I write to you as chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) regarding the Supreme Court's judgment in the case of Elaine McDonald, and the wider cuts to social care.
The Supreme Court's judgment is confirmation of a council's right to cut people’s care without an explicit reassessment of need.The solicitor representing Elaine McDonald said: “It raises the possibility that a social worker may just have chat about the care package and suddenly the service user finds their care package has been reduced.” This carte blanche to local authorities to reassess people’s need and reduce people’s care packages with little warning comes at a time when the Coalition Government in seeking to uproot the values enshrined in the welfare state and in social care with cuts to funding and to benefits.
It is a certainty that local authorities will react to these cuts by cutting care packages, especially given that this has become far simpler in light of the McDonald judgement. Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) president Peter Hay has warned that cuts to adult social care in England are set to get worse in 2012-13 following big reductions in funding this year and that "uncertainty about the future will have inevitable and unfortunate consequences." This quote is more worrying than the McDonald judgment as it appears that Adass is resigned to these "unfortunate consequences". Whilst the Association of Directors of Social Services in Wales has been silent in the wake of the McDonald ruling , one can reasonably assume that social services in Wales will also feel less inhibited in reducing care packages and providing adequate services that goes beyond the residual aim of maintaining the safety of service users.
As an organization representing social workers, I am sure that BASW will be concerned that the judgment and the cuts may further erode the trust of disabled people in their social workers, and further damage the social work profession. Social work as a profession has experienced a great deal of unfair criticism in recent times, with social workers struggling to cope with reduced resources, unreasonable and conflicting demands, and a hostile press. The precedent set by the McDonald judgment could worsen the hostility towards the profession.
It is financial officers and Directors of Social Services (not necessarily registered social workers) in local government who will take note of this judgment as a means for reducing budgetary pressure, but it is social workers who will be blamed by care service users. Given that any meeting with a social worker is now potentially an assessment of need for a care service user, my own advice to fellow care service users would be to inform the visiting social worker that the meeting is being recorded, to ensure the presence of an advocate, and to minimize communication that is not solicited by the social worker. This course of action is far from ideal, as a positive relationship between a social worker and their client can be the key to securing the best outcome for the client.
BASW should step forward to issue guidance to its members, in order to preserve the trust of disabled service users in the social work profession. This guidance should be based upon the BASW Code of Ethics. BASW has adopted the International Federation of Social Workers' (IFSW) definition:
The social work profession promotes social change, problem
solving in human relationships and the empowerment and
liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories
of human behaviour and social systems, social work
intervenes at the points where people interact with their
environments. Principles of human rights and social justice
are fundamental to social work (2001).
This means that social workers should attempt to relieve and prevent hardship and suffering. They have a responsibility to help individuals, families, groups and communities through the provision and operation of appropriate services and by contributing to social planning. They work with, on behalf of, or in the interests of people to enable them to deal with personal and social difficulties and obtain essential resources and services. Further, the Code of ethics states that social workers have a duty to:
• Safeguard and promote service users' dignity, individuality, rights, responsibilities and identity;
• Foster individual well-being and autonomy, subject to due respect for the rights of others;
• Respect service users' rights to make informed decisions, and ensure that service users and carers participate in decision-making processes;
• Bring to the attention of those in power and the general public, and where appropriate challenge ways in which the policies or activities of government, organisations or society create or contribute to structural disadvantage, hardship and suffering, or militate against their relief;
• Promote social fairness and the equitable distribution of resources within their work, aiming to minimise barriers and expand choice and potential for all service users, especially those who are disadvantaged, vulnerable or oppressed, or who have exceptional needs;
• Seek to change social structures which perpetuate inequalities and injustices, and whenever possible work to eliminate all violations of human rights;
• Promote policies, practices and social conditions which uphold human rights, and which seek to ensure access, equity and participation for all;
• Challenge the abuse of power for suppression and for excluding people from decisions which affect them;
• Account for the ethics of their practice in accordance with their national and international codes of ethics;
• Place service to humanity in their work before personal aims, views and advantage, fulfilling their duty of care and observing principles of natural fairness;
• Use their power and authority in ways which serve humanity, using participatory and open processes to enable service users to realise their aims as far as possible, taking account of the relevant interests of others;
• Give service users the information they need to make choices and about their right to complain and ensure that they have any support they may require in making complaints;
• To place service users' needs and interests before their own beliefs, aims, views and advantage, and not to use professional relationships to gain personal, material or financial advantage;
• To be clear when making public statements whether they are speaking as private individuals or as representatives of the social work profession or of an organisation or group;
The above duties are irreconcilable with the Supreme Court's judgment in the case of Elaine McDonald and with the attitude of Adass to the financial situation. Acting in the way that has been sanctioned as legal for local authorities by the Supreme Court runs counter to ethical practice as set out in the Codes of Practice for registered Social Workers in the countries of the United Kingdom and the BASW/IFSW Codes of Ethics. Questions should be raised regarding ethical social work practice in the case of assessing Elaine McDonald's needs without making this explicit.
BASW should remind its members that they should uphold the value of integrity in social work, by refusing to act unethically; by recognizing that budgetary pressures cannot shape their assessment of service user needs; by fulfilling their duty of care towards a client; by promoting service users' dignity, individuality, rights, responsibilities and identity; by being explicit and honest with service users about if and when their needs are being assessed, regardless of pressure from employers. By doing this, the trust between disabled service users and their social workers can be maintained.
The trust of disabled people in the social work profession as a whole can be improved greatly by including in the guidance an unequivocal statement reiterating the commitment of social workers to the values of social justice and service to humanity. Rather than forecasting "unfortunate consequences" as Adass have done, social workers should be reminded that they are ethically bound to fight the changes and avoid "unfortunate consequences".
The goal of the social work is to contribute to the creation of a fairer society. The pursuit of social justice involves identifying, seeking to alleviate ,and advocating strategies for overcoming structural disadvantage . These values cannot be upheld if the social work profession is the passive tool of unfairness.
Unfairness, unethical practice, and activities that create or contribute to structural disadvantage, hardship and suffering, or militate against their relief should be actively resisted by social workers. Unethical practice can be refused or circumvented; unfairness should be brought to the attention of those in power and the general public.
I am confident that you will give due consideration to this letter as it serves the best interests of both the social work profession and disabled people. I look forward to your reply.
Rhydian Fôn James