The Social Work Activities Network (SWAN) describes itself as “a loose network of social work practitioners, academics, students and social welfare service users united in their concern that social work activity is being undermined by managerialism and marketisation, by the stigmatisation of service users and by welfare cuts and restrictions.
“…good social work … can help people address the problems and difficulties in their lives. Many of these difficulties are rooted in the inequalities and oppressions of the modern world and good social work necessarily involves confronting such structural and public causes of so many private ills.”
The SWAN conference I attended recently at the Hope University in Liverpool was the first I had been to (or indeed heard about), and it was very much focused on child-protection social work post “Baby P”.
Following the witch hunt of social workers launched by the Sun newspaper, SWAN launched an alternative petition which highlighted the lack of resources, funding, the understaffing and undervalue of social work and the business target driven model which makes serious child protection impossible in many local authorities.
My initial tiredness and stress about workload (I did paperwork while travelling there!) were happily washed away by the sight of around 200 people, mostly social workers and students, talking about the opposite of the status quo, about best practice in social work.
The initial plenary was addressed by Penny Houghton, a professor of social work, service-user Peter Beresford, and Michael Cavalette, the conference organiser. Penny emphasised the role of social justice in social work. Peter made some interesting points how the “government social work taskforce” had one practitioner, no service-users and still room for the Sun’s Agony Aunt Diedre Sanders. There was also an acknowledgement that statutory organisations are overruling social workers’ judgements and moving far away from where social workers and service users want us to be.
I did feel there was a certain snobbery about the “red top” papers and no real understanding of the revulsion many people will have felt when reading about “Baby P”, revulsion which led them to sign a witch-hunting petition. I can understand wanting an individual to blame. Although I don't put blame on the individual social worker in this case, I am also glad that people do feel revulsion at not just the murder of a young child but also the lack of protection from state services.
A brief Unison meeting was organised at lunchtime. Nick Barnes from North Manchester Unison spoke about the difficulties with the new computer system (ICS — Imposed Without Consultation) and about an increase in referrals and therefore workloads. He painted the usual picture of agency social workers walking out, high vacancy rates, workers complaining of unsafe practice, high caseloads.
The new computer systems all embody performance management (targets) e.g. your screen flashes red when your assessment is overdue, without any sense of how long a complex assessment might take, or regard for the fact that all this will result in is a quicker decision, but not necssarily the right one.
There was a lot of recognition for union and collective activity although this was more among the older workers there. But it gave me hope to see social workers who had qualified 30 years ago and those due to qualify in six months with the same values, enthusiasm and drive and to see how much we learn from each other. And to hear workers at the frontline discussing how they think things should be run with a knowledge that the people who work in the service know best.
My concern was that the task is so huge. Whilst there was a larger union presence than at many social work events, unfortunately it seemed the younger you were the less likely you were to be in a union or if you were you were less likely to see this as the answer. Not surprising when Unison produces very good documents based on how social workers think the service should be run but no strategy on how to win improvements.
The government’s policy is clear: personalisation and transformation are the new words for cuts in social care. Individuals are doing their best but burning out and leaving. There was little ihere about future organisation apart from a future conference and a charter (I assume to propose to government in the social work taskforce). Social worker union activists should use every opporunity, including attending this conference, to organise: children and vulnerable adults need us to do this!