The resignation of BASW’s chair has thrown into relief the body’s role in a period of change – and whether social workers believe it is up to the task. Maria Ahmed and Amy Taylor report
The UK’s largest professional body for social workers has lost its latest chair after just nine months in the position. Ray Jones, former director of adult and community services at Wiltshire Council, resigned from the British Association of Social Workers just before Christmas after disagreements with chief executive Ian Johnston. Jones has been replaced by his deputy, Jennifer Orgill.
A source close to BASW claimed the row was about the performance and management of the organisation, which others strongly dispute. Now Jones is calling on BASW to be “more credible and visible”. He believes that the organisation – and the sector as a whole – are facing challenges they cannot ignore.
“With the demise in England of social services departments, it is even more important that social work has a strong professional voice.
Social workers are now employed and managed in sectors where social work may be a minority, and sometimes marginalised, profession. An increasing number of social workers are also working independently and are self-employed,” he says.
Many agree that social care’s fragmentation means that a strong unified voice for social workers has never been more important.
More mixed views surround the form this should take and how adequately it is being provided by BASW, other social work professional organisations and unions.
Last year’s health and social care white paper and the Children Act 2004 both proposed that services be built around users’ needs not those of providers, necessitating new ways of working from professionals. Tony Hunter, director of supported living and community safety at Liverpool Council and a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, says it is important that social work professional bodies embrace this in order to be effective in lobbying politicians.
It’s very important that there is a strong voice out there for front-line social workers but the key is for that to be heard in a modern customerfocused agenda. But if that voice is seen as protecting the past then it’s less likely to be heard,” he says.
Care services minister Ivan Lewis has repeatedly warned that this year’s comprehensive spending review is likely to yield a tight settlement for social care. Alison Paddle, chair of Nagalro, which represents guardians and other family court practitioners, says that a strong professional voice is particularly important in such a climate. “In a world where managerial values can dominate and budget cuts and budgets can be the deciding factor I think having a strong professional voice and strong professional identity is very much needed in social work.”
However, some believe that BASW is falling short in this regard. Andrea Rowe, chief executive of adult workforce development body Skills for Care, says: “I don’t think BASW has been as effective as it could be. The ADSS does a good job for directors of social services but not for front-line social workers. I think social work does need a strong professional association and they haven’t had that.”
One social worker who spoke to Community Care was also critical of BASW. She alleges it failed to help her when she turned to the organisation in the mid-1990s after being assaulted by a client’s boyfriend. “I felt very let down by BASW and I left them,” she says. “I was also a member of the union (National Association of Local Government Officers, now part of Unison) and they were much more sympathetic and helpful.”
Johnston rejects criticism with the argument that social workers in the UK should support rather than undermine the largest organisation that represents them.
“People ask me why aren’t we like the British Medical Association or the Royal College of Nursing, but it’s a facile comparison given the size of our organisation – like comparing a battleship to a rowing boat,” he says. But Johnston would like BASW to be more effective. “Just one in eight social workers are BASW members – out of a total of about 80,000. We’ve got a long way to go to get the kind of representation health professionals get.”
He says membership is on the up. It was below 7,000 when he became director a decade ago and is now at 11,000 and rising. He defends the organisation’s track record: “Over its time BASW has fought a lot of battles – it took 25 years for us to get regulation for social workers.”
BASW is also helping to plug a gap for independent social workers, who do not receive union representation.
Gail Tucker, founder chair of BASW’s independents’ forum for independent social workers, says there has been a “dramatic” growth in membership from just two in 2001 when the forum began to 170. The Care Standards Act 2000 introduced various measures to raise the status of the profession, notably the creation of the General Social Care Council to regulate and register the workforce. But such reforms have happened in parallel with the diversification of the workforce.
Diminished voice <IMG alt="" src="https://www.communitycare.co.uk/assets/getAsset.aspx?ItemID=2929" align=right , strategic advisor for children, adults health services at Improvement and Development Agency, says it is this diversification has lead to having a weaker voice than other public sector professions. He adds that social councils spread between 150 institutions compared with NHS workers who are all employed by the same organisation.
Cozens says that this has also led to the voice of social workers failing to keep pace with that of the service user movement. This has been reflected in recent policies that have focused on shifting power away from service providers to those receiving services.
Organisations that are both unions and professional bodies, such as the Royal College of Nursing, exist for other public sector professionals.
But Johnston says while he would like to boost the protection BASW can offer social workers there are potential difficulties in taking on such a dual role. Currently, BASW provides advice and professional indemnity cover of up to £1m for members, and has what Johnston describes as a “close” relationship with Unison and social work professionals’ union, the British Union of Social Work Employees (Buswe).
Johnston says he would like to “do a deal” with unions to get a specialised service for social workers if members requested it.
While he does not rule out unionising BASW in the future, he believes it would become a “very different animal” if it went down that route. He argues that professional associations like his own are about promoting shared ethics and values in contrast to campaigning on pay and conditions.
“In BASW, equality of service to service users comes first, and selfinterest of members comes second. Some people think it would be better if social workers had their own discrete union body although in theory they are stronger if they are part of a bigger union. BASW could change nature to become a trade union if members wanted, but to date people have valued our independence and the way we are not in anyone’s pocket.”
Despite Buswe’s existence most social workers who choose to join a union go to Unison. For Cozens, Unison’s status as a union for the whole of local government has lead to some social care issues being overlooked.
“Unison has done a pretty good job over the years [for social workers] in terms of terms and conditions, working arrangements, grievances and harassment but what it hasn’t got, because it’s a big wide local government union, is that focus on the rest of the [social care] sector. Particularly as the sector is shifting to outside local government.”
He says that Unison also “got itself in knots” on some issues such as direct payments, which have divided members with some fearing the initiative threatens social care jobs. These points, he says, illustrate the importance of having separate professional representation for social workers.
Helga Pile, Unison’s head of social services, says that it is up to members to decide which issues Unison should look at and that they can have their say through local branches. She says that union membership has helped to provide social workers with a unified voice which has given them power when trying to bring about changes.
Pauline Bradley, a social worker and social services convener for Unison, who was a social worker at Haringey Council at the time of the Victoria Climbié case, says that all social workers should be members of a union as it can provide valuable help in times of difficulty. “At the end of the day we are workers and we need to have our work situation arranged in the best way it can be. We need protection of our health and safety,” she says.
SOCIAL WORKERS’ ORGANISATIONS
British Association of Social Workers
BASW’s membership was fewer than 7,000 10 years ago and is now 11,000. Membership fees provide a “substantial” part of the organisations’ £2m annual budget, which includes salaries for 27 paid staff across four UK offices. By comparison, the Royal College of Nursing has more than 390,000 members among nurses, nursing students and healthcare assistants, a £74m annual budget and 870 staff.
British Union of Social Work Employees
Buswe was formed in 1978 at the British Association of Social Workers’ annual conference. It was initially based in BASW’s offices but was forced to move after the National Association of Local Government Officers (now part of Unison) threatened to stop co-operating with BASW because of the creation of Buswe. It is an independent union and membership is open to all social care employees. It has 2,000 members with many of these working at the NSPCC, where Buswe is recognised and has negotiating rights.
Unison has 300,000 members working in social care in local government, the private or voluntary sectors. It is campaigning for major government investment in social services, which it says are “grossly underfunded”, alongside better pay, conditions and training for social workers.
BASW’S NEW CHAIR
“The professional identity of social work is being challenged by the mergers of adult social services with health, and children’s services with education. Social work is changing through partnership with other agencies. BASW is about the professional representation of social workers and the values of social work. We seek to uphold the ethos of social justice, dignity, respect and professional integrity. BASW’s voice is being heard by some of the big players, such as the General Social Care Council, and our influence is growing.
I would like to see BASW gaining more members and including people who may have felt excluded in the past, particularly those from black and ethnic minority groups. I intend to make anti-racism one of my highest priorities as I see racism every day both inside and outside of social work.
As the first black woman chair of BASW, I hope to send out the message that BASW is an inclusive organisation. I also want to recruit more students and members from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as England.
BASW must listen to what front-line workers want and act on why they choose not to join us – whether that is due to a lack of time because of work pressures or a view that BASW is ‘not for them’.”