The Riots, The PM's Speech: A Wake-Up Call for Social Work

15/08/2011 23:22 BST | Updated 15/10/2011 10:12 BST

There is much of merit in the Prime Minister's speech concerning the riots. His emphasis on morality and questions of 'right and wrong' will resonate with many. However, such 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.

There are perhaps three inter-related levels that require a response. Individual responsibility is crucial. At one end of the spectrum we all need to own and acknowledge the implications and consequences of our own actions and values. 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.

The rise of neoliberal, de-humanised market-driven approaches have encouraged a version of Government that has removed personal well-being from the economic. 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 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. By a misplaced refusal to judge behaviours and actions, or to remove services, in common language 'to punish', those who traverse, often at great cost to others, the rules of engagement with that society. What the riots indicate for social work is that personal behaviour and actions are not to be equally valued if a society is to function and serve its members appropriately. Perhaps for too long social workers have been content to stand outside of the policies and workings of society when it suits, whilst still being employed, in the main, by local government.

A voice to stand up for democratic freedoms is crucial, but so is a need to work within the society that 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.