Social work after “Baby P”

Issue: 122

Iain Ferguson and Michael Lavalette

In August 2007 the UK media reported the tragic death of a 17 month old boy (who became known as “Baby P”). In November 2008 two people were convicted of causing or allowing the death. The court was told that Baby P had been used as a “punch bag” and that his mother had “manipulated and lied to social workers and health visitors”, even smearing him with chocolate to cover his bruises. The baby was eventually found dead in his blood-splattered cot just 48 hours after a doctor had failed to notice that he had a broken spine.

This happened in the London borough of Haringey, where seven years earlier the death of eight year old Victoria Climbié at the hands of a great-aunt and her boyfriend had led to a national outcry, followed by an investigation into social work practice (both in Haringey and nationally) by Lord Laming, and increased regulation and inspection of social work in Britain. This new death led to a similar outcry.

The Sun newspaper ran a petition calling for the sacking of the social workers involved in the case—and over 850,000 people signed.1 The government announced a new national child protection review, again headed by Lord Laming, which would look at current practice in implementing safeguarding procedures, inter-agency work, effective public accountability and “developing and deploying workforce capacity”. The children’s secretary, Ed Balls, announced a review of serious cases and of Local Safeguarding Children Boards. He also brought in a temporary head of children’s services from Hampshire, and suspended and then sacked Haringey’s children’s director, Sharon Shoesmith, as well as a number of frontline staff.

Initially the events were framed in a familiar guise: that “politically correct” social workers were a “soft touch” for manipulative parents; that social workers and their way of working were, at best, problematic, at worst completely failing; that there was a need for more regulation and controls over what social workers do; that the solution was more managerialism and marketisation of social care services.

Yet quite quickly other arguments began to develop. In the face of the suggestion that social workers were “failing” in their work, Polly Toynbee argued in the Guardian that “the number of children killed has fallen steadily—down 50 percent in England and Wales since the 1970s… Britain was fourth worst among Western nations in the 1970s. Now it is among the best: only four countries have fewer child murders per million. Compare America, where child murders have risen by 17 percent since the 1970s”.2

And gradually evidence started to emerge of an under-resourced childcare system where budgetary constraints and market methods of care delivery had made child protection, and social work generally, more difficult. Childcare social workers in Haringey were still working with caseloads similar to those prior to the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. A survey by the Unison union for the new Laming inquiry suggests that average caseloads for social workers working with children and families have increased since 2003.3 It quotes one social worker: “I have 30 cases—all of which are child protection. I have been working in social work for 22 years, but it has never been as bad as it has in the last year”.4

In Haringey there were large numbers of agency staff working in the borough, filling gaps where people had left or were on long_term sick leave. The survey suggests this is far from unusual. Six out of ten respondents claimed that there were more than 20 percent of posts vacant in their area, and a fifth claimed over 30 percent.5 People without a social work qualification or newly qualified staff without experience, Unison suggests, are filling the gap of undertaking difficult child protection work.

The computerised Integrated Children’s System being rolled out across the country is unfit for purpose and takes social workers away from face to face work with clients. “Social workers report spending between 60 percent and 80 percent of their time at the computer screen,” according to Sue White, who has just conducted research into the impact of the new system.6

The Baby P case has thrown up a range of issues about the nature and scale of child abuse, the extent and impact of poverty on children’s lives, the role of social work in the modern welfare state and to what extent there is space for an alternative, more engaged social work practice.

The abuse of children in Britain today

“Childhood” is not a natural stage of human growth common to all societies, despite commonsense assertions to the contrary, nor is it a life stage that we all experience in the same way. It has been shaped by the development of modern capitalism. And this did not bring a new “enlightened approach” to children and childhood, as much academic writing holds.7 For working class children capitalism brought increased exploitation and oppression. They were forced to work in cottage industries, mines and factories, and they found themselves facing a brutal state determined to control their activities through the “justice” and penal systems. For children in bourgeois families, by contrast, there was education by governesses and teachers in public schools and “training” for a future life of privilege and authority. The vast differences and inequalities in the lives led by children of the different classes remain at the start of the 21st century.

Society has never been wealthier—and this means that there is the potential to deal with the vast range of problems that children face. Yet children in Britain continue to face all manner of societal abuse. The evidence shows that Britain, in comparison to other economically advanced countries, is failing its children. It also shows that the lives of poor and working class children are worse, more restrictive and more dangerous than their middle class peers on every front.

The most comprehensive recent survey of children’s lives was produced by Unicef in 2007.8 The UK ranked bottom of 21 industrialised countries in its child “well-being assessment”, based on 40 separate indicators—including relative poverty, child safety, educational achievement and drug abuse. Britain has a higher number of children in poverty, defined as living below 60 percent of the typical income, despite 11 years of New Labour government and its much trumpeted target of eradicating child poverty by 2020. In Britain 22 percent of children are poor, compared to 8 percent in Sweden and 10 percent in Denmark. Thirty years ago the British figure was only 13 percent.9 One in ten five to 16 year olds now have clinically significant mental health difficulties, but only a quarter of children who are seriously troubled or disturbed by mental health difficulties are getting any kind of specialist help.

The impact of poverty starts before birth. Children born to poor mothers are more likely to be born underweight and are ten times more likely to suffer from sudden death syndrome. They are also more vulnerable to a range of chronic illnesses, including cerebral palsy and various mental disorders. As they age they are 50 times more likely to suffer type two diabetes and 25 percent more likely to suffer chronic heart disease.10 Toddlers from disadvantaged families experience slower rates of social and educational development so that, by the time they turn six, previously less able children from wealthier backgrounds will be ahead of them.11 Children from poor households are more likely to leave school at 16 with fewer educational qualifications—only 28 percent of children in the most deprived quarter of schools gained five or more GCSE passes at A to C, compared to 67 percent of children in the least deprived quarter of schools.12 A boy brought up in Calton, in the East End of Glasgow, can expect to live 28 years less than one brought up in Lenzie, a few miles away; one born in Hampstead, London, will live around 11 years longer than a boy from St Pancras, five stops away on London Underground’s Northern Line.13

Finally, there is significant data to show that accidents, injuries and deaths of children are all profoundly influenced by class and poverty. Every year over a million children in the UK under the age of 15 are involved in accidents in the home for which they require hospital treatment. Accidents are the commonest cause of death in children over one year old and every year thousands suffer permanent disability or disfigurement. The age group most at risk from a home accident are the nought to four years.14 Traffic accidents are the biggest killer of children and young people, causing 169 deaths of under 15 year olds in 2006 and seriously injuring 3,125.15 Again children from poor areas are more likely to be the victims. Overcrowding in the home pushes them onto busy streets to play, so children from deprived areas are four times more likely to be seriously injured than pedestrians and three times more likely than cyclists.16

So the evidence shows that there continues to be a high level of societal abuse directed against the poorest and most vulnerable, but what about violence and abuse of individual children in the home?

Child abuse and the family

The family is a deeply contradictory institution. On the one hand, it seems to offer a haven, a place away from the pressures, inequalities and alienation of modern life, providing common support against the outside world; a place where people (usually women) care for children, partners and older relatives. Yet, on the other hand, it is also a deeply oppressive institution—at the heart of women’s oppression and restrictive to so many people’s lives.

The evidence shows it can be a very violent institution. One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute, and on average two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.17 Yet the common sense is that children are in danger of violent abuse, sexual abuse and murder not from a family member, but from a stranger (so-called “stranger danger”). The figures tell a different story. The NSPCC data shows that while “child homicides”18 are rare, the most likely culprits are family members. Every ten days in England and Wales one child is killed at the hands of a parent. This compares with an annual average of 11 children a year who are killed by strangers.19 Infants aged under one are most at risk of being killed, and almost two thirds of children killed are aged under five. The younger the child, the more likely it is that the perpetrator is a parent.20

The figures for sexual abuse suggest that 16 percent of children under the age of 16 experience some form of sexual abuse: 11 percent of this is “contact abuse” and the rest is non-contact. The vast majority of “contact abuse” will involve more than one single event and is likely to be carried out by family members, relatives and family friends. The most common perpetrator is likely to be a brother or stepbrother. The most common site for abuse is the family home, or other known home. In 5 percent of cases the perpetrators are adult strangers or someone the child has just met; these are much more likely to be single event “non-contact” forms of abuse (eg flashing).21 There is a similar pattern for physical abuse: 21 percent of children experience some degree of physical abuse at the hands of their parents or carers.22

What is the relationship between child abuse and poverty? Of course, the majority of poor parents do not abuse their children, but the few studies there are of the relationship between class and child abuse suggest a clear link between poverty and maltreatment. Some 60 percent of children on the child protection register for the Strathclyde region in Scotland in the 1990s lived in Glasgow, which has the highest concentration of poverty but only 27 percent of the population. The three poorest areas of Glasgow accounted for four times as many registered children as the city’s other areas.23 Some 25 percent of the children on the protection register in Coventry lived in just one electoral ward (the poorest in the city), although it only held 12 percent of the city’s children.24 More recently John Devaney has suggested that there is a significant “positive relationship” between a range of indicators of deprivation (unemployment and dependence on state benefits, overcrowding, living in social housing, non-car ownership) and children on the protection register.25

Two additional factors are important to take note of: parental age and parental history. There are a disproportionate number of parents on child protection registers who were under the age of 20 at the time of the child’s birth.26 And important research suggests that a parent’s own experience of child abuse will lead a significant proportion to encounter a range of problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse, depression, low self_esteem and poor physical health, with a minority then mistreating their own children.27

When money is tight, housing poor, living conditions overcrowded, life becomes stressful and the family home becomes a pressure cooker where parents can explode into rage at their children. That anger and frustration is more likely to be focused on the family’s children if the parents are also younger and have a history of being abused themselves. The consequences are tragic, but it is the social conditions created by poverty and inequality which provide the context for the eruption of violence. It is also here, alongside the very poorest and most marginalised in society, that social workers spend most of their working lives.

“Care and control”—welfare under capitalism

Social work, sometimes described as the “fifth social service”, after health, housing, education and social security, has always differed from these other arms of the post-war welfare state in being a residual, as opposed to a universal, service. Its primary concern, in other words, has traditionally been with the welfare only of those who belong to the very poorest sections of the working class, including those for whom age, or physical or mental disability creates problems for themselves or others. In Strathclyde in the 1990s, for example, nine out of ten social work clients were in receipt of state benefits.28

The statutory remit of social workers requires them to manage the perceived problem behaviour of poor parents, including, on occasion, taking their children into care. This has two consequences. They are often regarded with suspicion and hostility within working class communities—to a greater extent than, say, health visitors, who have no such statutory powers. And their association with stigmatised groups, such as abusing parents, young offenders, asylum seekers and people with severe mental health problems, makes them an easy target for right wing politicians and tabloids, who can portray social workers as being “soft” and “naive”—-particularly since professional social work ideology emphasises the importance of being “non-judgemental”, in the sense of seeking to understand the reasons for clients’ behaviour.

Professional social work brings out particularly sharply the contradiction between the “care” and “control” aspects of welfare provision under capitalism, which are present in all areas of welfare as the product of a mixture of complex and competing factors.29

First, welfare reforms are sometimes the direct outcome of working class struggle.30 In France, for example, the social welfare settlement of the 1930s was strongly shaped by the wave of working class struggles that led to the election of a Popular Front government in 1936 against the background of a million on strike in Paris and mass factory occupations.31 Again in France, in 1995-6 it was the threat of cuts to the social welfare budget (the so-called “Juppé plan”) that brought two million people onto the streets, defeated the cuts and ignited an atmosphere of class conflict that still continues.32

More generally, the fear of working class revolt destabilising the existing order can be a major, if indirect, factor in producing reforms from above. Examples might include Bismarck’s social legislation in 19th century Germany (which went hand in hand with the repression of the emerging socialist political parties) or the cross-party consensus on the need for change in Britain at the end of the Second World War, reflected in the statement of the Tory MP Quentin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) in 1943, “If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution”.33 In that sense, the creation of a “welfare state” in Britain by the 1945-51 Labour government, with a National Health Service at its heart, mirrored the balance of class forces at the beginning of the post-war period.

It would, however, be inaccurate and misleading to portray welfare provision under capitalism as always being the product of struggle from below. Welfare also plays an important role for the ruling class as a form of social control, both political and ideological. Since its origins in the Poor Law of the 1830s it has been important in ensuring that those who are capable of selling their labour power are forced to do so. Provision for the rest has been made as unpleasant and stigmatising as possible, restricted to very limited categories of people (the old, the severely disabled and so on). This meant that, for much of the 19th century, the dreaded workhouse was the only alternative to destitution for many. The first social work organisation in Britain, the Charity Organisation Society created in 1869, was rightly described by Clement Attlee as “essentially designed for the defence of the propertied classes”.34 The dominant ideology within the organisation was a pathologising one, which blamed clients for their alleged character failings rather than locating misery within wider socio-economic structures. For its journal, the Charity Organisation Review, “the poverty of the working classes of England” was due “not to their circumstances” but “to their improvident habits and thriftlessness”.35

The social control function of welfare is no less important today. This is shown by New Labour’s attempt to force thousands of lone parents into the workplace and to reduce the number of disabled people claiming incapacity benefit by one million by new work tests—all justified by spurious claims that “work is the route out of poverty”. More generally, welfare policy is crucial in shaping and reinforcing dominant ideologies about family and nation. Much welfare policy is based on familial assumptions,36 assuming, for instance, that most women will raise children and provide domestic labour. It also reflects judgements about who should qualify for welfare benefits or services, invariably including a notion of “British citizenship” that questions the legitimacy of claims for benefits from “outsiders” such as asylum seekers.37

Finally, welfare provision matters to capitalism for another important reason. No individual capitalist nation can hope to compete successfully with its rivals without a healthy, well educated workforce. Thus ensuring at least a very basic level of health and education is in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. Marx noted this in his discussion of the 19th century Factory Acts, which placed some limits on the hours worked by women and children in particular. “Factory legislation…is…just as much the necessary product of large-scale industry as cotton yarn, self-actors and the electric telegraph”.38 Most of the key welfare reforms of the past 100 years have been driven by recognition of the need for a skilled, healthy workforce, capable of contributing not only to the nation’s economic success but also (as the negative experience of the Boer War showed) to its military success.39 Nor, as Chris Harman notes, is this simply a question of physical well-being: “It is also a question of morale. The capitalist wants contented workers to exploit in the same way that a farmer wants contented cows. Workers cannot be expected to labour with any commitment to their work if they expect to starve to death once they reach retirement age”.40

Yet Marx also noted that “capital never becomes reconciled to such changes”.41 In almost every case such reforms had to be forced through parliament in the teeth of fierce opposition from capitalists, who bitterly resented being forced to give up part of their profits in the form of taxes to fund welfare provisions for workers, even if their class as a whole benefited. Ruling classes were reluctantly prepared to concede a higher level of welfare spending so long as the economy was growing during the “long boom” between the late 1940s and the early 1970s. However, when global economic crisis returned in the mid-1970s, cutting such expenditure became a central political priority for both Labour and Conservative governments.

Neoliberalism, welfare and managerialism

The main concern of Margaret Thatcher and her ministers during her first two periods of Conservative government in the UK (1979-87) was with crushing working class organisation, both through direct attacks on specific trade unions and also through allowing unemployment to rise to around three million. It was not until her third term, from 1987 onwards, that the Conservatives turned their attention to the restructuring of welfare. The key turning point was the passing of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, based on a report by Sainsbury’s managing director, Sir Roy Griffiths. It sought to introduce market principles into health and social care, by changing the role of local authorities from providers of services to purchasers of services, based on competitive tendering by private and voluntary sector organisations:

The implementation of the NHS and Community Care Act (1990) changed fundamentally the operation of social service departments and the practice of social work. It spearheaded the establishment of the social work business through two inter-related developments: marketisation and managerialism.42

Managerialism43 is primarily concerned with bringing the values and practices of private sector management (in reality a wholly idealised and inaccurate version of these practices) into the public sector in general, and social work and social care in particular. Managers, operating within the parameters of “economy, efficiency and effectiveness”, were depicted by the Audit Commission as the “Bolsheviks” of the managerial revolution,44 which would revitalise what was seen as a “failing profession”. They would do this by: putting in place a strategic vision (usually in the form of a mission statement); introducing common values, which in practice means identification with the organisation, rather than with core social work values; refashioning clients as “customers” and emphasising “customer care”, in reality complaints procedures; an emphasis on “performance review”, through inspectorates such as Ofsted; much tighter budgetary procedures, based on the view that efficient management, not increased resources, is the key to quality services; and “clear leadership”, or in other words, stronger managerial structures.45

The widespread introduction of computerised technologies has underpinned all of these processes and has been a crucial factor in the commodification of social work skills and processes. It has been a means both of rationing services and of standardising the social work task. Such technologies now dominate the working lives of most social workers (and are, of course, the basis of the social care call centres which are springing up in different parts of the UK46).

The Unison study quoted earlier provides some evidence of the impact of the managerialism on the working practices and morale of front-line social work staff.47 It highlighted a continuing lack of resources across social work, with only 9 percent of respondents saying that things had improved since the publication of the first Laming Report in 2003. While 43 percent of respondents agreed that the systems and procedures for safeguarding children had improved since 2003, a further 26 percent felt that the effect of changes to these systems and procedures based on Laming’s recommendations had been “neutral” and a third felt that there had been no improvement at all. Some felt that the procedural changes that had been put in place had actually made things worse. One worker commented:

It is ironic that the Laming enquiry set up procedures to protect children but in some respects these procedures are now harming children because the increased admin and paperwork have let crucial events slip by unnoticed or not acted upon due to lack of time with the families and children we are trying to protect. Less office-based work would mean that we can bring the “social” back into social work.48

Respondents were particularly critical of the computerised Integrated Children’s System (ICS). The Unison report called for a complete overhaul of the system, with one respondent commenting, “ICS is a hindrance to our work. It should be scrapped and replaced with a more child and family focused way of working”.49 Such criticisms are supported by a recent independent academic study of children’s social work:

ICS’s onerous workflows and forms compound difficulties in meeting government imposed timescales and targets. Social workers are acutely concerned with performance targets, such as moving the cases flashing in red on their screens into the next phase of the workflow within the timescale. Switching off the flashing red light bears no relationship to protecting a child. That is something of which social workers and managers are acutely aware, but slippages carry sanctions.50

While the ICS records for Baby P may well have been complete and up to date, the time required to complete such records is likely to have reduced the time available to carry out direct work with the family and reflect on the very complex issues involved in such cases.

New Labour’s managerialism has relied on inspection agencies, such as Ofsted, to guarantee quality, rather than the professionalism and commitment of staff. Yet preparation for such visits consumes a huge amount of staff time, which could be spent in direct work with children and families, and the reports can offer a false sense of security since they rely solely on written reports and records rather than on direct contact with front-line workers or service users. This was shown by the “good” rating received by Haringey three months after Baby P’s death.

Workers surveyed by the Unison report, like those in earlier research by Chris Jones,51 called for an end to the “cult of bureaucracy” ensconced by the managerial reforms of the past two decades. As one worker put it:

The focus of social work has become entirely procedural and the meaning of the work has been lost. The needs of children have become secondary to the needs of agencies responsible for protecting them. The contents of assessments appear insignificant as agencies are far more concerned about whether they are completed on time.52

Is Britain a broken society?

Conservative prime minister John Major sought 15 years ago to exploit the tragic killing of toddler James Bulger to shift politics to the right through a debate around law and order.53 In similar fashion, current Tory leader David Cameron has tried to bolster his thesis that Britain has become a “broken society” by linking the death of Baby P with a recent wave of gun crimes and other cases of child abuse, like the widely publicised faked “disappearance” of a child, Shannon Matthews. Writing in the Daily Mail in December 2008, Cameron argued:

How can Gordon Brown argue that people who talk about a broken society are wrong? These children suffered at the very sharpest end of our broken society but all over the country are other young victims, too. Children whose toys are dad’s discarded drink bottles; whose role models are criminals, liars and layabouts; whose innocence is lost before their first milk tooth. What chance for these children? Raised without manners, morals or a decent education, they’re caught up in the same destructive chain as their parents. It’s a chain that links unemployment, family breakdown, debt, drugs and crime.54

It is a familiar right wing diatribe, reminiscent of much “underclass theory” of the 1970s and 1980s. However, the broken society thesis requires some examination since “decline of community” was also identified as a key “social evil” by 2007 Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey of 3,500 people.55 First, the overall child homicide rate in England and Wales appears to have remained broadly similar, or even declined, since the 1970s at around 67 a year.56 Second, as the NSPCC points out:

While [Home Office] classifications tell us how a child was killed, they can only hint at the events leading up to the death and its possible prevention. Cases where the child/ren are killed by monoxide poisoning in a car on a custody visit by a “loving” father who then commits suicide are very different from those where a child dies from multiple injuries, following a long period of ill treatment. There are also the cases where a lone mother, who had cared very well for her child in the past, starts showing increasing signs of mental disturbance and finally kills the child dramatically, in a psychotic outburst.57

The sheer diversity of these situations means that to attempt to draw from them generalised conclusions about wider societal trends, along the lines of Britain being a “broken society”, is both misleading and irresponsible. The reality of life on estates like that where Shannon Matthews lived is very different to the portrayal of them by Cameron and the right wing press, for whom the inhabitants are stereotypically underclass, lazy, feckless and immoral. Male unemployment on the estate where Matthews lived was less than 10 percent. As Lynsey Hanley, author of a study of council housing,58 pointed out, “It was a shock to the media that Shannon’s step_father worked. In fact, most people on these estates work; it’s just that they are very badly paid”.59 Local people were quick to respond to middle class attacks on their lives and relationships. As one woman told a Telegraph reporter:

Look, I’ve got three kids from two different fathers. Aren’t some middle class women the same? When they do it they are “having a second family”. That’s okay for them but not for us. People here talk to each other, help one another. Do they do that in middle class areas? Half the time they never know the name of the person they’re living next to.60

The evidence of community was evident both in the large numbers who joined in the search for Shannon (and rejoiced when she was found) and in the collective anger then felt towards Shannon’s mother both for her treatment of her daughter and for letting down their community. Nor does the estate conform to images of a racist “white working class”. Several reports noted increasing numbers of Asian families moving into the area in recent years—and feeling safe living there—while the area is represented by two Asian Labour councillors.

It is true that many working class communities have become more fragmented in recent years. However, Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, is pointing to the wrong decade by blaming the “permissiveness” of the 1960s. As Lynsey Hanley notes, “The real problem is segregation—the farming out of the poorest families to estates on the outskirts of towns, often badly served by transport and shops. The ‘right to buy’ scheme of the 1980s removed many of the more affluent families in council areas as they sold up and moved on”.61

Any discussion of the “decline of community” in Britain has to start from the profound damage, both material and spiritual, wreaked on working class communities by Cameron’s predecessors, in the 1980s in particular. As Nick Davies concluded in his powerful study of poverty in Britain:

Labour thinking seems to take no account of the damage which has been inflicted on the poor in the past 20 years. It assumes that even though these communities have been riddled with drugs and drink and depression and stress; that even though tens of thousands of young people have abandoned their schools without any thought for the future; even though hundreds of thousands are now unskilled and alienated while millions have been drained of hope and motivation; that nevertheless by flicking the switches of the benefits machine, these people can be manipulated into families or into work or out of crime as though they were carefully calculating their self-interest, as though their lives and sometimes their personalities had not been scrambled by the experience of the last 20 years.62


Even before the economic crisis hit, it was clear that Labour was going to miss its goal of halving the number of children living in poverty. The crisis will mean more people are made unemployed, more families will become dependent on benefits, and more families will lose their homes and be forced into poverty. As all the evidence shows, this will mean more children living in misery, having restricted life chances, being more vulnerable to all manifestations of harm—and for some, it will mean greater exposure to violence and abuse.

The End Child Poverty Campaign suggested that an immediate £3 billion was needed to meet the 2010 target. As they noted in their pre_budget press statement:

Families are struggling to pay their heating bills or afford a decent meal, and they can’t imagine how they could pay for a new winter coat. Help for these children should not be too much to ask when banks funded by the taxpayer are giving away billions in bonuses. It is simply not credible to say that the money doesn’t exist.63

Managerialism and marketisation of social care simply do not work. The attempt to run social services on business models has proved to be a disaster for both workers and service users. Social workers have less time to spend with service users, less time to consider and understand the problems that service users face and less resources to deal with the problems people have.

And this leads to a final point. Most social workers don’t enter the job because they want to control people’s behaviour or manage “care packages”; most become social workers because (in however unspecified a way) they believe that they can help make a difference to vulnerable people’s lives. The impact of “neoliberal” social work has been so broad and so detrimental to their ability to do so that it has created a space within which it is possible to engage with people over the nature of social work and the goals and priorities of Labour and Tory governments over the past 20 years. This time, when social workers came under attack, both they and service users spoke out about what was happening on the front line.

Along with Chris Jones and Laura Penketh, we wrote an on-line “manifesto” for a new engaged social work four years ago.64 We were unsure what impact it would have but were pleasantly surprised when over 1,000 people added their names to it. We were then involved in setting up the Social Work Action Network (SWAN), a loose network of front_line social workers, trade unionists, academics, service users and social work students. It has now held three highly successful annual conferences and two special one-day events about the implications of the Baby P events for social work. And it was SWAN that took up the cudgels and launched its own petition against the witch-hunt of social workers by the Sun. Feedback from social workers and students indicates the SWAN initiative has been discussed in classrooms and workplaces across the country.

But it wasn’t just SWAN. As we have noted, Unison undertook their own research to find out what was happening on the social work front line and their significant report forms the basis of Unison’s submission to the Laming Inquiry. The British Association of Social Workers and Community Care (both traditionally associated with an orientation on the “professional values” of social work) have launched their own petitions and made clear their opposition to the costs of “neoliberal social work” to both workers and service users.

In the aftermath of the tragic death of Baby P it is now possible to argue that “another social work is possible” and that, if we want to avoid more poverty, inequality and harm to children, “another social work is necessary”.


1: “Baby P Petition Reaches 850,000”, the Sun, 24 November 2008.

2: Polly Toynbee, “This Frenzy Of Hatred Is A Disaster For Children At Risk”, the Guardian, 18 November 2008,

3: Unison, 2009, p4.

4: Unison, 2009, p4.

5: Unison, 2009, p3.

6: White, 2008.

7: For the debates around these issues, see, for example, Goldson, Lavalette and MacKechnie, 2002.

8: Unicef, 2007.

9: “The Good Childhood Inquiry”, report summary, The Children’s Society,

10: “Study Links Child Poverty To Ill Health And Sudden Death Syndrome”, Warwick University,

11: “Charities Demand Action Over Child Inequality”, the Guardian, 11 June 2007.

12: “The Good Childhood Inquiry”, report summary, The Children’s Society,

13: “UK Trailing On Ill-health And Life Expectancy, UN Says”, the Guardian, 29 August 2008.

14: “Child Safety…A Very Comprehensive, Useful Action List for Parents and Carers”, Home Security Action,

15: “Child Fact Sheet-Child Casualties in Road Accidents Great Britain: 2006”, Department for Transport,

16: “Children In Poor Areas ‘More At Risk Of Traffic Accidents’”, Families First for Health, Great Ormond Street Hospital,

17: “Domestic Violence Statistics”, Women’s Aid,

18: That is, murder, manslaughter and infanticide.

19: “What you Need to Know about Child Abuse”, NSPCC,

20: NSPCC, 2007a.

21: NSPCC, 2007b.

22: NSPCC, 2007c.

23: Baldwin and Spencer, 1993.

24: Baldwin and Carruthers, 1998.

25: Devaney, 2009.

26: Bunting and McAuley, 2004.

27: Anda, Brown, Felitti, Bremner, Dube and Giles, 2006.

28: Becker, 1997.

29: Ferguson, Lavalette and Mooney, 2002, chapter 2.

30: Lavalette and Mooney, 2000.

31: Danos and Gibelin, 1986.

32: Wolfreys, 1999.

33: Hansard, 17 February 1943.

34: Cited in Lewis, 1995, p86.

35: Cited in Jones, 1983, p76.

36: Merrick, 1996.

37: Mynott, 2000.

38: Marx, 1976, p610.

39: On this see Thane, 1982.

40: Harman, 2008, p115.

41: Marx, 1976.

42: Harris, 2003, p43.

43: For a discussion of the marketisation of social work and social care, see Harris, 2003, and Ferguson, 2008.

44: Audit Commission, 1992.

45: Harris, 2003, pp47-48.

46: Coleman and Harris, 2008; see also Garrett, 2008.

47: Unison, 2009.

48: Unison, 2009, p2.

49: Unison, 2009, p9.

50: White, 2008.

51: Jones, 2001.

52: Unison, 2009, p9.

53: Ferguson, 1994.

54: David Cameron, “There Are 5 Million People On Benefits In Britain. How Do We Stop Them Turning Into Karen Matthews?”, Daily Mail, 8 December 2008.

55: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2008.

56: NSPCC, 2007a.

57: NSPCC, 2007a.

58: Hanley, 2007.

59: Quoted in Tweedie, 2008.

60: Quoted in Tweedie, 2008.

61: Quoted in Tweedie, 2008.

62: Davies, 1998, p303.

63: “Go On, Mr Darling, Show A Little Love To 3.9 Million UK Children Living In Poverty, Says The Campaign To End Child Poverty This Valentine’s Day”, End Child Poverty, 13 February 2009.

64: Available from


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