The case against including social workers in the Assaults on Emergency Workers Act

An open letter has been sent to BASW and the Social Workers’ Union setting out the case against including social workers in the list of public sector workers for whom it would be an additional offence to assault and harass. The letter, in full, is shared below.

29/04/21

The case against including social workers in the Assaults on Emergency Workers Act

Dear Ruth and John

We call on you, as CEO of BASW and General Secretary of the Social Workers’ Union (SWU) respectively, to withdraw the petition calling for social workers to be added to the list of ‘emergency workers’ under the Assaults on Emergency Workers Act 2018 using the current Police Sentencing and Crime Bill, and to reconsider BASW’s and the SWU’s approach to addressing the serious problem of assaults on social workers and other professionals, workers and carers similarly at risk but who would not come under the scope of the protections proposed.

In doing so, we would like to make it clear from the outset that we agree that social workers (and other professionals, workers and anyone else potentially placing themselves at risk in the service of others) deserve to protected from abuse when carrying out their work. We do not believe that the proposal to have social workers included under the Assaults on Social Workers Act via the Police Crime and Sentencing Bill is the most ethical or effective way to achieve that.

The IFSW Global Definition of Social Work states:
“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels.”

The commentary notes on the IFSW Global Definition of Social Work state:
“The overarching principles of social work are respect for the inherent worth and dignity of human beings, doing no harm, respect for diversity and upholding human rights and social justice…

‪”Advocating and upholding human rights and social justice is the motivation and justification for social work. The social work profession recognizes that human rights need to coexist alongside collective responsibility. The idea of collective responsibility highlights the reality that individual human rights can only be realized on a day-to-day basis if people take responsibility for each other and the environment, and the importance of creating reciprocal relationships within communities. Therefore a major focus of social work is to advocate for the rights of people at all levels…”

The above is echoed and amplified in our jurisdictions by the BASW Code of Ethics, which also states:
“Social workers, individually, collectively and with others have a duty to challenge social conditions that contribute to social exclusion, stigmatisation or subjugation, and work towards an inclusive society.

“ Social workers should only take actions which diminish peoples’ civil or legal rights if it is ethically, professionally and legally justifiable.

“Social workers should promote and contribute to the development of positive policies, procedures and practices which are anti-oppressive and empowering.

“Social workers should be prepared to challenge discriminatory, ineffective and unjust policies, procedures and practice. They should challenge the abuse of power and the exclusion of people from decisions that affect them. Social workers should not collude with the erosion of human rights or allow their skills to be used for inhumane purposes such as systematic abuse, detention of child asylum seekers and threats to family life of those in vulnerable positions.”

The Social Work England Professional Standards state:
“1.5 Recognise differences across diverse communities and challenge the impact of disadvantage and discrimination on people and their families and communities.

“1.6 Promote social justice, helping to confront and resolve issues of inequality and inclusion.

“1.7 Recognise and use responsibly, the power and authority I have when working with people, ensuring that my interventions are always necessary, the least intrusive, proportionate, and in people’s best interests.

“6.2 Reflect on my working environment and where necessary challenge practices, systems and processes to uphold Social Work England’s professional standards.”

Therefore, we do not see how advocating for the application of harsher judicial penalties on behalf of social workers subject to assaultive behaviour is compatible with the above definition and principles, and aspects of our national Code of Ethics and Professional Standards.

There is no evidence to suggest the Assaults on Emergency Workers Act 2018 is effective in protecting emergency workers from assaults. In fact, attacks on emergency workers are on the increase. This raises the question of whether enhanced punishment is an effective counter to this problem.

Social workers’ inclusion in the Act would mean disparity with our unqualified colleagues who face similar if not identical — and in some cases more frequent — risks. This does not seem just, and risks putting (further) distance between social workers and those with whom we work in partnership to seek positive outcomes for the people we support. This could be corrosive to relationships in the context of interdependent networks of support.

It also risks putting further distance between social workers and the people we hope and aim to support. A citizen assaulting a social worker would be subject to a greater penalty than a social worker assaulting a citizen. It is therefore necessary, in our view, to consider very carefully whether the asymmetry in crimes perpetrated against and by social workers arising from this proposal would contribute to a more just and equal society, and whether it would actually improve things for social workers. This essay on the asymmetry between crimes committed by and against police officers in the US which are necessarily contextualised in unequal race and other social relations is illuminating and helpful in this debate. This asymmetry has served neither society nor police officers well in that context.

It is proposed these measures are brought in under the Police Sentencing and Crime Bill, the impact assessment for which contains a number of points which should give social workers pause to reflect. For example:

“Offenders who receive a more punitive disposal where they would have received a fine previously could face a greater chance of unemployment, loss of housing, negative effects on relationships or mental health. These effects could pose a cost to other areas of government by increasing demand for public goods and services such as unemployment benefits or social housing.”

Therefore, the current campaign by BASW and SWU to include social workers and increase sentencing under the Act could well lead to direct adverse impact on individuals, groups and communities, and on wider society. This surely runs counter to social work’s values, missions and principles.

Further, it could well lead to increased social problems which social workers, already immensely challenged prior to and now even more so under the pandemic, will have to deal with, compounding existing concerns about working conditions. In short, we believe there is a clear risk that this may be a counterproductive exercise that could well harm social workers’ wellbeing rather than protect it.

The impact assessment also states:
“By increasing the maximum penalty for this offence, the justice system may be portrayed as reaffirming the social value of emergency workers by aiming to protect them. This may be a beneficial alignment of government policy with the public’s social values and help to ensure the maximum penalty reflects the seriousness of the offence. It could also help victims and their families in getting a sense of justice.”

“There may also be short-term reductions in assaults on emergency workers due to the increased incarceration of offenders. However, the evidence of the existence and scale of any deterrent effects or incarceration effects is weak and mixed.”

We believe the above points raise important questions about the point of this campaign, what it is intended to achieve and at what cost.

Concerningly, the impact assessment states that in order to accommodate increasingly severe sentences:
“[n]ew prison capacity can be provided in numerous ways, so construction costs are based on the cost per place of a combination of provisions including new builds and refurbishments and is based on the nominal costs of each project, using a modelled profile of build.”

This raises the spectre of a carceral state which serves an increasingly privatised prison sector which is something social work, in our view, should not support. Again, we may benefit from looking at the example of the USA to see how the creation of a prison industrial complex is playing out there. In short, very badly indeed, especially if you are poor and/or a person of colour.

Therefore, we believe it is vital that social workers consider very carefully which groups are more likely to be adversely impacted these proposals. We strongly suggest that on existing evidence, due to the over-representation of certain groups among those subject to involuntary state interventions, it is more likely that people of lower socioeconomic status and lower social class, people with mental health issues and substance misuse issues, and people from minority ethnic backgrounds who will suffer the consequences of harsher sentences under these proposals.

We believe that a key role for BASW and SWU is to promote among social workers an informed debate about the nuanced ethical considerations arising from this proposal and the issues which have prompted it.

For example, in our view, the vehicle for these proposals is highly problematic and deeply concerning. Aspects of the Police Sentencing and Crime Bill constitute a clear assault on human rights, including the right to peaceful protest, the protection of which is enshrined in our Global Definition and our Code of Ethics and is also part of social work’s proud history of activism and collective action.

Therefore, we believe BASW and SWU should stand up for human rights by opposing the Bill while seeking alternative ways to increase public trust and confidence in social work, which are the best protections for social workers and for those we hope and aim to support.

Further, we believe there are ways to mitigate the risk of assault on social workers that are more in keeping with our values, principles, Code of Ethics and Professional Standards, and that the onus is on employers to ensure that workers are protected through measures such as joint visits (with other social workers and/or representatives from other agencies) and effective lone working policies and processes.

Due to high levels of pressure on the systems in which social workers practise, these things are too often either not in place or, when they are, not always properly implemented. Citizens should not be punished due to statutory services not having appropriate safeguards in place to protect their employees.

We strongly suggest that BASW and SWU work with employers, government and the media to find ways a way of ensuring that the general public and politicians understand that social workers and others who provide support and services to people in vulnerable situations face risks, including assault, as a result.

Existing laws allow for the prosecution of those assaulting social workers and we do not see how increasing sentences helps either the victim or the perpetrator. There is a duty of care owed to both by the state and its actors. Social work could learn much from restorative justice approaches in respect of our practice with people who have caused harm. This would in our view form the basis of an approach to dealing with assaults against social workers that is much more in keeping with our values, missions and principles.

Finally, it should be noted that social workers’ increasing concerns about being assaulted in the course of their work corresponds with the increasing emphasis on managerialism and proceduralism in social work practice and the accompanying move away from preventative, supportive, relationship- and community-based practice toward social work practice increasingly in thrall of the ‘risk monster’. We should consider very carefully the impact of our increasing framing of the individuals, groups and communities we support as sources of risk, especially as it is undoubtedly the case that it is those individuals, groups and communities who are far more likely to experience violence from multiple sources, including the state.

We do not believe social workers should further compound these risks by supporting the proposal to increase the penalties for citizens who assault social workers. We do support the application of the law as it stands in prosecuting assaults on social workers and others providing support and services to people in vulnerable situations. We are of the view that, in seeking such redress, social workers should advocating for restorative, not punitive, justice approaches, in line with our professional values and principles, our Code of Ethics and our Professional Standards.

If you would like to get in touch with the author, or add your name to the signatories, you can do so via Twitter (@SWconcern), or by emailing swconcern@outlook.com

Read the Open Letter on Christian Kerr’s blog: https://socialwhatnow.medium.com/an-open-letter-to-basw-and-the-social-workers-union-on-the-proposal-to-include-social-workers-in-8d7f631e941d

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