Taking the care out of social care

Issue: 120

Helen Davies

Iain Ferguson, Reclaiming Social Work: Challenging Neoliberalism and Promoting Social Justice (SAGE, 2007), £21.99

This summer Wirral council announced it would shed up to 30 social worker posts because the “personalisation agenda” means these qualified social workers are no longer necessary. Presumably Wirral council is drawing this conclusion because service users are now becoming “co_producers” of their health and wellbeing as a result of personalisation. Some of the posts lost will be made up by employing non social workers instead. This practice may not be copied across the country—but most practitioners fear the worst.

In Reclaiming Social Work Iain Ferguson quotes Charles Leadbetter, the key figure behind the personalisation agenda. According to Leadbetter, the service users must behave as “active participants in the process—deciding to manage their lives in a different way—rather than dependent users” (p79). This “expert”, Iain tells us, was formerly a financial journalist and consultant to British Telecom. Are these the credentials of someone you would look to in order to transform social care?

And so it goes on. This book lines up these fashionable theories, analysing the way in which social work is made to dovetail with economic theory and practice. I particularly enjoyed the way Iain discusses the sickening catchphrases that populate the world of social policy, such as “evidence based”, of which “personalisation” is just the latest. The book is uncompromisingly Marxist in outlook and will probably disappoint those still adhering to a postmodern view of the world. Its strength is that it describes a common set of goals with which I hope most people in the profession could identify. Iain articulates perfectly what is wrong—but it feels like we are a very long way from getting together to put it right. A first step would be to get people together to discuss the issues, and Iain writes about the successes so far in doing this.

This book is important reading for anyone involved in social services, social care or social work. It is a relief to realise that we are not alone in our absolute incomprehension of the absurdities the government thrusts upon us. Iain is able to give the history of these developments over the past 20 to 30 years and explain their “logic”. His account is coherent and easily understandable, and his examples produced sighs and vigorous nods from my colleagues when I quoted them—they identify immediately with what he is saying.

A book on social work is bound to also be a book about the welfare state (or perhaps the “farewell state” as, in its current form, this state seems determined to absolve itself of any responsibility to anyone who is not responsible for a huge corporation
and/or with a few million in spare cash). As such it may appeal to a wider audience than just those directly employed in social care. After all, sooner or later the vast majority of us will need the services of this sector either directly or indirectly as we care for someone who is in need.