Opinion: Tory pledge is brave but might be doomed

Never mind about hugging hoodies, if they’re hugging social workers the Conservative Party really are thinking the unthinkable.

That joke was made by community care  minister Ivan Lewis at the General Social Care Council’s parliamentary reception last week – which is worth remarking on in itself, in that the Conservatives’ sudden warmth towards social work had him on the defensive.

Of course it would be wonderful if Tim Loughton could give social workers the same status as doctors, as he pledged at Conservative Party conference. But it might be a bigger job than he appears to realise. He was wrong to suggest that New Labour hasn’t helped the profession.

The GSCC and Social Care Institute for Excellence are establishing the profession in the public mind, and increasing understanding of what it stands for. They reassure the public that social workers are properly registered and regulated, and have a defined level of knowledge, skill and expertise. And unlike the Conservatives, Labour ministers talk about health and social care, not “NHS, NHS, NHS”.

But the profession still doesn’t have the  same status as doctors. And it’s easy to see why not. We all need doctors, and we are unlikely to feel stigmatised by seeking them out. The gap between their knowledge and everyone else’s is obvious and awe-inspiring – no politician or journalist would try to score points by claiming doctors merely practise common sense and sympathy. In fact you can be a doctor with little evidence of either quality. Their profession has been established for hundreds or even thousands of years, and respect for it is so ingrained in our culture that one bad apple – even one as rotten as Harold Shipman – cannot undermine it. In fact, to allow ourselves to question the knowledge, wisdom and motivations of doctors as a group would be deeply threatening.

By contrast, we live in a culture where people question whether social workers are needed, whether they have any special knowledge or skill and whether they are worth the money we spend on them. When someone falls ill, we feel lucky it’s not us, and we don’t blame him or her. But some people feel that social work intervention is something that happens to people who aren’t as capable as them, and they blame those who need help.

A world without doctors would mean we could fall ill and have no cure. But some people feel that a world without social workers would mean those who can’t manage their lives as well as they do would just have to raise their game or face the consequences.

Over the past 20 years much has been achieved, by incremental steps, and the media profile of the profession has improved. The Department of Health’s recruitment campaign has helped too. But a real transformation will need fundamental cultural change that might be out of the reach of any government – and would not be expected from the Conservatives.

At NCH – the biggest employer of social care staff in the children’s voluntary sector – our staff work with many families who suffer from an excess of blame and a dire lack of understanding. They work in a largely helpful policy framework set by New Labour – but one that has been introduced against a backdrop of “get tough” and “zero tolerance” rhetoric from the media, which reinforces the stigma attached to those who need social work and – by extension – those who practise it.

Knowing social workers, they probably care more about the vilification of their clients than the vilification of themselves.

Social work puts into meaningful action society’s compassion towards its most vulnerable, and often most difficult, members.

Without a brave, compassionate stand from the very top, the profession will not be fairly valued.

Polly Neate is executive director of public affairs and communications at NCH. She writes in a personal capacity

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