Benefits

I’ve made my position clear about ‘benefits’ over the year. ‘Benefits’ are not really benefits at all.

I decided to look at the meaning of the word ‘benefit’ and found (according to dictionary.com)

ben·e·fit

[ben-uh-fit]  noun, verb,ben·e·fit·ed or ben·e·fit·ted, ben·e·fit·ing or ben·e·fit·ting.

1.something that is advantageous or good; an advantage:

2.a payment or gift, as one made to help someone or given by a benefit society, insurance company, or public agency:

3.a theatrical performance or other public entertainment toraise money for a charitable organization or cause.

4.Archaic . an act of kindness; good deed;

Perhaps our national failing is that we still mentally see ‘benefits’ as a gift and not a right.  The payments given to those who have some form of need should not be considered as an ‘act of charity’ by government. It is money necessary to live not money in the gift of the government.

Sometimes language is and can be important.

By Cameron and his Conservative-led coalition like spreading the rhetoric that ‘benefits’ as well as ‘public housing’ should somehow be related to ‘good behaviour’.

This article for example as a case in point which explains

David Cameron wrote in a Sunday newspaper that he wanted to look at going further in welfare reforms, calling for the child benefit payments of parents who play truant from school to be withdrawn.

He suggested a more ambitious welfare reform programme when he posed the question of whether the government should be “asking much more of people on benefits who should be looking for work – or imposing even stricter penalties on those who refuse job offers?”

Cameron moves in a no-doubt electorally pleasing but morally questionable path.

Calling for the removal of child benefit payments to the parents of children who play truant is morally repulsive. It further impedes those who rely more heavily on those child benefit payments. Lets not forget that child benefit will be means tested soon (in a pathetically haphazard way but no matter). Where is the proposal for penalties for those parents who don’t receive child benefit and whose children play truant? Or do they really think truancy only affects ‘poor children’.

It insults our intelligence to make these proposals but they play very well to a public crowd that has been increasingly weaned to divide our own population into an ‘us/them’ dichotomy between those who work and those who do not work.

The government (and the previous government too) persist with a ‘divide and rule’ policy of presenting those who are not able to work against those who do work – well, we should never forget that for those us who aren’t party to the millions in trust funds that most of our government members grew up with – there is a extremely tenuous link between being a have and being a have-not.

The Guardian article goes on to quote Cameron saying

“What about welfare? The old something-for-nothing system we had under Labour had a poisonous effect on responsibility in our society. Again, we’ve already taken bold action – we’re in the process of moving hundreds of thousands of people who are fit to work off incapacity benefit and are imposing sensible limits on the amount of benefit people can take. But again, given the scale of the problem, can’t we go further? Say by asking much more of people on benefits who should be looking for work – or imposing even stricter penalties on those who refuse job offers?”

Something-for-nothing? Really? Personally I believe that people are entitled to a level of support from the state in order to live and that Cameron is playing games with words and assumptions when he appeals to the ‘Daily Mail’ reading crowd. He makes much reference to ‘benefit cheats’ as talks about ‘taking away benefits’ as if it is a reward that we had to well-behaved dogs and it is insulting in the extreme.

I those doubt that reforms are needed but the language in itself in invidious and pushes our thoughts to regard ‘benefits’ and ‘benefit claimants’ in a particularly unfavourable light.

And as an aside, as was pointed out to me, the photo in the Guardian article – well it has a picture of Charles and Camilla. Now THERE’S a family existing on benefits with absolutely no public gain and I think their social housing should be taken away for the genuine good of the nation. But that’s another question for another day..

Social Work Education and the Munro Report

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I won’t apologise for not having read the entire Munro review on Child Protection which was published yesterday (and can be read here)   by this morning – partly because there is so much coverage of the contents in the press –  which I know isn’t the same as reading the document in its entirety myself, but also because I don’t work directly in child protection services so my knowledge of the systems as they are currently and how they are proposed is not based on experience and knowledge so I don’t think I can necessarily add anything to the discussion which isn’t already ‘out there’.

The Guardian has a good general summary of the proposals  and there is, unsurprisingly, extensive coverage in Community Care through a number of articles.

In some ways, it has been confusing for me, as a social worker who does not work in childrens’ services to understand how the Munro report links in with the Taskforce which was, I thought, carrying out a more general assessment of social work and how the specific proposals regarding social work in the Munro report will feed back to the Social Work Reform Board.

I want to focus on one of the recommendations particularly though because it is an area that I think may have significant implications for the profession as a whole.

Recommendation 12 reads that:-

Employers and higher education institutions (HEIs)
should work together so that social work students are prepared for the challenges of child protection work.   In particular, the review considers that HEIs and employing agencies should work together so that:
•     practice placements are of the highest quality and – in time – only in designated Approved Practice Settings;
•     employers are able to apply for special ‘teaching organisation’ status, awarded by the College of Social Work;
•     the merits of ‘student units’, which are headed up by a senior social worker are considered; and
•     placements are of sufficiently high quality, and both employers and HEIs consider if their relationship is working well.

It is incredible to m e that there are not already more guidelines about what constitutes a ‘practice setting’ in social work training. Ready-to-practice Social Workers rarely emerge perfectly formed, on graduation. Yes, there is a need for more stringent guidelines in the universities regarding placements and the quality of students that pass the course but, and this is a big but, local authorities, and in fact, all employing services , really need to take responsibility for training the social work graduate to become a professional. I know there are some steps being taken in this way but it is not fair to demand statutory placements prepare a student for statutory practice and that employers discriminate in favour of those who have been fortunate enough to get the ‘right’ placements. Why don’t local authorities invest a few months to ‘create’ their own internal placements across all areas of social work, adults, children and mental health to ensure that social work graduates get broader experience rather than expecting graduates to perform immediately.

I know there is discussion about having an assessed year in practice before being registered as a ‘social worker’ but this will only happen if it is forced on the local authorities as in a climate of cuts they can’t afford to take on and train anyone who isn’t immediately capable but this weakens the profession as a whole.

I have never understood, not really, why it is the jobs in child protection social work that are taken by the newly qualified social workers. Surely it makes sense to have some kind of post-qualifying training similar to the AMHP role before taking on what is one of the more complex and risky areas of social work. I couldn’t arrange a compulsory admission to hospital for someone until I had substantial experience as a social worker and a further extensive qualification and a great deal of observed practice and had to pass an additional legal exam before I could do so. Why is it not the same in child protection work?

Cost, I suspect – but since I qualified 10 years ago, and probably for a long time previously, it was a known fact among my cohort that there would always be jobs for newly qualifieds in child protection – and then, often, comes the burnout and the move into management – not by people who have any particular management skill but the people with the ‘right’ faces or those who just want to apply in order to escape from frontline practice themselves. Being bitter or having had poor models, they perpetuate the toxic and oppressive management styles that are embedded in systems which are dependent on targets and so others come into the system with poor supervision and poorly modelled management roles and the profession deskills as no critical appraisal is required – just form filling ad infinitum.

Student units existed before my time but I’ve heard only positive things about them at Practice Assessor’s forums when other Practice Assessor’s hark back to the ‘old days’. The utter frustration of working in this profession is the cyclical learning or non-learning processes which seem to lead us back to where we started from over and over again.

The report also says

Degree courses are not consistent in content, quality and outcomes – for child protection, there are crucial things missing in some courses such as detailed learning on child development, how to communicate with children and young people, and using evidence-based methods of working with children and families. Theory and research are not always well integrated with practice and there is a failure to align what is taught with the realities of contemporary social work practice.

I’m in a lucky position in that students have come into teams I have been working in from just about every London university – because of this, and in discussion with them, I do pick up an idea of the differences between universities and yes, differences in content and quality (I can’t really judge outcomes) is massive in my own experience.

I am concerned about the focus on detailed learning related to child protection as I am sure it would probably push out learning which is already significantly limited in adult and mental health work.  I hope that universities reading this don’t forget that the training is generic. One of the differences I’ve noticed between universities is that some ask their students to specialise after one year (in the Masters) or two years (undergraduate). I’m not sure how helpful this in a generic degree where there is little enough time to cover everything anyway. I would hope that the year post-qualification when the newly qualified social worker has a position would be the time to specialise and train in a more focused way in a particular area.

I don’t think it’s fair to expect universities to pump out ‘ready to practice’ social workers. There is not time enough to do that. There needs to be more training and development in practice.

This all costs though, and there’s the rub with almost all of the proposals. Changes cost. Although of course, the cost of not changing could potentially be much higher.

So many people with and without voices have a stake in creating a good, strong and cohesive social work profession – I just worry that between a College of Social Work, the British Association of Social Workers which has decided to also call itself a College of Social Work, a Social Work Reform Board and a possible Chief Social Worker – we don’t end up with too much confusion at the top of the profession and lots of talk in the absence of any change.

I’ll try to be hopeful though because if I weren’t I’d despair.

Things can only get better.

Why I’m marching

The Guardian published an article on their website yesterday titled ‘Why we’re marching?’ and it gave the points of view of six people who were going to be attending the TUC organised rally on Saturday.

Uni brennt Demonstration Wienketu@Flickr

I am going to be attending. I have had a lot of time to consider whether to attend or not and what I think I might achieve by attending.

Firstly, I had to decide whether I attend as a member of my trade union (Unison) as a member of my professional association (BASW), as a member of my community (local group from the area I live are organising) or as  a member of a pressure group (SWAN).  I could also march as a part of a women’s ‘bloc’.

That, in itself is a question of identities and a practical lesson in some of the systems that we build around us and how we choose to identify ourselves. As it happens, I have chosen not to march under any particular banner but with a few friends together who would ally ourselves to different causes and who have different identities.

But back to the reasons and I’ll start with the negative reasons.

I don’t want to condone a government nor a society (because I do believe that the Labour Party have also been complicit in this) that ostracises and alienates people who depend on the support of the state to live dignified lives.  Talk of ‘alarm clock’ Britain is offensive to me. Talk of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ claimants moves our society back to a Victorian age. I am not marching for my own job – I am fairly confident that that’s safe in one form or another – but I’m marching for the people whom I come into contact through my work who I see genuinely suffering and who exist on some of the fringes of the mainstream and will not be marching for themselves.

I will be marching for the carers who have having respite cut and the service users who are terrified to send off claims for Attendance Allowance and Disability Living Allowance because they don’t want to be ‘seen as scroungers’.

As long as programmes such as ‘Saints and Scroungers’ are allowed to be made on our public service network, I’ll not stop fighting and shouting for a change to the attitudes towards social assistance in this country.

I see the effects of this every day and on many lives.

I’m marching to protest against a government and an opposition party that seek to make a wholesale reduction of 20% in claimants for Disability Living Allowance.

The PR machines of politicians have been working overtime to blur the lines between in-work benefits for disabled adults and out of work benefits. There is no subtlety in the government’s agenda and rhetoric and it needs to be challenged

I am marching against a system (and this is the last government as well) that has destroyed the quality of adult social care over the last decade so we remain absolutely dependent on  private companies – their profits and their shareholders – for delivering care or lack of it to the most vulnerable people in our society. I am absolutely not excusing Labour for their role in this – ultimately, that’s why I am marching under my own banner rather than any set up by an organisation of which I am a member.

I also feel that I need to make my presence felt in the face of a government carrying out it’s politically motivated cuts which shriek of the worst Thatcherite policies.

I march as someone who did actually vote for the Liberal Democrats at the last election and many previous elections to ensure that my voice is not lost and my vote was not wasted when I make my opposition  to this government felt.

I also march to express my anger at the government’s proposals to dismantle our National Health Service – helped by Labour’s policies over the past decade, it has to be said – but we need to make sure that the government remember that they have absolutely no mandate to do this.

Those reasons though, are mostly negative so here are the positive reasons that I am marching.

I am marching to show solidarity. To show that one doesn’t have to  march because we are personally feeling the effects of the cuts, to be honest, I am not to a large extent – but because I need to make my voice heard on behalf of those who cannot and THAT is what big society and society as a whole is about.

I am marching to push for a re-examination of some of the cruellest policies and the lack of consideration of where the bulk of the cuts will fall – namely on those who are the least able to resist them.

These government programmes for cuts have been poorly thought through ‘trigger’ responses to a government that has no experience of governing and lives off entitlements themselves.

Is it any more ‘reprehensible’ to be wholly reliant on ‘daddy’s trust fund’? How many government ministers know the true meaning of poverty and how hard it is to work through it? I doubt there can be many.

We do not live in a meritocratic system and we need to prove that when voices are not heard through the ballot box we have other means to make our points.

Our ‘leaders’ say we are ‘all in this together’ but we are  not and they cannot be allowed to get away with such lies. They are not ‘in this’ with us.

I am marching because I want to be a part of proving what we can really do when we are ‘all in this together’.

I am happy to pay higher taxes for services that I personally will never use or need. That is society. That is the society I want. That is the society I want to march with.

These cuts are ideologically driven. They are not ‘the only way’. That is why I am marching.

Fund Our Future : Stop the Cuts - National DemonstrationMatt Dinnery@Flickr

Anyone else going to be there? I can’t promise to meet up because it probably won’t be the most conducive environment to meet and have a chat but I’d be interested in the reasons of others.

Election Update

I haven’t been too well over the past week so haven’t been able to update on election news with the vigour that I might have liked. On the positives (well, kind of) I’m hoping the now fairly imminent surgery is going to, at least in the longer term, deal with some of the pain issues that have risen up but on the negatives the thought of going into hospital and the immediate pain in the aftermath is freaking me out a bit.

I’ve never had to deal with chronic pain before and I’m understanding how it affects every aspect of ones life. Hopefully, an end is in sight though.

Enough of the lingering self-pity though and back to election news.

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The Guardian has a good summary of where the main parties stand on social policy issues.

From the Labour Party, apart from the ‘National Care Service’, we have a promise to ‘improve foster care’ including rolling out more specialised foster care services and introducing the ‘National College of Social Work’.

The Conservatives are sticking with their rather flaky £8000 insurance against long term care costs and an increased tax allowance for those who are married (or in civil partnerships).

Interestingly

The Tories are expected to repeal the law that set up children’s trusts which placed a “duty to co-operate” on police, schools and social services. They say the trusts didn’t prevent the death of Baby Peter and lead to a ” a buck-passing culture where, because everyone’s in a meeting, no one is responsible”.

I don’t know how these trusts work in practice as I work exclusively in adult services but I think the explanation that they didn’t prevent the death of Baby Peter is facile and disingenuous at the very least.  Those who should have been caring for Peter caused his death and although there was bad practice involved, it doesn’t mean the responsibility should be placed on anyone other than those who killed him.

Much has been made of the local democracy and ‘big society’ idea. I am sure it will work very well in some areas in the suburbs where there is more active engagement. My worry, and I say this living in an inner city constituency with a very high rate of poverty, is that the issues may be hijacked by those with the loudest voices or the narrowest interests who can dictate to those for whom voting and engagement in local issues is not as important as where the next meal is coming from.  Again, I live in a very diverse area but I can definitely see majority interests pushing out some of the smaller but significant minorities in the area where I live.

The Liberal Democrats confusingly promise one weeks respite care for carers. I had thought that was something a lot less generous than what current practice suggests that we do. They do though, prioritise dementia research.

I liked the idea of capping the pay of NHS managers to that of the Prime Minister. I don’t know if that was supposed to be funny but it definitely raised a smile to me. Now, they need to work on capping the City workers pay to that of the Queen… ..  .

Mental Nurse has a more specific run down on issues presented in manifestos as they refer to mental health care in particular in a series of three posts:

This Election in Mentalists (1)  Labour and Tories

This Election in Mentalists (2) Lib Dems and UKIP

This Election in Mentalists (3) Greens, Plaid Cymru, SNP

It makes for an interesting read and they have to get additional brownie points for reading the UKIP manifesto.

Finally, just an unrelated matter but I know something Julie at Campaigning for Health is involved with is the campaign against a local council proposal to build a new school on a disused landfill site. It seems a pretty appalling business so good luck to her with that campaign and if you want to read  more about it, you can find it here – Safe Sites for St Ambrose and Drumpark Schools. She is asking people to link the site which of course, I’m more than happy to do.

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A day in the life.. of Approved Mental Health Professionals

Today,  Deborah Orr in the Guardian has an article published today detailing a day out that she has spent with some AMHPs in the Camden Duty Office. It’s an interesting insight into the day to day work in their office and certainly worth a glance to understand some of the processes that we work with as Approved Mental Health Professionals.  And the Importance of Pink Forms..

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Report Reporting

So the Task Force report yesterday was pretty much as predicted. Personally, I think a lot of the contents are very welcome with the main concern being the lack of money to implement them – but I’m willing to engage positively with the process of change in the hope that some of the issues that we have been complaining about in social care will change – it’s that old chestnut – the triumph of hope over expectation but leave me in my ‘happy place’ however briefly!

I thought it was interesting to consider how some of the press reported on the publication of the Task Force report which in it’s full glory can be found here. I was about to print it out at work to read later when I realised it was 71   pages and thought that was a bit much –  more trees saved.

The Independent focuses on the tagline of ‘better pay’ for social workers but no money to fund it – which is the crux of the problem really.  Similarly, the Times also looks at the ‘elephant in the room’ – namely funding for the additional money that might be spent to implement the recommended changes.  The comments though are a little disheartening. There seems to be a perception that anyone with a bit of ‘common sense’ and ‘life experience’ can be an effective social worker. I think there is so little understanding of the importance of training that it is almost frightening.

The Daily Mail meanwhile go for a whiny

‘Social Workers to be given pay RISES in the wake of the Baby P scandal’ which is a disgustingly ignorant headline. Their capitals by the way. It is a plain misrepresentation which panders to their insufferable readers. The comments are enough to make my stomach churn. I would love that reporter to come to my office to see the work we do on a day to day basis.

The Sun’s agony aunt, Deirdre Sanders who actually sat on the Taskforce tells her readers

How we can stop another Baby P’

She seems to put things in patronisingly simplistic terms but it gets the general message across although I think that relating all the changes to a single child’s tragic death is not entirely a fair explanation of the scope of the work done. There is a generalised thought lingering in my mind that there should be a wider understanding of what we do as social workers in adult and mental health services rather than the focus solely on child protection issues as the Task Force was to concentrate on social work as a profession rather than one aspect of it.

Meanwhile on the safer arms of the pages of the Guardian, there are a number of articles addressing different parts of the report.  From the details of the report to opinions by Peter Beresford who discusses the long term commitment needed across the political board for the reform process to Ray Jones who writes in praise of the taskforce – although not without a well-aimed kick towards Ed Balls (and quite rightly in my opinion) who

followed through on the tabloid-generated victimisation of social work and social workers by himself vilifying those who gave their professional lives to protecting children. Not surprisingly there were then major problems in recruiting and retaining social workers, and the workloads for those who stayed increased. Who wants a job where, when a tragedy occurs and the going gets really tough, you and your family are hounded by the paparazzi and hung out to dry by politicians?

I was applauding in my chair as I read that!

Community Care, a magazine aimed specifically at those in the social care sector in the UK, unsurprisingly has a lot more in-depth coverage – from their own discussion of the main components to reactions from ADASS (Association of Directors of Adult Social Services) and ADCS (Association of Directors of Childrens Services) which understanding question where the money is going to come from to their own views (via the Group Editor, Bronagh Miskelly’s blog).

Personally, I think the issues around training and recruitment are far more important than the pay issue but I accept it’s because I’m not unhappy with my salary – although more is always good..

One of my favourite (and I mean that in an ironic way) quotes comes from the Independent piece where Tim Loughton, the Conservative shadow children’s minister says

“The task force makes some sensible suggestions for improving social work and child protection, many of which we proposed some time ago.

“Ultimately the success of these proposals must be judged on whether they improve conditions on the front line. This Government has strangled social work with 12 years of bureaucracy – it is important that it now acts to improve the situation.”

Sorry, but a Conservative shadow minister saying the government has strangled social work with bureaucracy? Shows very little understanding of the last Conservative administration… and the one before that, and the one before that.

I am no fan of the government and couldn’t despite Balls any more than I do at the moment but the Conservatives are hardly speaking from a position of authority after seeing what they did with and to the profession.

But in general, I am left with a warm buzz of excitement that changes might be implemented to benefit the profession and most importantly those who use the services provided by social workers in the future.