Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1986

Social care should not be a commodity

This article is over 15 years, 11 months old
In the final column in our series Iain Ferguson examines the market’s effect on caring servcies
Issue 1986

The organisation People and Planet hosts a website called “ethical careers”. It’s aimed at people who would like a job which doesn’t involve exploiting or oppressing other people.

Among the occupations listed are jobs in social care and social work. While that might seem a bit rich to those who have experienced social workers mainly as “soft cops”, it’s a fact that most people who go into social work or social care do so because they want to make a positive difference to people’s lives.

Until a few years ago, there seemed to be some space for doing that. Over the past ten years, however, the extension of market forces into social work and social care has made it near impossible.

The “purchaser/provider” split that was introduced by the Tories in the early 1990s means that many social workers feel they have become little more than desk-bound bureaucrats, rationing services and having less and less contact with the people who use their services.


One experienced worker described his job in the following way: “I feel so deskilled because there are so many restrictions over what I can do. Yes I go out and do assessments and draw up care plans, but then we aren’t allowed to do anything.

“I can’t even go and organise meals on wheels for somebody without completing a load of paperwork, submitting a report to a load of people who would then make the decision as to whether I can go ahead and make the arrangements. I just wonder why I am doing this. It’s not social work.”

As in teaching and nursing, a large part of the problem is the lack of resources to do the job properly.

But it’s also the fact that every aspect of the job, including the time spent with people in distress, counselling skills, even showing basic human warmth and empathy, has been turned into a commodity.

It’s summed up in the title of a popular handbook for managers called Costing Community Care which advises managers on the market rate for an hour of counselling, an hour of home help care and so on.

Adding to that sense of alienation is the increasing pressure to carry out New Labour’s scapegoating agenda of removing children from the families of asylum seekers facing deportation or placing more and more controls over the behaviour of young people.

For a while, things seemed to be different in what are sometimes called charities or voluntary organisations (misleadingly, since they are often large organisations employing hundreds of people).

The creation of a social care market meant that these organisations grew rapidly in the 1990s, mainly as a means of undermining local authority services and conditions. Even though wages and conditions were often poorer, there was a chance to work with people in innovative ways. There was also often a higher degree of participation by the people using the services.

The growth, however, of some of these organisations into multi-million pound businesses means that they increasingly resemble the welfare bureaucracies they are supposed to be replacing.

Competition for contracts has given rise to a “race to the bottom” in which inexperienced or untrained staff are recruited on the minimum wage to address the complex needs of very vulnerable service users.

And it’s a short step for such organisations to move from being charities to becoming profit-making organisations – one reason why Tory leader David Cameron was waxing lyrical a couple of week ago about the key role of “social enterprises”.

There’s another side to this picture, however. Job insecurity and worsening conditions can also give rise to anger and resistance.

That raises the possibility of organising many of these care workers, who are often young and female, into trade unions. Initiatives like Unison’s charter for home care workers, for example, can be a starting point for bringing together some of the most vulnerable and isolated workers.

But it would be a mistake to concentrate only on union organisation.

Having to work in ways that betrays basic ideals and values can also produce a strong ideological reaction. For teachers and health workers, as for social workers, it can give rise to a bitterness that leads them to ask bigger questions about the market society we live in.

Where socialists connect with that bitterness, as in the education and globalisation conference that took place last year or the social work conference, A Profession Worth Fighting For? taking place in Liverpool in April, it can become an important source of resistance to a world in which everything has become a commodity.

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