Today, World Social Work Day celebrations have been held by BASW, in conjunction with others, across the UK, including events in Westminster in conjunction with the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) and the Social Work and Health Inequalities Network, Scotland and Northern Ireland – and tomorrow in Wales. Involving political and professional leaders, as well as universities and workplaces, plus social media participants, people have come together to stress the continuing importance of social work in 2013.
This year’s focus, based on the international Global Agenda for Social Work, is on ‘Promoting social and economic equalities’. This offers a chance to highlight our concerns about the future of the profession and the well-being of the people who rely on our services, driven by research evidence and our professional experience of the social unrest which comes with high levels of inequality.
One notable source of evidence, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, illustrates the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies – eroding trust and increasing anxiety and illness”.
Social work is not just about working with poor and vulnerable people. Often, governments want social workers in more deprived areas as we have the particular knowledge and skills needed to help people in these circumstances. Across the world, we are seeing the extreme challenges now being faced by people in times of austerity.
We are seeing the impact on families with inadequate money to feed their children, including the rise of food banks; we are seeing adults out of work with nothing to do; we are seeing older people trapped in their own homes with inadequate heating.
We are hearing where communities are saying, enough.
We are seeing social workers across the world ground down by being expected to keep vulnerable people safe where there are inadequate systems to do so.
It is no answer to pretend that throwing money at problems will solve them. We are not that naive. But the speed of closing down services and reducing benefits is having a major impact on social workers and the individuals and communities they serve.
Social work is a unique profession, with vital skills in working with individuals and the communities in which they live.
Social workers can be a major contributor to the solutions in society – that’s why BASW was so keen to work with parliamentarians through the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Work and with other organisations.
In defiance of the unfair media criticism and controversy that social work attracts, we need to be vigilant that both the social worker role and function is protected, and not usurped.
In May 2012, BASW’s State of Social Work survey suggested that 85% of social workers had seen cuts to services within the last year and 65% were worried about the use of under-qualified staff, indicating a threat to the social work role and our ability to influence social inequalities.
The side-lining of social work used to be an issue primarily for social workers with adults, often overshadowed by NHS health teams, but the Government’s ‘Troubled Families’ scheme, so beloved by Eric Pickles and Louise Casey, also makes no mention of using social workers; instead unqualified ‘trouble-shooters’ will be employed by local councils.
With a growing need for social work services, perhaps it is time to explore other options in safeguarding the social work role, such as a statutory legal duty on social workers as advocates within a clear legal process, similar to that with mental health hearings.
As demands increase for agencies and practitioners to offer better and more significant intervention in the safeguarding of both children and adults, the political rhetoric of protecting frontline services sounds hollow to social workers witnessing the dismantling of statutory and non-statutory organisations, which have, up to now, provided what vulnerable communities need.
We are challenged to find new ways of working and new ways of living together. In celebrating social work across the world today, the Global Agenda invites us to develop a road map in each country to explore how we can do this.
Bridget Robb (@BASW_UK) Interim Chief Executive, British Association of Social Workers. Join us @SWSCmedia for a live World Social Work Day Twitter Chat on Tuesday (19 March 2013) 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM DST. Hashtag #SWSCmedia