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'Give us back our values': how to use human rights law in social work

Posted on 14/09/2017 by


Our pilot scheme is training social workers to use the Human Rights Act in practice, from writing care plans to expressing concern about neglect

This is not just about values, but also how human rights frameworks can help social workers make everyday decisions. 

Earlier this year, former care minister Norman Lamb described the care received by people with learning disabilities as an abuse of human rights. His comments came during Seven Days of Action, a campaign led by families to shine a spotlight on the thousands of people with autism and learning difficulties currently detained in some form of in-patient setting.

One of those involved is Mark Neary, father of Steven Neary. Mark had to take legal action against his local authority back in 2011 when they refused to return his son home, after a brief stay in respite care turned into a year-long ordeal. At the British Institute of Human Rights we hear similar stories all too often – of services failing people with learning disabilities and their families.

Should human rights top the social work agenda?

Over the last three years, we have been working closely with social workers in a series of pilot schemes across England to discuss how they can use human rights to help deliver compassionate care. This is not just about reconnecting with social work values, but also training social workers to see how human rights frameworks can help with decision making and even change the culture of an organisation.


The links between social work values and human rights might seem obvious, but rising caseloads and austerity pressures mean returning to human rights can, as one social worker involved in the project told an independent evaluator, “help, in difficult times, to give us back our values in a meaningful way”.

Another social worker told the evaluator that they used human rights legislation in safeguarding meetings, “including the language of dignity and respect, to give a sharper, harder edge to our concerns around issues of neglect. It has helped us express our concerns as being relevant as a matter of law, something concrete.”

Decision making

Using the Human Rights Act is not something for social workers to be afraid of, or to simply be passed on to lawyers. It can actually be a useful tool for practitioners. Empowering social workers about their duties under the Human Rights Act means they could use the law to help make (often difficult) frontline decisions.

Lisa, a senior dementia practitioner from Bristol, for example, told us: “I was able to challenge poor practice around planning the care pathway of a client using a human rights approach. The client’s own wishes to live in her own home were not given appropriate weight and thinking about the range of human rights involved meant she was given a much more dignified, respectful way to be supported to live in her own home.”

Welfare systems should be about human rights, not just benefits

Another social worker reported that “service users are telling us they feel the benefit”. Nina* was moved hundreds of miles away from her family when transitioning from adolescent mental health services to adult care, and the distress led her to self-harm. Nina’s social worker and advocate worked together to negotiate with the clinical commissioning group, using her right to family life as protected by Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Nina was transferred to a unit much closer to home.

Changing cultures

As social workers increase their knowledge of and confidence about human rights, this has the potential to transform their organisation. One social worker involved in the project reported that using a human rights approach “has improved the culture of our organisation. I started off sceptical about what difference the project would make, but there has been a big turn around and the service is better as a result.”

As the external environment for social services becomes increasingly difficult, social workers tell us they feel more stretched but also feel a greater need to return to their values. Embedding human rights across social work can empower social workers with the knowledge and confidence they need to carry out vital work and ensure people like Steven Neary don’t slip through the net again.

Helen Wildbore is a senior human rights officer at the British Institute of Human Rights. BIHR has two projects exploring how human rights can improve mental health services, one working with practitioners and another with advocacy and support groups.

Source: Guardian