You have recently carried out research talking to social workers about their working experience. What did you find?
The study found dramatic results. Not a single social worker I spoke to said they would recommend the job to a friend or family member. Large numbers were actively looking to get out.
It was too stressful, and too time pressured.
There weren’t enough resources, there were constant hassles from managers, and the work regime was one where bullying and intimidation were common.
Most had entered the job because they wanted to “help people”. Yet this was rarely possible in any meaningful way.
Most felt that the job was dramatically different from the one they had trained for.
What we are witnessing is the deskilling of state social work. It is becoming a routinised and highly regulated form of work where the creative space to work with clients has been squeezed.
Why is social work important?
State social work is at the sharp end of the welfare state. It provides a barometer about how society treats the impoverished, the disadvantaged, and a range of troubled people in society.
It can be an activity that stresses the public causes of private troubles and the support needed to help people rebuild their lives in some way. But it can also be an activity that attempts to control and regulate the poor.
What changes have you noticed in social work?
I started to write about social work in 1974. Social services departments were being created, and there was a sense of optimism about social work.
The numbers employed expanded, there were increased resources, and there was an emphasis on prevention and helping people move forward.
A lot of radical thinking had started to influence social work. This was a direct result of the movements outside the profession.
Strategies to confront class inequality, sexism, racism and homophobia started to be discussed.
This period also saw a real growth in trade unionism within social work. In 1978-9 we saw the first national strike by social workers.
But by the end of the 1970s there were growing uncertainties. By 1976 the Labour government was carrying through a series of IMF-imposed cuts.
During the 1980s Thatcher and the new right identified social work as epitomising everything that was wrong with the welfare state.
Social workers were blamed for being “too liberal”and creating “dependency”amongst welfare clients.
The space for preventative work was squeezed, and a more regulated, controlled and containing social work was increasingly prescribed. Resources were reduced, there was more emphasis on checking the behaviour of clients, and social workers increasingly became gatekeepers of welfare resources.
In 1997 there were huge expectations. The feeling was that we had survived the Tories, and now there was a government that was talking about poverty.
But it quickly became clear that New Labour’s anti-poverty strategies would further marginalise social work and its clients.
New Labour put money into things like the Children’s Fund, Sure Start and Connexions. This was intimately tied to their notion that the way out of poverty was via waged work. These agencies were there to help people take (often low paid) jobs.
This left social work dealing with the most marginalised sections of the working class—in an older language, the “undeserving poor”.
The social worker’s job is to control and “hard ration” these groups.
What do you think the prospects are for the future of social work?
The growth of the movements against global neo-liberalism and war have created a space within which we can start to think about salvaging an engaged social work project.
I have helped to write the Manifesto for a New Engaged Practice (www.liverpool.ac.uk/sspsws/manifesto) that we hope social workers will sign. The manifesto will be printed by the Scottish daily paper the Herald to open discussion.
But it’s also important we do all we can to support workers on strike, like those in Liverpool.