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The role of social workers in resisting 'demonisation' of welfare claimants

Independent columnist and author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones, told a BASW fringe meeting at the Labour party conference that social workers have a major role to play in halting attacks on low income families and people on benefits.

Citing the case of Mick Philpott, found guilty of deliberately starting a fire that led to the deaths of his six children in Derby, Mr Jones said “the actions of a monster was spun by the Mail as indicative of social breakdown”.

He called on social workers to counter such stereotypes by talking about the people they work with. “Social workers have a key role partly because of the stories they can tell – those stories can help. The hunting down of stories about people like Philpott by the right wing press allows those unrepresentative stories to connect with people, so showing the other side of those stories has a huge part to play in driving that back.”

Reflecting on the central theme of his book, the Independent columnist said: “The demonisation of poorer people in society has its roots in the 1980s when unemployment and poverty went from being social issues to becoming more about people having personal defects – they weren’t hard working enough, or intelligent enough, or were feckless.

“We have now the hunting down of the most unrepresentative examples and then passing them off as the tip of the iceberg. The most extreme example was Shannon Matthews – an appalling case, we’d all agree, but her example was then spun as if the whole community was like her even though that community did everything they could to find Shannon. And then it wasn’t just that community but all communities across the country tarred in the same way.

“Anyone who wants to support people or are trying to help, such as social workers, are either demonised or airbrushed out of existence.”

He said he was “in awe of what social workers do and the lives they save” but that the challenges of the job were often insurmountable. “Social workers with caseloads of over 50 families – I’ve no idea how it’s even humanly possible to give them the support we need. Frankly it’s a miracle we haven’t had even more high profile tragedies.”

Outlining the growing demands on social workers, Mr Jones said the UK was experiencing the longest period of falling living standards since the 1870s, that some families were “choosing between heating their homes and feeding their children” and that half-a-million people were now using foodbanks.

He also told the fringe event that a long downward trend in the suicide rate “has in the past three years gone in to reverse”.

More optimistically Mr Jones said recent public debates suggested a shift in public attitudes. “Even though there is a view that no argument on welfare can ever be won, the ‘bedroom tax’ shows it is turning – public opinion has been won, the majority of people surveyed saying they believe it is unfair.”