‘We must not throw away the achievements of 40 years of social services departments’

Forty years after its inception we have moved a long way from the original idea of a unified, family-based social services model writes Ronald Liddiard

By Ronald Liddiard

Amid all the clamour of budget cuts and service reorganisations, it is worth pausing to recall that 1 April marks the 40th anniversary of the inception of social services.

The new creation emerged from the former children’s and welfare departments and the mental health services of the medical officer of health. The organisation’s remit was to unite the disparate elements of social care in local authorities and, most importantly, to act as the spearhead in establishing a family-based model of care in the community – the central idea in the Seebohm Report of 1968.

Five years ago, that model was abandoned in favour of separate services for children and adults, in many cases combining social care with other departments whose primary orientation was very different.

In some ways the evolution of social services mirrors that of the child itself. It starts with a short, relatively carefree existence with an indulgent carer (remember Keith Joseph and the promise of 10% annual budget growth?). A long and sometimes painful learning process follows as youthful enthusiasm eventually has to be tempered with financial reality. With time, realisation that we may never achieve all that we and others had expected leads to a perceived need for change.

There are several dangers of losing the essential thrust of the Seebohm idea. Not only have we split the family-based model in two, but we have diluted the social care element by combining services which have distinctly different philosophies, processes and objectives.

Secondly, by enhancing the already dramatic increase in the involvement of the private sector, whose primary motive is profit, we risk marginalising the most vulnerable or leaving local and health authorities looking after those with the most expensive and complicated needs.

The unprecedented pressure on public budgets means that many preventive services that were so carefully built up, for example day centres for the elderly, have had to be abandoned, reduced or hived off. While it is right to concentrate on those with the most immediate needs I suspect in future we shall regret the absence of the sort of services that provide not only warmth and food, but also human contact and companionship.

In their 35 years of existence, social services departments produced a radical shift in emphasis for all their client groups, and developed a wide range of innovative services. Successor organisations are struggling to maintain that progress.

Ronald Liddiard was director of social services in Bath (1971-74) and in Birmingham (1974-85)

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