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The care system and social work itself face serious challenges

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Are all bets off for social work and social care now?

It certainly feels as if the consensus of the past decade about how we organise the care system, and the social work profession itself, is under serious challenge. In some ways it parallels the questioning of the BBC. It is not head-on but rather subtle testing of its assumed models and approach.

I had certainly believed that, after a very sticky start, the College of Social Work was here to stay. It was a fundamental building block for the profession, as recommended by the reform board in the wake of Lord Laming’s two inquiries. Would any government so readily allow a medical college to fold?

Its demise reflects split leadership of children’s and adult services, across two government departments, two directors associations and, perhaps crucially, two chief social workers. Sir Martin Narey reopened reverberating tensions about the generic model of social work training in his recent speech at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference.

Jeremy Hunt’s speech to the Local Government Association conference also suggested a subtle shift of emphasis in relation to what the public should expect of health and care. His focus on healthy behaviours and personal responsibility was accompanied by a proposal to refresh the strategy for supporting carers. We can expect a stronger focus on the economic case for supporting carers, so they can continue to work but also help reduce demand for services.

There were no concessions in the recent Budget for the longstanding funding problems of social care. The chancellor acknowledged the case for investment in the NHS, but has reinforced the level of cuts expected from local government for the foreseeable future. Plans for devolution of responsibility bring with them flexibility but also expectations of significant efficiencies.

The headline-grabbing announcement of the national living wage heaps further pressure on councils, with a bill they estimate at £1bn by 2020. The social care double bind continues. We need decent terms and conditions for staff doing difficult jobs in the sector, but will not have the resources needed to properly commission them.

It is not surprising, in this context, that the LGA has called for the postponement of the second phase of the Care Act reforms. This implements the main thrust of the Dilnot review to cap the costs of care.

The argument, made strongly at the time, is that we cannot help out better-off people at a time when basic services are stretched to breaking point.

What then of the new statutory duty on councils in England and Wales to promote wellbeing? Ironically many are turning back to the skills of community social work to build individual and community resilience. Maybe social work, like the BBC, has its place after all.

Andrew Cozens is an independent social care and health specialist



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