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PSW: England's chief social workers told by profession 'speak for us'

Shahid Naqvi reports on the social work summit for PSW (Professional Social Work) magazine

England’s two chief social workers were urged to be the mouthpiece of the profession rather than the political establishment.

The message came during a debate at BASW’s Social Work Summit following a question raised by the Association’s Vice Chair Maggie Mellon about the relationship between the roles and the wider profession.

In response, Isabelle Trowler, Westminster’s Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, told the gathering of key figures from social work: “I don’t pretend I am the voice of the profession. I am a civil servant and I see my role very much about offering advice to ministers based on what other people tell me about the system, which includes children and families as well as social workers.”

Ms Trowler compared the role to how the network of principle social workers represented front line practice to decision-makers locally.

Lyn Romeo, England’s Chief Social Worker for Adults, said the relatively new role was still bedding in, but stressed it was about promoting an “ongoing dialogue, communication and sharing of information”.

However, social work academic Ray Jones said: “I would hope the chief social worker role is a way of getting the expertise and wisdom and experience of social work into government.

“I am concerned that it is being reshaped so it is government coming out and telling us what it wants to be doing.

“We can leave it to the other civil servants to tell us what the government wants to do. I don’t think that should primarily be the role of the chief social workers.”

Social work academic, service user and activist Peter Beresford said there was a feeling the roles had become more about passing on messages from Whitehall.

“Maybe there are issues here about the meaning of being a social worker which could apply to attaching that label to the chief social worker.

“The truth is we are getting people within government telling social workers what they are going to do from the perspective of government.

“We are seeing a perspective that is keen to advance a government agenda that is free of evidence which we know is having a damaging affect.

“The direction of travel is terrifying for people who are disadvantaged and for families of young people with disabilities.

“In the mid-term there is going to be such hurt, cruelty and damage done that social work needs to know who is on the side of social work and who speaks for government.”

BASW Chief Executive Bridget Robb said social work as a profession had a strong tradition of identifying itself with human rights and standing up for people who are marginalised, which should be heard by the political establishment.

“We have always seen a really important role of helping to ensure those voices are heard in government.

“That is why for us the role of chief social workers is so important and why we need to work effectively together. We need somebody with social work commitment and values hammering at the door of colleagues in the civil service and across departments.”

Dr Ruth Allen, who is to replace Ms Robb as BASW’s Chief Executive in April, said the profession had an “absolute right” to shape the chief social workers’ roles.

But she added it was important the profession came up with its own solutions to the problems it faces.

“We need to be working as an Association and as a collective of organisations around the sort of answers we want to put out there as an alternative to some of the things that are coming through.

“That is the way we empower ourselves as an organisation and it is how we will mature our relationship with government. Every profession has to develop its relationship with Whitehall and we have to think strategically how we do that."

Read BASW Chair Guy Shennan's blog post about the day 'Social work practitioners and service users at the summit'