Political correctness has been described as a war on noticing. The blinkers were well and truly on in Oxfordshire recently, judging by today’s report into child sexual exploitation there. But not only there. (Bristol has also been mentioned.) Oxfordshire County Council’s former Leader told the BBC that his authority ‘is not another Rotherham’. Well, only relatively: 373 youngsters, predominantly from Oxford, groomed and exploited over the course of 15 years, as compared with 1,400 in the Yorkshire place. But what’s yet to come to light? A senior investigative source told The Guardian (a London newspaper): “If you think you haven’t got a problem in your city or town, you are just not looking for it.”
Not looking for it. And even if you are, looking in the wrong place. The BBC’s coverage and the reactions of London politicians have been remarkably uniform. It’s ‘the system’ that’s broken. Cameron offered a new offence of ‘wilful neglect’, promising to jail social workers who don’t notice. (The tabloids are hovering: social workers are as damned for what they notice mistakenly as for anything they miss.) For Labour, Yvette Cooper bizarrely insisted that nothing was more important than introducing compulsory sex education in schools. It’s everybody’s fault then. Police. Social workers. Educators. Councillors. A report speaks up for the abused and ignored girls and all the establishment can do is put the spotlight yet again on the girls and how they are treated. It’s everybody’s fault but the perpetrators’. Let’s not mention them. Let’s not take their communities apart with a crowbar and expose what it is that produces the same familiar pattern, again and again.
No, let’s not. There’s a higher priority. Let’s go after those who by their war on noticing have allowed the problem to fester, those whose soixante-huitard sociological prejudices have warped their ability to understand the individuals of which society is composed.
Let’s try a zero-based budgeting approach to social work. Why do we have it? Even the term is vaguely Victorian. Nurses nurse, police police, teachers teach. Social workers? Work socially? Why not scrap the entire profession and replace it with one or more professions defined by what they actually do and seek to achieve by doing? The post-Climbié split between children’s services, linked to education, and welfare services for vulnerable adults, linked to health care and housing, may have some distance still to travel before reaching a settled form. Especially in an era of constrained resources where questions about focus and value for money are unavoidable. A public interested in integrated outcomes won’t care if social work as such disappears in the process because it finds it unable to describe itself.
There are some common perceptions of social workers that they have done little to dispel. That instead of responding to a political agenda they think society should resource and empower them to pursue their own. Or that they have no incentive to solve society’s ills because this would do them out of a job. Or that, in contrast to the tightly defined roles of 50 or 100 years ago, their role is now so all-encompassing that their ambitions are bound to be undeliverable.
For example, the Wikipedia article ‘History of social work’ asserts that “Social work has its roots in society to deal with poverty (relative poverty)”. That’s a start but it’s wholly inadequate to describe the actual range of activities that social services today undertake. Problems associated with age or disability, for example, are problems associated with age or disability. Lack of money worsens them but having money won’t fundamentally make them go away. It’s also far too easy to confuse social services with social security, one more area of government where assumptions tend to have a very long shelf-life.
The financial and political reality is that social services will be expected to do more with less, and failing that, to do less with less. Politically and professionally, the challenge is how to do that with the least possible harm. A herd of sacred cows is likely to face slaughter along the way. And that's an outcome that may be long overdue.