Social Work Action Network Conference report

Social Work Action Network Conference Durham April 2014

This was an informative, important but very disturbing weekend dominated by reports of crisis.

A main feature of the conference was the launch of the Charter for Mental Health.  It is not a finalised document, just a starting point for debate, so please read it and make your comments. Some local discussion meetings, in London, Liverpool and Bristol among others, have been organised. Peter Beresford (Brunel, University of London) will also bring the Charter to the INTAR Conference in Liverpool 25 – 27 June.  Peter commented that the crises in mental health services were only just now beginning to be publicised, and referred to the silence of powerful organisations like Rethink and MIND,  particularly since so many more service and staff cuts are in the pipeline.

The Charter skims over particularly the numbers of women who suffer severe mental health problems as the result of rape, domestic violence, abuse, grooming, trafficking, slavery, FGM (and likely incontinence thereafter) etc… as well as the incredibly anti female society we seem to have become. I am not pretending these things don’t happen to males but the word ‘sexism’ just doesn’t begin to be adequate.

There were reports from all over the UK about the impacts of cuts in social work, especially care with and for the most vulnerable and disabled; an ever increasing demand alongside ever decreasing resources. Responsibilities have passed from Local Authority to private providers, usually with the assurance that nothing would change, but within a short time, economies of various types have been introduced. These are just a few of the many examples reported:

  •  In Ireland, proposals for new training schemes are just geared to implementing government policies, simultaneously driving down salaries (30% less for new employees), poorer working conditions, increasing case-loads etc… view to new graduates becoming a cheap labour force. There are no emergency beds, no beds for the homeless, irrespective of age or vulnerability, no shoes, no food, and anyone with a mental health problem even worse treated. People have attempted to commit suicide on the premises where they’ve been refused help.
  • A deeper crisis, of a magnitude not yet imagined, was flagged in Wakefield, which is currently facing a further 37% cut. Beds can only be found if people are sectioned. The next move was likely to be the formation of ‘hubs’ with all mental health services becoming concentrated in one place – and described by the reporter as an industrial method of making profits.
  • In Doncaster, Care UK have cut the w/end shift allowance for those working with people with learning difficulties, reducing services and resulting in a £3,000 pay cut for each current employee.
  • Youth services have been axed completely in Newcastle.
  • Norwich and Norfolk teams have been cut by 20% and wards closed. Suicides are up (22 in 5 months), meetings with the Minister, Norman Lamb had failed, and ‘parity of esteem’ seemed to amount to commissioning the private hospital Priory to provide emergency beds out of area.
  • Assertive Outreach practices have been widely abolished.
  • Norfolk and Suffolk invited people to join their campaign: , and reported psychiatric medications doubling daily to keep people quiet, and patients being discharged without proper care plans.
  • JobCentrePlus sanction benefits indiscriminately, sometimes leaving single parents and their children destitute.
  • Debts, health problems and homelessness are escalating as never before.

A meeting of people to produce a  Charter to Stop the Payday Loan Rip-off. recorded by the BBC

Mark Baldwin (Bath University) concentrated on Cameron’s 120,000 so-called ‘troubled families’ supposedly at the core of riots and city disturbances, for all of which there was no evidence. Person centred practices have been abandoned in favour of those of coercive, control managerialism. Efforts are concentrated on stigmatising and pathologising ‘troublesome families’ without reference to the multiple complexities of disability, poverty, ill-health, and unemployment they face. If these are taken into consideration, the families are coping very well, actually they’re amazingly strong. In practice, if these families are given appropriate help, sometimes quite simple and cheap, they are no longer ‘troubled’. He provided several examples showing that community social work really does work. His final comment was ‘The love of liberty is power, the love of power blocks liberty’.

There were several case histories of the considerable obstacles faced by anyone claiming benefits, appeals followed by further assessments, then delayed further by requests to see bank statements, details of a widow’s pension going back decades etc…

In informal conversations, I was told of people facing chronic disability committing suicide rather than have their families suffer the hard work, care and penury of their long term care , and the indignities likely to be endured by themselves.

Some weasel words need to be recognised:

  • ‘RECOVERY’, has been an excellent and well motivated movement about dramatically improving quality of life for many with mental health diagnoses. However, ‘Recovery’ is now being high-jacked, forcing people into minimally supported, cheap, short courses which might or might not be helpful.
  • ‘RESILIENCE’ related to building understanding and coping supportive skills for service users to help them manage the normal fluctuations of life out of hospital. It is a term now being introduced into social work courses to train students to manage monumental case loads and ignore the terrible distress experienced by their clients; that’s training people into inhumanity as far as I’m concerned.

It’s all a potent reminder that the welfare state will not survive unless people fight for it, and there are powerful ruthless forces determined to destroy it.

There will be a day conference in Ruskin College in June to help translate words into actions; the Charter will be key in that event and we need to widen public knowledge and discussion of it and what is happening in social practices, record unsafe and poor practices, failed / inadequate risk assessments, and inadequate care plans, as well as the basic inhumanities which are now becoming a commonplace.