Social workers, service users and austerity - a common cause

(This was an article by Guy Shennan and Peter Unwin in the February 2017 issue of Professional Social Work)

Recent cuts under austerity measures mean that after decades of crucial secondary mental health services support I have now been ‘discharged’. Initially, I at least had some online guided support via the Big White Wall but even this has now been withdrawn after I reached my free six months usage limit. I would have to find £288 per year to keep this service going which is just unaffordable. The harsh reality as I enter older age is that I have no support to keep me well now except for the Samaritans...”

These are the words of Jean, a survivor of mental health difficulties and now of the cuts to services resulting from the austerity that continues to blight the lives of so many and has tragically ended the lives of others. When the Coalition government began to implement austerity in 2010, citing its necessity given the financial crisis of 2008, it was meant to last only a single five-year parliament. However, the main political parties in the UK all entered the 2015 election on platforms of varying degrees of austerity. The Conservative Government then proceeded to implement even deeper cuts than before – welfare benefits and local government being particular targets – with all the resulting hardship that this has caused.

Social workers have not been silent in the face of this policy, which is not confined to the UK but has spread across many parts of the world. In January 2016, the International Federation of Social Workers hosted a Solidarity Symposium on social work and austerity, which BASW members attended along with a number of European colleagues. A statement was agreed, which said: “Austerity is a flawed economic theory that increases debt burden, unemployment, homelessness, inequality and causes misery upon the lives of citizens.”

The words flawed economic theory are important, and point to a shift that has taken place across a significant part of the public and body politic. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has transformed the Labour Party to the extent that the challengers to his leadership last summer had to proclaim themselves as also against austerity. The third largest party in Westminster, the SNP, is antiausterity, and the Liberal Democrats have called for investment and distanced themselves from government cuts. These parties are now aligned with leading mainstream economists, such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, in seeing austerity as a choice and not a necessity. There is no need to reduce benefits and cut essential services to deal with national debts and deficits, and hence no need for the resulting devastation in the lives of people whom social workers see daily. Given our defining principles of social justice, human rights and collective responsibility, there is a need for social workers to act in response to the growing humanitarian crisis caused by austerity.

The post-Brexit changes to the Government led some to hope there would be a relaxation of austerity policies, but the November Autumn Statement made clear this will not be the case. Austerity continues and is biting as hard as ever. Adult social care, not mentioned in the statement, is suffering from governmental neglect, the pressures on the NHS are being documented daily, and as Dave Hill, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, later remarked, children’s social care is also at a “tipping point”.

Economics commentator Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in The Guardian, has said that austerity will now last for up to 15 years and that 2017 will be particularly painful. We cannot afford it to last so long. Social workers sometimes feel powerless in the face of wider societal forces but there are a number of actions we can take.

Make the effects of austerity visible by giving service users a voice

The recent film I, Daniel Blake was more impactful than any number of statisticallybased reports, and social workers know many real-life equivalents to Ken Loach’s fictional characters. We need to give a voice to people such as Jane, who cares for her adult daughter who has a learning disability and recently became visually impaired. Jane needs urgent help with finding a cluster housing-type placement for her daughter and has spent days negotiating a labyrinth of eligibility criteria, thresholds and cutbacks. Eventually advised to try an advocacy service, she found that all such services locally had stopped taking on new cases because of cuts. Jane’s own health is beginning to suffer and she asks: “What is going to happen if I buckle under the strain – it just doesn’t make moral or economic sense.”

Social workers know how short-sighted cuts to preventive services are, as they can put intolerable pressure on people who then end up needing far more expensive provision. The point can be made more powerfully through the specific experience of a service user. In Maggie’s own words, the effects of inadequate provision locally “resulted in a severe deterioration in my health and within a few months I ended up being detained under the Mental Health Act 120 miles from home. Ironically this was then costing social and health services almost three times the amount of money than if they had met my needs in the community initially. This affected me greatly and resulted in me losing contact with my family, becoming institutionalised, depressed and suicidal, and once my condition had improved, having to start the whole ‘finding a placement near home process’ from scratch after nine months in a secure unit. I lost all social contact with friends and by the time I moved back nearer home they had all moved on, increasing my isolation”.

Work collaboratively and form alliances with service users

Foregrounding service user and carer experiences requires a collaborative mindset and ways of working. Reclaiming advocacy as an essential social work role is needed for our service user and carer voices to be heard inside as well as outside our agencies. As well as giving a voice to service users and carers we work with individually, we can form alliances on an organisational level.

An example of the latter is Social Workers and Service Users Against Austerity (SWASUAA), an alliance of social workers, social work academics, service users and carers. From being an occasional banner to walk under on demonstrations, SWASUAA is now developing in a more formalised way, including an imminent website launch. The relationships formed in such alliances enable social workers, service users and carers to speak together at conferences and other events, making such a shared voice greater than the sum of its parts.

Recognise and publicise the impact of austerity on ourselves

We should not shy away from making known the debilitating effects of austerity on ourselves as social workers. Kay, a children’s team manager, will not be alone in noticing that “staff are in tears every day trying to deal on the one hand with structural issues of poverty and on the other hand being audited and performance–managed to death”. Mick, a learning disabilities social worker, talks about being “caught in the middle”, between “individuals asking for more support – and indeed they need it” and “the local authority panel asking social workers to explore how funding can be reduced”. With such observations we can make common cause with service users and carers who ultimately want and need social workers able to deliver a quality service unencumbered by the burden of relentless cuts. We really are ‘in this together’.

Work collectively as social workers

One of the most debilitating trends in modern social work is individualisation, as it is hard, if not impossible, to effect change as an isolated social worker. Collaborative working with service users and carers requires working in a team committed to such partnership. Being members of professional associations and trade unions enables us to speak out as social workers, and support service users and carers publicly speaking out in a way that is difficult as employees. Also, campaigning alliances with service users and carers can be more effective – in fact, may only be possible – where social workers join them as members of organisations. This is clearly shown in a series of examples where trade unionists, members of the Social Work Action Network, and activists in anti-cuts groups joined with service users in successful campaigns against austerity measures in mental health services (see Crisis and resistance in mental health services in England, Critical and Radical Social Work, March 2015).

A conference and a walk

Two initiatives this Spring will provide meaningful opportunities for social workers to act against austerity. On April 10, the University of Worcester and BASW will be jointly hosting A Little More Conversation, a Little More Action – a conference to consider how service user and carer involvement can make a difference. A focus on how social workers, service users and carers can combat austerity together will form part of the day, which will also encompass successful examples of co-production in other areas).

At the end of April, a little more action (and a lot more conversation) will most definitely take place, as a group of social workers and supporters spend seven days walking from BASW’s head office in Birmingham to Liverpool, arriving there the day before BASW’s 2017 annual general meeting. Following in the footsteps of the 1936 Jarrow March, Boot Out Austerity! will aim to highlight the impact of cuts, by walking together with service users and carers, visiting food banks and social care provision under threat, and hearing accounts of how austerity has impacted on people’s lives along the way.

Come and join us and let the Government know how passionately we feel about the effect of austerity on the work we do and the people we serve. The names of service users and social workers quoted in this article have been changed to protect their identities.