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World Social Work Day: Blowing the Whistle Becomes a Silent Scream If Nobody Listens

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Today is World Social Work Day, but given the dire state of public services, many might reach a conclusion that there is little to celebrate. This year's theme of 'Promoting Social and Economic Equalities' does not sit comfortably with vulnerable people who are being told by social workers that they cannot have help because of funding cuts.

While social workers might in theory wish to be agents of positive change, rather than agents for administering damaging government cuts, there are limits on the extent to which most will feel able to draw attention to situations where service provision drops to dangerous levels. The reality for most is that they can blow the whistle on unsafe practice until they're blue in the face but it means nothing other than a fast track to constructive dismissal if those in power don't want to listen.

From Rochdale sex gangs to Mid Staffs hospitals, seemingly not a month goes by without another inquiry into failures of care. When such institutional failings are met with the unremitting march of public sector spending cuts, there is a real danger that we have entered territory in which anyone who needs health or social care is regarded as an expensive nuisance.

It's a dismal reality that social workers currently rank among those professionals charged with turning a blind eye to abuses inflicted on the most vulnerable. It begs the question, given that social workers pledge to fight social injustice, of why they aren't all currently lining up to speak out and refusing to implement service cuts, or indeed why they weren't at the front of a long queue in Mid Staffs or Rochdale to tell the world everything they knew, or at least suspected?

It all looks damning doesn't it, yet it doesn't tell the whole story. It isn't that social workers have stopped caring, but that there is little that can be done to protect service users' best interests when professionals are not only gagged from speaking out, but their concerns are largely ignored by those in power when they do.

As more and more people who use and rely on services turn to legal action to seek adequate provision from local authorities, perhaps it's time for a statutory legal duty on social workers as advocates, as part of a clear legal process, similar to that in place for mental health hearings.

Increasingly, members of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and its trade union arm, the Social Workers Union (SWU), report being forced to impose cuts and service rationing on vulnerable people, and facing unacceptable and seemingly insurmountable opposition from employers when they attempt to speak up on behalf of people who use services.

The Francis report into the failings at a number of hospitals in Mid Staffordshire was heralded as a watershed moment, aiming to enshrine a 'duty of candour' clause into the contract of every NHS worker. In other words, if you work here, you agree to blow the whistle on malpractice and abuse.

Yet there are no such plans for liberating local authority social workers who are constrained instead by a polar opposite doctrine - draconian confidentiality clauses which prevent them, on pain of dismissal, from speaking about their work.

Bizarre isn't it, that amidst all the high profile safeguarding deaths witnessed over the past 20 years, and all the commissioned reports - Laming, Munro, the Social Work Task Force, to name a few - the notion that social workers should have a similar requirement for candour has barely breathed a sigh. Perhaps one death isn't enough and it's only when multiple casualties stack up, as in the case of Mid Staffs, that honesty becomes the best policy.

Maybe such radicalism is stymied by the fact such moral imperatives won't ever translate into action if management isn't obligated to listen and councillors and ministers aren't required to act.

Equally, while the social work function remains unprotected, the professionalism imbued in our practising social workers is somehow lacking - with great power comes great responsibility, a superhero script once read, so perhaps we should be modest in our expectations of social workers until we give them the status their crucial efforts merit.

The current duty of confidentiality, aimed at protecting the privacy of vulnerable children and adults, is used as a stick to beat down already oppressed staff when they try to expose wrongdoing. It is also used by newspapers to say whatever they like about alleged failings by social workers, for while a service user with an axe to grind may speak out, the social worker is forbidden from proffering any defence. Nothing says guilty to the public quicker than a "no comment" from a local authority.

PCTs and local authorities must not wring their hands when things go wrong, when they could have been constantly challenging unjust centrally-imposed policies. How the cuts are implemented is important. Many local authorities have embraced a new mantra - "less for less" - saying boldly that with less money they have to provide a lesser service.

And there are choices to be made. Take, for instance, the issue of local authorities accepting a short-term funding hand out from central government in return for freezing council tax. Not all local authorities are prepared to play this cynical game of electioneering. Tory-run Peterborough City Council has broken ranks and proposed a 2.95% increase in council tax next year because of concerns a freeze will mean longer-term even deeper cuts. Any rise of 2% or higher necessitates holding a local referendum but if a council thinks it is a necessary strategy to limit the ravaging effects of deep cuts, surely many more should be making the same brave choice.

If desperately vulnerable people are being forced to go without, then no respectable council should impose the cuts without first putting the decision to a vote. Of course, this invites charges of wasting moneywasting money on holding such plebiscites but then councils can always retort that it wasn't their idea to devise such a cynical and anti-local system.

Lack of funding means that warm words from social workers are not always being translated into action, as disability rights activist Kaliya Franklin told delegates at a recent BASW event.

Kaliya has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which affects the way collagen works in the body, and while her Twitter name may be 'Bendygirl', she is keen to challenge stereotypes about the disabled.

Her local authority is Wirral Council, where adult social services manager Martin Morton blew the whistle on disabled residents in council care being systematically over-charged for their accommodation. Mr Morton repeatedly warned his bosses about the scandal but was ignored, then bullied out of his job having signed a gagging clause forbidding him from revealing the scandal to the media.

Ms Franklin said she wished she could say that she liked social work professionals more but instead told the event: "Nothing scares me more than social workers, other than spiders." Her experience of social workers had been "nasty, bullying me to the point of tears, telling me what I can't have and then going away again".

She explained: "Wirral is a great place for a disability campaigner, as they have used pretty much every dirty trick that could be pulled. Anyone in the Wirral with moderate care needs has had their care packages taken away. They even suggested they bring an electric wheelchair round, so that I could try out what I couldn't have. The whole assessment process just leaves you feeling confused and frightened.

"The people who oversaw this malpractice have had their rights protected, superseding the rights of the vulnerable."

Mr Morton, who is currently pursuing legal action against his former employer, recently told local paper the Wirral Globe: "Five years after I first exposed the abuse of vulnerable people in council care, I am unemployed and on anti-depressants, with my home in jeopardy and recurring thoughts of taking my own life.

"Meanwhile, those implicated in serious malpractice have been rewarded with six-figure pay-offs."

Public sector workers know that something is seriously wrong with our state systems of care, stretching all the way from teenagers in care homes to elderly patients in hospitals, but their work cultures prevent them from doing anything about it.

BASW would like to see the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) global guidance on promoting Effective and Ethical Working Environments for Social Work embraced by all UK social work employers. The guidance states that employers must acknowledge that social workers have the right to stand up for service users even when it puts them into conflict with management.

This would be an important step towards introducing a statutory duty on social workers to advocate as part of a clear legal process on behalf of the people who use, or need, services.

Post Mid-Staffs, has anyone really been punished or held accountable? While politicians may talk of duty of candour, the consequences for whistle blowers may still be grave, as management, even at the very highest level - such as Parliament - seeks to protect its own systems rather than the vulnerable.

To quote Kaliya Franklin, "without proper social care funding, we won't have any society at all".

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