Social Work and the Public Sector in crisis

Posted on: 17 December 2011 by Alexander Hay

An overlooked victim of government cuts, social work now faces both greater caseloads and ever less resources to deal with them, putting the weak and vulnerable in great danger

As social care budgets are slashed, society will pay a heavy price

While the news focusses on the EU and the UK's ongoing financial decline, one major story has been neglected, even as the situation deteriorates and lives are put at risk. Britain's public sector social care system is in crisis.

Somewhat inevitably, it is government cuts that are the root of the problem. In the last year alone, councils have slashed social care budgets by an average of 24% and a maximum of 40%. Government funding also continues to decline, with a cut of 20% in social worker training since the coalition government came to power last year.

Lay-offs have already begun. In the next three years, the nationwide number of government workers overall will be cut by more than 600,000, with large numbers of social workers expected to be among the cull. Meanwhile, 73% of social workers know of at least one colleague who has been made redundant.

Those who have managed to keep their jobs face additional pressures. Beyond the increased workloads, average earnings have either stagnated or have been reduced. Meanwhile, claiming expenses – a necessary measure for a job that often requires many of its duties to be performed out of office – is also more difficult. Car allowances that many social workers rely upon have been cut or even done away with altogether, without taking into account the ever-rising cost of petrol; in effect, a substantial pay cut in all but name.

Why has the government done this? The reasons are threefold. To begin with, the key strategy of the government is to cut costs and reduce the size of the public sector, the logic being that this would save money and those laid off would be able to find work in the private sector, now unburdened by less tax.

Naturally, this is naïve in the extreme, as cutting public spending and jobs means less money going back into the economy and the private sector needs more than just a smaller state to recover. It is unable to create the jobs needed to employ redundant public sector workers.

In any case, the reason why social work is a state monopoly is that it is, by definition, not a profit-making enterprise. There is little or no call for the private sector to take children into care or keep an eye on the elderly and infirm because there is no money in it.

Naturally, the cuts to social work have ideological underpinnings. To some, social workers and by extension the public sector embody a sort of intrusive nanny state, rightly or wrongly, in the more radical (and yet mainstream) streams of Tory thought.

Eager as they are to highlight the major misjudgements and negligence on the part of social workers in recent times, they are less likely to focus on the successes or the day-to-day mundanity of an often thankless occupation, or the failings of private sector 'solutions'. This does not make for good headlines in the Daily Mail or the right wing blogosphere, and so in place of a reasoned debate on what social workers are actually for, we instead have government policy and media debate that draws inspiration from bad cases and a multitude of Aunt Sallies.

From such ill-informed perspectives comes another attack on public sector social work, the Big Society. For all the rhetoric about society playing a greater part in improving itself, in effect, this is an attempt to get public services on the cheap by replacing experienced staff with keen amateurs.

Apart from more of the same wishful, skinflint thinking, this fails to appreciate that social work, for example, is by necessity a full-time job. In 2010, before the last general election, 60% of social workers claimed they thought about leaving the profession every year, with burnout and fatigue a particular problem for those who remain (and haven't been laid off). How can a part-time volunteer undertake and maintain the focus one only gets if one pays for people to undertake often thankless work on a full-time basis?

Indeed, if the recent scandals involving social care failing in its duties are studied closely, they all resulted from precisely the under-funded, understaffed dysfunctional structures that government cuts threaten to make commonplace.

What the deaths of Victoria Climbie'Baby P' and other less high profile scandals demonstrate is precisely that effective social work and the public sector requires proper funding, infrastructure and enough social workers to share the burden widely enough to prevent further tragedies. The private sector is unable to meet this need, and neither is the Big Society.

As our society continues to bear the brunt of a long term recession, despite an ongoing denial on the part of many, the likelihood of neglect and abuse grows ever more likely. Dysfunctional economies lead to dysfunctional lives, which in turn threaten the safety of the most vulnerable.

It is precisely at times like this that well-funded and well-run social care systems are needed, but as cuts bite deeper, it seems other priorities will come first, until tragedy strikes, at which point the social workers and not the government will continue to get the blame.

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Alexander Hay

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