Human rights are relevant to us all and every day our shared humanity is rooted in the universal values of equality, justice and freedom to prevent violence and sustain peace.
Whenever and wherever the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are abandoned, we all are at greater risk.
Therefore, globally we celebrate Human Rights Day (10th December), a time we stand up for our rights and those of others.
It is within this framework that social workers should have a loud voice, for as the global definition of social work says: “…principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work”.
Social workers are directed by legislation, shaped by best practice and use collective knowledge in their professional judgement to make complex decisions on issues of human rights every day.
Human rights are therefore at the heart of social work both in ethical and practical terms, and thus BASW has looked at the leading issues affecting the human rights of British citizens and what needs to be done to correct them.
These are: refugee minors, Universal Credit, social care funding, the state of our prisons and probation services, and mental health services.
Some of these may intersect and amplify each other, and while not an exhaustive list, certainly all five need to be urgently addressed.
1. Refugee minors
The House of Commons and the House of Lords in 2015 made the decision to allow unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) who have relatives in the UK to enter the UK as refugees. Of the 3,000 estimated such minors, only 350 have entered the UK thus far, although several local authorities have committed themselves to house them. Many of these minors have been and are in imminent danger of trafficking and exploitation. The UK Parliament now seems to be reversing that decision to allow minors freedom to enter the country. This is a breach of the human rights of these children who are in very vulnerable circumstances.
BASW calls on the Home Office to speed up the process of enabling these minors to enter the UK, and to respect the parliamentary decision more fully than has been the case up to now. This should include access to free legal aid to support their immigration applications, which was removed in 2013.
2. Universal Credit
The dissemination of the new system of Universal Credit has led to many clients of social workers (and others) who are in receipt of social security benefits, to be unable to balance their budgets. In particular there is concern at the minimum 42-day wait for a first payment endured by new claimants when they move to universal credit, which for many low-income claimants in effect leaves them without cash for six weeks. The well-documented consequences of this are rent arrears (leading in some cases to eviction), hunger (food banks in universal credit areas report striking increases in referrals), use of expensive credit, and mental distress. Calls in parliament and in the mass media for an overhaul of the scheme have not thus far met with a constructive government response. This is a breach of the human rights of some of the most vulnerable members of our society, which urgently requires a more humane and effective intervention.
BASW calls on the Department of Work and Pensions to immediately halt the roll-out of the scheme in its present form and consult social work clients and social workers as part of a process leading to the substantial overhauling of this scheme.
3. Social care funding
The government has now recognised that local authority social services are unable to respond to the high demand for suitable places in the community after hospital care. Consequently, many patients and their families are concerned that their discharge from hospital was unsupported or premature, while other patients are marooned in acute beds unable to move on. The funding allocated for this purpose is far below the sum needed as estimated by independent experts. English councils have been threatened by central Government with cuts to social care funding if they fail to meet the virtually undeliverable target of reducing the number of people remaining in hospital when they are fit to be discharged by as much as 70 per cent. Further cuts to adult social care – which have already been extensive and damaging – is a breach of the human rights of people experiencing serious ill health difficulties and of their relatives, which is putting an unbearable pressure on both health and social care workers.
BASW calls for an immediate allocation of funding at the necessary level, for an end to the intimidation of local authorities’ social services by the Minister of Health, and for a much more effective integration of health and social care work.
The situation in most UK prisons has reached a crisis point, in which prisons have become toxic environments for both inmates and staff, with a record number of prisoner suicides and assaults on staff. The principal reason for this is numbers, where the prison population in England and Wales went from almost 45,000 prisoners in 1991 to 85,000 two decades later – an increase of nearly 90%, but with little additional capacity to deal with this. Additionally, there has been a lack of attention to policy in developing alternatives to prisons. For a long time, the UK has had a much higher number of prisoners than any other European country, while it does not have a higher rate of offences or offenders.
Instead of the rehabilitation programmes it is supposed to offer, prisons are effectively compelled to focus solely on risk management. This breach’s the human rights of both groups, and risks getting out of control to the detriment of all UK citizens. The probation service has also been subject to privatisation with the risk of using non -professional staff and inadequate staffing levels, to meet probationers’ needs and exert sufficient control, posing another concern for the human rights of probationers, their families and the public.
BASW calls for a dramatic increase in resources available to house prisoners, employ more prison staff, offer them more robust training and develop rehabilitation programmes for the prisoners, and changes in sentencing guidelines to support rehabilitation. This should include constructive alternatives to incarceration.
5. Mental health
There are serious and deeply ingrained problems with the commissioning and provision of mental health services generally. These run through the whole system from prevention and early intervention through to inpatient services for the most vulnerable. Although the UK government has committed to making provisions for mental health equal to that of physical health, there is still a chronic lack of funding – for example there has been a reduction in the number of nurses in mental health services by over 7000 since 2010 – due primarily to government cuts.
There is concern related to young people with mental health issues, with children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) currently accounting for just 0.7% of NHS spending, and around 6.4% of mental health spending. Yet young people are affected disproportionately with over half of mental health problems starting by the age of 14 and 75% by 18. Children with mental health issues are often placed in areas where they are unable to maintain contact with their family members, services are difficult to access and like their adult counterparts, are often dealt with by Police and emergency services in times of crisis or emergency rather than by trained social workers or mental health professionals. The pressure on CAMHS services can lead to waiting-times for treatment of more than a year, while around three-quarters of children and young people with mental health problems do not get the help they need.
BASW calls for increased priority to be given to mental health services, and calls on government to make more funding available to develop support services further. Mental health generally needs to receive more attention and particularly where this affects children and young people.
*This list was compiled by Shula Ramon (Professor, University of Hertfordshire) and Nigel Hall (IFSW Human Rights Commissioner), both members of BASW International Committee.