Backchat’s from the vaults: A look at Community Care’s archives

A view from the vaults for Community Care issue 19/03/09

• Thirty years ago

Robert Kilroy Silk MP was campaigning against the “locking up of mentally ill people”. He passionately argued that the criminal justice system was dumping mentally-ill people in jail when they should be receiving hospital treatment. A few weeks later, he followed it up by standing up for women in prison.

Robert (seriously, we are warming to him) said that only women who were a real danger to society should be imprisoned. Instead, women were being locked up for trivial offences, costing the taxpayer money, breaking up families and separating children from their mothers. A year earlier, he was campaigning to remove alcoholics from prison. Somewhere along the line – we don’t know where, was it the TV programmes, the Daily Express column or being an MEP? – something went wrong.

• Twenty years ago

As we launch Stand Up Now for Social Work we come across Community Care’s exclusive 1989 survey that found social workers wanting to improve their public image. Apparently, social workers believed that public opinion held the profession in contempt.

There was also a depressingly familiar article on negative media coverage, particularly of the Cleveland case by the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times, Daily Express and Sunday Telegraph.

These newspapers described social workers as the new authoritarians, meddlers, zealots and ultra-feminists (what is an ultra-feminist?). The actions of the social workers in Cleveland were compared with the Gestapo, the Stalinist purges, the Salem witch trials and even “Ayatollah Khomeni coming to Middlesbrough” (Stuart Bell MP).

The article pointed how far from the facts the media actually were in reporting stories. But a disturbing trend was that the government’s Children Bill was revised at the time of the media coverage and the balance was shifted from social workers to parents. There may have been understandable reasons for the shift. But the overall feeling was that the media led a campaign to change a bill with the other side having no opportunity to debate the issue. Policy on children was being made by unaccountable newspapers. Sound familiar?

• Ten years ago

A story catches the eye about why social workers were leaving the profession. At the time there was a shortage of would-be trainees and predictions of a recruitment crisis in 10 years. The article recounted several people’s tales of disillusion and burn-out, with one becoming an antiques dealer, others teachers, researchers, nurses and so on.

The article pointed to the increasing bureaucracy, lack of support and the moves towards just patching up people and sending them out again, like a social care version of an A&E department. There was also grumbling from the old salts about how the young ones don’t understand the job.

Then in the next issue we read of how unions and employers were moving towards a new pay framework that would abolish the blue and white collar wage distinction – known as single status pay. Ten years on and 40 per cent of councils still haven’t implemented single status, social workers are still becoming demoralised and leaving the profession, especially due to negative media coverage.

Plus ça change.

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