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Chair's Blog: From Attlee to eligibility critera - social work as campaigning and casework

Not quite a joint blog post this time, but it was inspired by conversations I have been having with social care consultant and BASW member, Colin Slasberg. These linked with the activities of the Austerity Action Group, a talk I heard given by Professor Jonathan Dickens about social worker, Clement Attlee, and something I said in a recent interview with Professional Social Work editor, Shahid Naqvi. So I might be the only one hitting the keyboard here, but a lot of people have influenced this post. Including a Labour politician who has sadly recently passed away.

From Attlee to eligibility critera - social work as campaigning and casework

In a comment I just made in BASW’s tribute to Tessa Jowell, the minister in the New Labour governments who set up Sure Start amongst her other achievements, I described her as a social worker “in all senses of the role”. What I was referring to - as well as that she had worked with both children and adults - is that she had then moved on to a role with the campaigning charity, Mind, and while there first engaged with electoral politics, chairing Camden's Social Services Committee.

Another future Labour minister who followed a similar trajectory, from working as a social worker in London, to becoming active in local politics - in this case including as mayor of Stepney - and then entering Parliament as a Labour MP, was Clement Attlee. Only in recent years did I learn (possibly at a Social Work History Network event - check these out if you haven’t already - even if you can’t attend any, they produce excellent articles based on talks that have been given) that Attlee had been a social worker, and then a social work lecturer at the London School of Economics, during which time he wrote his first book, simply called The Social Worker (1920). It’s available online and in a facsimile and it’s a brilliant read.

If you are interested but want a shorter read, I highly recommend the British Journal of Social Work article by Jonathan Dickens, Clement Attlee and the Social Service Idea: Modern Messages for Social Work in England, which has the great advantage of being freely available online (at least as I write). Dickens summarises Attlee’s vision of social work, as set out in his book, and shows how the ideas about society that underpinned Attlee’s great post-war Government began in his time as a social worker.

At the time that Attlee began his social work career, there were two main schools of thought concerning the social work role, termed as individualist and collectivist. The former, typified in the work of the Charity Organisation Society, held that individuals were responsible for themselves and their families, and if they needed help it should be provided by charities “on the basis of careful assessment and close monitoring”. And if they couldn’t be helped, they should be referred to the Poor Law and the workhouse. The collectivists, including trade unions, the co-operative movement and early Labour Party, placed more emphasis on the social determinants of poverty, and the need for both campaigning and reform, and a greater role for the state including in the provision of local services and financial assistance.

It is clear that the arguments between these two schools are still being played out today, but what appeared to be different then was that the campaign and reform of the collectivist school was seen just as much a part of social work as more remedial work with individuals and families. Dickens points out that social workers didn’t actually situate themselves purely in one school, but drew on both, and Attlee’s approach was to recognise both sides while “favouring the collectivist approach, putting the emphasis on trying to understand people in their social context”.

There is a great passage towards the end of his book, where Attlee describes the role of social worker as agitator:

“Every social worker is almost certain to be also an agitator. If he or she learns certain facts and believes that they are due to certain causes which are beyond the power of an individual to remove, it is impossible to rest contented with the limited amount of good that can be done by following old methods and agitation to get people to see a new point of view.”

So what has all this got to do with my conversations with Colin Slasberg and work with the Austerity Action Group?

Together with Peter Beresford, Colin wrote an article in the May 2017 edition of Professional Social Work entitled ‘A need is only a need if there is the resource to meet it’, in which they argue that people get assessed for eligibility to services based on available resources rather than on their ‘lived experience’ of need.

Though I didn’t fully grasp the import of what they were saying at that time, I later met Colin at the Social Work Impact workshop I facilitated back in March, and this led to a meeting over coffee, during which Colin was able to explain his ideas to me in more detail. They chimed with something Boot Out Austerity walker, Steve Moore, said at the morning rally on day 2 of the walk last year in Wolverhampton. Steve talked about austerity punishing the poor, and that of course this was not new, as the Poor Law had done this for hundreds of years. What Colin said suggested that this connection, in how poor people are treated, might not just have re-appeared due to austerity, but might never have gone away, even with the Poor Law being left behind in the post-war legislation of the Attlee government. To explain...

It has been essential for social workers to voice their concerns about austerity in recent years, yet at the same time we need to be careful not to convey a message that the difficulties our profession and the people we serve face have only arisen since the current discourse of austerity began in 2010. The austerity measures implemented by the Coalition and Conservative Governments represent a deepening of neoliberal policies and ratcheting up of the associated rhetoric that has been around for the past forty years.

And some of the problems of social work go further back still. Eligibility criteria in adult social care are seen as one of the defining characteristics of neoliberal social work, and yet they predate the neoliberal era, as they date back to the introduction of modern (post Poor Law) social care services with the National Assistance Act in 1948.

In understanding the problems with eligibility criteria more clearly I have the advantage of having had time with Colin. The May 2017 article made more sense to me then, and there is also this 2017 article by Colin and Peter in Disability & Society (another fortunately freely available one). In short, they make a powerful case, that assessments are necessarily resource-led rather than needs-led (and have been since the end of the Poor Law).

And returning to the present era of austerity, what is becoming clearer is that basing criteria on available resources, rather than on people’s lived experience of need, can be used to mask the harmful impact of cuts under austerity measures. This can be seen in the recent statement by the Permanent Secretary to the Department of Health, that there was sufficient money to meet all the statutory requirements under the Care Act 2014, which, given the use of eligibility criteria, was true. However, as Colin argues in his latest (May 2018) Professional Social Work article, given the use of eligibility criteria this statement is always true, no matter how large or small the budget!

This has led to the Austerity Action Group becoming interested in this issue, which was discussed briefly at the end of our last planning meeting, and to which we will return.

What we also found of interest was the similar approaches we (the Austerity Action Group and Colin) have taken, or are proposing, in addressing austerity on the one hand, and the use of eligibility criteria on the other. This is essentially an approach on two levels, which we think can provide a basic template for taking action on a whole range of issues. The two levels of action could be labelled transformative and ameliorative respectively, the first involving campaigning and the second, ways of practising with individual service users.

So, returning to the social work of Clement Attlee perhaps, recognising both sides, individualist and collectivist (while favouring the latter?)…

In the Austerity Action Group this has resulted in our initial two main activities being on the one hand, the collectivist, campaigning one of developing our Campaign Action Pack, and on the other, the development of an Anti-Poverty Practice Guide that is currently underway.

Colin’s ideas about how the agenda he has set out in his articles should best be taken forward are based on the same idea about campaigning and individual practice levels:

1) By campaigning to have the Government change the statutory guidance to the Care Act, so that affordability of need replaces eligibility of need as the means to control spending, which would enable Section 1 of the Act to become the legal context for an authentically person-centred process to identify and cost the lived experience of needs for well-being;

2) Pending such change, to issue guidance to social workers in how they can practice ethically - according to BASW’s Code of Ethics - in the context of employing councils continuing to control spending through eligibility of need.

I believe these two levels of operating should always be in a social worker’s mind, reflecting both a collectivist and individualist approach, both transformative and ameliorative, both campaigning and practice.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Shahid Naqvi for a piece in June’s Professional Social Work, and this forced me to reflect on what campaigning might mean for today’s social workers. I recognise that not everyone will be able to take to the streets or write letters to their MPs. However, as I said to Shahid, “I don’t think you can be a social worker without being concerned about campaigning against these things because that will come out in your work with individual families. Even if you do not actively campaign, if you are not informed by a societal analysis of their difficulties you are liable to work with them as if (their problems are) their fault.”

Clement Attlee had the right idea - as a social worker in the first decade of the 20th century, and as the Prime Minister in the years after the Second World War.

Colin Slasberg on 17/05/2018 06:53:10

I think one of Guy's lasting achievements as Chair has been, through his leadership of the Boot out Austerity campaign, to move BASW to being an organisation that actually delivers in a real and practical way on our Code of Ethics. No longer just a bunch of fine sounding words that sit vaguely somewhere in the backs of our minds, but something real and living that drives us with a true moral purpose. But our moral authority to challenge damaging policies seeps away when we do not first live up to our ethics in our own workplace. There can be no recovery from hypocrisy. I do hope members will engage in the thinking about what has been our part in a system of care and support that the evidence shows to be grossly unfair and disempowering, and then to apply the same moral purpose Guy has shown us to bring about change.

Guy Shennan on 22/05/2018 08:54:49

Thanks for this, Colin. My memory is failing me, but I think that early on in my time as Chair someone said something along the lines of all that we need to teach new social workers is contained within the Code of Ethics - or springs from it perhaps. I didn't really understand this; terrible to think that the full value and import of our Code of Ethics is only now dawning on me! An alternative way of looking at this is - how exciting to be able to see now the potential of the Code of Ethics, to bring it alive in our practice. Many social workers have always done this, and we need to learn from them, and look to place the Code at the centre of all we do.