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An understanding of contemporary social work practice is not possible without a knowledge of social policy.
To gain an understanding of social work practice and whether it is or is not possible to do so without the knowledge of social policy, it is necessary to discuss certain aspects of this topic. Therefore, this essay will identify and explain the influence of legislation and social policy, such as the Mental Health Act 1983, on the impact it has on social work. Define the function of social policy. Explain how social policy and the law respond to social exclusion and social inclusion. Explain how theory and knowledge of the law and social policy responds to social problems, therefore giving a clear viewpoint of how a contemporary social worker can practice professionally and appropriately.
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The first place to start is to define what social work means which can be put as simply as social work is there to empower individuals who may be in a state of vulnerability at a point in their lives, to support engagement and participation in society, as well as, ensure their human rights and well-being are protected (Horner, 2012). For social workers to help people live better lives, social policies enable development, implementation of services and influence the social situations of individuals who may be marginalised, such as people with mental health issues, in poverty and LGBTQ. However, it is worth noting that some social policies may hinder social workers ability to effectively deliver a service to users (Adams, 2002). For example, since the 1960’s legislation and policies have encouraged interprofessional and inter-agency collaboration which the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 helped improve further (SCIE SCIE, 2009). On the contrary, Frost, Robinson and Anning (2005) point out that although agencies work together in collaboration, their own individual policy and procedures can hinder the correct support leaving people who require intervention without the support they need. (Adams, 2002). This is contested by Lymbery (1998) who states that social workers and changes in society can influence law and social policy to allow a better service to individuals who need support, this can be seen in mental health, poverty, domestic violence and many more situations faced by society. For instance, before the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS), the mental health service was governed by the 1890 Lunacy Act and this brought in regulations to detain and supervise any individual who was deemed to have a mental illness (Moncrieff, 2003).
Mental health views and opinions have been one of constant change and criticism. At the end of the 19th century people were treated as if they had an illness and placed in asylums under the 1890 Lunacy Act, as such, they were treated more clinically without someone to advocate for them, which when reflecting on, gives the view that they were ill-treated without the level of compassion given today. On the other hand, when the shift from institutionalisation to community care happened it could be criticised that individuals were placed further into a mental health state due to potentially becoming homeless and without important in-patient care (Horner, 2012).
The influence of social work during the change from one to another can be seen in the changes in law and social policy as practitioners became able to provide help and support to those who had left institutions and enable better treatment and services to individuals suffering from mental health. For example, when individuals were marginalised and placed within an institution under the 1890 Lunacy Act, they were dealt with by psychiatrists and viewed as having an illness which needed treating in a clinical way (Prior, 1992). This meant that a social worker would not be supporting this individual whilst incarcerated, instead they would only become involved once the individual had been released from the asylum by supporting the individuals in housing, finances and health care. However, by the mid-20th century, there was a considerable shift towards mental health being allocated to community care rather than institutions which were supported by the Mental Health Act 1959. (Killaspy, 2006). Furthermore, Enoch Powell spoke in 1961 regarding the eradication of Victorian asylums and transferring the treatment of individuals to hospitals and the growing profession of social work within the community (Bennet, 1979).
The process, unfortunately, has been slow in providing the correct care and support for individuals facing times of mental health and amendments have had to be made to the Mental Health Act to provide the legislation to allow social workers to advocate for individuals in these times. Recently, a pledge had been made by former Prime Minister Theresa May to challenge mental health issues and a white paper has been published which is proposed to replace the Mental Health Act 1983 (Samuel, 2019).
At this point, it is worth highlighting the process of how legislation comes into existence. The white paper that Theresa May has put forward allows consultation and discussions with groups who are interested and/or affected by the topic, in this case, mental health, as well as, make amendments and final changes to the paper before it can be presented as a bill in parliament. From this point, the bill will be debated on and once approved by each house of parliament it would be given royal assent, this is where the Queen formally agrees to the bill. Once this stage is completed the bill would become law and referred to as an Act (Gov.UK, 2017).
It is important to understand that laws which are created are set principles and procedures that must be adhered to. This is to ensure justice is served within society, whereas social policy is created to guide agencies and support society (Spicker, 2019). In addition to this, social policies change in reflection to the political ideology at the time. For example, the Labour party, which is a socialist group, have throughout history fought for social justice and equality. From improving housing, education and unemployment at the start of the 20th century to providing equality for marginalised groups such as the LGBTQ by introducing the Civil Partnerships Act 2004, the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations Act 2007 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Furthermore, Jeremy Corbyn who is the party leader at present still stands by the ideology that the Labour party is for the people and there to advocate for the everyday person and improve lives (Labour.org.UK, 2019). Whereas, the Conservative party, which is a neoliberalist group, view society as a marketplace and people as consumers who should not be leaning on the government for support without regard to the reasons support is required. For example, in April 2017 the government announced that cuts will be made to benefits such as Child Tax credit and Disability as it is a drain on society and reduce motivation for individuals to find employment (Bloom, 2017). Therefore, it is clear to see that a social worker must adapt to constant change depending on the political view in place in reflection to what help they can offer. The influence the labour party gave was for social workers to work with individuals closely and work through the process with them. However, the influence the conservative party gave was for social workers to signpost and empower individuals to take responsibility for their situations.
As a social worker, it is important to understand the theory and ideologies within the law and social policy and how they respond to social issues. As stated previously social workers have had to adapt to changes within the law and social policy due to which political party has been in power. Two main ideologies, social democracy and neoliberalism, have shaped social policy in the UK through history (Krieger, 1999). Social democracy is defined as a political, social and economic viewpoint that supports interventions to promote social justice (George and Wilding, 2013). This viewpoint influenced the development of the welfare state through research and reports demonstrating the need to tackle inequality in society. In 1942 Sir William Beveridge established that there were five key issues: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness which needed addressing in society (Cunningham and Cunningham, 2017). This enabled legislation and policies to be created, such as the 1944 Butler Act, the Family Allowance Act 1945, the 1946 National Insurance Act and the 1946 National Health Act which helped challenge these issues (Field, 2011). Following on from the acknowledgement of inequality and the fact that Britain was now governed by the Labour party influenced the work in society as the government took responsibility for care in the community. Offering care to individuals with disabilities, mental health issues and older people just to name a few (Thane, 2009). From understand this concept, it is clear that social democracy places society as a priority and not as a means to make a profit as such will implement community services, financial assistance and healthcare with little cost to the individual (George and Wilding, 2013).
On the contrary, the viewpoint of neoliberalists is individuals should seek to support themselves without leaning on the government and address their situations without much intervention (Thorsen, 2010). The conservative party, who are neoliberalist, have demonstrated their opposition to social democracy since the 1980s with changes to social policy which puts more emphasises on individual taking responsibilities for the own situations in life rather than living off the state (King and Wood, 1999). Margaret Thatcher was a significant person in promoting this ideology. For example, she promoted home ownership, offering residents in council houses to buy their home which led to a reduction of social housing available for people who couldn’t afford a mortgage. Furthermore, she promoted the transition of state own businesses to become privatised such as telecommunications and utilities which led to higher costs to the consumer placing them into a state of poverty (Ball, 2013). Although there are conflicting views between these ideologies it is worth noting that they both helped marginalised groups gain social inclusion, such as the LGBTQ, which can be seen with Thatcher decriminalising homosexuality and Blair introducing the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations Act 2007 as well as the Human Rights Act 1998 (Kollman and Waites, 2011).
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Considering social exclusion, Hills, Le Grand and Pichaud (2002) understood this to be the process in which individuals or groups are denied full access to various rights, opportunities and resources that are available to other individuals or groups, and which are essential to social integration and human rights; including housing employment, healthcare and education.
The concept of social exclusion emerged from Peter Townsend and the publication of his book ‘Poverty in the United Kingdom’ in 1979, which argued that people were unable to participate in normal society due to the lack of income, therefore they were excluded due to the consequences of poverty and inequality (Levitas, 1996). For example, before the welfare reforms of the 1990s single mothers were excluded from the welfare system due to the prejudice against unwed mothers and the viewpoint that employment was the acceptable way of contributing to society. Consequently, the lack of support in childcare, mothers were unable to seek employment which hindered their involvement in society (Burchardt, Le Grand and Piachaud, 2002). However, it can be suggested that the concept had roots from Emile Durkheim (1893) and his social theory, which was concerned with social order and the view that people had a role to play in society and if changes were to occur this would upset stability (O’Brien and Penna, 2007).
In today’s society, there has been a shift from the term social exclusion to social inclusion which takes the focus away from the concept of poverty and inequality and places more on the promotion of integration (Jackson, 1999). This was demonstrated with the New Labour government as they aimed to bring an end to social exclusion by redistributing wealth through the tax and benefits system, tackling ethical inequalities and providing a voice for marginalised groups, such as, unemployed, single parents and disabled (McNeil, 2012). The progress that the New Labour government made was successful in tackling social exclusion. One of the most successful changes New Labour made was the New Deal programme which changed working lives for people by giving incentives and motivation to seek employment. For instance, the working families tax credit was introduced in 1999 which enabled low-income workers to receive a financial supplement on top of their earnings (Kennedy, 2009). On the contrary, it is argued by the Department of Work and Pensions (2010) that there was a lack of further support and provisions for individuals who were recovering from drug and alcohol addiction which could have been due to the unsustainable financial investments made by New Labour to tackle these issues.
As a social worker, it is the fundamental duty to focus on meeting human needs and promoting social inclusion by influencing the development of positive policies and procedures which promote respect towards individuals’ beliefs and lifestyles (BASW, 2014).
To conclude, law and social policy are constantly changing which has been explained throughout this essay. From the Victorian days of asylums to the present where social work has a platform and works with society to promote social justice, social exclusion and human rights. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge and understand when changes to policies occur to ensure that the service continues to be supportive and productive within the standards of legislation and social policy.
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