Comment: Riots and PM speech a wake-up call for social work

Social work must share the blame for the breakdown in individual responsibility within society.

By Dr Jonathan Parker

Whilst the use of inflammatory and sensational language such as 'broken society' or a 'moral collapse' may well be counterproductive, there was much of merit in the prime minister's speech yesterday concerning the riots. His emphasis on morality and questions of 'right and wrong' will resonate with many for whom the extreme logic of relativism has led to a frightening and confusing quicksand where moral certainties used to stand.

However, the prime minister's rhetoric may be an empty vessel unless based on robust research into the causes of and solutions to the social problems to which he refers, and not simply observations of social change.

Indeed, Mr Cameron's references to families without fathers and gang culture are potentially dangerous if not qualified. They may attract an opprobrium where that would better lie elsewhere. There are perhaps three inter-related levels that require a response: individual, institutional and societal.

At one end of the spectrum we all need to own and acknowledge the implications and consequences of our own actions and values. Individual responsibility is crucial. At the other end of the spectrum, government policies need to focus on public and social well-being, as well as responsibility, and to forge a strong social contract in which individual well-being is supported, but the individuals also have clear roles to fulfil.

The rise of neoliberal, dehumanised market-driven approaches have encouraged a version of government that has removed personal well-being from the economic. Social policies have drifted towards an overarching book balancing exercise rather than a Butskellian approach that saw individuals as making an important contribution in themselves to the life of society.

In the middle is the third level of action that is dependent on social policy and legislation and individual 'buy-in'. It is the area of social welfare. We have a system in which a person's expectations have reached a point at which there is no need for reciprocal action themselves. There is an important social welfare cushion that rightly protects vulnerable people.

However, it allows some to play that system, to refuse to engage with training, work or socially responsible activity and to believe they have a right, not simply for protection, but for continued support regardless of lifestyle, behaviour and willingness to contribute to society.

Social work has developed, importantly, its commitment to people made vulnerable, marginalised and disenfranchised by social, political and economic circumstances. However, it has constructed an edifice of anti-oppressive practice that is sometimes decorated with the inanities of political correctness that hampers its position to mediate and negotiate a pathway that re-engages individuals with their society.

Over the last two decades, social work has contributed to the general diminution of individual responsibility by a misplaced refusal to judge behaviours and actions, or to remove services from people, in common language 'to punish', those who traverse, often at great cost to others, the rules of engagement with that society.

Some of the ways social work has exercised its (legitimate) authority to protect vulnerable people, and especially children, has led to a perception that families, even where there is no abuse or cause for concern, are no longer private domains and to exert discipline and control is deemed wrong. This creates a moral vacuum that has potentially problematic results.

What the riots indicate for social work is that all personal behaviour and actions cannot be equally valued if a society is to function and serve its members appropriately. Perhaps, at the societal level, social workers have, for too long, been content to stand outside of the policies and workings of society when it suits; often when individuals are being held accountable for their actions.

However, social workers are still employed, in the main, by local government, and need to work overtly for the communities they are employed to serve. A voice to stand up for democratic freedoms and to uphold rights when these are being abused is crucial, but so too is a need to work within the society of which social workers are part in this country if we are to build together, rather than tear down, supportive state welfare that benefits social, political and economic well-being for all.

The vulnerable and disadvantaged are not always in the right and the ordinary citizen is not always 'oppressive' or in the wrong. The prime minister's response to the riots, when the decoration is trimmed away, plays out the longer history of social work and welfare.

It is high time the profession reclaimed its history stemming from philanthropy, social reform and demanding the two-way contract between individuals and their society.

Dr Jonathan Parker is professor of Social Work at Bournemouth University. He has wide experience in social work research and practice, and is series editor of the highly successful Learning Matters/Sage series Transforming Social Work Practice.

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