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New framework to put anti-poverty at centre of practice in Northern Ireland

A framework for social workers that puts poverty at the centre of practice is to be introduced in Northern Ireland.

Set to be launched on 3 July, it aims to ensure the impact of deprivation and inequality is a core concern of social work rather than the “elephant in the room” that’s side-lined.

It comes ahead of a UK-wide anti-poverty guide currently being developed by BASW.

The framework draws on influential research by the Child Welfare Inequalities Projects (CWIP) showing children in the poorest areas are much more likely to be on a child protection plan or looked after than those in the most affluent.

Developed by the government in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast, practitioners, including BASW Northern Ireland, and service users, it acknowledges poverty as a “major social injustice and as structural oppression”.

The country’s chief social worker Sean Holland said the framework was in response to research by Professor Paul Bywaters and colleagues from CWIP showing some social workers side-lined the impact of poverty.

Speaking at BASW’s Annual UK Conference and AGM in Cardiff, he said: “One of the things that struck us from Bywaters research was that social workers in some situations were viewing poverty as almost a test for clients. In parenting situations, failing to cope with poverty was seen as evidence. We were appalled by that, devastated that social workers may be viewing poverty in that way. This probably more than anything else made us realise we had to do something to make sure social work practice took a different approach to poverty.”

The framework will give practical advice on how to support service users in the face of poverty as well as emphasising the importance of attitude and anti-oppressive practice. While not setting out new procedures, Holland said it aimed to stimulate conversation to improve practice.

He added: “What we really wanted to do was in simple terms say to social workers it doesn’t matter why you work with someone – whether it’s mental health difficulties, a child care issue, an older person or issues of disabilities – that work will not be improved in anyway with that person you are working with being in debt, not having enough to eat or being at risk of becoming homeless. So if you don’t think poverty is part of your business, you are fundamentally wrong.”

Under a related initiative, families in Northern Ireland coming into contact with social services are being offered a “benefits screen” to ensure they get their welfare entitlement.

Holland said initial results show more than half of families taking up the offer received previously unclaimed for entitlements.

However, since the roll out of Westminster’s controversial universal credit welfare reforms, he said increasing numbers of people were turning down the offer fearful of losing benefits.

As a result, the benefits screen is likely to be suspended and replaced by a ‘debt screen’ in the future, said Holland.