Amid the concentration this year on Brexit and coronavirus, and with a focus on the NHS and its 72nd anniversary, another significant anniversary is passing by with little recognition. It is 50 years since a unified profession of social work was established across the United Kingdom, and 50 years since the creation of integrated local authority personal social services in England and Wales.
Before 1970 there were eight separate membership organisations for different specialist social workers, including child care officers, mental welfare officers and what were called moral welfare officers. There were also separate council children’s, welfare and mental health departments, with psychiatric and medical social workers employed by the NHS.
The 1970 implementation of the 1968 Seebohm Report’s recommendations brought together this patchwork of competing services into one local social services department. There was also the creation of one professional qualification relevant for all social workers and the creation of the British Association of Social Workers, which provided a unified professional organisation.
It was a time of hope and promise that social work and personal social services would have the opportunity to make a greater contribution within the welfare state. It was an aspiration that, during the past half-century, has led to demonstrable achievements, with social workers at the forefront of five particularly significant changes.
In 1970 there was still a dependence on the big 19th-century institutions that incarcerated people with mental health and learning difficulties in county asylums.
For older people there were geriatric wards in what were the old Poor Law workhouses, rebadged as community hospitals. And for younger people with physical impairment the only assistance outside the family was to move into residential care homes provided by charities. Babies and young children were still being cared for in residential nurseries of up to 40 children, and older children and young people were living in homes of 120 children or more and in cottage villages with their own school and sanatorium.
Social workers and personal social services in the 1980s and 1990s were at the centre of the closure of these big, isolating institutions and led the move towards help within families and communities.
Second, prompted, prodded and pushed by disabled people, it was social services departments that moved ahead with making cash payments available to disabled people even before legislation made doing so legal and legitimate. What is now called “personalisation” had its roots in the actions and activities of social workers in the 1990s.
Third, social work moved ahead more quickly than many other occupations in changing from “expert knows best” to working in partnership alongside disabled people and others. There was an increasing emphasis on enabling and facilitating in alliance with disabled people, who were empowering themselves to have more choice and control.
Fourth, social workers shaped the 1989 Children Act, which enshrined the concept of “children in need” and promoted working in partnership with parents and providing help for families getting into difficulty. Indeed a former social worker, Virginia Bottomley, was the secretary of state who oversaw the act’s implementation. It is still the primary legislation providing the statutory framework for children’s social services.
Fifth, social workers have been at the forefront of a widening understanding about child safety and protection. Fifty years ago there was recognition of what was called “battered baby syndrome” and a concentration on physical abuse. Subsequent decades have seen child protection concerns broadened to include sexual abuse within families and institutions; awareness of the impact of neglect; recognition of emotional abuse; then the focus on sexual exploitation and networked abuse.
Today, however, the time and tasks of social workers have been skewed too much to child and adult protection and to rationing diminishing help as a consequence of a decade of austerity. Risk management and rationing have trumped building relationships and creating and deploying resources.
One consequence of the continuing year-on-year cuts since 2010 is workforce instability, difficulty in retaining experienced social workers and a high turnover of top managers and leaders, especially in children’s services. The frustration of not being able to practise well with time squeezed – and the urgency to close work down so new referrals can be taken on – hits morale and confidence. Some local authorities are bucking the trend, while others are buckling under the pressure, but it is getting harder for all.
Despite the rhetoric during the coronavirus crisis about the importance of key workers and public services, the government continues to favour the big outsourcing companies and leave local authorities stranded and struggling to fulfil crucial statutory responsibilities.
But if there is one overriding message from the past 50 years for social workers, it is that by being professionally and collectively committed and active, they can contribute to shaping positive change.
Ray Jones is emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University and a social worker who was a director of social services for 14 years. His new book A History of the Personal Social Services in England is published by Palgrave Macmillan