Choked off: The College, BAAF, Kids Company – what does it all mean?
How to create social work organisations with an independent, critical edge and ensure their survival? This is the question now facing many of us as we contemplate the rather devastated landscape of social care that has unfolded over the last few weeks.
Social work is entering a new and very difficult phase of its history in this country. Make no mistake, the closure of TCSW, BAAF’s announcement that it has gone into administration, and the sudden despatch of Kids Company form a meaningful pattern. Most obviously these developments demonstrate that central government is no longer concerned to actively intervene in support of institutions performing vital roles for our profession and for disadvantaged people. The small state has arrived, the rough seas of the health and welfare market encroach. Old certainties and assumptions underpinning our welfare state are dying – or more accurately being systematically choked off, undermined, in short killed. Likewise, crucial sources of support and finance for many of our most vulnerable families and communities are being choked off. These trends towards an American style ‘residual’ state have been promoted by governments from across the political spectrum, but are now accelerating alarmingly.
The American political commentator David Simon, creator of the celebrated series The Wire, evoked the state of his country like this:
‘America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.
There’s no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be. We’ve somehow managed to march on to two separate futures and I think you’re seeing this more and more in the west. I don’t think it’s unique to America.’ The Guardian
In Simon’s view American politics has effectively given up on about 10-15% of its own population. They will never perform useful, economically productive work and so they are not worth bothering with. Behind the rhetoric of ‘one nation’ politics, propounded by all the mainstream political parties, I think a very similar scenario is unfolding in Britain. It’s a little different of course, because our demographics and political histories are different. In America race and ethnicity are a continuing fault line around which social divisions polarise in a way that is not quite so prominent in Britain. But the effort to mobilise anti-immigrant feeling here speaks to the same dynamic – divide and rule.
Camilla Batmanghelidjh believes that Kids Company’s openly challenging (but excellently researched) stance towards the government about its record on support for vulnerable children is part of the explanation for its troubles. So independent sector organisations and charities beware – he who pays the piper calls the tune. TCSW struggled to find a genuine critical voice in part because it was too dependent on government funding and support. Poor accountability for, or even misuse of public funds is cited as a further source of government concern. But whenever claims of financial mismanagement or business modelling failures are invoked to justify withdrawing support to public sector organisations, then remember this: probably the most wasteful, profligate, inefficient institutions in our society are government departments themselves. The evidence for this is painfully documented in Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments, which details the massive waste of public funds, tax payers money that is, for which governments of all parties have been responsible over the decades, but for which they have rarely been held to account.
Social workers have always walked a difficult line between responding humanely to immediate and pressing needs in individuals and families, and our knowledge that the sources of people’s difficulties lies significantly in structural forces in our society. We are motivated to provide caring, therapeutic, thoughtful, compassionate responses to distress and adversity. At the same time we want to use our understanding of people’s complex circumstances to give public voice to the politics of their adversity – to exercise our ‘voice’. This requires ‘binocular’ (both/and) vision, thinking and action. The problem facing us today is that the exercise of independent critical voice may lead us into trouble as never before. Financial sustainability that carries no government strings is hard to access. Organisations like CSWP need tactical and strategic intelligence as never before, and a clear sense of where we stand in these difficult and divisive times. As those that stand up for the most marginalised in society are abandoned it is for all us of to find our voice before there is no one left to speak out for our service users or the organisations that work for them.