, and
    politicians, the real nature of the job: concerned, rather than

    But hostility to social work surely goes much deeper than the mere
    matter of job titles. Social work is the profession most directly
    involved with two of the most criticised sectors of society; the
    poor, and the fractured family.

    Clearly these two groups do not always overlap (think of several
    junior branches of the royal family, for a start) but where they
    do, there is a double dose of condemnation. Hostility to the poor
    is a constant feature of the social landscape; and while there have
    been periods of British social history where a more liberal,
    exploratory, less condemnatory attitude has prevailed, we are not
    living through such a period now.

    Social work also shows up the eternal problem of lack of funding
    for public service work. Unlike a teacher or a nurse or doctor, all
    of whom we consider to be doing a clear, contained task of healing
    or educating, the social worker undertakes the more random, if
    crucial, task of damage limitation. But he or she is then tarred by
    a kind of crazy guilt-by-association which makes public money
    harder to argue for.

    But that is exactly why we need to hear the reflective – and
    collective – voice of social workers more publicly. Again, it’s odd
    that we don’t, given society’s episodic fascination with the
    marginalised and the troublesome.

    Think how often we read the work of journalists and campaigners who
    give up comfortable lives for anything from a month to a year in
    order to get close to the “bottom of the pile”. Yet we barely
    attend to the accumulated experience of a group of professionals
    who are in constant touch with that same constituency and, what’s
    more, trying to effect some positive long lasting changes to
    people’s lives. It is about time that we did.

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