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Government Cuts: Is Human Decency Next?

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The proposed cuts to disability living allowance raise troubling moral questions for social workers, many of whom will ultimately be responsible for implementing these welfare reforms.

As the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) this week publishes a revised version of the longest established code of ethics, which has underpinned standards since 1975, many practitioners are wondering if it is even possible to uphold ideals of social justice in the current political climate.

A code of ethics is not simply about catching people out when they make mistakes, it's about enabling a social conscience, and providing protection for social care and health professionals when they are asked to collude with decisions that they think are morally wrong.

Social work is primarily concerned with the health and wellbeing of others, often when people are at their most vulnerable. Social workers are frequently placed in an influential role, and that position of trust must be acknowledged and respected.

It's a given that public opinion of social workers is generally low, that is until they actually come into contact with one, but social workers have ethics too, it's usually why they're prompted to devote their life to work that is frequently gruelling and thankless.

BASW's chief executive, former Labour backbench MP Hilton Dawson, has expressed concern that the current government is making it extremely difficult for social workers, particularly in local authorities, to remain true to their ethics.

This view is also propounded by social work academic Professor Michael Preston-Shoot. In his book Children's Services at the Crossroads, Preston-Shoot argues that councils' fixation with government targets rather than effective social work practice is compromising social workers' ability to operate ethically.

BASW is hearing from more and more social workers who are extremely uncomfortable about being pressured, as a result of cuts and lack of resources, to turn a blind eye to poor practice and implement unethical procedures.

To take one example, BASW's affiliated Social Workers Union has had social workers claiming that cases are being allocated to named social workers, to make it appear on administrative systems that someone is working on the case. Crippling caseloads mean that in reality these cases are sitting in a pile on someone's desk because no one has the time to actually work on them.

BASW is sending a copy of the revised code of ethics to all chief executives of local authorities, urging them to share it with staff, and to respect social workers right to blow the whistle on unethical practice without fear of repercussion.

BASW's code puts 'respect for human rights and a commitment to promoting social justice' at the core of social work practice.

As such, one social worker told me that they felt they had a moral imperative to show support for the Spartacus report that alleged that the government were ignoring the views of the disabled, saying, "yes, it's a political issue of course, but one that is also about basic human rights and social work values. It is important to be rooted and grounded in the lived in, daily experiences of many people with disabilities who are already struggling and in severe hardship. How much more will their lives be blighted by poverty if the current reforms are passed?"

For all its talk of the big society, the government's cuts to public funds and increasing redundancies are putting the social care system under terrible strain. More worryingly, this is accompanied by right wing propaganda that is hardening public attitudes to the most vulnerable in society, where having a moral compass is viewed as a woolly liberal weakness.

A recent survey of Social Workers Union members revealed 81% expressing concern at unmanageable caseloads - 56% said they are very concerned. BASW are not the only ones who have these misgivings, but they are among a growing resistance movement who are prepared to critique the government's damaging social policies.

Evidence is mounting that managers are being pressured to push cases through an administrative system, and crossing their fingers that nobody dies. Now, more than ever, the rights of social workers to stand up and blow the whistle on unethical practice must be protected.

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