Social workers prioritise people who are most marginalised, desperate and often unhelped, overlooked and angry; as a consequence, we work often in risky, sometimes dangerous situations. Yet we are treated differently to other emergency service colleagues. Why?
In 2013 I wrote a piece describing social work as the forgotten emergency service. Six years on, judging by a bill moving through the House of Lords, it seems this is still the case. The assaults on emergency workers (offence) billproposes a new offence in England and Wales of assaulting an emergency worker and looks to impose stiffer sentences for offenders.
The bill’s definition of “emergency workers” includes nurses, firefighters and non-emergency frontline NHS staff, as well as personnel providing prisoner escort services. Social workers are not included. This bill contrasts with the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which extends protections to social workers enforcing child protection orders or carrying out mental health assessments.
Many of those who contact the British Association of Social Workers’ advice and representation service – and the Social Workers Union (SWU) –report serious hostility, threats and violence at work. Furthermore, SWU-commissioned Bath Spa University research UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing 2017 found that more than 52% of the 1,200-plus social workers surveyed intended to leave the profession within 15 months due to factors including threats, aggression and risk.
New research from BASW Northern Ireland sheds a deeply troubling light on the problems social workers face. Some 86% of those who took part in its survey have experienced intimidation, 75% have received threats and half have been subjected to violence. In austerity-hit services, in times of deepening poverty and widening social inequality, social workers often work in contexts that particularly expose them to anger and hostility.
The wording of the assaults on emergency workers bill suggests ignorance of the emergency and crisis role of social workers in England and Wales – whether as approved mental health professionals, children’s social workers or in other roles – and/or a tolerance of the aggression social workers sometimes face compared with other professions.
Social workers intervene in the most intimate and sensitive aspects of people’s lives and at points of despair in relation to matters such as parenting, deprivation of liberty, mental distress and crisis, loss of home or income, urgent personal care needs and strained caring responsibilities.
So, surely we should be pushing for social workers to have the same recognition of often risky public service and ensure the additional protection the new bill claims to offer? Indeed, as BASW and the SWU continue our campaign for better professional working conditions, we want assurances that politicians recognise the role of social workers in tackling some of society’s most urgent and challenging problems and that commitments will be made to improving working conditions.
But this bill is a double-edged issue. On the one hand, indeed, social workers should have protection and respect on a par with our colleagues in the firefighting, health or police services. On the other, whether the focus through this legislation is the right one to bring about improvement in working conditions and reduce risk is quite another matter.
There are ethical debates to be had about why, and in what circumstances, assaults on emergency services staff should be penalised more heavily than assaults on anyone else, and why existing laws are inadequate. Having special legislation to mop up after crisis events may do nothing to get to the underlying causes of a rise in such incidents.
Fundamentally, this bill seems to be a political response to a growing disconnect between the public and the people who work to help them in the most pressured and crisis situations. This affects all professions involved in crisis work and may be a symptom of the general breakdown in the public’s relationship with public servants.
So social workers have the right to expect high quality support and redress and not to be casually ignored in important legislative debates. But we also want the government to address the underlying causes of the social, health, mental health and environmental crises that public sector workers are increasingly dealing with.
Without a shift towards a respectful contract between government, public servants and the public, there will be a further undermining of services and staff and we may be left asking for equity of redress after assaults and intimidations, not preventing them in the first place.
Ruth Allen is chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers