First of all, I just want to say, what a great choice of subject which evokes endless debate having relevance to both previous decades and generations of social workers which for some, defines both what social work is and who social workers are today. I have been asked to consider to what extent can social workers engage in politics and political discussions and/or express political opinions. It is hard for me to enter into this debate without thinking about the stereotypes that have been attached to social workers over the years; we don’t wear a uniform as such but in some people’s minds we do as the word ‘social worker’ conjures up an image of someone wearing jeans and sandals, and probably badges with slogans, cutting a bit on an anti-establishment figure so you should be able to spot us a mile off! Of course, in reality social workers come from all walks of lives, are of various political persuasions, much like the rest of society and yet, the Secretary State for Education recently made reference to doing away with ‘political correctness’ in his speech on adoption practice giving further credence to this personification. On the other hand, some in the profession have bemoaned the fact that social workers in a post Thatcher world have become ‘depoliticised’ as the cult of individualism has taken us away from a more structuralist understanding of the world, making the whole business of pursuing such noble aims as social justice and equality on a grand scale meaningless.
Whatever your particular take on this subject is, there is no getting away from the fact, that social work is very much a political activity, prescribed by our policy makers in terms of statutory social work but relevant to the third sector too in the role that it plays . Governments through their legislative programmes are keen to make their mark – one only has to think back to the previous Government and the Every Child Matters agenda which had such an impact over the whole of Children’s Services. Contentious issues can also become ‘political footballs’ – I have already mentioned adoption but of course, child abuse tragedies are relevant here and on the adult side, we have had the CQC debacle and the contested area of personalisation. It is in my mind therefore, all political and I don’t think that we need to seek ‘diplomatic immunity’ in terms of for example, debates on how health and social care for older people should be funded or how we should protect vulnerable children. I was struck last year when travelling on public transport by the amount of people who were talking about the cuts to public services and what this meant to them on either a personal or professional level or even, both.
Of course, the issue of political engagement in this country is a wider one than just the sphere of social work; culturally, there is a reticence for people to talk about politics – it is not taught in schools unlike in other countries do our social mores also act as inhibitors in this area? I don’t know.
What I would like to finish with is something constructive to help social workers consider our legitimacy in engaging with the political process. BASW recently revised its Code of Ethics. By this point, some people’s eyes I imagine will be glazing over as they think to themselves ‘oh no, please don’t start citing lofty pieces of text that however, commendable can never be applied’. Whilst I recognise that the context for practising social work is not an easy one and in truth, this has never been the case, I don’t see why we should admit defeat and abandon our professional values, principles and ethics. 2.2 of the Code of Ethics reminds us that Social Justice (something else the politicians have seized upon recently!) is a social work value and we have a duty to bring to the attention of our employers, policy makers, politicians and the general public situations where resources are inadequate or where distribution of resources, policies and practice are oppressive, unfair, harmful or illegal’. Not to do so, means that we are being negligent as professionals. However, in order to fulfil 2.2 of the Code of Ethics I would not recommend that social workers do this without firstly considering their support and protection needs as so many who strive to flag up poor practice can often end up as casualties of a system that promotes activities such as whistle blowing in word at least but then sadly does not necessarily follow it up with positive action. The bullying culture has become pervasive in so many workplaces where there appears to be systems in place to deal with those who challenge and it is more about the ‘unwritten rules and codes’ than the written ones. But of course, we as social workers are also armed with the greatest knowledge of all – how to combat abuse; it has to be brought out into the open and exposed so that it can no longer be a secret activity, cultivated in a climate of fear. Mike Jervis, chief executive of the Damilola Taylor Trust once said to a group of professionals at a conference I attended, that it just took us all to stand up to defeat some of the ‘lawlessness’ that was going on. I think there is something in what he said, it takes both individual courage and strength but also a collective effort to make a difference.
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