23 AUGUST 1975, Page 22


Social services

Cutting the mumbo-jumbo down to size

Frank Field

The rise of the social work 'profession', as it likes to be called, is one of the wonders of the modern world. The 1951 census put the number of social workers at around 22,000. Ten years later their ranks had swelled to very nearly 42,000. By 1971, the census records 61,240 individuals describing themselves as social workers. Yet this rise in numbers has not been matched by an increase in public respect for, or confidence in, the work of our now mammoth social services departments.

Why is this? And how is it that when we have an increasing number of social workers busying themselves with their clients, we read of old people being found weeks — sometimes years — after they have died, as well as stories of children being beaten up by their parents or guardians?

To explain what has gone wrong we need to look back to the rise of the social worker in Victorian times. A hundred years ago the social worker dealt almost exclusively with poverty and its side-effects. Even Mrs Bosanquet and her fellow workers at the Charity Organisation Society were in no doubt that the major problem facing their clients was a lack of money. The debate then was how can we best help people to become self-supporting, and so lead lives like the rest of us.

With the coming of the welfare state, social workers, like so many other people, thought poverty would be eradicated. The profession, believing itself to have been deprived of the main purpose for its existence, lost no time in inventing another. As Lady Wootton has commented, "The timely growth of psychiatry, and of psychoanalysis in particular . provided social workers with just that new interpretation of their function of which they thus found themselves so badly in need."

With the revolutionising of their role social workers turned their attentions to 'in-depth' analysis of their unsuspecting clients. The high point of what must be regarded as the mumbo-jumbo era of social work came when . Dame Eileen Younghusband described what she believed to be the true role of the professional worker. Writing of the social workers' relationship'(another favourite word) with clients, Dame Eileen stated that: "Instead of seeing the situation through her own eyes and producing a ready-made solution, the. social worker must be able to understand him and his needs and his relationships as they appear to the person in need himself. She must enter into his problems as he sees them, his relationships as he experiences them, with their frustrations, their deprivations, their satisfactions, and see hitt, or his different selves, as they appear to himself. Yet at the same time she must also be clearly aware of the realities of the situation and through her professional skill and relationships enable him to come to a better understanding of himself and of others."

Barbara Wootton brought a much needed sense of reality to the discussion when she commented that if this was the proper role, then the social workers' best, indeed perhaps only, chance of achieving aims at once so intimate and ambitious would be to marry her client. Unfortunately, many social workers still see their role as outlined for them by Dame Eileen Younghusband. Yet who can blame them for succumbing to all this nonsense when the report of the Committee on Local Authority and Allied Services made out a similar role for the profession?

The report, which is better known as the Seebohm Report, stated that the need for a more unified provision of personal social services had been made plain by growing knowledge and experience. It went on to explain that "there is a realisation that it is essential to look beyond the immediate symptOnas of social distress to the underlying problems. These frequently prove to be complicated and the outcome of a variety of influences".

The analysis led the committee to propose mammoth social services departments. This recommendationwasalltoo quickly accepted and resulted in employing the same people at considerably greater salaries, together with a whole army of junior ranking officials.

At the moment, current expenditure on local health and personal social services is running at £644 million. Are we getting value for money? To use the dreadful dreary jargon of the social work profession, are the new departments looking beyond 'the presenting problem' so as to concentrate their attention on the real causes of social distress?

It is at this point that we almost complete the circle. The social services departments are failing in their role because they are primarily concerned with tackling the wrong problem. The major reason why people come into contact with social workers is because of their poverty. We have a welfare state which provides a whole structure of benefits (many of which are none too generous) but it is left to the individual to find out to what he might be entitled. , Such a state of affairs might work satisfactorily if all those in need had excellent eyesight, were English graduates possessing a grounding in mathematics. But of course they are not. Most people known to social "workers are either pensioners, or hard, pressed mums trying to budget on a poverty line income.

This brings us to the crux of the argument. Poverty is still the major social evil in our country. Nearly two million people, most of them pensioners, live below the official state poverty line. A further four million live at a level of income which is equal to the state poverty line, and millions more hover just above this level.

How low must a person's income be before he is counted as one of the poor? Each year Parliament approves the new Supplementary Benefit scale rates and these are referred to as the official poverty line. There are age-related weekly allowances for children, as well as set sums for single people arid married couples. At the present time a mother would be expected to cover all the daily needs of a child under five on 39p. In other words she would have to budget for the child's food, clothing, heating, and any other sundry items on less than the cost of a packet of cigarettes.

There are also large numbers of pedple who earn their poverty, working a full week for less than the minimum income laid down by Parliament in the Supplementary Benefit scale rates. The latest figures show that 50,000 men with children worked each week for a sum which was less than they could

get if they were not working and drawing benefit.

Many of the poor are eligible for a number of means-tested benefits. Pensioners, for example, may be eligible for supplementary benefit or they may be substantially 'better off by drawing a rent and rate rebate. But who is to advise them on this? And likewise with a young pregnant mother. How is she going to find out about free welfare foods which are essential for a healthy pregnancy. And then there is information about school meals. In all there are fourteen national meanstested benefits, five additional national means-tested benefits administered by local authorities, together with twenty-four benefits provided at the discretion of local authorities, each having its own qualifying level determined by local circumstances. It is not surprising that one writer who asked for all the relevant application forms for a widowed mother collected literature weighing nearly two pounds.

It is in this field that social workers have a real and proper role. Our welfare state is immensely complicated and we need experts, or if they prefer the term, professionals, to help us find our way through the maze. Of course not all the problems of the poor will be taken care of by their being told of entitlements to means-tested benefits. But one London borough, which carried out a check on the work of its social workers, found that well over 80 per cent of the families who came into contact with the social services department required help with filling in forms, or being told about benefits, and the range of support available to parents with mentally or physically handicapped children.

Fortunately, an increasing number of social workers are providing such an expert service to their clients. But the existence of thriving groups of social workers does not excuse the rest of us from our civic responsibilities. Not everything can — or should — be left to the welfare. Recent cases of child bashing have taken place even though a social worker was in touch with the family. Leaving aside the question of whether a compulsory eyetest should be part of every social worker's training, neighbours must have had a good idea what was going on, but for some reason remained quiet.

This brings into relief a rather nasty side of our national character. Where a supplementary benefit claimant is thought of as up to a fiddle, neighbours are not slow to tell the DHSS. Yet when taxpayers' money is not at stake, but a child's physical and mental welfare is it would appear that most neighbours close their ears and eyes.

The lesson we all have to learn is that paying our rates and taxes to support the social work profession does not allow us to wash our hands of our responsibilities to what is happening around us. The atrocities on children — about which we have read so much during the last year or so — could never have occurred if these children had lived near just one 'good neighbour'.