Social workers must fight for service user rights and the profession’s soul
Alliances between practitioners, service users and carers offer the best challenge to damaging policies, writes Peter Beresford
A battle is intensifying for social work’s soul. The Conservative government seems determined to clip the wings of a profession that, at its best, can be a force for support, emancipation and social justice.
Take the succession of government criticism of social work education in recent years. At the same time enthusiasm, and financial backing, has greeted new ‘fast-track’ routes of social work training before their effectiveness has been evaluated.
See also ministers’ decision to withdraw funding from The College of Social Work (an organisation set up to give the profession a voice) and six months after its closure announce plans for a new social work body to take on responsibility for regulation and professional standards.
There are moves towards privatisation too, most notably in children’s services where David Cameron has criticised what he called “tolerance of state failure” and promised any services that don’t improve will be taken over.
The wider context
Of course these moves cannot be viewed in isolation. They are part of an ideological drive to shrink the state and decimate public services in the name of ‘austerity’.
I have recently been investigating another area targeted by the government – the welfare state more generally. Drawing on both research evidence and the lived experience and experiential knowledge of people as service users, I wanted to find out how well the welfare state’s routine reality has matched its lofty principles.
My research highlighted the need to subject the old welfare state to a much more critical gaze if we want to secure welfare fit for the future. The same is true of social work if we want to have a sustainable profession worth defending for the next generation.
Partnerships with service users
If we are honest, statutory social work has not truly been developed in partnership with service users and their movements. Instead, it has tended to be hierarchical, bureaucratic and paternalistic.
Yet there are some chinks of light. Social work has pioneered service user participation in professional education and practice. And the evidence has also increasingly highlighted how user-led support makes for better, more cost-effective policy and provision.
Social work must build on this. The profession cannot expect to command popular support if its campaigning is based on a series of don’ts – ‘don’t be nasty to us’, ‘don’t change’, ‘don’t privatise’, ‘don’t question’. Instead, the rallying cry should be this: ‘We want genuinely user-led services, practice, education and support’.