A taste of their own medicine?

Don’t rejoice in the irony that social workers are now having their private lives interrogated by an unaccountable body – it’s an ominous sign of the times.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

Part of the remit of the UK General Social Care Council (GSCC), set up in accordance with the Care Standards Act 2000, is the registration and regulation of the social care workforce. Since its inception, the GSCC has been busy. In 2002 it published the first national codes of practice for social care workers and their employers; in 2003 it introduced the Social Care Register; and on 1 April 2005 it brought in something called ‘protection of title’, which means that only those suitably qualified and registered with the GSCC can legally call themselves a social worker (1).

The criteria for registration are based on section 58 of the Care Standards Act, which requires the GSCC to be satisfied that the applicant is ‘of good character’ (declaring criminal convictions and supplying suitable references), is physically and mentally fit, suitably qualified for the position, and that he or she has read, understood and agreed to comply with the codes of practice.

According to the GSCC’s Rodney Brooke, the register is ‘good news for the public, who will benefit from higher standards of care and public protection, [and] is also good news for the social care workforce’ (2). However, behind these seemingly benign aims there lies a new framework of regulation, which allows the GSCC to dictate not only the professional practice of all social care workers, but also how these workers should conduct themselves in their private lives.

For example, criterion 5.8 of the code stipulates that the social worker must not ‘behave in a way, in work or outside work, which would call into question your suitability to work in social care services’. And though Heather Wing, director of regulation at the GSCC insists that the organisation ‘is not in the business of judging people’s morals’, she maintains that it has a duty to step in if and when a social worker’s behaviour could undermine public confidence in the profession (3). So the GSCC will not moralise, providing nobody acts in an ‘immoral’ way. The social worker can do whatever he or she wishes, provided it meets with GSCC approval.

Despite this rising regulation of the workforce there has been surprisingly little criticism of the proposals – what little there has been has mainly focused on who should pay the £30 registration fee (4). And while two thirds of social workers in one survey had slight concerns about the power of the GSCC to strike people off the register, effectively stopping them from gaining future employment in that sector, most believed registration would raise the profile and standard of care offered by the profession (5).

In the month that the social care register was introduced, I argued that we were witnessing the introduction of a new moral and regulatory code, fuelled by a sense of distrust and fear, rather than something that would improve either social work practice or social workers’ public image (6). Little has happened to alter my view. For example, the code of practice for social care employers instructs them to ‘support social care workers to meet the GSCC’s Code of Practice for Social Care Workers and not requiring them to do anything that would put their compliance with that code at risk’ (criterion 2.4), while the social worker is informed in their code of practice of their duty to promote ‘equal opportunities for service users and carers’ (criterion 1.5).

Well, asylum seekers face widespread discrimination in their attempts to access social services, a situation so bad that it prompted one Court of Appeal judge to lambast Leicester City Council’s policies towards asylum seekers as tantamount to starving ‘immigrants out of the country by withholding last resort assistance’ (7). If the GSCC’s main concern is to improve the practice and provision of care offered by social workers, then surely this is an obvious case for concern and Leicester’s policymakers will be brought before the GSCC to account for their actions? Don’t hold your breath. In actual fact, the first case to arouse the GSCC’s interest concerned, not social work practice, but the private life of an individual worker accused of breaching the code of practice by advertising herself as an escort. She has just been suspended from the social care register for two years for bringing ‘the profession into disrepute’.

The only other case to date also concerned an individual worker, who was struck off the register due to an ‘inappropriate’ relationship with a 14-year-old girl (8). Few people would defend such a relationship and many will find this worker’s activities unsavoury. Yet the GSCC’s action against this worker and the one who advertised herself as an escort shows the extent to which it is focused on the individual and moral behaviour of workers, rather than on more structural and political issues within social work as a profession.

No doubt, some people reading this will relish the irony of a profession that has habitually policed the intimate aspects of people’s private lives suddenly finding itself hoist with its own petard. However, this would be to overlook the fact that this 24/7 regulation and surveillance is being rolled out to include not only social workers but all social care workers – including, among others, home helps, residential and day care staff. Ultimately, a significant sector of the workforce will soon find their private lives subject to the scrutiny of the GSCC.

These blatant intrusions into the social/sex lives of the workforce are defended on the grounds that immoral or unacceptable behaviour outside of work might call into question their ‘capacity to make proper decisions and judgements’ at work. So while excessive drinking is considered a bit iffy, regular attendance at a lap dancing club is seen as beyond the pale (although one visit out of curiosity or for a leaving do is apparently okay) (9). But why stop there? What about regular attendance at a Bernard Manning or Roy Chubby Brown gig, two comedians not known for upholding social work values? What about buying rap records that contain sexist or homophobic lyrics?

Whatever your personal views on any of those things, if private pursuits do not affect your practice it should be of no concern to the employer, let alone the GSCC. What is considered inappropriate or immoral behaviour will change over time. In the 1970s homosexuality was viewed as an immoral activity by many people – and while the social work profession likes to portray itself as being at the forefront of combating oppression, the British Journal of Social Work, arguably social work’s most prestigious journal, published an article in the 70s advocating the use of aversion therapy on gay men (to avert them from such ‘immoral’ behaviour, no doubt) (10). Such sentiments would not be tolerated now. Today, in a sign of how social work invariably reflects dominant social mores, it is those holding views derogatory towards homosexuals who would be sent on aversion therapy’s contemporary equivalent – ‘awareness training’.

Given the current moral panic over smokers and the obese, it may only be a matter of time before the GSCC views such indulgence as another indicator of an incapacity to make proper judgements. As the owner of a couple of racing greyhounds, if I ever wish to register with the GSCC I can only hope that those who have started to call for social workers to include animals alongside other oppressed groups remain on the margins (11).

Perhaps we should not be surprised by these developments, or the priorities of the GSCC. Like its creator, the New Labour government, it is responding to perceptions and image, focusing on the minutiae of workers’ behaviour and fears over media opinion, rather than dealing with matters that would improve professional practice and service provision. If I am wrong, I await the GSCC decision to reinstate the escort and take on board the comments of the Court of Appeal judge over the treatment of asylum seekers.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England.

(1) Details can be found at the GSCC website.

(2) GSCC website GSCC website.

(3) ‘When the Mask Slips’ by Katie Leason, Community Care 18-24 May 2006.

(4) Findings from Community Care research on the GSCC, Community Care, 31 March 2004

(5) Findings from Community Care research on the GSCC, Community Care, 31 March 2004

(6) Registering distrust, by Ken McLaughlin

(7) ‘An Unacceptable Role for Social Work: Implementing Immigration Policy’ by Beth Humphries, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 34, 2004, pp.93 – 107.

(8) See media releases at GSCC website.

(9) ‘When the Mask Slips’ by Katie Leason, Community Care 18-24 May 2006.

(10) ‘Some Aspects of the relationship of Social Work to Behaviour Therapy’, P.J. Graham, British Journal of Social Work, vol.1, 1971pp. 197-208.

(11) For example see ‘Social Work and Specieism’ by D.B. Wolf, Social Work, vol. 45, 2000, pp.88-93.

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Topics Politics


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