Death of the department

    Ray Jones is director of adult and community services
    for Wiltshire Council. He has also been its director of social
    services since 1992. In 2001-2 he was the first chief executive of
    the Social Care Institute for Excellence. He is also visiting
    professor at the Universities of Bath and Exeter and a fellow of
    the University of Gloucestershire.

    For 30 years council social services departments have been the
    home territory for much of social work and social care. As these
    departments are now disbanded, what lies ahead for the

    It is sometimes difficult to recall how important social services
    departments have been for social work and social care. Before they
    existed, there were children’s, mental health and welfare
    departments. There was no coherent professional base for social
    work and no organisation whose main purpose was to host social care

    All this changed with the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970.
    This brought together the three separate social care departments in
    local councils, established the statutory post of director of
    social services, and gave wide-ranging responsibilities through the
    Children and Young Person’s Act 1969 and the Chronically Sick and
    Disabled Persons Act 1970, both of which were sympathetic to the
    role and importance of social work and social care.

    With this strong organisational, managerial and legal base
    established, social work and social care spawned its own
    professional association (the British Association of Social
    Workers), its own managerial organisations (the Association of
    Directors of Social Services and the Association of Directors of
    Social Work), its own service association (the Social Care
    Association), its own research network (the Social Services
    Research Group) and its own think-tank (the National Institute for
    Social Work).

    Within government itself, social work and social care had a seat at
    the top table through the Department of Health’s Social Work
    Service and the chief social work service officer (later
    transformed into the Social Services Inspectorate and the chief

    So for 30 years social work and social care have had a clear legal
    structure and mandate, a strong political and organisational base
    within government, strong specialist managerial representation and
    dedicated professional and occupational associations. And during
    that time social work and social care within social services
    departments have delivered.

    Large institutions have been closed, and the focus has shifted to
    assisting individuals and families in the community, protecting
    people (in the main, successfully) where necessary, promoting
    well-being and independence and enhancing life chances and quality
    of life.

    Social services have also succeeded where central government was
    failing, hence the 1993 community care reforms and the Supporting
    People programme in 2003. And for the past five years the
    government’s own performance assessment ratings and the joint
    review programme have highlighted social services

    But no more. Standalone social services departments within local
    government are an increasingly declining breed. This decline was
    hastened by local government reform in the late 1990s, which
    created some local authorities that were too small to have
    sustainable separate social services departments. And the trend
    will now gather pace with new configurations of education and
    social care children’s services, and adult social care and health

    The base and profile for social work and social care is now more
    fragmented. Within central government social care has lost its
    obvious champions with the demise of the social services
    inspectorate and the chief inspector. And social care services are
    now delivered through a wide range of organisations where social
    work may not be the dominant profession nor social care the main
    discipline within integrated teams.

    This is happening within a political context where the value-base
    of social work and social care is sometimes challenged. The
    criminal justice, antisocial behaviour, mental health and asylum
    political agendas run counter to much of what has been important to
    social work: seeing people in context, valuing not rejecting,
    recognising and developing individual and community strengths, and
    enabling and facilitating.

    Yet it’s not all bad news for social work and social care. In
    England (there are similar organisations throughout the UK) we have
    the General Social Care Council with, for the first time,
    protection of the title of social worker, registration of social
    workers, social work becoming a graduate profession and a
    requirement for continuing professional development.

    We have a care skills sector council, the Training Organisation for
    Personal Social Services (Topss), with competences and
    qualification pathways under development for everyone working in
    social care.

    We have the new Commission for Social Care Inspection to define
    service standards, and registering and inspecting services.

    And we have the Social Care Institute for Excellence collating,
    disseminating and promoting the knowledge base for social

    But there is a risk. The GSCC, Topss, CSCI and Scie are all funded
    by central government. Governments are pragmatic and not always
    principled. They are not professionally partisan, and can indeed be
    professionally hostile. They have their own (populist) agendas.
    They also change!

    Government-structured and funded organisations are not particularly
    secure or stable. The National Care Standards Commission was just
    17 days old when the government announced it was going to kill it
    off, and the future of CSCI and the GSCC is already under

    That makes it even more important for social work and social care
    to have their own independent organisations and champions. It is
    why making BASW and the SCA strong should be a commitment for all
    within the sectors.

    It is also why in early June, the Nuffield Foundation hosted and
    funded a forum of 13 organisations (such as the Joint Universities
    Council Social Work Education Committee, the Social Services
    Research Group, and BASW and SCA) to consider establishing an
    assembly for social work and social care education, training and
    research. This “standing conference” would provide a network for
    organisations championing social care and social work and its
    knowledge and competence base.

    Although the future for social work and social care may be
    uncertain, it is still a bright one. But getting it right will
    depend on the contribution and commitment of everyone in the
    sector, working alongside and in partnership with service users,
    carers and all our other professional colleagues.


    As social services departments are disaggregated and disbanded,
    how are the values, principles, and knowledge and skills base of
    social care and social work to be protected and promoted? This
    article argues that, in addition to the four government-sponsored
    social care bodies (CSCI, GSCC, Scie and Topss), which may be
    vulnerable to political vagaries, strong professional associations
    and a proposed assembly for social work are needed.

    Further information

    For the background to the new, government-created, sponsored and
    funded social care infrastructure bodies, see: 

    • Modernising Social Services, Department of Health,
    • A Quality Strategy for Social Care, Department of
      Health, 2000  For information about improvement in social services
      performance, see: 
    • All Our Lives: Social Care in England 2002-2003,
      Department of Health, March 2004  
    • Old Virtues, New Virtues, Audit Commission,

    The Department of Health publications can be ordered from,
    the Audit Commission publication from

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