The Social Worker of the Year Awards has pledged to carry out an “ethics audit” after it was embroiled in a row last week over outsourcing firm Capita’s inclusion in its 2018 list of sponsors.
A social work charity set up in response to the safeguarding crisis faced by refugees in Calais pulled out of the awards within hours of being shortlisted due to Capita’s involvement, which it said was at odds with social work values.
Since 2015, Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB) has supported young people and families around their applications to enter or remain in the UK, as well as undertaking campaigning and educational work. It was a finalist in the ‘Championing Social Work Values’ award category, sponsored by Essex council in partnership with Capita, which performs resourcing and recruitment functions, including around social workers, for the East of England authority.
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After SWWB made its decision public, one of the judging panel, Nick Berbiers, also announced on social media that he would not be attending the awards ceremony, in “solidarity”. He said professional ethics demanded “ultra-scrupulousness as to who we associate with”.
In response, a spokesperson for the Social Worker of the Year Awards said it would be reviewing sponsorship policy as part of a wider audit, in conjunction with British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and others, to which it would invite SWWB to particpitate.
Capita, which has provided outsourced services to fulfil hundreds of public-sector contracts, has often attracted controversy relating to performance issues and the nature of its work.
Along with Atos and Maximus, it has carried out thousands of medical assessments for disability benefits on behalf of the government, described as “gruelling” and “frustrating” by a Parliamentary select committee, which also noted 60% of Capita’s reports were deemed unacceptable.
This summer, as part of its investigation into the Windrush scandal, the Guardian reported that Capita’s contract with the Home Office included performance bonuses relating to numbers of people removed from the UK.
Staff employed by a Capita subsidiary were also recently criticised after an HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) inspection found they had used “excessive” restraint on detainees flown out of the country.
‘Instrumental in dismantling public services’
In a statement, SWWB said: “SWWB applied for the award to acknowledge the incredible work done by our network of social work volunteers who have, since 2015, given their time to complete social work assessments for migrant and asylum-seeking families across the UK and in Calais.
“This work is necessary due to the UK government’s draconian immigration policies that force families into isolation, separation, detention and destitution,” the statement added.
SWWB said that at the time of applying, it had been unaware Capita was a sponsor of the Social Worker of the Year Awards.
“Capita is instrumental in dismantling our public services and in creating a hostile environment for migrant and non-migrant individuals and families alike,” its statement said. “SWWB cannot accept an award that is funded by an organisation whose ethics are antithetical to and violently undermine those of the social work profession.”
A Capita spokesperson said that as part of its ongoing partnership with Essex council it had developed a “deep understanding of what’s important to people in social work”.
The spokesperson added: “We know social work is complex and demanding. We are very proud to be joint sponsors of one award category at the Social Worker of the Year Awards, honouring the hard work, dedication and huge achievements of social workers throughout the UK.”
‘Social work is our identity’
Berbiers, formerly head of young people’s services at the Become charity for children in care and care leavers, said in a Twitter post that he was “embarrassed” to have not read the sponsorship list more closely before becoming involved in this year’s awards.
He added that he had been in touch with the awards board in an effort to resolve the situation but was “not at all comfortable” with how things had been left.
Berbiers said he stood by judging panel decisions he had been involved in because not doing so would be unfair on nominees and cause chaos.
But, he said, “[Social work] is our identity, and we need to be very careful who we share it with. Whatever credibility I have was earned the hard way, from doing nearly 40 years of social work. I will not allow my good name to be linked with any sponsors I do not wish to be associated with.”
‘Our sole purpose is to promote great practice’
In a statement to Community Care responding to the row, a spokesperson for the Social Worker of the Year Awards said: “The board of trustees of the Social Worker of the Year Awards will be carrying out a values and ethics audit on the awards, including a clear policy on sponsorship, with the involvement of BASW and other stakeholders, and we have invited Social Workers Without Borders to be involved.
“Ultimately the awards exist to recognise and incentivise individuals and teams in the social work profession to achieve excellence. Our sole purpose is to promote great social work practice and we have to put that to the fore.
“The audit needs to be more than a public/private sector debate. England has a plural sector whereby social work takes place in a whole range of settings and the lines between settings are complex.
“The awards are a small charity and are funded within this complex context and the consultation will focus on agreeing clear sponsorship guidelines which will help the awards be sustainable and continue to achieve our objectives of promoting great social work.”
Contacted for an update, an SWWB spokesperson said: “We would like to thank the SWOTY panel for engaging with us after the statement and keeping us in the loop with the discussion being had around the choice of sponsorship.”