Social work reform: Promoting rights, justice and economic well-being

The Social Work Reform Board has set out what is expected of social workers at every stage of their career. Maria Ahmed explores how practitioners can promote rights, justice and economic well-being in difficult times

The Social Work Reform Board has set out what is expected of social workers at every stage of their career. Maria Ahmed explores how practitioners can promote rights, justice and economic well-being in difficult times

The principles of rights, social justice and tackling poverty go to the heart of the social work profession, but putting the rhetoric into practice can be challenging. The advance of multi-agency working, where social workers can find themselves in healthcare settings, and widespread cuts to services have raised the stakes considerably.

To strengthen and clarify the role of the professional in this area, the Social Work Reform Board has included “rights, justice and economic well-being” as one of its nine core capabilities in its proposed professional capabilities framework (see below), which sets out how social workers should build on existing skills.

A starting point could be to develop knowledge of key human rights legislation and conventions, such as the Mental Capacity Act, Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and how they relate to service users.

For example, the Court of Protection recently had to decide whether a learning disabled woman who was about to give birth should be sterilised, highlighting the delicate balance between safeguarding and service users’ personal freedom, including the right to a private and family life.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for England at BASW – the College of Social Work, agrees that the capability will work in practice only if social workers have adequate knowledge of their service users’ rights. “We must make sure that practitioners make people aware of their rights, particularly their right to complain,” she says.

Duty to combat poverty

Social workers also have a duty to support the economic well-being of service users, according to the framework, by helping to lift them out of poverty. But critics have questioned whether social work has the capacity to do this. “I’d be fascinated if anybody has been lifted out of poverty/ moved towards social justice in recent times by actual social workers,” Romeo21 wrote on CareSpace, Community Care’s online forum. “Connexions workers and other key localised projects that I know definitely offer value, I just don’t think statutory social work has the tools to do so.”

A recurring theme in government policies is for statutory services to support people in finding jobs. For example, the 2009 Valuing Employment Now strategy aims to find work for 45,000 more people with moderate and severe learning disabilities by 2025.

But awareness of the benefits system is also crucial, especially with the forthcoming introduction of the universal credit by the Department for Work and Pensions, which will replace existing benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance with a single payment.

Palliative care social worker Suzy Croft, interim board member of the College of Social Work, says social workers need more practical training in this area. “Many newly qualified practitioners are not fully equipped to help people navigate the complexities of the system and too often have to learn on the job,” she says.

Croft adds that the recent slashing of the mobility component of the disability living allowance for people in residential and nursing care, and other cuts to housing benefit, make the capability even more important.

BASW’s Code of Ethics for Social Work argues that social workers can contribute to the development of policy in the interests of social justice.

Mansuri says practitioners should contribute their views to the Munro review of child protection in England as a starting point.

Legal aid changes

She also urges practitioners to lobby against forthcoming changes to legal aid “that may leave women experiencing domestic violence and asylum seekers at risk of destitution and homelessness”.

Members of BASW – the College of Social Work will join the TUC rally in London on 26 March to protest against this and other cuts to services.

“It is critical in these harsh economic times that all social workers are well versed in the values and principles of the profession so that they can advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable,” Mansuri says.

Social worker’s persistence pays off for client


Nassima (left) and social worker Jo Turberville pore over the options available

When Nassima heard a knock on her door, earlier harassment from bailiffs had left her too scared to open it. This time, however, it was a social worker calling.

Struggling to cope after the birth of her son and unable to return to work due to mental ill health, her bathroom was in disrepair and the debts had mounted. “I’d been living off credit cards,” Nassima recalls. Her social worker, Jo Turberville, persisted, leaving notes for her client “checking if she was OK”, until she finally opened her door.

It emerged that Nassima was not receiving benefit entitlements because she was unaware of her rights, so Turberville arranged appointments with an adviser and a debt support agency. She also helped her access emergency grants to buy essential household goods and repair the bathroom, which improved the family’s health and hygiene.

Now, Nassima is repaying her debts and receiving the range of benefits to which she is entitled.

“Without Jo’s intervention I don’t know where I’d be,” Nassima says. “She’s been such a help – supporting me to claim for benefits and get my finances on track and under control. No one was willing to help me practically apply for benefits before I spoke to Jo. She sat down with me and helped sort everything out. Life’s easier now I don’t have to worry about money as much.”

For Turberville, who works for the Building Bridges project with Family Action in Lewisham, south London, cases like Nassima’s illustrate the multiple challenges of promoting social justice, rights and tackling poverty.

“I have to work within the limits set by welfare policy,” she says, citing the “negative impact” on families of the cap placed recently on housing benefit. “I don’t think this is fair or right but feel disempowered by having to work within this flawed framework,” she adds.

Another challenge has been finding support for families as local authority cuts result in service closures or reduced support.

“Many of my families are housebound due to panic disorder and social phobia and find it difficult to access services,” Turberville says. “I had real difficulty in finding Nassima debt advice because none of the services were prepared to visit her at home and she was not at a point where she was able to cope with leaving the safety of her home.”

The impact of poverty on children is also often overlooked in many children’s support services, she says. “In many of the meetings I have attended this is not mentioned or discussed. In Nassima’s case, I felt it was left to me constantly to raise this during meetings and push to ensure it was addressed.”

What is the professional capabilities framework?

The proposed professional capabilities framework, published by the Social Work Reform Board, includes advancing human rights and promoting social justice and economic well-being as one of its nine core strands. It sets out expectations for social workers to:

● Recognise the principles of human rights and equality, outlined in national and international law, conventions and policies.

● Practise from a rights and social justice perspective.

● Understand the impact of poverty, and promote economic well-being, including access to benefits, education and work.

● Challenge practice and policy.

● Use and contribute to case law and applying these rights in their own practice.

Source: Social Work Reform Board, Building a safe and confident future: One year on, December 2010

More coverage of what the Social Work Reform Board’s proposals mean for practitioners

This article is published in the 17 March 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Do the rights thing”

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