by Ray Jones
Almost every social worker I talk to these days can describe to me in detail the increasing poverty they see in the families they are working with, as well as among older and disabled adults.
This has increased, and almost certainly will continue to increase, as universal credit continues to be rolled out across the country. This new benefits system, introduced under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, brings together six payments and is supposed to be less complicated and easier for both government and claimant.
However there is a built-in six week delay in receiving payments. Combined with the fact that universal credit is paid to people monthly, rather than weekly or fortnightly, and that most claimants already find it very difficult to budget, many are ending up in a spiral of debt.
It is surely notable the government had to whip its Tory MPs into abstaining on a Labour vote to ‘pause and fix’ the new system as politicians on both sides voice increasing concerns about the impact it’s causing.
This is exacerbated by the bedroom tax, which reduces housing benefit payments to people deemed to have a spare bedroom in social housing, and the withdrawal by cash-strapped councils of emergency payments when families are deemed destitute and desperate.
Despite these well documented problems, the level of austerity denial among government ministers is truly shocking. My local MP, who is a government minister, wrote a piece in the local paper about universal credit, in which she claimed it was an improved system that would provide a better safety net.
Then, the minister of state for children told Children and Young People Now that he will not seek more money from the Treasury for children’s social services, because he is not convinced the current funding is being well deployed.
In the interview, Robert Goodwill seems to take no account of the fact that local authority funding from government has been reduced by 38% in real terms since 2010, or that specific grants such as Sure Start have been abolished.
No matter, that the Local Government Association has calculated there will be a £2bn shortfall in children’s services budgets by 2020, nor that social workers continue year-on-year to have a real term cut to wages, while the workforce buckles under increasing caseloads.
But the third, and in some ways most startling, case of austerity denial I have seen this week is a tweet from Morning Lane Associates (MLA) on 14 October, which stated : ‘The only people responsible for increased children in care are the ADCS – don’t blame austerity – adopt the Reclaim Social Work Model’.
In this one tweet, the pressures on families and on children’s social services, leading to more children in care, are blamed on directors of children’s services not the government’s politically-chosen austerity policies.
For a private company that promotes a model of social work across England, and has been involved in developing the accreditation tests for children’s social workers and advising Frontline, the fast-track programme for training social workers, this seems both naïve and concerning.
These denials also fly in the face of overwhelming recent evidence. A research paper published by Rick Hood in 2016 warned deprivation levels continued to be a key driver of referrals to child protection services.
This finding was echoed in the work of Andy Bilson, which concluded that the majority of children coming into contact with these services live in families affected by poverty. Earlier this year, a study by Paul Bywaters also found that children in the UK’s poorest communities are over 10 times more likely to enter the care system than those from the wealthiest areas.
This work shows the direct correlations between poverty and deprivation and rates of children in need, child protection activity, children in care, and local authorities under most pressure. And what I find most shocking of all is that those holding the power to shape social work services are prepared to ignore this evidence so blatantly, and refuse to change approach, even if the harm it is causing can be proven.