Social Workers and Austerity

Far from being ‘all in this together’, those hardest hit by austerity have been those most in need. British Association of Social Workers (BASW), Chair Guy Shennan and Dr Peter Unwin, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Worcester, outline why social workers in partnership with service users should respond to a ‘flawed economic theory’ and how they can do it.

"Cuts under austerity measures mean that after decades of crucial secondary mental health services support I have now been ‘discharged’. Initially, I at least had some online guided support via the Big White Wall but even this has now been withdrawn after I reached my free six months usage limit. I would have to find £288 per year to keep this service going which is just unaffordable. The harsh reality as I enter older age is that I have no support to keep me well now except for the Samaritans...”

These are the words of Jean, a survivor of mental health difficulties and now of the cuts to services resulting from the austerity that continues to blight the lives of so many and has tragically ended the lives of others. When the Coalition government began to implement austerity in 2010, citing its necessity given the financial crisis of 2008, it was meant to last only a single five-year parliament. After the the 2015 election the Conservative Government then proceeded to implement even deeper cuts than before – welfare benefits and local government being particular targets – with all the resulting hardship that this has caused.

Given our defining principles of social justice, human rights and collective responsibility, there is a need for social workers to act in response to the growing humanitarian crisis caused by austerity. We need to give a voice to people such as Jane, who cares for her adult daughter who has a learning disability and recently became visually impaired. Jane needs urgent help with finding a cluster housing-type placement for her daughter and has spent days negotiating a labyrinth of eligibility criteria, thresholds and cutbacks. Eventually advised to try an advocacy service, she found that all such services locally had stopped taking on new cases because of cuts. Jane’s own health is beginning to suffer and she asks: “What is going to happen if I buckle under the strain – it just doesn’t make moral or economic sense.”

Social workers know how short-sighted cuts to preventive services are, as they can put intolerable pressure on people who then end up needing far more expensive provision. Reclaiming advocacy as an essential social work role is needed for our service user and carer voices to be heard inside as well as outside our agencies. As well as giving a voice to service users and carers we work with individually, we can form alliances on an organisational level. An example of the latter is Social Workers and Service Users Against Austerity (SWASUAA), an alliance of social workers, social work academics, service users and carers. From being an occasional banner to walk under on demonstrations, SWASUAA is now developing in a more formalised way, including an imminent website launch. The relationships formed in such alliances enable social workers, service users and carers to speak together at conferences and other events, making such a shared voice greater than the sum of its parts. Recognise and publicise the impact of austerity on ourselves. We should not shy away from making known the debilitating effects of austerity on ourselves as social workers. 

BASW London and the Austerity Action Group are hosting


Tuesday 6 March, 6:30pm, St Margarets House, 21 Old Ford Road, E2 9PL 

Learn about ways of campaigning, big and small,
from speakers including

■ Jane Tunstill, Emeritus Professor of Social Work
■Roger Lewis, Disabled People Against Cuts
■Tom Griffiths, People’s Assembly Against Austerity
■ Social workers from the Boot Out Austerity march
■Psychologists For Social Change

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