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How social work has changed since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952

In the second instalment of a special two-part feature, Social Work Today journalist Carol Harris looks at how the social work landscape in the UK has changed over the decades since Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.


How social work has changed since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952

Radical changes to social services that began as Elizabeth II came to the throne continued in the 1960s.

Sir Frederick Seebohm chaired a government committee which looked at the future of social services. The Seebohm report, published in 1968, recommended that a new dedicated department in each local authority should provide social services and care for all people of all ages.

Although Seebohm’s remit was only for England and Wales, similar changes were happening in Scotland. There were some differences however – in Scotland, probation services were also integrated into the new social work departments, but this did not happen in England and Wales, where they remained part of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), and accountable to the Home Office.

The Seebohm recommendations led to the Local Authority Social Services Act in 1970. The new departments were each led by a director of social services and were well-resourced with budgets which, it was assumed, would increase significantly each year.

The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (CSDPA) was passed on the same day as the LA Social Services Act. This was a Private Member’s Bill promoted by disability campaigner Alf Morris and was the first in the world to give rights to disabled people. CSDPA was the culmination of campaigns by disabled people and signalled a change in social work, taking greater account of service users’ own views and wishes.

1970 was also the year the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) was founded bringing together seven out of eight organisations representing various branches of social work who had previously been members of the Standing Conference of Organisations of Social Workers. Members of the new organisation included child care officers, family case workers, medical social workers and those involved in mental health. The National Association of Probation Officers opted out of the new group.

One of BASW’s first initiatives was to promote accreditation for social work, with a campaign which culminated in the General Social Care Council, the first regulatory body for social work, which was created in 2000. Since 2005, anyone who uses the title of social worker must be registered.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government – elected in 1979 – changed the direction of social services.

From 1982, local authorities became purchasers and regulators of care.

In 1988 the Griffiths Report said that social workers should now focus on care management. Services were to be provided by private, charity, and not for profit organisations, in order to make them more cost effective.

Spending was cut while, especially in adult services, demand for services increased as the population aged.

Now social workers had to focus on prioritising, allocating resources to those at greatest risk.

The government promoted a shift from institutional care to community care, for elderly people, in mental health services, for people with learning disabilities and people with physical disabilities. The changes began with the closure of institutions in the 1980s and were promoted in The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990. This created a ‘market’ by which local authorities purchased services from independent agencies rather than provide them themselves.

Children’s Services

Public attitudes towards social workers changed dramatically during the 1970s, after the inquiry into the death of eight-year-old Maria Colwell, who was known to social services when she was killed by her stepfather in 1973.

The inquiry was covered extensively in the media and the key social worker was attacked in the press and by the public when she attended the inquiry. Maria Colwell’s death marked a shift in attitudes, with the public and press becoming much more negative about the profession. BASW commented that social workers should not be made scapegoats for child protection failings.

The subsequent report identified three main reasons for Maria’s death:
- the lack of communication between agencies who knew she was vulnerable
- inadequate specialist training for social workers in child protection; and
- changes in society. The report said that ‘it is not enough for the State as representing society to assume responsibility for those such as Maria.’

Since the Colwell report, these same reasons have featured in more than 40 investigations into child deaths involving abuse and neglect, despite regular statements that ‘it must never happen again.’ Over subsequent decades, the focus for social work has shifted between supporting children and their families to help them stay together, and putting children up for adoption.

New legislation has followed, but the most significant was the Children Act of 1989, which is the basis of child protection today. It outlined key principles, including
- the concept of parental responsibility
- in court proceedings, the child’s welfare is paramount, and
- that children are best looked after by their family unless intervention in family life is essential.

Also, the Act said, local authorities must promote and safeguard the welfare of children in need in their area by providing appropriate services. It sets out what a local authority must do for children it identifies as being at risk.

The election of the Labour government in 1997 marked yet another change in direction for social work. The policy, headed ‘Every Child Matters’ and published in 2003, put child welfare at the centre of social work policy and practice and was informed the Children Act 2004.

This Act followed the enquiry by Lord Laming into the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié. It reinforced the responsibility on all those working with children to keep them safe and promote their welfare.

Training was highlighted, and it became mandatory for employers to give training to all staff working with children.

New local boards were established, bringing together people from the local council, schools, social services, NHS, Police, Probation Service, Emergency Services and others involved with children. Across the UK, these boards were made responsible for child-centred services and practice, and for the safety of children in their area.

New posts of director of children’s services were created, and in England, a new Children’s Commissioner championed the rights of children at national level. The new act also allowed the government to create electronic records for every child in England, Scotland and Wales to keep track of children moving across local authority boundaries and between government services.

The act also allowed the government to create electronic records for every child in England, Scotland and Wales making it easier to trace children across local authorities and government services.

This period also saw important initiatives in the Children and Young People’s Plan, the Common Assessment Framework, National Services Framework and in 2007, the Children’s Plan in 2007.

Following the economic crash of 2008, all the main political parties in the UK advocated – to varying degrees – policies based on Austerity, arguing that public services would have to be cut in order to reduce government spending. Since the 2010 general election, UK governments have cut local authority funding by 60 per cent.

The cuts have had a major impact on social care. In 2017, BASW issued a statement on the policy of Austerity and its effects on social work, criticising its effects on services for adults and children.

In adult services, cuts in services meant reduced income and independence for disabled people. Demand rose but older people received less and less support in their homes and a national scandal developed around the numbers of elderly people who could not be discharged from hospital because of lack of support at home.

Reductions in mental health services, especially those in the community, meant demand for support across all age groups could not be met.

Early and preventive help for families in crisis was withdrawn. Across the UK, child poverty – a key issue in neglect and abuse regularly singled out in research – has increased. Between 1998 and 2012, child poverty dropped by 800,000 to 3.5 million. After the Welfare Reform Act of 2012, the numbers of children living in ‘relative poverty’ (in households receiving 50% less than average household incomes), increased so that by 2019, an additional 600,000 children were living in poverty.

In recent weeks, the publication of the Independent Review of Children’s Services has proposed sweeping changes to children’s social care. In terms familiar from previous reviews, reports, legislation and commentaries, it argues for, ‘a system that provides intensive help to families in crisis, acts decisively in response to abuse, unlocks the potential of wider family networks to raise children, puts lifelong loving relationships at the heart of the care system and lays the foundations for a good life for those who have been in care. What we have currently is a system increasingly skewed to crisis intervention, with outcomes for children that continue to be unacceptably poor and costs that continue to rise.’

At the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, health and social care reforms aimed to provide services for all ‘from the cradle to the grave’. As the nation celebrates the Queen’s platinum jubilee, surveys show growing public concern about the effects on families and on society of cuts in social care for adults and children.

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