Social Work Practice Pilots and Social Enterprises: Social Care’s Trojan Horses

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers, who in 1844 founded the early Coop movement, would be the first to argue that David Cameron’s ‘big society’ has no right to claim heritage from early forms of nineteenth century mutualism and working class cooperative societies.  Those Social Enterprises (SEs) that have been developed in the last 10 years to run NHS contracts and more recently the Social Work Practices (SWPs) pilots have developed not from any twenty first century people’s movement but instead as smokescreens behind which lies a cuts agenda. They are also designed to break up public services, place them into financial insecurity with short-term contracts, and then throw them into the hands of private equity companies.
SEs and SWPs have their origins in the last New Labour government.  In 2001 the then Department for Trade and Industry set up the Social Enterprise Unit to promote their use across the economy. They have been steadily pushed, having seen several employee owned SEs established, usually in the form of management buy-outs, to run primary health services.  The current Con-Dem government has embraced them with enthusiasm and wants SEs to compete for council contracts to weaken the influence and erode the ability of councils to provide direct services in Adults and Children’s social care.

SEs are hard to define but are essentially a diverse fusion of voluntary – third sector – charitable organisations run firmly on a ‘business’ model.  There exists an elaborate ‘social enterprise’ discourse which combines the language and discipline of capitalist commerce with altruistic aims to ‘do good’, meet social need and have what proponents call social impact.  They talk about social entrepreneurism and social capital.  Examples include companies who run a service for a ‘good cause’ or to meet social needs (e.g. a rural bus service or a children’s centre) that will re-invest ‘profit’ back into the business rather than distribute to owners and shareholders.  At present there are no SEs in social care but Birmingham City Council, Swindon, and Blackburn and Darwin are considering establishing them for their entire Adult social work services.  
SWPs emerged from the 2008 Children and Young Persons Act.  Proponents argue that allowing social workers to set up private practices will reduce bureaucracy and increase professional autonomy. For social workers and service users alike this might seem  attractive but a close reading of the small print reveals much of the financial risk being transferred onto social workers, contracts being limited to annual cycles, new layers of bureaucracy with up to 37 different performance outcomes for each child, and the replacement of control by management hierarchies with control by contract.  Currently there are 4 SWP pilot schemes in Kent, Hillingdon, Staffordshire and Liverpool and a further 10 planned (4 in children’s services and 6 in Adult services) including Birmingham and Shropshire.

The difficulty councils face is that there is little enthusiasm in local authorities and much resistance from social workers.  In Norfolk the council thought social workers would want to become mini entrepreneurs but their sales pitch failed to generate interest and the proposal was abandoned.  In Sandwell social workers were quick to see that the proposal was effectively a form of privatisation and foster carers were furious children had not been told about the scheme which was eventually also abandoned.  Of the 6 additional schemes announced since the start of 2011, Coventry, Warwickshire, South Tyneside and Lincolnshire have all pulled out having been given tight timescales to develop schemes by government and having looked at the considerable financial risks involved.

You can download the SWAN briefing on Social Work Practices below.

Critical observations on the Munro Review of Child Protection

The Background

With the election of the coalition government in 2008, the recent economic crises and radical welfare reforms which have been proposed in recent years, social work and social policy in England have been undergoing profound changes. Following the tragic death of Baby Peter Connelly and enquiries into the systemic failure of professionals within Haringey Council, the Social Work Task Force, and consequently the Social Work Reform Board were created to propose progressive changes to social work education, training and practice.

Within this backdrop, the status of child protection emerged as an area of increasing public policy concern. Following Lord Laming’s report on child protection in 2009, the challenges faced by front-line social work practitioners in managing huge caseloads, while manoeuvring lengthy bureaucratic procedures  highlighted the difficulties in maintaining professional judgement, while engaging in ‘tick box’ assessment systems. In June 2009, Professor Eileen Munro, from the London School of Economics, was invited by the Secretary of State to conduct an independent review of child protection in the UK. We briefly summarize the findings of the three reports published under the Munro review and provide a critical commentary about its relevance, impact and implications for social work practitioners.

The First Report
The Munro review of child protection was published in three parts between autumn and spring 2010 -11. Part One: A Systems Analysis was published on 10 October 2010, receiving considerable media attention. In this report, Munro engaged in a consultative process of speaking to service users, children, young people, families and social workers in an attempt to understand “why previous well-intentioned reforms, have not resulted in the expected level of improvements” (Munro, 2010:3). Thus, this could be viewed as base-line report, engaging in policy analysis of recent reforms to child protection, with some discussion of implications for social work practitioners. The report is structured in three parts: section one detailing a systems approach to child protection, section two focuses on early prevention and intervention and section three sets out the next steps for the second report.

In the first report, Munro criticises the atomistic nature of current child protection systems which focus on isolated problems, technocratic regulations driven by compliance culture. While she attempts to broaden this scope by adopting a ‘holistic approach to child protection’, this is limited in scope and intent. Some useful points emerge including the need to strengthen professionalism and adopting a socio-technical approach. However, this ‘systems approach’ is still limited to thinking within bureaucratic structures, rather than engaging in broader conceptualizations of the problems of child protection as a social issue (see Parton, 2010). Thus, while the first report had some positive aspects, especially in listening to the voices of service users themselves, the problematics of bureaucratic and managerial social work practice remain unchallenged, and the real challenges facing children and families social work, especially the resource limitations faced by local authorities, remain invisible.

The Second Report
The second report, Part Two: A Child’s Journey was published on 10 February 2011. This report structured in four chapters is a descriptive account of child protection systems as experienced by a young person from seeking help to receiving it, from initial needs assessment to final evaluation of interventions. While Munro insists that the report “will not seek a series of superficial quick fixes” (Munro, 2011a:8), the interim report in many ways does suffer from a superficial treatment of a complex issue. In the second report, Munro expands on her systems approach and details the need for good practice including early intervention and prevention, the role of multi-agency working and effective ‘management’ of front-line social workers in safeguarding children. This report is weakened by its narrow focus on vulnerable children only when they enter the system, rather than a much needed broader discussion of the lack of supports and combined systemic failures within schools, families and communities which can lead to a child becoming at risk. By doing so, the focus of this report is not so much on child-centredness as the goal of a ‘good society’, but rather on facilitating and creating a smooth transition for children engaging within the system. Wider discussions around the lack of power, governmentality and trust in the social work profession (see Houston, 2011; Pollack, 2011 for discussion) are not considered. Instead, it is a revival of the street-level bureaucracy dialogues, placing the burden of efficient service delivery once again on front-line social workers, without reducing any of the crushing difficulties of coping with high risk cases with finite staff, time, support and resources.

The Final Report
The final report A Child Centred System was published on 10 May 2011 and is organised in eight chapters. With much signposting to the previous two reports, the final review presents a guide for an effective child protection system, embedded within professional values and shared accountability and transparency in practice. By attacking the compliance culture, and promoting learning cultures within organizations, the report presents as a departure from previous policy reforms which laid the blame of child death as a failure of professional judgement, rather than looking deeply into its causes.

The recommendations put forth mirror much of Lord Laming’s (2009) report, including the removal of over-bureaucratized lengthy assessment procedures. In addition, suggestions are made to overhaul the assessment process by removing distinctions between initial and core assessments, creating greater leeway for professional judgement, removing constraints to local innovation and creating new and more effective inspection procedures for good practice to support children in their journey through the child protection system. Thus, by sharing accountability for child protection across agencies, the child centred system proposed by Munro, attempts to create a more efficient, less bureaucratized system of procedures.

Key weaknesses of the Inquiry
A critical observation of all three reports, especially the final Munro review reveals four major weaknesses. While this was an independent review, the lack of explicit political and ideological positioning within these reports is itself quite worrying. Academics with practitioner experience, or who are closely aligned with practice, are generally clearly rooted within specific (and often left-wing) ideologies, with a clear focus on protecting vulnerable groups and families. The selection of Eileen Munro to head this review, adds legitimacy and institutional power to her reports, but simultaneously makes one wonder why a academic-practitioner was not charged with this important task.

While Munro does propose a useful critique of past reforms in child protection, her analysis of their failures as being ‘unanticipated’ is almost naïve. It was recognition of the problematic nature of these reforms that was the stated starting point of the Social Work Task Force. Broader neo-liberal contexts, the marketization of welfare and the new managerialist models, have all but made it impossible for front-line workers to be more than administrative clerks and they have lost power, voice and agency in the work they do. Thus, the marketized system of welfare would favour ‘efficiency’ over quality of service user encounter, reducing the young person in need to being a ‘case’ which needs immediate resolution, rather than as a child with specific needs. Munro confuses child-centredness, with child engagement with the child protection system. Remaining child-centred requires at the very least an acceptance that any examination of the child’s needs must involve a deeper examination of the family and community as well. Finally, what we have is a manager’s guide to good practice, rather than a critical reflection on the social basis of child protection, as a concern for everyone living in a ‘good society’. Social work practitioners can gain a useful summary of child protection systems and procedures in these reports, but from a practitioner’s perspective, these reports provide little new knowledge and direction in extending current debates.


Houston, S. (2010). Further reflections on Habermas’s contribution to discourse on child protection: An examination of power in social life. BJSW. 40:1736-1753.

Munro, E. (2010). The Munro review on child protection: Part 1 A Systems Analysis. London: Department of Education.

Munro, E. (2011a). The Munro review of child protection: Interim report- A child’s journey. London: Department of Education.

Munro, E (2011b). The Munro review of child protection: Final report- A child centred system. London: Department of Education.

Parton, N. (2010). Child protection and safeguarding in England: Changing and competing conceptions of risk and their implications for social work, British Journal of Social Work, 1-22.

Pollack, S. (2010). Labelling clients ‘risky’: Social work and the neo-liberal welfare state. BJSW. 40:1263-1278.

Social Work Task Force. (2009). Building A Safe, Confident Future: The final report of the social work task force. London: Department for Children Schools and Families.

CASE CON radical social work collective

The news is bouncing right now with the prospect of strikes by civil servants, teachers and lecturers in the autumn following their June 30th day of action and recent strikes by social workers in Doncaster , Birmingham and Southampton, while commentators are practicing the Paxman raised eyebrows and sneer at this ‘return to the ‘70s’. Of course history never repeats itself, we need to value and learn from that decade of protest, and to remember that radical social workers were part of that. This was most obviously through CASE CON, a magazine ‘for revolutionary social work’ whose activists met in local groups and nationally and campaigned in the community and unions. What follows is the briefest of discussions, for more see the chapter in ‘Radical Social Work Today’, edited by Lavalette (follow this link for info).

Starting with the name, ‘CASE CON’ was a deliberate attack on the term ‘case conference’, the ‘con’ of all those earnest professionals sitting around and seeing only an endless stream of individual ‘cases‘. This was simply victim blaming when the problem was poverty, unemployment and bad housing. And we took heart from the wider political struggles of the period: ship yards occupied, successful miners strikes, the freeing of the Pentonville Dockers, Claimants Unions, Tenants Associations, anti-psychiatry groups and the burgeoning women’s movement. We were, then, part of an explicitly anti-capitalist movement that rejected traditional authority and struggled to find instead new ways of living and relating, both personally and professionally.
For some, action focussed on community issues, especially housing with apostolic stories of social workers manning barricades to stop squatters being evicted and families bedding down in social work offices to prevent children coming into care. Heady stuff but more usually radicals acted through the unions: protesting against cuts, frozen posts, low pay, poor office accommodation. We argued that we were ‘workers not martyrs’ and that our sense of vocation should not be exploited by employers.   

We should not over romanticise CASE CON. Many/most bought the magazine for the ‘Private Eye’ style cartoons and exposés, not because they were revolutionary socialists. And with CASE CON dissolving itself in 1977 it played no part in the 1978/79 strikes by field social workers or the 1983 residential workers strikes. But we did have successes. CASE CON was part of the campaign that stopped children coming into care because of homelessness and the union action against emergency standby duty led to permanent out of office hour’s teams. Some echo of the radical critique is also now part of every day practice, such as the statements about anti-discriminatory/anti-oppressive practice, recognising the socio-political content of a client’s life, working with service user groups.  

But the fact that much of this is rhetoric rather than reality reminds us of the continuing need for radical challenge, and this tradition is heard clearly in SWAN’s emphasis on social justice as the heart of social work and our exploring the ‘link between a structural analysis of clients’ problems to an ethical imperative to act’.  SWAN also provides, as CASE CON once did, a forum where we can learn from each other and feel less isolated in difficult times.

A longer essay about the Case Con collective by Jeremy appears in the new  book: ‘Radical Social Work Today’, edited by SWAN Convenor Michael Lavalette (details at this link). A review of the book will appear on this website soon.

Birmingham social workers strike against pay cuts

Birmingham city council workers, including social workers and social care staff, took strike action on 21st September 2011 in protest at a cuts contract being imposed on November 1st. A new contract introduces savage pay cuts to some of the lowest paid workers and an ultra-flexible “any time, any place” clause which will help the council implement further cuts in the future by amalgamating and deleting posts. There were militant mass pickets at many workplaces and following this workers protested outside the Lib Dem conference. This lobby was well publicised and featured on national TV news on the day of Nick Clegg’s keynote speech. There will be further lobbying at the October, November and December council meetings.

Key to the success of this dispute will be getting workplaces organised and the UNISON branch is launching a campaign of workplace meetings and encouraging members and stewards to organise their own lobbies of local councillors. In November a Birmingham Petition will be launched and following this a pledge, asking councillors to support re-negotiation of the contract if elected.

The one-day action follows a similar strike on 30th June which was coordinated with teachers, lecturers and civil service workers. The next day of strike action will take place at the same time as the November 30th national pensions strike alongside 17 national trade unions. SWAN is asking its members to write to their councillors asking  their support and to join the lobbies of the council.

Social workers strike against austerity

There is something happening in Southampton that should inspire social workers everywhere. A wave of anger has swept north from the Middle East to hit the Solent and awoken a group of workers that seemed before to have forgotten their collective voice. Social care workers in the city have not only been caught up in a bitter dispute with a vicious Tory council, they are now at the forefront of the struggle against austerity. After a slow burning start they have burst into action. The fuel has been emotional blackmail from bosses and councillors.

Problems started with expectations we work ever more hours for free with high and complex caseloads, laborious paperwork systems and little support from a senior management that has lost touch with its workforce. In the Protection and Court teams (PACT) there is a massive turnover of staff, with service users bewildered by constantly changing social workers, often 6 or more a year. Some teams have dangerously high numbers of unallocated child protection cases visited by a number of duty workers resulting in obvious risks. One social worker died at her desk last year with stress levels a major factor. The next day another social worker collapsed with a heart attack in the same building.

High sickness levels continue and much needed experienced social workers have left in protest at planned attacks on our salary and conditions. The proposals by the council involve a 5% pay cut and indefinite pay freeze meaning workers lose at least £200 each month. On top, living costs are rising by 5% and the Government’s proposed pension contributions increase will eat further into pay. Meanwhile very high numbers of agency workers have been employed. Some are earning around £65k p.a. making a mockery of the Council’s insistence that cuts are part of austerity measures. Many of us believe it is Tory ideology to smash the public sector and open it up to the free market. Southampton also recruited American social workers who were excellent but felt they had been cheated. Nearly all have now returned home, disaffected and drained. One told me that the Bronx was an easier option.
We have been forced to take this pay cut after being sacked and reinstated on an amended contract that will open us up to increased exploitation. To many the pay cut, and increased pension contributions has made people feel close to burnout by their 30s. There is a growing feeling that the reality of today`s social work is far removed from the ideals we all trained for, and that a tipping point has been reached. As a social worker with over 20 years experience I have long been frustrated that while there are individual expressions of anger at these conditions in many social work offices across the country, no one seemed to have the energy or motivation to do something about it collectively. In Southampton, that has now begun to change.
Social care staff have taken a stand alongside refuse workers, librarians and youth workers, all groups among the 4000 council workforce affected by pay cuts. There have been lunchtime marches of over a 1000, packed union meetings and strong and effective industrial action. On two occasions now workers have spilled into councillors meetings and disrupted them. There have been many excellent actions across sectors. Social workers showed great solidarity when bosses recently tried to divide and rule. Children and families social workers were offered a market supplement of £1400 to offset the 5% pay cut. Colleagues in the adult sector and many others were not included. A mass meeting was called across social care and children and families workers unanimously voted to reject the offer. Workers anger was palpable and they demanded 6 days of strike action supported by union leaders.  Various teams went on 6-day strike action and others on two-day action. We could claim 70% pay from the union but many chose not to. We have been heartened by amazing support from across the UK and internationally: trade unionists, anti cuts groups and members of the public. At a packed union meeting the overwhelming message was that the divide and rule tactic had increased our anger and strengthened our resolve; the message to councillors and our bosses was no cuts to pay – refuse workers or social care workers we all stand together.
After the most recent action the mood remains strong. In mid-August we came to the end of the 12-week period of dispute where strike action is legal. Any further action has been threatened with sackings by the Tory council. However, workers are meeting with Unite and Unison trade unions and more strikes have been promised.  
It had been a difficult environment to work in but the dispute has greatly raised the consciousness of workers involved. Social workers are once more talking about class and there is a feeling that we can win this. We know we have to, not just for ourselves but for all the other public sector workers whose bosses are eagerly watching the outcome in Southampton as they try to push though cuts.
The key outcomes sought under Every Child Matters seem a mockery when thousands of young people explode into riots because they don’t feel safe, included or any sense of achievement – they feel unheard and forgotten. With no employment, no chance of getting into social housing or onto the property ladder, education coming at a price they cant afford and with the only role models they are offered in the upper echelons of our society the corrupt and morally bankrupt bankers, expense cheating politicians, corrupt police, scumbag billionaires and News International and media hackers.
This dispute and the principled actions of social workers and care staff within it destroys the myth that social workers harm the vulnerable when they take strike action. The truth is that striking is a vital option. When standing up for those in need we cannot let our profession be run into the ground and overwhelmed. Once again we need to become agents of social change.    

Southampton social workers continued their action in October.  For latest news:

Email messages of support to and

SWAN in the West Midlands

SWAN in the West Midlands

West Midlands SWAN was formed in 2009.  We have a small steering committee elected from an annual meeting.  SWAN West Midlands is Birmingham based but with members in Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, Warwickshire and Wolverhampton.  Coventry is also part our regional network but now has its own group based at Coventry university –  S.W.A.N  Coventry University Branch and on this website here.

Since we have formed we have held several regional meetings, a conference and produced two publications.  In April 2011 we hosted the national SWAN conference at the University of Birmingham.  Naturally we have been campaigning against cuts in social care as a priority – in alliance with UNISON, ASIRT, and DPAC.   In Sandwell we worked alongside UNISON to successfully prevent the formation of a private social work practice pilot.  In Solihull we worked with UNISON and ASIRT to expose the racist cuts by the council against migrant children and held a protest outside the UK Border Agency.  In Birmingham we helped form ‘Hands Off Brum Services’ alongside the Right to Work Campaign, UNISON, and DPAC that focused on cuts in social care following the councils attempt to cut expenditure on adult care by £164m that would mean 4,100 people in the city with ‘substantial needs’ having  their care removed.


The following publications from West Midlands SWAN are available to download at the bottom of this page:

  • Practice Notes
  • Private social work practices: a West Midlands SWAN briefing paper

You can find us on Facebook – Social Work Action Network (SWAN) West Midlands – at:

You can email us by clicking here.

Links to organisations we have campaigned with:
Diasabled People Against Cuts:
Solihull Unison:

SWAN in Liverpool

Over the past few months, SWAN Liverpool has been busy organising the next annual SWAN conference!! The conference is to be held at Liverpool Hope University (Everton campus) on Friday 30th-Saturday 31st March 2011. The conference takes place against a backdrop of Government austerity measures that are producing a massive crisis in social work and social care. The Governments agenda is ideological. It is not a response to ‘economic necessity’. The crisis started when Government bailed out failing banks – why should ordinary people and public services pay the price?

This year’s SWAN conference will address these issues. It provides a forum where academics, frontline workers, students and service users can come together, debate and forge alliances to create a counterpoint to the Government’s mantra that ‘there is no alternative’. SWAN Liverpool is pleased to announce that Danny Dorling will be the key note speaker at the conference! Author Christopher Walking will also talk about his novel ‘What I did’ and its background. The first plenary of the conference will provide an analysis of the riot’s of 2011, with later themed plenary workshops around children and family social work, adult social care, youth work, traveller communities and a debate about age assessments of asylum seeking children.

For further info on prices, accommodation and booking forms go to:

In October 2011, SWAN Liverpool joined forces with trade unionists, service users, practitioners and academics to march through Manchester during the Conservative party conference in protest at Government spending cuts (see photo).

To contact Liverpool SWAN or for further information click here.

SWAN in Wales

Practitioners and students from South Wales have been attending SWAN’s conferences and events from the time of the organisation’s launch.  This has included students form social work courses in Cardiff, Swansea and Bridgend and practitioners from all across South Wales.

Various events have been held in Wales including a very successful meeting held in Swansea around the issue of Personalisation. Please keep a look out for our future events on this website.

If you want to get involved with any of our groups or have issues you want to raise with us please contact Swansea SWAN by clicking here, or South Wales SWAN (Cardiff area) by clicking here.

SWAN in Yorkshire

SWAN has two groups in the Yorkshire area. See below for details.

West Yorkshire SWAN (Leeds area)

West Yorkshire SWAN is a loose grouping of social workers, users and carers. We are active in local anti-cuts and anti-fascist campaigns and have had recent meetings in solidarity with asylum seekers, gypsies and travellers and on the future of social work.

For further information on West Yorkshire SWAN: contact Sue or John by clicking here.

South Yorkshire SWAN (Sheffield area)

Practitioners, students and academics hold SWAN meetings in Sheffield, and our eventual aim is to link up with Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster. The meetings so far have discussed taking motions in support of SWAN, including financial backing, to local trade union branches. We have members in Unison (Local Government and NHS branches), GMB & Unite (which have a number of Local Government Social Care staff in them), NAPO (National Association of Probation Officers), NUS (National Union of Students), and UCU (University and Colleges Union). We believe the role of the unions is crucial given the attacks that are looming in the public sector where no area of social work is likely to go unscathed.

The group aims to make sure that discussion to counter attacks on social work is as broad as possible linking up people in all fields, including service users, probation, mental health, children’s, disability and adult services. We encourage people from local government, the NHS, probation and the voluntary sector to attend our meetings. Students are also vital to this as they are engaged in a huge discussion about ideas at the start of their careers.

The group organised a meeting in March 2011 on the book ‘The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone’ with speaker Professor Richard Wilkinson.

For further information on South Yorkshire SWAN: contact Bea by clicking here.

‘Changes in Social Work: our response’

The first session looked at The Social Work Reform Board (SWRB), its recent report and proposals.  Hilary Burgess, Social Policy and Social Work Subject Centre and a member of the SWRB talked about the proposed Professional Capabilities Framework.   Roger Kline, ASPECT, the professional association and trade union representing professionals working in education and children’s services and a member of the SWRB talked about the proposed Employers Standards in the context of the current climate.  He gave examples of how cuts could be challenged in the workplace and emphasised the point that ‘professionalism’ and trade unionism should not be counter posed to each other.  A response from the seminar was sent into the consultation process which included a statement of the SWAN national position.

 In the second half of the day Roger Kline gave an overview of persistent racism within the social services structure. He also drew attention to the GSCC website public ‘disciplinary hearings’ section which, in contrast, has an over-representation of ethnic minorities.

We then had Lee Jasper from BARAC (Black Activists Rising Against Cuts – look them up, they are booming!) to energise and inspire us into action.  Lee outlined some of the effects that the disproportionate cuts will have on BME groups. Lee argued for an active alliance with black social workers and suggested BARAC and SWAN work together to mobilise social workers to highlight and campaign against the long and short term affects of these cuts.  We ended by debating the ethics of civil disobedience and direct action as legitimate forms of protest… it was suggested that the violence of poverty is perhaps the most dangerous form of violence and can paralyse communities for generations… debate and action to be continued! 

‘All in this Together? Defending Welfare Services, Defending Human Rights’

‘All in this Together? Defending Welfare Services, Defending Human Rights’ was the title of an open forum organised by SWAN Scotland on 19th February 2011. Around 20 SWAN supporters –  frontline workers, UNISON activists, students and academics –  met in Glasgow to discuss ways in which SWAN could be part of the fightback against cuts and also be involved in defending the rights of asylum seekers.

Speakers in the cuts session included Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Unit; Brian Smith, Convenor of Defend Glasgow Services; and John McCardle from the Black Triangle Campaign.

Those present agreed to prioritise building for the TUC 26th March demonstration in London and also for the SWAN Conference in Birmingham on 15/16 April at which Jon Mcardle will be a plenary speaker.

Build the network and chuck some eggs

SWAN nationally affiliated to the Autistic Rights Movement last year and set a precedent for doing the same with other service user groups and self-advocacy networks. Roderick Cobley from the London Autistic Rights Movement (LARM) was a guest speaker at the London SWAN monthly meeting in June. He provided an introduction to the concept of neurodiversity and its place in the social model of disability and how ignorance and discrimination against the ‘differently brained’ affects the lives of autistic people. The Autistic Rights Movement are campaigning against the medicalisation of autism and in favour of independent living.

In kind, LARM invited London SWAN to speak at their equivalent meeting this September. I went along and gave a background to SWAN, our anti-cuts activity and some of the highlights from our recent national conference. I didn’t discuss social work and autism, with sparse personal knowledge, but rather identified areas of potential relevance to both SWAN and autistic people: DLA medical testing, slashing access to Employment Support Allowance and the disgrace of £15bn saved by 2015 in welfare cuts overall against a projected £10bn via the banking levy. I went on to mention the radical tradition in social work and how collective action is poignant now, not just to fight cuts, but as a vehicle for denuding professional power differentials between workers and service users.

From this point, the meeting was a lesson for me! I was given a swift introduction to including people in our network and discourse via technology. One of the LARM members, for instance, was participating in the meeting by phone.  SWAN could not only be more inclusive, but might widen its membership significantly with the use of Skype, telephones and various Web 2.0 technology.  

As the conversation developed around inclusion we began to discuss appropriate communication for those with autism. Members shared with me their frustration at the depth of ignorance about autism shown by Department of Health officials over the recent Autism Strategy. If this wasn’t incredible enough, others suggested this was frequently an issue for the pan-disability movement – often basic matters such as failing to provide literature in appropriate formats. It appears the hierarchy of impairments is alive, well and does not favour those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

As we discussed changes to benefit testing, the direct impact of such changes became apparent. Those with ‘non-visible’ disabilities have raised concerns about how a medical assessment might miss fluctuating conditions and leave them in dire straits. One or two members were visibly nervous while we discussed this.

However, the sober mood of our discussion lightened as one of the members suggested that social workers refer to autistic people as the ‘service excluded’ rather than service users. How many social care service users will be able to identify with this over the approaching months and years? Another LARM representative said that while she was intimidated by news of cuts, she felt like chucking eggs at the government. We unanimously agreed that was the right kind of response.

LARM members indicated that radical social work could be common ground for dialogue between autistic people and social workers. With this in mind LARM plan to send delegates to forthcoming local and national SWAN events. They must be able to count on us to support their campaigning. Here emerges a wider network.

Personalisation and Anti-Racist Practice

The seminar included speakers such as Mark Lymbery (University of Nottingham) who introduced the discussion on personalisation. He pointed out the challenges facing social workers required to introduce this new way of funding social care for adults. There was a strong and energetic debate about how social workers can promote social work values in the face of enormous demands on their time through extra paper work involved in the new funding regime. Many social workers expressed their fears about the possible sidelining of social workers who are being replaced by (cheaper) unqualified assessors in some Local Authorities.

At the same time, Mark pointed out the opportunity for social workers to use the personalisation agenda to forge links with service users to demand adequate resources so that service users’ lives are truly enhanced by more control and improved care from care staff (whose terms and conditions are fully protected and are offered union membership!). Only then will social workers truly help empower service users.
Surinder Guru (University of Birmingham), June Sadd (Equalities Consultant and SWAN National Chair) and Weyman Bennett (Unite Against Fascism) spoke about Racism and how it can be challenged both in social work practice and in the wider community. Weyman spoke about the campaign to stop the BNP leader Nick Griffin getting elected in Barking and linked it to the need to challenge racist stereotypes in the wider society.
The next London SWAN half-day meeting on 30th October will be on the theme of ‘Resisting cuts to social work services’ (see Events Diary).