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Minister - social work has always struggled to define itself

Wales’ Minister for Health and Social Services Mark Drakeford urged practitioners to consider what social work is for and what it should be doing.

Speaking at BASW Cymru’s annual conference, he said the boundaries of the profession were “notoriously difficult to define”.

“There is a sense that social work as a field isn’t quite sure what is inside it and what is outside it. The struggle for social work to know what we mean by it is characteristic of its history.

“Also, there has been an enduring and in some ways more important struggle to know what we mean social work to do – what is the purpose of it all?”

Mr Drakeford praised the Local Authority Social Services Act of 1970 introduced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government as a “landmark” that defined social work as the “fifth great arm” of the welfare state.

He said it positioned social work as a universal service working alongside clients and acting in their best interests.

However, that year saw Labour defeated in the General Election and it was left to Edward Heath’s Conservative government to implement.

Then social services secretary Keith Joseph ­­– described by Mr Drakeford as Margaret Thatcher’s guru whose radical right policies provided the “spiritual and political” roots for current Chancellor George Osborne – was a supporter of social work, but had a very different idea of what it should be.

“He believed social work showed how you could do without the welfare state at all. The problems were not structural, Sir Keith said, but personal. They were not to do with poverty or poor housing, but people who handed their problems down from one generation to another in a transmitted cycle of inherited disadvantage.”

Sir Keith, said Mr Drakeford, saw social work as a “brisk, no-nonsense” occupation in which “children could be removed swiftly from hopeless families and given a better start elsewhere”.

He described the two views of social work as “absolutely competing paradigms”.

“If we are interested in known what we are standing up for we need to make our minds up about where we think social work sits along that paradigm.”

Mr Drakeford described his vision of social work as one in which practitioners work alongside vunerable individuals understanding the structural forces that shape their lives.

He said it was a profession “infused with a sense of optimism” about the possibility of improvement that does not judge and does not believe problems are “inherent” in people’s character. It focused on the “strength and assets” people possess, rather than problems.

“Social workers are best regarded as brokers within the system that sees the person in front of them as person first and as a housing tenant, or a child in trouble with the law or someone using the health service second,” he said.

Mr Drakeford claimed the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act, which comes into force next April, had “many of the characteristics that allow this kind of social work to take route”.

The Act locates social work as a core department in local authorities; emphasises the use of professional judgement; puts focus on prevention and “co-production” where the person supported is active rather than passive in solving their problems.