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BLOG: Standing up for vulnerable people – and social work – in an age of austerity

The counter-revolution commenced quietly from a Health and Well Being Centre in Wolverhampton, the venue for a BASW Black Country Branch conference, ‘Social Work in a Time of Austerity’. More than 40 participants – or future ‘agents for change’ – were present to listen, absorb, discuss and begin their personal campaign to fight back in support for the vulnerable.

It began with two messages of gloom from people operating where austerity was most apparent – Sandwell and Wolverhampton. Firstly, Dr John Middleton, Director of Public Health for Sandwell, equated economic inequality with health inequalities and in his retirement year reflected that all the progress he had made in the last 20 years had retreated to the point where it was now an upward climb.

Secondly, Jeremy Vanes, the Chief Operating Officer of Wolverhampton Citizens Advice Bureau, said the organisation has seen its workload double since 2007 while the workforce had reduced by a third. The loss of legal aid, he said, effectively meant the loss of case law, while the inevitable eventual rise in mortgage rates is an “iceberg waiting for its Titanic”.

This was followed by a talk from Graeme Simpson of the University of Wolverhampton who offered a historical context. He reminded participants that as far back as 1851 Samuel Smiles and others had been talking of self-help, the deserving and undeserving poor, and conditional payments – sentiments echoed by the current Coalition Government.

Mr Simpson stressed that social work was under attack in that period of history and now, adding that the onus is on social workers “to be bothered about those with whom nobody wants to be bothered”. He said what is different today is that we are seeing an ideological assault on both the public sector and the concept of welfare. The need for austerity and the slogan of ‘we are all in this together’ are vehicles to achieve this objective, he argued. 

Austerity measures, however, fall disproportionately on the poor, said Simpson, and in particular disabled people who find services they use are being closed down or eligibility criteria ‘tightened’.

By 2018-19, local government will be forced to make cuts of almost 75%. Over half of all cuts will be to services and benefits. In a situation where social work is seen as a business, Simpson said the answer lay with social workers accepting that their practice had both a personal and political dimension and that the need to build relationships with people receiving services is vital. He urged a focus on people, not profit.

The event also heard from Simon Cole of the Social Workers Benevolent Trust, who highlighted the impact of austerity on social workers witnessed by his charity. The BASW-backed social worker charity has increased its spending between 2008-09 and 2012-13 by £11,000 to make support more widely available for hard-pressed professionals. He said there was a shift in need away from credit card debt to people requiring help with food costs.

The final speaker was Dr Jon Dean, from Sheffield Hallam University, who in his talk, ‘Strategies in practice: Are social and community workers everyday revolutionaries?', argued that the theory of anarchy had some of the answers to both current austerity and social work practice.

Anarchy’s popular image was one of violence and hooded demonstrators, said Dr Dean, but this misrepresented the theory. He outlined anarchism as the organisation of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis, centred on consensual decision-making, without recourse to force or compulsion.

This requires people to engage in meaningful relationships where listening means listening and, in turn, to show by doing. Dr Dean said such an approach had to be based on a local setting, since the state is too remote. He added that the model needs workers with interpersonal skills and who are based in their communities. This has obvious relevance to what people see as the vital skills of social work.

Concepts of the personal and political emerged as the dominant themes in workshops that followed. Participants spoke about the need for renewed teamwork and supervision, as well as the importance of building relationships with people who are excluded or vulnerable.

This begins with one’s own actions in creating respect for people who use services and for colleagues. What began to emerge from the day was the feeling that the current political position that views cuts as an inevitable consequence of the 2008 financial crisis has to be challenged and alternative perspectives created.