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Guardians of safety: why good social work pays

Part of the TCSW business case for social work with adults

Deep financial cuts in the public sector have resulted in pressures on social work posts in adult social care. But The College of Social Work’s (TCSW) business case1 argues that saving money on social work is usually a false economy.

In this contribution to the business casea we argue that local authorities which under-invest in social work risk failing in their statutory duties to their residents and also that the financial and reputational risks of failure are prohibitive.

Since the public inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, led by Robert Francis QC, great stress has been laid on the importance of investment in staff if the quality and safety of hospital care are to improve. We believe a parallel argument can be made for investment in social work in adult social care.

We discuss findings from our consultation with more than 100 social workers, which set out to define statutory social work with adults and establish how the unique contribution of social work supports councils’ legal obligations to local residents. The professional relationships between social workers and their clients were thought to be essential to an informed understanding of people’s needs and an appropriate response to their wishes and feelings.

Where strong social work and social work leadership are lacking, people who use adult social care services can suffer the consequences. Tragic events, such as those involving Gloria Foster and Steven Neary, demonstrate the importance of the highest standards of social work to minimise the risk of cases like these.

This is set against a historical background of repeated attempts by Parliament to strengthen the role of social workers ever since the 1948 legislation replaced the Poor Law. When, in the 1950s, Parliament came to consider the suitability of the staff employed to implement the new legislation they found that ‘89 per cent of the present officers have no qualification whatsoever in social science or professional social work’. The proposal then was that although much of the work could be done by ‘welfare assistants’ with in-service training, they should be supervised by professionally trained social workers. It was also proposed that there should be an even more highly trained grade which would undertake ‘case work of exceptional difficulty and for the guidance and supervision of other social workers’.

These social workers were employed to implement the requirements of the National Assistance Act 1948, much of which is still in force. More than 60 years later, the social workers who took part in our consultation believed that what Parliament said then about the role of social work was still true. The Care Standards Act 2000 came about because Parliament had concerns about the quality of the care being provided to the most vulnerable members of society. The Act addresses quality by requiring social workers to be suitably trained and registered and also defines what it calls ‘relevant’ social work, which is statutory social work required in connection with any health, education or social services provided to any person.

Yet nowhere in this Act, nor in any other Act, statutory instrument or binding guidance, does it actually say explicitly that relevant social work with adults must be undertaken by social workers. So adults who require social work have a degree of protection if social workers provide it, but they lose that protection if councils simply decide not to employ social workers to do it.

Our consultation identified two different sorts of protection which being a registered profession affords to the vulnerable people for whom councils are responsible: first, there is accountability to the professional regulator and, second, there is a professional body of opinion to set the standards of practice required.

These safeguards are necessary because social workers build relationships with clients in the most difficult circumstances, where there may be questions about mental capacity, abuse, neglect or the ability to function as part of a community in a way that the vast majority of people take for granted as a fundamental right. Social workers are trained to act as the local authority ‘safety net’, taking responsibility when other services have decided they cannot help or can help only in a limited way.

The relationships involved are highly specialised and, as such, ought to be undertaken by a social worker. It was stressed in the consultation that a particular responsibility of social work is to safeguard vulnerable adults from harm. The risks of using a person not registered as having the appropriate training and skills to work within these principles were seen to be too high to all concerned.

Social work training was seen by participants as a guarantee of consistency in approach, guarding against the randomness of decisions and judgements that could be taken by people not qualified as social workers.

This paper supports TCSW’s business case. Social workers are clear that councils should entrust their adult social care to the profession of social work, except for that part of it rightly entrusted to the profession of occupational therapy. The potential costs to councils of not doing this are too high. Only social workers can provide safe social work: it is the one professional group subject to the training and regulation necessary to meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents.

It is possible that local authorities are acting inherently unreasonably when they do otherwise. But even if they could show they were acting reasonably in that respect, the potential failures in their duties of care, in both human and financial terms, are too great for councils to take such risks for short-term savings. Elected councillors have an historic duty of care to their neighbours and Parliament has created a stronger social work profession as the means to carry it out.