Social care and social work have traditionally been associated with concepts like goodness and nobility. Most religions stress on helping the disadvantaged, the weak, the young, the old, and the disabled, even as kings and monarchs, known for their charity continue to be remembered for centuries after their passing away. Organised social work, despite such association and in spite of its need among distressed and disadvantaged segments of society, did not spread (for centuries) beyond the realm of religious institutions and privately funded charities, until the closure of the Second World War.
It was only in the post Second World War era, with its radically altered social environment, that the state emerged, in the UK and in other advanced western economies, as the most important entity in the practice and delivery of social work. The evolution and growth of social work in the country has since then been guided and shaped by a number of developments. The dominant role of the state, in social work practice in the UK, commenced with the establishment of the welfare state in the late 1940s. The welfare state continued for 3 decades and was instrumental in the construction of an extensive public framework for the delivery of social work to needy adults and children.
Public policy and legal change has played a key role in guiding and moderating the evolution of social work.
Policy makers have benefited the growth of social work in three specific ways. The vigorous formulation and implementation of numerous programmes in different areas of social need have driven the delivery of social work to disadvantaged and vulnerable segments of society.
Social work practice and delivery has been strengthened by the establishment of a well educated and properly trained body of social workers, who, along with professionals in the area of health care, are now primarily responsible for the assessment of social and health care needs of service users and for the planning and delivery of appropriate interventions for the satisfaction of their needs. Social workers contribute significantly towards bringing about positive social outcomes in areas related to disadvantage, disability and discrimination. They take up advocacy of social causes for the promotion and securing of the well being of different segments of society.
The active espousal and implementation of multi dimensional social work programmes and the build-up of extensive local expertise and capabilities has been accompanied by wide ranging and steadily evolving legislation aimed at bringing about positive social change in various areas like (a) the safeguarding and nurturing of children and young people, (b) meeting the needs of the old and the mentally and physically disabled, and (c) the elimination and reduction of discrimination and oppression on account of sex, race, ethnicity, colour and religion.
Much of the success of social work practice in the UK has come about because of supportive and reinforcement legislation in different areas of social work practice. This short study takes up the impact and usefulness of legislation in the area of social work.
Social work in the UK deals with the improvement of well being of children and adults, as well as of families and communities. It functions through a combination of legislative rules and guidelines, and public policy, as detailed in the ‘Children's Plan' and ‘Putting People First'. It contributes to the formulation, development and evolution of social policy and practice, as well as to the provisioning of services. Social work collaborates with related services in areas of social care, health and education in order to ensure that people in need receive integrated and holistic support. The social work profession is regulated by law.
Social work aims to ensure that all children and adults are able to fulfil their potential, act independently and with self direction, make appropriate choices, take command of their lives and their support arrangements, and exercise and utilise their human and civil rights. Social work views the lives and circumstances of people holistically and works with them in a participative manner in order to personalise their social care entitlement in accordance with their personal and unique situations. The attitudes, approaches, and working systems of social work aim to reduce and eliminate discrimination and oppression and increase empowerment and creativity.
Social work, in accordance with ‘Putting People First' and the ‘Children's Plan' is practiced, as far as possible, in partnership with service users, their families and their communities, using their services to the greatest possible extent. Social work represents and embodies a group of key principles and values. It is dedicated to (a) the rights of children, (b) the equality and worth of all people, (c) individual and universal human rights, (d) individuality, and (e) dignity and privacy. It constantly challenges and combats prejudice and discrimination. Whilst the knowledge base of social work comes from relevant academic disciplines, it is also informed by the experience and knowledge of service users, obtained through research and validated through practice.
Social work roles are influenced and determined by a range of features like (a) the individual situations of service users, (b) the areas that require involvement of social workers, (c) the social work outcomes that are planned to be achieved, (d) the values, skills and knowledge that are drawn for social work delivery, and (e) the methods and approaches that are applied for responding to the aspirations and needs of individuals and groups. It is such a combination of features that makes the discipline uniquely distinct.
Social work can be used beneficially in situations involving high levels of stress, uncertainty, complexity and risk, both to children and to vulnerable older people. It requires the application of specialist and analytical skills, techniques, and knowledge for assessment of such situations and the making of complex decisions on courses of action. The overwhelmingly major role of social work is clearly preventative and involves supporting and sustaining carers and parents, lessening chances of neglect and abuse, preventing breakdown of families, and assisting people in achieving, maintaining or recovering their independence.
The practice of social work occurs in a range of settings, which include local authority services for children and adults, primary and institutional care by the NHS, multi-disciplinary services and joint teams, specialist agencies, independent practices, not for profit and voluntary organisations, and private practice. Social work within the local authority and the NHS is mostly delivered through specialist teams that concentrate in areas like protection of children, children in care, disabled children, children centres, fostering and adoption, mental health of children and adolescent, youth offences, support to families, care management, substance abuse, learning difficulties, disabilities and older people.
The practice of social work takes place within a frame work of legislation and regulation, even as social workers are made accountable in different ways for the work they carry out.
Social Work, Legislation and Public Policy
The growth of social work practice and delivery in the UK has been constantly driven by legislation and public policy. With social work essentially dealing with the development and safeguarding of equal human rights across all segments of society, the legislative framework for human rights in the country is guided and influenced by (a) the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, and (b) the European convention on Human Rights, (ECHR), which came into force in 1953.
Whilst the Human Rights Act 1998 of the UK came into force practically 45 years after the introduction of the ECHR, the country's lawmakers have been progressively enacting issue specific legislation for the protection of rights of different social segments, the promotion of equality, and the elimination of discrimination, along with the introduction and implementation of policies and programmes, for the achievement of beneficial social work outcomes. With the rights of adults belonging to mainstream society in the country being protected through a vast body of protective and punitive legislation, law makers in the UK have over the last few decades focused on bringing about legislation for (a) safeguarding the rights of children and vulnerable adults, (b) eliminating discrimination and oppression on account of factors like sex, age, race, religion and ethnicity, and (c) improving the conditions of old and mentally and physically disabled people.
The children's department, one of the three departments that were formed for the delivery of social services in 1948, oversaw the introduction of the 1948 Children Act. The legislation made local authorities responsible for taking children, who were at risk of abuse or neglect, into care. The 1948 legislation was followed by The Children and Young Persons Act 1969, The Children Act 1989, and The Children Act 2004.
The Children Act 1989 specifically “reinforces the autonomy of families through definition of parental responsibility; provides for support from local authorities, in particular for families whose children are in need; and legislates to protect children who may be suffering or are likely to suffer significant harm.” (102)
Such legislation progressively entrusted the state with responsibilities for the protection, nurturing and development of children. The Children Act 1989, which came into effect in 1993, aimed to overhaul and renew existing social welfare systems and structures by prioritising the welfare of children as a primary objective of social care. It recognised the importance of children growing up in their family environments and called for services to be provided by local authorities to children and families, who were in need. The Children Act 1989 encouraged joint and participative action between the local authorities and children and their parents, and aimed at bettering the functioning of law, with regard to children and to the safeguarding of their rights. The Children Act 2004, along with various policy initiatives, aims to re-energise children's services by improving opportunities and reducing risks, to the best possible extent. The act makes it mandatory for the social services to work jointly with the NHS, The Department of Health and The Department of Education to accomplish such objectives.
“Local authorities are now specifically required to establish co-operative partnership working arrangements to improve the well-being of children. Partnerships will range from joint commissioning, to single service partnerships, to the full integration of social care, education and some health services. County councils and single-tier authorities are the designated Children's Services Authority (CSA) with responsibility for ensuring that the Act is implemented locally.” (CYPP)
As is evident, legislation in the area of child welfare in the UK has for all practical purposes become increasingly activist and is driving social work practice. Similar legislation has been enacted in areas of discrimination and disability, making the provisioning of various services to disabled people in need of social and health care imperative. Such legislations include The Disabled Children Act 2000, The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Associated legislation like The Education and Inspections Act 2006, The Carers (Recognition and Services Act 1995) and the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000 aims to ensure elimination of oppression and discrimination of disadvantaged social segments.
The Crime and Disorder Act 1998, as amended by section 39 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, contain sections (28 to 32) that apply to crimes that were provoked by the race or religion of the victim. Section 29(1) (a) and 29 (1) (b) deal with distinct offences of racially or religiously aggravated assault, wounding, or infliction of bodily harm. Individuals guilty of these offences are liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for terms that can extend up to 7 years.
Such legislative enactments have been accompanied by a range of carefully conceived programmes for the provisioning of integrated social and health care support to disadvantaged social segments and eliminate discrimination on different grounds.
The law has from time to time been interpreted through decisions on contentious and sharply contested court cases. Such decisions often serve as precedents and guiding factors for future court room decisions and come to be known as case laws. Case law is for all practical purposes as important as statutory law in the determination of the outcome of a legal issue or dispute. Relevant case laws influence the delivery of social work in the country and have from time to time redefined the activities of social workers. In the case of R (A) v Croyden LBC (2008), the court of appeal was required to consider whether local authorities or courts were required to decide upon the age of a young person for the purpose of Children Act support. The court held that local authorities could make such decisions, and that courts would interfere with age assessments on their merits, only if such assessments were felt to be irrational. With the needs and capabilities of a young and vulnerable person at 17, being unlikely to defer from another who had just turned 18, the case law empowered social workers to use their discretion with care and consideration in such a sensitive issue.
To take the example of another case law, the UK border agency in the past had a policy on enforcement of immigration control that involved deporting children who had stayed in the UK with their families for a substantially long period of time. With the precise nature of this policy being difficult to pin down, it was finally decided in NF (Ghana) v The Home Secretary (2008) that if a child had stayed for at least 7 years in the UK, indefinite leave to remain would be given except in exceptional cases.
In another case a married woman who had stayed in the UK for less than 7 years was given leave to remain in order to ensure that she was not separated from her young child. The court of appeal, in the case of VW v The Home Secretary (2009), overturned the home office's refusal to her application to stay and thus created a precedent that immigration rules could be bent if the circumstances, from the angle of protection of human rights, were strong enough.
Empowerment, Accountability and Ethics
Empowerment, a concept that rests at the very core of social work, represents the utilisation of particular strategies for the reduction, elimination, combating and reversal of negative valuations by strong groups in society, which affect specific social groups and individuals. Whilst empowerment as a term is frequently utilised in social work, many social workers argue that it is little more than a popular ‘buzz-word' and has little meaning in actual practice. Others debate that it is difficult to empower people and the concept of empowerment belies the relationship between service users and professionals, where power is held by professionals who are willing to share it only on certain conditions. Whilst there is obviously some truth in such arguments, it is difficult not to appreciate the worth of individual legal judgements, some of which have been elaborated in the previous section, and the enactment of laws like the Children Act 2004 and the various anti-discrimination laws, in combating such attitudes and in strengthening the abilities of social workers to empower disadvantaged people. The personalisation agenda represents a major governmental initiative that specifically aims to empower service users to choose their social care arrangements.
Social workers in the UK are held to account in different ways for the work carried out by them. All social workers need to register themselves with the General Social Care Council, satisfy its requirements for qualification and continuing development, and adhere to its code of practice. The title of registered social worker is safeguarded by law and punitive action can be carried out against people who claim to be social workers, but whose names are not registered. Social workers are accountable to the people who use their services, to their employers, and to the law. They need to adhere to the standards laid down in the GSCC Code.
Ethics is another area of importance for all social workers. Very obviously the code of conduct for social workers is extremely severe and they are called upon to maintain the highest code of ethics in their dealing with service users, members of the community and their employers.
In conclusion it needs to be stressed that the biggest challenges to social workers continue to arise in areas of oppression and discrimination.
Social workers are duty bound to combat discrimination and oppression in society. Whilst the government has initiated and is implementing a number of policies and programmes for combating discrimination, and a number of laws have been set out that prohibit discrimination, in any way whatsoever, social workers still have to combat discriminatory and oppressive attitudes, not just in general society but also in their own selves. Discriminatory attitudes are socialised and entrenched over time and can occur because of personal, cultural and structural reasons.
The bureaucratic and hierarchical framework in which social workers operate also fosters discriminatory approaches. It is thus imperative for social workers to constantly work at recognising oppression and discrimination, in its numerous forms in society and work actively towards combating them. Whilst both the law and public policy are with them in this endeavour, the desire to effectively combat oppression and discrimination must essentially come from within.