Don’t Make A Casualty of Our A&E!

At the end of last year I was shocked to hear of plans to close the Accident and Emergency (A&E) Department at my local hospital, the Whittington in north London. Not only is it a vital service that I have used as a local resident, but I used to work there as a mental health social worker.

It all started when our local MP received a leaked document describing plans to ‘reconfigure’ (i.e. close) the hospital’s A&E Department and replace it with a privately run urgent care centre. A public meeting was hastily organised and attended by three hundred people who angrily heckled the NHS Islington Chief Executive who had come to defend the plans! It was decided there to launch a campaign against the proposals.

An activists’ meeting was held the following week and the small community centre room booked was barely big enough for the 70 plus people who turned up. This included local campaigners, trade unionists, political party activists, hospital workers, community and patients groups and residents. At this stage some political parties had set up their own campaigns, but central to our eventual success was the decision to join these together to form a united cross-party coalition. Another key factor was making clear the link between NHS cuts and privatisation.

We decided to organise a demonstration giving ourselves two months to publicise the proposals and build the campaign. A range of activities were planned including cavalcades, letter writing, leafleting of neighbourhoods and regular stalls with petitions, posters and leaflets at busy locations such as the shopping centre. We were aided by good publicity from the local press but the key was getting out on the streets and talking to countless local people (we eventually collected 16,000 signatures on our petition).

We also developed strong links with local trade union branches which raised the profile of the campaign amongst workers. Though some Whittington hospital trade unionists were involved from the start, we also leafleted the hospital regularly to strengthen links with hospital workers and build their confidence to challenge the proposals from the inside. This eventually led to the biggest union meeting at the hospital in years. Overall momentum was sustained through fortnightly planning meetings to co-ordinate these diverse activities.

Our march, attended by 5,000 people, was a great success and with extensive press and TV coverage proved to be a major turning point. In the run-up to the general election the popularity of the campaign made it a hot local issue that all mainstream political parties wanted to be identified with. To capitalise on this, one week before the general election we organised a ‘Day of Action’ and rally. All sorts of stunts and activities took place including patients attending their GP surgery dressed in Whittington cat costumes and bus workers at a local depot holding a ballot over the A&E proposals. At the lunchtime rally outside the hospital the announcement via a local MP that the New Labour Health Secretary was scrapping the reconfiguration forced his Conservative counterpart to declare his own moratorium on the plans. We celebrated a great victory for what the local newspaper headline called ‘people power’, but our coalition remains vigilant in case the new Government tries to renege on its promise.

For more info about the campaign:

Scotland Demonstrates Against Austerity

This is the biggest demonstration we have had in Scotland since the Make Poverty History protest in 2005. There were solid trade union contingents from all the major unions on the protest, including from the Unison public sector union, alongside large numbers of students, disability rights activists, pensioners and other campaigners. People were incredibly buoyed by the size of the protest.

But there was also a debate taking place throughout the demo about where we go from here—what we need to do to actually stop the cuts. The idea of a one-day general strike went down well. It fitted with the mood of anger people feel at being made to pay for the crisis.

One protester commented: “the Tory cuts are just too much for the country to bear. I’ve been very ill and am still in recovery. I was training to be a teacher but had to defer my place when I got sick. The welfare state caught me at a really important time—I relied on it and I can see how important it was for me. I believe it should be there for other people too. I don’t think a lot of people cheat on benefits—it is exaggerated by the media. People are just trying to get by in this life.”

Another commented: “we are facing the most pernicious government since Thatcher. The sooner that Scotland can take French lessons the better! Hopefully today has given us the chance to launch a bigger campaign—it cannot just be a one off protest.”

Fighting for the Right to Work

Initially, I found the start of the demo to be frustrating. The more I listened to the speakers, the more I heard the voices of those whose lives hang in the balance because of our government’s complete disregard of their services and of their humanity. This ignited my desire to march and the frustration of having to wait grew unbearable. I did not want to march to make up numbers, I did not march for a day out. I wanted to march in the coldness, in the wet and in the wind because it was important to sacrifice comforts, to be able to share, to empathise and to unite with and on behalf of all those people who are kept at the bottom of our so called meritocratic ‘big society’.

Being at the demonstration meant I was part of the truth and not part of the government spin. Whilst I am privileged to be studying on a degree course, I believe the best teaching comes from those whose social status often prevents their voices being heard because they are never given a platform from which to speak. The demonstration was that platform and I listened, I really listened to what was being said.

As I marched I was witness to anger from some, frustration from others and acknowledged a sense of loss, worry and an inherent desperation from those whose work in the public sector hangs in the balance, along with the support of those most in need in our country. The march may not yet have changed the government’s perspective, however, it made me think about those in history who have fought to change the consciousness of the oppressors. Their fights have been long, their battles painful, but they kept on marching. I am determined to carry those same principles. I march with my head high, my eyes forward and my voice heard, because my actions are for those who are being made voiceless. In my opinion, that is the heart and the true value of social work. I would even go as far to say that is the real vocation of every social worker.

Catherine writes: As a student social worker, you feel invincible; when in class or when working alongside colleagues and service users. However, this feeling suddenly disappears when the reality of “the cuts” kick in. I have been left wondering what will happen to the occupation I have trained in, and what my role will be as a social worker under the coalition government.

In order not to be passive or accepting of future plans and to protect valued services I, along with 7,000 others, took to the streets of Birmingham. This was to demonstrate that we, as a collective, will resist the potentially disabling measures illustrated in the recent spending review.

The demonstration was an exciting and meaningful event. Those in attendance reflected the wide impact that the drastic economic measures will have on our communities. I felt I was part of something that is actively working towards the protection of our services and the most vulnerable in society. I was inspired by the range of speakers and it added to my own ever-increasing sense of hope that something could come from this.

However, beyond the speeches and imaginative chants from the crowd, I cannot help but think towards my own future as a qualified social worker. What is it that I can do, within the constraints imposed my potential employers, to resist the cuts? How can social workers facilitate change? Is it time for general strike action? These were some of the issues raised during the demonstration and only time will tell what will come from that day’s proceedings.

So, what was the result? Well as much as I would like to say dramatic changes have occurred, they have not. We still live in a country where the government’s actions will increase existing inequalities and where those on the margins of society will be negatively impacted on. What it did achieve, however, was to give individuals a sense of solidarity, a space to make their voice heard and discuss plans for further activism.

Social Work Action Network Launched in Swansea

Social workers from the Hospital Team, the Community Mental Health Teams and the Child and Family Teams recently met in Swansea University with staff from the Social Work Department to launch a local SWAN group. Swansea City and County have just launched a personalisation programme. The first task for Swansea SWAN is to try and make sure that this does not become a Trojan horse for cuts and to ensure that it really does promote the needs and views of service users. Swansea SWAN are now organising a one-day conference in April 2010 to look at issues around Personalisation.

SWAN members protest against treatment of asylum seekers following the Glasgow deaths

The Serykh family, who had claimed asylum in the UK, fell to their deaths from the tower block in which they lived on Sunday 7th March. Their asylum application to remain in the UK had recently been refused and they had been told to leave their flat. SWAN members joined residents, community and faith groups and trade unions in marching from the spot where the family died in Springburn, Glasgow to a rally in George Square on March 13th 2010.

The march, organised by Red Road Residents, the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, Positive Action in Housing and the Unity Centre, had two main aims. The first was to remember the Serykh family and call for an immediate end to any further enforced removals of refugee families by the UK Borders Agency. The second was for the immediate return of Stephanie Ovranah and her twin six year old sons, Joshua and Joel, to their friends, neighbours and local church in Glasgow’s Cranhill where they have lived for past five years. The family were detained at Brand Street Reporting Centre without warning last Friday with the children still in their school uniforms. They are currently held in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. For more information and to support these campaigns contact

We didn’t come into social work for this!

A major theme of our conference was resisting managerialism, an ideology that claims that the same set of management techniques can be applied to any ‘business’, whether it’s distributing frozen food or providing services for homeless people. Showing a total contempt and disregard for the skills that workers in the social care sector have, managers use performance management systems to drive down working conditions whilst at the same time promising to measure the un-measurable and ‘scientifically’ show that the very services they are cutting are actually improving.

Speaking at the conference Roger Kline of the ASPECT union and author of What If? pointed out that the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services trains senior managers to “translate ‘soft outcomes,’ such as happiness, healthiness or well-being, into a solid performance measurement”. Continuous recording of these ‘outcomes’ dramatically changes how we work.  For example, while computers could be a tool to improve practice, stress about cumbersome systems and targets means that instead they contribute to an already high level of work related sickness and burn out amongst workers.

Social workers talked about the battle to stay mentally well and the failure of their employers to make any consideration or allowances for workers’ needs.  UNISON steward Maureen Wade talked about the importance of organising in the workplace so that a collective response can be made to attacks on services.

Mental health social work: ‘Computer says no’

Mental health workers discussed the requirement to use the Health of the Nation Outcome Scales (HONOS), a means of recording progress towards the target ‘to improve significantly the health and social functioning of mentally ill people’. They subjectively score 12 items measuring behaviour, impairment, symptoms and social functioning, feed these into a computer and then the computer generates a ‘care pathway’ for that person, which outlines the support they will receive.

Social workers talked about how they find themselves left with no time to visit service users and their approaches such as crisis intervention and systems theory are not valued leading to a reductionism in practice. Dr Mike Smith, a mental health professional with over 26 years experience and co-author of The THRIVE Approach to Mental Wellness, said that depression and hearing voices are part of the human condition.  Social workers try to understand the social context of these human characteristics, the circumstances that can really “drive people mad”, however this expertise is devalued or missed when the focus is on medical models. Delegates pointed out that the tasks overwhelming us are usually not those that drove us to become social workers.  It is the administrative work, the resource allocation, and the guarding and rationing of services that is seen as the priority.

Personalisation: ‘They’ll buy you a bike’

The conference was critical of the government’s personalisation agenda, which means service users receive individual budgets to purchase their own care. This can be used as an excuse to get rid of existing council provision such as day care.  One example given was that it is easy for a services user to get something simple like a bike, but as soon as more complex demands are raised it becomes impossible to pay for the care needed just using one individual budget.  It was noted that once collective services have been cut it would not be easy to get them back.

Social Work Practices

Simon Cardy, a children’s social worker led a briefing on Independent Social Work Practices.  Two of the six pilots are in the West Midlands. Whilst these practices promise a reduction in bureaucracy they are tied into performance contracts and performance-related pay.  A statement was unanimously agreed opposing social work practices.

Support, debate and action

‘I’m fed up of being a nodding dog, I came into social work to be radical’ said one long standing social worker, whilst a student out on placement remarked ‘I’m glad to have found a group of people who want to challenge what’s happening, to know there’s somewhere we can go and that we’ll be backed up.’

Another social worker who attended, Clare Hill commented “my experience at the conference has prompted me to write to encourage others to raise awareness of SWAN as not only a ‘defender’ of the social work profession, but also as a source of immense support, encouragement and optimism in an increasingly challenging climate.

The diversity of delegates undoubtedly enhanced the lively and informative discussions and despite holding preconceived notions that the day might stir up feelings of increased frustration, I actually came away feeling more positive, having learnt a great deal and with a renewed commitment towards my work and the values which underpin it.”

For more info on the West Midlands SWAN group email by clicking here.

Youth Work in crisis

Just over 50 years ago the Albemarle Report brought into being the modern Youth Service. Its raison d’etre was educational. Through an open, voluntary, young person-centred relationship it sought to contribute towards the creation of active, critical participants in a democratic society. Of course this aspiration has been riddled with contradiction. Yet it has been the fixative holding together a diversity of ideology and practice, ranging, to take but one example, from the Girl Guides to radical feminist projects.

Under New Labour this ethos was insidiously undermined. Funding was linked increasingly to targeted groups of ‘dubious and demonised’ youth and the illusory imposition of prescribed behavioural outcomes – the very antithesis of the youth work process. Under the Coalition the assault has escalated. The very existence of provision in the service of young people is under threat. Across the country local authorities are abandoning wholesale their commitment to youth work, hiding behind the notion of ‘commissioning’ to the lowest bidder from the private or Third Sector. Or they are shifting the reduced resources available into Early Intervention programmes aimed at ‘problematic’ families, whereby youth workers without negotiation or agreed in-service training become quasi-social workers with identified case-loads.

Resistance to this onslaught has been uneven. Impressive campaigns have been mounted in some authorities, whilst in others workers seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the attack. To its credit the Community and Youth Workers section of UNITE the union took the lead in bringing together a CHOOSE YOUTH alliance of thirty partners, which organised a thousand-strong rally of young people and workers in Solihull, attracting significant media coverage. Meanwhile, seemingly impervious to such happenings in the real world, a Parliamentary Select Education Committee claims to be inquiring into services for youth, even as they fast disappear.

Inspiring everyone are young people themselves. A number of Save our Youth Service groups, for example, in Oxfordshire and Haringey, have illustrated courage and creativity in standing up against attempts to silence their voices. Despite their imaginative efforts the cuts are being forced through, but they are vowing to fight on.  A distinct section of young people, youth workers and supporters, banners aloft, music blazing was part of the TUC March. In the words of Alex from Leeds, taken from her combative, yet humorous speech at the rally, ‘ it is time for us to walk like Egyptians!’

More information:

SWAN Marches for the alternative

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the scale of the march. The demonstration started at 11am and people were still leaving the Embankment at 3pm! Estimating numbers is never easy, but 500,000 is not excessive. My transport dropped me at Hyde Park and I had to walk the route to join the demo. I met the march at Trafalgar Square – with the Unison block leading the way. I waited at the square to see if I would recognise anyone to march with (some hope!) two hours later the Unison block was still filtering past.
I thought about some of the other demonstrations I had been on – and which are recognised as being significant protest events. In the early 1980s the Labour Party and TUC put on three massive demonstrations (in Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool) against unemployment. The combined total from those protests was less than those who marched today. In 1990 there were two massive demonstrations against the poll tax (one in London and one in Glasgow). Again the combined total was about half the size of the 26th March. In fact it was only the 15th February 2003 demonstration against war in Iraq that was bigger than this.
The second thing to mention is its composition. There are a lot of myths – in sociological circles – about the ‘end of the working class’. But this was an overwhelmingly working class protest. There were close to 2,000 trade union banners, there were banners from community groups, disability rights groups, service user organisations – and even the Liverpool football supporters group ‘The Spirit of Shankley’. There were hundreds of home made banners as well – including my favourite, the one that seemed to sum up all the class anger on display during the day: “Cameron, Clegg: Why don’t you just fuck off back to Eton”!!
The speeches that went down best in Hyde Park were those from people like Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey that spoke about the need for co-ordinated joint strike action to defend jobs and services – not the usual fare at TUC events.

The day emphasised something that SWAN has been saying for some time: service users and workers together, in joint action and in common cause, can defeat the cuts onslaught.
The march emphasised the possibilities – now its time to turn it into action. SWAN supporters must throw themselves into every campaign against every cut.
We have an ‘ideological’ role to play, emphasising that the cuts were caused by the financial system and asking why vulnerable communities should pay the price. We also need to argue for alternatives (increase top tax rates, take the bankers bonuses, scrap Trident missiles, create 1 million green jobs).
But we also have to combine this with our actions as activists. Standing with those who face cuts, or privatisation of services, or job losses. Going to their picket lines, marches, demonstrations and meetings. And we also have to start putting forward social work alternatives.
In this regard I’m delighted that SWAN has started a new series of Practice Notes (see details here). Our first draws on the experience of SWAN activists in the Midlands and offers some ideas about what social workers can do when faced with cuts to services for refugee children and young people. Practice Notes can be accessed on our website and will be – we hope – the first of many. To coincide with the launch of Practice Notes, SWAN and Unison called a successful joint demonstration outside the UK border Agency in Solihull. This fine example is one that I hope we can replicate across the country in the coming months.

Quotes from the day:
‘I was one of the young people from Oxfordshire on the march. We were amazed by the size of it and the diversity of people there. All the different views and actions we heard about and saw were great. Bankers – Wankers caught my eye as a cheeky but true slogan. We had a good day and found out loads about the anti cuts campaign. It’s great to be part of something so BIG. We are the MASSIVE society!’ Pippa, young person, anti cuts campaigner

‘Brilliant! – the biggest Trade Union demonstration in living memory; so big we couldn’t find our delegation! Coming to London on the STUC ‘big red train’ from Glasgow was a long journey, but really worthwhile  – half a million on the streets shows the potential strength for a concerted fight back against the cuts – let’s organise coordinated strike action across the Unions to defend the welfare state.’ Barrie, Glasgow SWAN

‘Saturday’s TUC demo was a shot in the arm for us all. In the space of two hours, I went from being among a gathering of about 1,000 people in Kennington Park, to a river of people of perhaps 5-6k as we multiplied on the way to Waterloo Station, and ultimately into the sheer delight of the multitude of hundreds of thousands of people cramming the Embankment as far as the eye could see. Yes, it reminded me of what I’d hoped for: 2003! We bottlenecked at Big Ben, snaked round into Parliament Street, and roared with anger as we passed Downing Street. I bumped into several of the lecturers from my University who our student group had been picketing with two days previously – they were checking the internet on phones and picking up stories of numbers: 200,000? 250,000? Half a million!? That is what you call a social movement.
The biggest demonstration in Britain for years collectively told the government that we demand an economic alternative. In Hyde Park we heard the call for what we need next: coordinated industrial action. It reverberated along Oxford Street, into Trafalgar Square, through television sets in pubs and into newspapers across the land.’
Dan, social work student

Sulaiman Must Stay!

Sulaiman Mohammed is a 17-year-old young person from Iraq who is being denied asylum, despite desperately needing it, and after serious malpractice within the UK social services. In post-invasion Iraq, 2004, Sulaiman’s father, who worked for the Iraqi security services, was kidnapped and murdered by a terrorist group. The murderers have never been prosecuted, and Sulaiman’s family ties place him in ongoing danger from the same group.

In June 2005, Sulaiman was the victim of a car bomb attack, in which he lost a leg, and three months later his mother passed away, leaving the 13-year-old Sulaiman an orphan. He went to live with his uncle, but the danger posed by Sulaiman’s father’s killers led his uncle to make arrangements for Sulaiman to flee Iraq.

After a period of destitution, Sulaiman claimed asylum in the UK, and was placed in foster care in Greater Manchester. He lived with his foster family for over a year, attending Stockport College. However, a social worker conducted a ‘Merton-compliant’ age assessment and incorrectly claimed that Sulaiman was over 18. (He was 15, as was later, eventually found by the UKBA) As a result, Sulaiman was taken away from his foster family. Appallingly, Sulaiman was never consulted over this; he was simply moved from the foster home to live alone without legal or emotional support.

Eventually Sulaiman came to RAPAR, the Manchester-based human rights organisation. Sophie, a social work student based at RAPAR, comments: “For me, social work is about supporting vulnerable people in a way which respects human rights and promotes social justice. In contrast, the asylum system operates in such a way that oppression is compounded, human rights are violated and social workers are expected to work as quasi immigration officials. This is not what I, perhaps quite naively, expected social work to be about”.

The UKBA is still planning to proceed with the enforced removal of Sulaiman back to Iraq to face his father’s killers even though the country is deemed too dangerous for able-bodied British adults not specifically at threat from terrorists to visit. After illegally invading Iraq, wrongly removing the care services Sulaiman was entitled to, falsely accusing him of lying about his own age, and now threatening him with deportation, it is about time this country started showing some semblance of fairness and compassion towards Sulaiman.

RAPAR has organised a campaign to support Sulaiman. Please demand an immediate halt to the deportation in letters to your MP and to Home Secretary Theresa May, and sign the petition at:
More information about the campaign and RAPAR:

SWAN leads campaign against racist cuts

Local Authorities including Solihull and Croydon have seen significant cuts in the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) grant for the costs of care and aftercare for unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC). This has led to a significant shortfall in council funding for existing statutory services for child asylum seekers.

The Comprehensive Spending Review brought a 23% real terms reduction to Home Office spending over the next four years.  The Home Office has confirmed that cuts to support for asylum seekers are disproportionately greater than to other Departmental areas. These cuts have been handed on to Local Authorities by the UKBA through changes in the grant structure for funding care services.

The UASC service in Solihull was subject to the largest single cut of £1.2m or 15%. A review of the service was undertaken in anticipation of this funding black hole. Proposed changes include a reduction in the level of service provided to child asylum seekers. The review accepts that the ‘revised service model will result in differential and less favourable treatment for unaccompanied children in care and care leavers compared to local citizen children’.  This is an open acknowledgement that these cuts are discriminatory and racist.

The revised levels of service include the goals of moving child asylum seekers from foster care into independent accommodation at 16, reducing the staffing level of the UASC team, and replacing the social workers with support workers holding higher caseloads. Solihull Council accepts these revised levels of services will lead to a two-tier and discriminatory service for child asylum seekers.
Management have defended their proposals by suggesting that many child asylum seekers are more resilient than other locally born ‘looked after children’ and therefore require less intensive support. There is questionable evidence for this and the needs of child asylum seekers are affected by their experiences of migration.  

The local UNISON Branch has raised concerns with Solihull’s Chief Executive expressing concern that resource management may ‘interfere in professional social work decision-making in regard to the assessment of need’ and seeking safeguards to prevent this. The move to a two-tier service poses significant professional challenges to social workers, IRO’s and social work managers.

In response West Midlands SWAN alongside Solihull UNISON and Birmingham based Asylum Support & Immigration Resource Team (ASIRT) organised a small but noisy protest outside the UKBA on 8th April attended by social workers, students, UNISON members and voluntary sector workers.  This had three objectives – to publically expose these racist cuts; to publicise SWAN’s new series of campaigning advice leaflets ‘Practice Notes’ which provide guidance on using the new Regulations and strategies for challenging such cuts (available online:; and to grab attention in the social work press – achieved when Community Care magazine carried the story online. We aim to continue building the campaign. If this is an issue in your area we would like to hear from you, email West Midlands SWAN by clicking here.

Lifting the Lid on Disabled People Against Cuts

From Newsletter #2 Spring 2011

Bob Williams-Findlay from DPAC discusses disability and the struggle for a just and inclusive society

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) isn’t an organisation and nor does it claim to represent all disabled people; it is however part of a growing social movement. DPAC was created by the coming together of disabled people in opposition to policies designed to reduce public expenditure and alter the relationship between the state and society. Formed in the aftermath of the first mass protest against the austerity cuts and their potential impact on disabled people held on the 3rd October in Birmingham, DPAC sees itself as a rallying point for everyone who believes that disabled people should have full human rights and equality. It is exists for everyone who refuses to stay silent about the injustices delivered by wealthy politicians on ordinary people and their lives.

The austerity measures however need to be seen in a wider historical context. What “disability” is and how it impacts upon people with impairments’ lives is still being contested. Disabled people are an easy target because the dominant views associated with defining “disability” within society has socially constructed them as being ‘dependent’ and unable to fully participate within society due solely to their impairments. This view, supported through negative and pejorative stereotyping, distorts who we are and the causes of the disabling barriers we face.  Inappropriate and misleading labels such as “the disabled” or “vulnerable adults or children” reinforce prejudices and discrimination.

Many people with impairments refuse to accept this view of themselves. Some distance themselves altogether from a ‘disabled identity’ whilst others like the co-founders of DPAC embrace it as a political identity. DPAC argues disabled people are not “the disabled”, but are a diverse social group of people with a variety of impairments who continue to face unequal and differential treatment resulting from systems, structures and cultures which fail to take disabled people into account. Disability is a political question requiring political and social answers.

Let’s be clear: DPAC doesn’t simply want to “protect” existing services from the axe – too often public and third sector services merely reinforce disabled people’s oppression and experiences of inequality – what we want are inclusive policies and practices. Although we are Disabled People against Cuts our focus is not exclusively on avoiding the negative impact of cuts upon benefits and services directly affecting disabled people it includes the opposition of all measures that will undermine disabled and non-disabled people’s ability to create a just and inclusive society.

More information:

Report: SWAN in Hong Kong

Given that capitalism is a global system, it’s perhaps not surprising that the many of the problems that social workers face in Britain – managerialism, the erosion of relationship-based work, excessive workloads and so on – are also shared by workers in other countries. The fact that the SWAN Social Work Manifesto, for example, was translated into several other languages including Greek, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish following its publication in 2005 was an early indication that the analysis and the conclusions of the Manifesto resonated with groups of workers in these countries.

Continuing proof of that international interest in the ideas and activities of SWAN came in the form of an official invitation to organise three symposia at the International Association of Schools of Social Work’s (IASSW) biennial conference in Hong Kong in June 2010. The themes of our symposia were Neoliberalism and Social Work, Social Work, War and Resistance and Towards a Social Work of Resistance. Each of these attracted around 70/80 people and involved speakers from a wide range of countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Belgium, the USA, Greece and the UK. In addition, as the conference was taking place only weeks after the Israeli army’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an additional SWAN meeting was organised to denounce their illegal actions and to demand an end to the blockade of Gaza. More than 60 people attended and listened to speakers from Israel, Lebanon and Greece, followed by an excellent discussion. On the following day, a motion calling for an end to the blockade was also passed (by 94 votes to 1) at the IASSW AGM, a significant breakthrough since while the organisation has spoken out on a wide range of international issues in the past, it has been largely silent on the issue of Palestine.

As well as the official conference, the visit also provided an opportunity to meet a brilliant group of radical social workers in Hong Kong with whom we had previously only had e-mail contact. The group is active in defending democratic rights in Hong Kong and in promoting a vision of social work very similar to SWAN’s. As well as hosting an informal meeting of more than twenty social workers to discuss radical/Marxist ideas of welfare, the group was also involved in organising a conference on progressive social work in which we were invited to participate (see photograph). All in all, then, a successful trip, and hopefully we will see some of the Hong Kong colleagues at our conferences in the near future.

Private Social Work Practices

A key problem for looked after children is the lack of continuity in their relationship with the local authority social worker… This lack of a continuous personal relationship also creates problems for social workers themselves… [who] enter their work with a strong moral purpose, idealism, energy and enthusiasm. However, once into the job, they often feel de-motivated, overwhelmed by bureaucracy and deprived of autonomy… Current organizational structures also have other problems, especially a lack of incentives for efficiency and innovation.

SWPs were proposed as the solution to these challenges, and the Children and Young Person’s Act 2008 provided the new legal framework, enabling local authorities in England and Wales to discharge (i.e. privatize) the ‘corporate parenting’ function of social work services for children in their care. The case for SWPs rests on three key arguments advanced by Professor Julian Le Grand, an education advisor to the Conservative Party. First, he argues, SWPs will provide a level of consistent corporate parenting expressed in the personal relationship between the child and their social worker. Second, workers demoralised by bureaucracy would be attracted to a ‘professional partnership’ governance model akin to a General Medical Practice or small firm of lawyers. Third, social workers would be motivated by a sense of professional autonomy and owner control of their partnership organisation. Three models for SWPs are suggested: a ‘professional practice’ (social enterprise) run by a partnership of social workers legally independent of the local authority, a ‘third sector’ (not for profit) model run by a voluntary organisation and a private sector (for profit) model.

Six pilot SWP schemes were due to be in place by the end 2009 — although one of these was put on hold as the local authority felt there were too many financial risks. The intention was a three-year period to test the various SWP models and, depending on the outcome, the preferred model would be pushed out across England and Wales from 2012 onwards.

Here in the West Midlands two councils, Staffordshire and Sandwell, signed up to the pilot scheme. In the latter, the Sandwell Child Care Co-operative (SCCC) won the contract to take over social work services for 100 children in 2009.  This organisation claimed to be a ‘non profit making company… that would ensure common ownership between directors and staff, with social worker employees having a numerical dominance on the Board’.  This cooperative is a pioneer of the Con-Dem Coalition’s ‘small state/big society’ social enterprise adventure. It is also an example of how oppositional ideas such as common ownership and the cooperative movement can be incorporated in a neo-liberal project. As theorist Raymond Williams wrote in the late 1960s in his brilliant analysis of the role of culture and hegemony, ‘the decisive hegemonic function is to control or transform or even incorporate alternatives and opposition’.  Williams’ ideas can be applied to many of the events now taking place around the development of the SWP pilots.

A regional SWAN conference held in March 2010 agreed to campaign against private social work practices. Following this, the regional steering group issued a challenge to   SCCC in the form of an open letter. Our statement argued ‘there is no evidence that social workers are frustrated entrepreneurs who need a profit motive or a bonus to do their best for children’ and that social work practices are a sort of ‘human asset stripping’ from local authorities. We called on social workers not to volunteer if given the option of whether to work for SCCC. We copied our statement to over 300 email contacts, regional SWAN members, local trade union branches, and the social work print media as part of our modest but very public attempt to confront SCCC.

The founder of SCCC Laurie Gregory responded by issuing his own statement.  Gregory said: ‘I actually believe the Co-operative approach is an imaginative socialist one for the purposes of social care provision and feel much regret that the Co-operative movement has been asleep for the last 20 years during which billions of pounds have been outsourced, mostly to “profit making” organisations’. He added ‘early in negotiations, it became apparent that no social workers were transferring from Sandwell MBC to the pilot because of the very high proportion of unqualified staff and the level of agency staff [there] who would not have rights to transfer with TUPE protection. All posts within the project were geared to Local Government levels of pay with an emphasis on seeking qualified and experienced social workers who would be paid at a Senior Practitioner rate. It did not appear to us that we were “human asset stripping” from Sandwell MBC for the reasons mentioned above, but appealing for staff across the West Midlands Region to join the pilot for a period of 3-4 years’.

As part of our regional SWAN strategy we also issued several press statements in support of the local UNISON branch that had vowed to boycott the scheme. These were carried by publications such as Children and Young People Now. The local UNISON branch also distributed the union’s national leaflet to social work teams in Sandwell. UNISON activists reported that many social workers saw straight away that SWPs were nothing but a privatisation scam. Furthermore, contrary to the claims made by SCCC, social work teams in Sandwell were not made up of agency staff. The Council and SCCC did not anticipate such resistance and, against their expectations, failed to persuade any of Sandwell’s social workers to join the cooperative.  

The council’s plans were then dealt a decisive blow when a disastrous OFSTED inspection of children’s services in Sandwell in February found that the children affected by the SWP had not been consulted about the sell-off.  UNISON told us that foster carers were also angry that they had been given no notice that the transfer was going to happen.  The SWP pilot was put on hold and abandoned altogether in August 2010. A small victory!

Whilst SWAN cannot claim credit for the collapse of the pilot- which was down to the UNISON branch and Sandwell social workers with a little unexpected help from OFSTED – SWAN certainly played a part in the war of position that developed on the web and in the national media coverage of the issue. This shows that, despite our modest resources, SWAN can and should play a key role in the ideological battle against privatisation and neo-liberalism at local and regional level. Of the 6 pilots originally planned across the country, only 4 now remain.

SWAN West Midlands have produced a pamphlet ‘Independent Social Work Practices: A Midlands Social Work Action Network briefing’ containing background history and further resources. Download a copy from the bottom of this page.