Privatising or Pioneering Social Work Practices

Yesterday, I came across this article on the Community Care website about new pilot ‘independent social work practice’ set up as a social enterprise. It made me pause for thought and ponder a number of things about where social work is going and what social work is.

The article extols the wonder of the ‘Topaz’ team in Lambeth which is described as

One of the six independent social work practice pilots for adult services, it has £91,300 start-up funding from the Department of Health until August 2012.

and explains

The team has three core aims: early intervention, preventive work, and promoting people’s independence and wellbeing in the community. To keep funding next year, it has to show that this is keeping people at home for longer, which saves the council money in care home and nursing fees.

Working with local health services, voluntary, faith and community groups, the idea is to create more resilient communities and raise awareness of services within Lambeth.

People who were assessed in the previous year and deemed ineligible for services are contacted to review whether there has been a change in circumstances.

It sounds wonderful. Really it does. So this team looks at people who might be at the lower end of the ‘needs’ spectrum and works towards ways to prevent a future dependence. It sounds a little like some of the work some voluntary sector organisations like Age UK might have scope to do but the council have gone a different route through this social enterprise model.

Topaz, according to it’s websitealso provides support and guidance to those who are ‘self-funding’.

So why do I have to rain on this parade of wonder and innovation?

Firstly, it’s about my discomfort about the talk about ‘getting back to ‘real’ social work’. What does that mean? Is that disparaging to the current social workers in a statutory setting who don’t get have the same role regarding ‘cherry picking’ those who need to use the services. Or is community social work (which no doubt is very valuable) the only ‘real’ social work that goes on. There’s a little hint of superiority in that attitude that I find discomforting and disconcerting.

The Team Manager says

It’s about improving the image of social work, telling people what we do, how we can help, that we are not agents of control who take children away

Which is great, but you know, sometimes we are ‘agents of control who take children away’.

As I said, I think it sounds like a fantastic project but it employs social workers and pushing them out of local authority ‘bounds’ – it seems very benign and creative – but – I see it as the start of a slope to eventually push statutory functions outside the local authority control and most importantly, beyond the local authority democratic mandate. While that’s fine as long as you are working with people on the fringes of eligibility criteria and having picnics in the park with them, it may carry a very different status when involving more serious safeguarding issues that arise – indeed, that would be my question back to the Topaz team – how do they deal with safeguarding investigations? Do they go back to the local authority for that or hold them within the team themselves?

My other concern is the terms and conditions of those employed in the service – they are employed on locum type contracts – as the article says

No pension, sick pay, maternity leave or job security beyond next year might not sound like ideal terms and conditions. But for a group of pioneering social workers in Lambeth, the risks of working in a community interest company are worth taking because it’s enabling them to do use all of their social work skills.

Well, you know what? I believe I make full use of all my social work skills in the job I have now. And I have sick pay. Who’d have thought that should be something I should be surprised at expecting as a social worker.

And this team won a wonderful award last year in an award scheme which, like most, operate by either self-nomination or endorsement by senior managers. I can see why it is completely in Lambeth’s interest and the government’s interest to promote these social enterprise teams. I can see why they want to be presented as ‘pioneering’ but actually is this going forward or is it going backwards? Isn’t this about the roots of community social work so actually far from pioneering?

Perhaps I’m overly cynical. I do want more scope for social work in communities however I’m not convinced by this model and propaganda which brushes over working conditions and limited contracts will not help allay my scepticism.

Because my worry is that it is a slippery slope towards pushing essential services away from the democratic mandate and when the cuts come, these services which have been presented as the ‘pioneers’ will be the forerunners as far as models go but when the other core services follow, these will be the ones which will be the ones to go when the cuts come. And the cuts will come.

So tell me if I’m wrong or just over sceptical because I want to find hope in the future of social work but I don’t want to be blind to the risks that may exist if we embrace these ‘practices’ without critical thought.