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World Social Work Day: Social workers have a vital role to play in reducing inequality

The vital role that social workers play in reducing inequality was the clear message sounded at BASW’s event to mark World Social Work Day in Westminster.

The event, held in partnership with BASW and the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) and the Social Work and Health Inequalities Network (SWHIN) was a celebration of a joint commitment to the Global Agenda and the importance of World Social Work Day’s theme of “Promoting social and economic equalities”.

Delegates from across the social work sector gathered to hear a key note address from Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of “The Spirit Level”, which argues that rather than focusing on economic growth to improve society, we should instead focus on addressing inequality.

In her opening speech, BASW Interim Chief Executive Bridget Robb gave a picture of social workers across the world “ground down by being expected to keep vulnerable people safe where there are inadequate systems to do so”, Ms Robb added, "It is no answer to pretend that throwing money at problems will solve them – we are not that naive. But the speed of shutting services and reducing benefits is having a major impact on social workers and the individuals and communities they serve."

“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 together.”

Kate Karban, Joint Convenor of SWHIN said that young and old alike faced the ill effects of inequality, from examples such as children in areas of deprivation having worse outcomes than their peers in wealthier areas of the country, to older people cutting down on social events to save money, which in turn led to loneliness and depression.

Ms Karban made reference to research by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, 'Fair Society Healthy Lives', which demonstrated that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a 50% increased risk of heart disease. “Social work can make a difference, by contributing to reducing social, economic and health inequalities across the life span”, Ms Karban said, “In England over five million adults and children have contact with social work and social care services. Many of those people are already experiencing poor physical and mental health”.

“Social work has changed over the years and will continue to change, however, increasing levels of poverty and inequality, coupled with welfare benefit changes and increasing privatisation of services, means that while retaining a very important emphasis on building relationships with service users, we must also seek to strengthen an approach based on working with groups and communities to challenge some of these changes that are having such impact on communities.”

Next speaker Hilary Tompsett, Chair of JUCSWEC, joined Ms Karban in praising the passion and commitment to social work being shown by social work students, described as “the next generation of social workers”.

Ms Tompsett expressed her support for the Global Agenda, describing it as “seeking to provide a vision and inspirational framework for social workers to develop their professional practice and their professional voice.”

She praised the briefing paper to accompany the event as providing a strong affirmation of “the principles of choice, rights, respect and dignity for all service users and care-givers, young and old and the recognition of the central importance of addressing social, economic and health inequalities in the social work role”.

Ms Tompsett summarised the steps that social workers could take to reduce inequality into three points; raising awareness about inequality, taking positive action and sharing examples of good practice. She wanted to bring the Global Agenda to the attention of the public as well as practitioners and social work students.

“Social work educators are working hard to educate our future social workers about the social and political determinants of health and wellbeing in order to address these various inequalities. There is much on-going work and much to do, as we explore creative ways of working with limited resources.”

Ms Tompsett also stressed the importance of hearing the service user voice, referencing research from Fran Branfield and Peter Beresford, ‘A Better life: Alternative approaches from a service user perspective”.

This was a theme echoed by Professor Richard Wilkinson, who echoed BASW’s call for social workers to be advocates for the poor and for whistle blowers to be protected.

He began by saying that social workers would already know the messages that he wants to put out, saying he ‘envied' social workers for the opportunity they had to witness the reality behind the figures he interrogates at his desk.

Professor Wilkinson said his book, ‘The Spirit Level’, had been described as “the theory of everything” as it touched on so many different indicators such as teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction. Professor Wilkinson’s research suggests that when you reduce inequality you reduce the incidence of these problems. In unequal societies, social dominance and being rich becomes more important. “We say of family members, who gets rich, ‘he’s done very well’, this then becomes the definition of what success means, and in turn these attitudes promote the belief that people at the bottom of society are there because they’re hopeless", he added.

Professor Wilkinson then showed a series of graphs demonstrating how on almost every index of quality of life, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country's level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable "low" end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable "high" end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

A more equal society where people do not feel stigmatised by their social status will lead to a reduction of such social problems, and this can only happen if people feel more valued. Professor Wilkinson explained that the main driver of the severity of individual and social problems, which are the consequence of inequality, are the psycho-social factors which affect individuals and communities.  Social workers have a major role in helping people to overcome such disadvantages. He added that this was not enough, however, and advocacy by social workers on behalf of service users is also important. 

Professor Wilkinson referred to another of BASW's concerns, the pernicious effect of government propaganda on benefit claimants, such as tales of people on their way to work noting that their neighbours' curtains were still closed and feeling resentful about their lazy neighbour still lying in bed, when in reality social workers know that having no job leads to feelings of worthlessness and clinical depression. “We should not underestimate the importance of speaking out”, he concluded.

David Jones, International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) Immediate Past President and Global Agenda Coordinator gave the international context of the day, reminding the audience that events were taking place all over the world, including Jordan, Sarajevo and Ghana, “the exciting thing about World Social Work Day is it started in Europe, but now it is has taken on its own life and belongs to the world."

He explained how social work had a crucial role to play in current discussions around austerity and that the IFSW had taken a message to the EU that there is a need for economic regulation which reflects reality and eradicates poverty, and social work must play a part in that.

Mr Jones said that IFSW conferences around the world provided not just a chance for a flow of ideas, they will make sure that the social work message gets through to leaders. "World leaders know that inequality causes conflict. Equally, because climate change and poverty reduction go hand in hand,  because the sort of world we live in and the environment we create is important for all of us, that means the UN Millenium Goals' successor must be about the sort of world we want to live in, and that is why it is so importance that we have a voice for social work that is clear and unified."

Stressing the importance of social work to attempt to engage with government, Mr Jones thanked former children and families minister Tim Loughton MP for attending the event, 'it's not the party they belong to but their sense of commitment to social work that makes the difference”, he said.

View a version of Professor Wilkinson’s speech here