Knock it down and start again

It was a remarkable year even by the standards of the decade. Anti-Vietnam war demonstrations erupted into riot in Grosvenor Square, the assassination of Martin Luther King led to violence in more than 100 US cities, and Enoch Powell was sacked from the shadow cabinet after his infamous “rivers of blood” speech. The year was 1968 and it was in this febrile social and political atmosphere that Frederic Seebohm published the report that brought social services departments into being and decided the fate of social work.(1)

Nearly 40 years later, much of social work’s youthful idealism has gone and the Seebohm-inspired departments face extinction. By next year the split between children’s trusts and adult social care will be nearly complete, the Seebohm committee’s vision of unified social services departments as the final link in a comprehensive, generously funded welfare state having faded within 10 years of their creation in 1971. Under the successive blows of an economic downturn, child death scandals – starting with Maria Colwell in 1973 – and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the sparkling new departments were, as one influential commentator put it, quickly “transformed from a first resort to the last ditch”.(2)

In retrospect the departments came in on such an ill-wind that there is a certain tragic inevitability to the events which followed. Richard Crossman, the Labour secretary of state who oversaw the legislation which resulted from Seebohm (the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970), privately despised the report, considering it long on good intentions but short on realism about costs: the report ran to more than 300 pages, the legislation to a terse 22.

It is difficult now to imagine the wave of optimism that swept over social work in those early days. John Rea Price, who became social services director in the London Borough of Islington in 1973, remembers the “huge idealism” among social workers. 

“I had no difficulties with recruitment then because people believed in what they were doing,” Rea Price says. “The unions were powerful and there were strikes but, generally, you couldn’t stop them working even when it was for their own good – they were obsessed with the job.”

Bob Hudson, now professor of partnership studies at Durham University, was among the first members of Sunderland’s social services committee. “Everyone on the committee felt they were on the brink of a new era; we were genuinely carried away by the sheer excitement of it all. There was money to spend and the economic optimism added to our sense of exhilaration.”

For the first few years social services’ spending increased by 10 per cent a year in real terms as Seebohm’s ambition to do much more for the “neglected flotsam and jetsam of society” was put to the test. Antiquated language aside, the committee’s aim of ensuring a more co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to the problems of individuals, families and their communities would not have looked out of place in the recent adult green paper, Independence, Well-being and Choice. Prevention, partnership, the role of the voluntary sector and the importance of harnessing the strengths of communities themselves were all emphasised.

What now looks much more out of place is the generic style of social work that the new departments struggled to implement. Seebohm set his face firmly against dividing social care, either by client age group or discipline, arguing that it disrupted continuity of care to families and fragmented the profession in just the way that the separate children’s and welfare departments that had existed until then had done. By contrast, the new service would be family-centred rather than “symptom-centred”. Since the aim of departments was to “meet all the social needs of the family or individual together and as a whole”, the committee insisted these needs should be served as far as possible by a single social worker.

Adrianne Jones, appointed social services controller in the London Borough of Harrow at the outset of the reforms before becoming director in Hillingdon and in Birmingham, says the changes asked too much of social workers. As a former member of the committee chaired by Peter Barclay, whose landmark report (3) published after three years of the Thatcher government was the last, brave attempt to maintain social work in the Seebohm vein, she believes that local authorities chose an over-rigid interpretation of “single social worker”. Generic teams, she thinks, would have been better than generic workers.

Jones says: “The idea of generic, family-based departments was excellent; what went wrong was that we threw out the specialisms. We were expecting too much of individuals to be able to work with every age group and every need. It was a reaction against the fragmentation of the 1960s.”

But Jones is pessimistic about the chances of the current restructuring. She fears that the new services will be managerial in outlook, preoccupied with targets rather than good outcomes for service users and usurped by education and health, a risk that the Seebohm report itself mentioned. “Social care has been so weakened, there’s a real danger that it will be lost in the new set-up,” Jones says. “There isn’t the same passion about reorganisation now as there was then. Looking back, the nails were hammered into the coffin year by year as successive scandals unfolded and people became demoralised.”

Another member of the Barclay working party was Robert Pinker, then professor of social administration at the London School of Economics and renowned scourge of “political correctness” in social work. He agrees with Jones that generic teams would have been better but also blames the “tendency to over-bureaucratise” for the failings of social services departments, a tendency which, he says, today’s obsession with targets has only made worse.

It was a combination that proved fatal. Rea Price, whose own department had more than 3,000 staff, says: “Probably the major failure of the Seebohm analysis was not to anticipate the scale of the huge departments that its recommendations were creating, and the scale of the administrative, financial and management issues they would present. There was also the excessive faith in the generic approach to social work, but the stream of child death inquiries, as well as the rapid extension of the understanding of child abuse, soon began to expose the weaknesses of the non-specialised approach.”

In their time social services departments had to contend with more than 30 child deaths which were examined by high-profile inquiries. Press coverage quickly grew shrill, social workers were publicly pilloried and the profession’s image was so tarnished it has never fully recovered. It marked out child protection as an unwise career path, making social services more reliant on agency staff and probably heightening the risk of further tragedies. 

Ever since the Children Act 1989 departments have been regularly urged to adopt a more preventive approach to services, but their reluctance can be explained by what went wrong before. “In the early 1970s there was a great sense of optimism about prevention to the point where some of the specifics of child protection were neglected,” Rea Price says. “The message from the death of Maria Colwell to that of Jasmine Beckford [in 1984] was that social workers were so focused on the family as a whole that they were forgetting about the child. In Jasmine’s case the social worker had a good relationship with the parent but did not see the child – meanwhile, the child was starving in an upstairs room.”

But if all the bad press gave the appearance of a profession that had overreached itself, there were achievements which answered the critics. These were evident in adult care where the welfare departments that preceded the Seebohm reforms had barely progressed beyond the poor law institutions of the interwar years. Now more attention was paid to adult clients: smaller, state-of-the-art residential homes replaced converted workhouses for older people, long-stay psychiatric hospitals and hospitals for “the mentally handicapped” were closed, and the Disabled Persons Act 1986 put disability rights on the map for the first time, even if much of the act was not implemented.

A report in 1988 by Sir Roy Griffiths, former managing director of supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, put care in the community centre stage and prepared the way for purchaser-provider markets in social care.(4) Again, the shift towards community care had been foreshadowed by Seebohm, but the Conservative government’s fixation on the mixed economy of care had not and it gave unprecedented opportunities to the private sector which flourished after funding was transferred to councils from the Department of Social Security in 1993.

Hudson’s memory of Sunderland in the new dawn of social services is of Soviet-style command and control. The government wanted 10-year plans based on continuous growth and social services committees were happy to provide them. In their anxiety to rid themselves of their poor law legacy, departments built new institutions to replace the old. Bright new hostels and day centres sprang up, later to be condemned when fresh thinking emerged.

Hudson says: “We thought we were doing the right thing and it’s easy to say with hindsight that we should have done it differently. There was no consultation with service users to speak of, there was a ‘we know best’ mentality about it.

“Then Thatcher took the view that professionals had disempowered ‘consumers’ and the remedy was to bring market forces to bear in social care. It was the most astonishing change. In 1970s Sunderland we couldn’t have conceived of the local authority not being the service provider.”

Throughout these years a battle raged for the soul of social work. At first it was fought between individual casework and community empowerment; later it was between both of these and care management. “One of the great failings of social services departments was that they let community social work go,” says Bob Holman, who left his university professorship to be a community worker. “It got the orange light from Seebohm and the green light from Barclay, but only a quarter of authorities ever implemented it.

“Now social work has got merged with social care and it’s become much more difficult to say what a social worker is. Front-line staff are often mini-managers responsible for care control, monitoring people and soft policing. The basic skill of making relationships with service users has declined, yet this should be the heart of social work.”

Even as social workers increasingly found themselves rationing services to save money, Barclay boldly advocated a “political” element of social work in which their role was to speak out about the impact of social policy on the lives of the poor and disadvantaged. Pinker was the committee’s lone dissenter. “Social workers are not there to change society, that’s what politicians are for,” he says. “I didn’t think community social work was a good idea at all; it was so general it stretched social workers beyond their professional capacities.”

Now that the generic generation of social workers has passed, the question for their specialist descendants is how much influence they will have in the new organisations. Will they be a priority for their bosses in education or health? Or will they be pushed to the margins, as their forebears were before children’s and then social services departments gave them a voice?

For Hudson, at least, the glory days are over. “Social care has been weakened and is now being dismantled by its powerful neighbours in education and health. It is the most remarkable fall from grace for a major arm of the welfare state.”

(1) Report of the Committee on Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services [chair Frederic Seebohm], HMSO, 1968
(2) Robert Pinker, quoted in Social Workers: Their Role and Tasks, Bedford Square Press, 1982
(3) Social Workers: Their Role and Tasks [chair Peter Barclay], Bedford Square Press, 1982
(4) Sir Roy Griffiths, Community Care: Agenda for Action, HMSO, 1988

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