Transcript: A bed for the night? Austerity, social work and resistance


Iain Ferguson gives his inaugural lecture on the impact of welfare reform on people's lives, and argues that a different kind of social work is required to respond to the crisis.

Podcast Episode: A bed for the night? Austerity, social work and resistance

Category: Welfare reform 

Speaker(s):


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

IF - Professor Iain Ferguson

On 27th March 2013, Iain Ferguson, Professor of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland, gave an inaugural lecture entitled 'A bed for the night? Austerity, social work and resistance', which challenges the myth of welfare dependency used to justify attacks on some of the poorest sections of the community. He examines the impact of cuts on services on people's lives, including the working poor, and argues that the crisis calls for a different kind of social work, drawing on the radical tradition and rooted in the collective experience of service users.

IF Many, many thanks for coming along tonight - it is really good to see so many faces from recent years and from many years ago, so I am really looking forward to the event. I had a wee bit of debate with myself about whether or not to use ... how much Powerpoint to use or whether to use it at all - and one of my colleagues, Janice, was talking about 'Death by Powerpoint', and that sinking feeling when we move onto Slide 34. So I have decided to use a very small number of illustrated slides, so don't worry, I have not forgotten if I go for a long time without using a slide, but I am just going to use a few.

Okay folks, first of all 'A bed for the night? Social work, austerity and resistance' - I want to say a wee bit first of all about the title of this lecture. Round about 10 or 11 years ago when colleagues, Gerry Mooney, who used to be here, Michael Lavalette and myself were writing a book about what was happening to welfare in Britain. We wanted to call it 'A bed for the night', after Brecht's poem, which I am going to talk about tonight ... at which point I should maybe just give you a sight of the man. We were dissuaded from doing so by the publisher 'Sage', on the basis that with that title, at best it would end up in the tourism section of book shops, next to the sort of '50 Best Guesthouses in Scotland' - and at worst it would end up in adult fiction. So we could actually have been a forerunner of '50 Shades of Grey'. So instead we ended up with a much blander, but maybe more accurate title 'Rethinking Welfare - a critical perspective'.

Despite the risk then, I've decided to use Brecht's poem as a starting point for tonight's lecture, and I am doing so because the poem I think addresses some of the key themes that I want to explore. It explores the links between private troubles and public issues, it explores the relationship between individual help giving and wider social change, and above all it explores the relationship between individualism and collectivism - and I think these are all themes that are very much at the heart of the future of social work in Scotland and the UK today. There is actually ... I am not that (... 34.25 unclear), but there is actually now obviously a much more concrete reason for this title, which is that many thousands of people in Britain are being told that because they have a bed for the night, they are going to either be evicted or have to pay extra ... or lose housing benefit - and the demonstration is this Saturday in Glasgow. So basically we are likely to see a significant increase in homelessness as a result of that new tax - and really homelessness is the theme of Brecht's poem. The poem was written in Germany in the early 1930's, which is in many ways a time and a place very different from today - but I think actually just reading through the poem, I think there is also quite a lot of similarities - that, then as now, the world was in the grip of a global crisis of capitalism which showed no sign of ending, then as now, there was tremendous fear and insecurity among millions of people about their own lives and about the kind of lives their children were going to experience, and then as now there were the rise of far right organisations which sought to place the blame for the crisis on ethnic minority and immigrants - be it Golden Dawn in Greece or the English Defence League, or the Scottish Defence League in this country. So that's the kind of context of the poem. So now I shall move onto the poem. So this is 'A bed for the night' by Bertolt Brecht.

I hear that in New York

At the corner of 26th street and Broadway

A man stands every evening during the winter months

And gets beds for the homeless there

By appealing to passers-by.

It won't change the world

It won't improve relations among men

It will not shorten the age of exploitation

But a few men have a bed for the night

For a night the wind is kept from them

The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.

Don't put down the book on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night

For a night the wind is kept from them

The snow meant for them falls on the roadway

But it won't change the world

It won't improve relations among men

It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

I really want to highlight two aspects of the poem - first of all its tone - and I think while Brecht is clear about the limits of individual charity, there is no cheap jibes about sticking plasters and social problems, nor is there any ridicule of the man who stands on the corner appealing for beds, far less for the homeless people who need them. The tone is essentially one of respect, understanding, even admiration - it must be pretty cold standing out there in the winter months. And then after all, for a night a few people have a bed. But there is also an edge to the poem - he says "don't put down the book on reading this man" - for this is not the kind of woolly liberalism of the "Don't they know it's Christmas" variety, where if we all just cared a wee bit more then everything would be fine. Brecht was a Marxist and was acutely aware that then, as now, we live in a divided society - a society based on exploitation where the poor are poor precisely because the rich are rich. And therefore, individual acts of helping, while commendable, actually do little to challenge these relations of exploitation. And unless society changes fundamentally, that man will still be standing on the corner next year and the year after that and the year after that.

So I start with Brecht's poem tonight because in these two respects - its humanitarian tone on the one hand, and its understanding of exploitation on the other - it seems to me to present a view of poverty and depression which is the exact polar opposite of the view which currently dominates in Britain. It's a view which was initially promoted under the Conservative governments of the 1980's, it's a view which continued under New Labour between 1997-2010, and it's a view which is reaching its highest, or arguments, its lowest expression under the current Coalition government. So what I wanted to do, I want to spend the first half of my talk and then the second half I want to move on to look at some of the implications for that, for social work, for the social workers ... I will get to social work, but just give me a little bit of time.

First of all the tone - whilst Brecht's poem shows understanding and respect towards those offering individual help, then in the current world view, those offering such help are at best misguided, at worst positively harmful, since they are perpetuating what is, by far, the greatest of all social evils, the sixth giant which Beveridge didn't properly foresee, namely dependency. And there is no shortage of representatives of this world view within the current government, whether it's Ian Duncan Smith or George Osborne with his 'Strivers .v. Skivers' rhetoric. But I think probably the clearest expression of this world view comes from an individual called Louise Casey, whom some of you may have heard about. Louise Casey was the woman appointed by Tony Blair initially as his 'Homelessness Tsar' back in 1999, and more recently by David Cameron, as his 'Troubled Families Advisor' after the riots in the summer of 2011. And just to give you the flavour - in a speech in her role as Homelessness Tsar, Casey argued we had to ... and this is her words, we had to "destroy the culture of kindness" - which is responsible for keeping people on the streets, arguing that "there is a plethora of services on the streets - you can get a better sleeping bag on The Strand than you can buy in the camping shop, Blacks". She was, at this time, on a salary of £90,000 a year. And similarly, more recently Louise Casey has argued that most of Britain's current welfare and debt problems are due to the behaviour of 120,000 families, all of whom, by coincidence, live in the poorest areas of Britain.

Secondly, while Brecht located the problems of homelessness and poverty and the workings of a society based on the exploitation of the many by a few, the 99% against the 1% as the Occupy movement recently put it - in this world view, structural factors such as poverty and equality have vanished. Instead there is what is sometimes called a 'muscular individualism', whose creed might still be Margaret Thatcher's assertion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families. And any attempt therefore to explain crime or mental illness or poor childcare, in terms of example of poverty and inequality, is seen as excuse making - evidence of reluctance to take personal responsibility. It is however, a reluctance for which individuals are not entirely to blame - since the argument goes 'it's encouraged by a welfare system which creates and reinforces dependency above all, by encouraging people not to work'. And it's work, of course, normally paid but also increasingly unpaid, that is presented not only as the root of poverty, but more generally as the panacea to all the ills in society.

So I want to spend a little bit of time critically examining this view - both because it has become a kind of tabloid common sense, but also because it provides ... it's a key, if you like, ideological basis of the coalition's current program of welfare reform. As I am sure some of you will be aware - it is not actually a new view, it is very, very similar to the view that underpinned the Poor Law in 1834 in terms of division of deserving and undeserving.

So what I want to do is just take a little bit of time to address what I would argue are three myths of welfare dependency. First of all I want to address the argument which we hear all the time, that for many people, unemployment is a lifestyle choice. And I want to suggest it's a view for which there is not a shred of evidence. As far back as the mid-1990's in what is still one of the biggest studies of the views of people with mental health problems, in this case former psychiatric patients, David Pilgrim & Ann Rodgers asked more than 500 former psychiatric patients what were the two things that would most improve their lives. Actually the kinds of things they might think about like drugs or a bit of counselling or whatever came very, very far down the list - for these 500 service users, the two things that would most improve their lives were a house and a job, and that was back in the 1990's. But I think that same desire to have a job, to be seen as part of society, was also evident more recently in the willingness of hundreds of disabled workers at Remploy plants to take prolonged strike action last summer against closures and in defence of their right to work. You will recall that the argument for closure was that Remploy factories were old-fashioned, were paternalist and disablist and that disabled people should be in mainstream employment. I don't think any of us would dispute any of these ... many of these things. They are, however, wonderful in theory - and as the workers themselves saw the alternative to keeping the factories open - in reality it would not be mainstream jobs, but the dole queue - and they were right. Figures released in November 2012 showed that one year after the closure of 31 Remploy factories and the loss of 1,021 jobs three months ago, a grand total of 35 former Remploy workers had found jobs.

But I think the strongest evidence against the argument that unemployment is a lifestyle choice, that you don't want to work, actually comes from the experience of the government's own work programme or 'Work Fair' as it is most commonly known. You are probably familiar with it, but the scheme involved private providers such as G4S, A4E and Serco being paid to take on a jobless person, find them a job and then ensure that they keep it. An indication of the success of that scheme came just last month from the House of Common's Public Accounts Committee - that Committee found that of the 9,500 former incapacity benefit claimants referred to these providers, a total of 20 ... less than 4%, had actually been placed in a job that lasted for more than three months - against a background where the scheme cost £5m in its first five years. So that's the first myth I want to take on.

The second myth is the suggestion that work is the panacea, that work is the route out of poverty. And clearly it would be insulting to the tens of thousands of young people who are unemployed, as well as many others, to suggest that unemployment does not mean poverty. If fact there are now 90,000 young people in Scotland without a job - a number which has doubled since the recession began. But to argue that work of any kind of the route out of poverty I think is both simplistic and misleading. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's 2012 Poverty & Social Exclusion Report, the biggest single group in poverty are now the in-work poor and people who are working. That Report showed that more than half of children and working age adults in poverty in the UK now live in working households - that is a total of 6.1 million people, made up of 2 million children and 4.1 million working age adults - in other words, a million more people are in poverty in working households than in workless households. What the Report also showed is that anyone is at risk - as against this notion of a huge pool of people, very long-term unemployed - actually most people in Britain are in a constant cycle and many people in Britain are in a constant cycle in and out of work - and millions have been in and out of poverty since the economic downturn. 5 million people have claimed Job Seekers Allowance at least once in the last 2 years. So the real issue then is not ... on to argue - is not excessive benefit levels which prevent people from working, but rather low pay and precarious employment.

And the third and final myth I want to mention is the idea that it was excessive welfare spending ... excessive spending, particularly in disability benefits, that has led to the present crisis. I think one of the most astonishing conjuring tricks of the past few years is the way in which a crisis which 5 years ago everyone recognised as having been the product of behaviour of reckless bankers, the likes of Fred Goodwin, has suddenly, in that period, become a crisis of people being paid excessive benefits for too many people - it is a very, very clever slight of hand - quite a trick. But actually, I think it is important to restate that it was not the unemployed or people with disabilities or pensioners, who make up, of course the biggest section of the welfare bill, who were bailed out by the UK government to the tune of £1.62 trillion pounds against which the benefits budget is actually tiny - but rather it was banks such as RBS, HBOS and HSBS. So it seems to me that we should reject attempts to try and force people with disabilities or the low paid, or people with an extra room, to pay for a crisis in whose creation they have played no part.

And now to social work - what does this mean for social work? Does social work, as a profession, have anything to say about what is really the most savage assault on welfare we have seen in our lifetimes? Or is it the case, as on Scottish government minister memorably suggested over a decade ago, that social workers should just forget about social justice and get on with the job? We have to say, looking at it honestly, the signs initially are not terribly encouraging. For a start, and I think despite the excellent work that is done by thousands of frontline social workers on a daily basis, social work's record at challenging poverty and challenging the scapegoat of clients is I think uneven at best - and not should that really surprise us. Social work is a creature of social policy - for the most part it is funded by the state, either directly or indirectly - and from the point of view of government, the primary role of social workers is to police some of the troublesome families that David Cameron spoke about recently. For the state, the value of social work is it reaches the parts that other parts of the welfare state don't reach. But for that reason, is sometimes experienced as oppressive by social work clients. Last month, 25,000 people marched against the closure of a hospital in Lewisham - it would be good to think that that number would march against the closure of the local social work department - I am not sure they actually would.

Secondly though, whatever its limitations, social work in the 1970's and 80's did genuinely seek to promote social welfare - in the words of the famous Section 12 of the Social Work Scotland Act "through a rich range of methods and approaches including casework, group work with young people, community social work and community work". By contrast, and some have written about this at great length - I think the assessment and care management approaches which have dominated social work for the last 20 years have shrunk social work to a much narrower, much more bureaucratic activity - whereas we know workers can spend up to 80% of their time completing computerised assessment forms. And sadly, despite its claims to be the new philosophy for social work, actually the advent of personalisation, self-directed support, I would argue has not fundamentally changed that. According to a 2012 survey of social workers views of personalisation carried out by Community Care magazine in England and Wales, 68% of respondents said the assessment paperwork was far too complicated for service users to complete themselves, 64% said there is not sufficient times, as users, to effectively support self-assessment, and others said the forms left little time to spend with service users. We will maybe talk about personalisation in discussion, but elsewhere, as we know, it is leading to the closure of a whole number of day services.

And finally, the other side of the attack on benefits I've referred to above, is the biggest assault ... and I haven't said a lot about it, but its context to all of this - the biggest assault on welfare we have seen since its creation. We know that many voluntary organisations, whether it be crisis centres, whatever kind of organisations are already struggling to survive - we know that social work vacancies are being left unfilled, caseloads are growing, eligibility criteria rising - and 80% of the cuts have still to be implement. In other words, at the same time as poverty and inequality are rising, the resources to address that are being massively reduced.

So I'd like to present you with a cheerier picture, but the fact is it's not a rosy picture. Having said all of that, I want to argue the all of this does matter to social work, and that social work potentially has a really important role to play against this background. For a number of reasons ... firstly I think, most obviously, the assault on benefits and in services will lead, and is already leading to a massive increase in the levels of mental health problems and levels of family crisis and poverty. According to the coalition's own figures, the benefit changes, which will come into play next week - because most of the benefit changes that are taking place will take place through the month of April, will result in an extra ... and this is the government's own figures - will result in an extra 200,000 children living below the poverty line. For some people that won't matter - I came across a quote recently by the American business magnet, Warren Buffett, who put it quite succinctly - "for the children of rich people, they just have a Trust Fund rather than a social worker". But for those who have not planned enough to have a Trust Fund, it is likely that many of the parents will make their way to the social work office. Now clearly that is going to mean that social workers are unable to avoid this - on the other hand I would argue that it also means that social workers, perhaps more than any other profession, are well placed to actually document the impact of these cuts on people's lives, if we can find ways to do that.

A second reason I think it is important to social work is that social work, for all it has changed over the years, remains an ethical profession. It's not just radical social workers who believe that this is a profession which should actually promote rights and social justice. This is actually part of the official definition adopted by the International Federation of Social Workers. So the notion that principles of human rights and social justice are fundamentally social work is actually something which is part of our global understanding of what this profession should be about. So on the grounds of social justice, if on no others, social workers need to find ways to actively challenge the scapegoating and the demonization of poor people and people with disabilities.

But thirdly, I think what is distinctive about social work and what continues to make it I think still a very attractive profession for many of us and a profession worth fighting for, is the belief that fundamentally people are social beings - the belief that, contrary to Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society - that there is a connection between public issues and private troubles. I think in practice over the years, social work has often lost that focus - I think has been dominated in individualism, that loses sight of the way that poverty and oppression shapes people's lives and sees them as isolated beings. That was very, very true at the approach of the earliest social work organisation, the Charity Organisation Society, whose philosophy was not a million miles away from Osborne's 'Shirkers .v. Strivers'. I think there is also today, in some variants of personalisation, there is a view that simply if we just make people customers and give them an individual budget, then somehow that will address their problems.

But what I think is also true is that there is another tradition in social work - a collectivist tradition, which actually recognises that people's lives are shaped by wider social forces and that part of the role of social work is work with people to address and redress these forces. It's a collectivism whose origins lie in the Settlement movement of the late 19th century or the 20th century - it's a movement which has not been documented enough, a movement which, particularly in the US, actually played a central role prior to the First World Ward in challenging racism, in challenging poverty and in challenging women's oppression - and which mean that at the time of the outbreak of the First World War, social workers, in the US in particular, were seen as the main social reformers of their time. It's a collectivism which re-emerged in the 1970's with the emergence of the Radical Social Work movement in Britain, Canada and Australia - the essence of which was not any particular method, but rather, in the words of Bailey & Brake who wrote the (... unclear) text, 'understanding the position of the oppressed in the context of the social and economic structures we live in' - in other words, avoiding victim blaming. And I think it's a collectivism that we have seen again in recent years, with the emergence of collective disability and mental health users movements based on a social model of disability.

And really, what I want to argue tonight, as a kind of move towards my kind of final points, is that in an era of austerity we need a new collectivism in social work. Doesn't mean we don't do good individual work - I think now, more than ever, we actually have to defend holistic, relationship based work, against tick box, procedural, form driven work. But I also want to argue that given the current scale, the level on onslaught on welfare and on people's lives, individual work by itself is not enough. And by new collectivism, I really mean three things. First of all it means, I think, rediscovering our own collective strength and practice wisdom. I think one of the main effects ... one of the voices it seemed to me that was most silenced by the managerial ethos of the past 20 years has been the voice of frontline social workers. And I think we have to create spaces where workers can actually get together, can talk about how they begin to resist some of these attacks, and can share the best experience and develop new forms of practice. For some people, in some places, practitioner forums may play that role, for others it will be organisations like the Social Work Action Network, that I will mention in a minute, for others it may be different things. Crucially, I would argue that it also means strong trade union organisation at both workplace and national level. So that's the first thing.

Secondly, I think it means rediscovering the community social work and community development traditions of social work. One of the criticisms that was made, when the events at Winterbourne View Hospital broke last year and the year before, one of the criticisms that was made of Winterbourne was its remoteness and the remoteness of similar institutions from friends, families and communities. But I think that doesn't just apply to places like Winterbourne View - I think social workers increasingly are removed from the communities they purport to serve, whether it's in call centres or centralised offices covering vast areas. And I think if we are to develop genuinely preventative practices, then we have to actually rediscover that community social work and that community developed tradition. And I'm pleased to say that later on in this year, on 27th May I think it is, we are going to run a seminar here on developing new forms of community social work, with representatives both from current projects and also from projects of a decade or two ago.

I think also, rediscovering that collective tradition means looking beyond the UK. Social work is now a global profession. At this point I am not going to do it - I would normally ask people to guess which country, outside the US, now has more Schools of Social Work than any other. Now I am not going to guess because I know that 3 of you know. But basically the answer ... and people usually come up with Australia or Canada or whatever - actually it is China - China now has more Schools of Social Work than any other. Now you can discuss why that is and what that says about growing inequality in China, but nevertheless it is clearly a global profession. And I think that basically, whereas in the early part of the 20th century social work was very much an export from Britain and the US, often is part of a wide colonial project, actually I think now we really need to learn from what is happening, from the collectivist approaches of social workers in other countries - in these places like South Africa and Latin America. And again in that connection ... this sounds like a plug here, which I guess it is, but I am pleased to say we will be launching a new Master's program in 2014 here, at the UWS, in Global Social Work and Social Policy - and as Bobby mentioned, from next April ... and I hope you will subscribe, we will have a new journal called 'Critical and Radical Social Work', the first issue of which on 'what is the future of social work?' will have articles from South Africa, Latin America, the USA, Greece and Australia. So basically I think we need to look outwards.

And finally, there is a question of resistance - and I think this poses huge issues for all of us. We are seeing the biggest assault on welfare we have seen in our lifetimes. But I think the other side of that coin is what we are also seeing - whether it's around issues like the Bedroom Tax or more specific issues, and within social work - I think we are seeing the growth of resistance to that assault and to managerial forms of social work that subordinate values and relationships to budgets and targets.

And I just want to finish just pointing to some examples of this - one I have already mentioned - next month the Social Work Action Network, which some of us were involved in setting up a few years back, which seeks to challenge that agenda of managerialism and privatisation in social work will be holding its 8th annual conference - frankly, none of us thought it would live this long, but actually it's in London's Southbank University. There will be something like 400 students, social workers, academics and service users there debating how we begin to resist the onslaught. So there is the Social Work Action Network. But I think ... and again one of the criticisms that has occasionally been made in the past of the radical social work tradition is it's a very British development - it really has not taken off elsewhere - and I just want to point to one or two examples of where that is actually happening. During 2011 and 2012, and I made reference to this already - we saw a rise of a movement, a movement which began on Wall Street, which spread throughout the world, the Occupy movement. And I think one of the interesting things about this is that quite spontaneously, right across the world, was the way in which social workers began to engage with that movement. This is Slovenia at the end of 2011 when the Occupy movement took off in quite a big scale - but what was quite interesting was at the heart of that movement is the social work faculty and Ljubljana University. And I am not going to go through this in detail, but they produced a manifesto which they called ... not Radical Social Work - they called 'Direct Social Work'. Now the language ... I wish we could come up with language like "be a buffer to the strokes of raging capitalism" - but I think essentially the argument was to work with "we do not want to work with paper and not with people", etc. But over here I think you can see the parallels - it is about resisting the economisation of everyday life and relations, to combat the medicalization of the stress, the bureaucratisation of human relations and work, and to work together to find new solutions. That is a statement from social workers in Slovenia in 2011. Interestingly, it wasn't just a European phenomenon - this is ... it's not really the photograph, but actually this was a conference which took place in Hong Kong at the end of 2010 which we were invited to attend - a conference which was called 'Reclaiming Progressive Social Work' - and exactly the same kind of debates that social workers are having here about managerialism, about the economisation, about the dominance of care management, etc, etc - exactly the same debates were taking place there ... interestingly also in Japan, which we visited. And actually, again here too - this is Occupy, the Hong Kong movement in 2011 - you can see the yellow banner, the second banner there is Hong Kong social work students who are also very much part of that movement.

But where I want to end tonight is coming back to ... I want to come back to Europe and I want to come back to the theme of Brecht's poem - because Brecht's poem - the theme was about homelessness, and that is really where I want to end tonight, because I want to talk about this young man - a young man called Norbert French. About 2 years ago the Hungarian government, which was experiencing problems of growing homelessness, etc, responded by passing a new law - it was a law which made homelessness illegal and which made what they called 'dumpster diving' illegal. Now I didn't know what dumpster diving, was but you can probably guess - it's going to places like Marks & Spencers, whatever, and looking through the bins for food. Norbert, who was a young social worker, and some of his colleagues, felt that this was a bridge too far. So 30 or 40 of them demonstrated outside the main council offices in Budapest, and you can see the video of them doing so on YouTube. Norbert was arrested and was threatened with very serious offences - conspiracy offences - and was threatened with up to 2 years in prison. I am glad to say, in this case, there was a major international campaign, the International Federation of Social Workers were involved, the Social Work Action Network was involved - which resulted, it ended with Norbert getting a community sentence and so avoiding imprisonment. So to that extent it was a success. But I think what was quite interesting again, and I have to confess my knowledge of Hungarian social work is less than zero - but I actually thought, "I'd better kind of check this out". And what we then found was that Norbert was not an isolated individual - Norbert, like the people in Hong Kong, like the people in Slovenia, was part of a wider network - a network called 'New Approach'. I should say the term 'Radical Social Work' was not ... this is their term ... this is the term that they have used - and basically what they are saying is the New Approach - community work and radical social work is based on the idea of combining workshops and action groups, and also the renewal of social work codes of ethics. It's located in the long-term goal - "we need workshops, we want to provide spaces for discussing issues concerning the social sphere and the development of action strategies. As an action group, we are committed to the profession and the public's attention is drawn to the situation of the excluded". And I think this is a wonder sentence which I want to end on - "we seek to be a professional community that is not afraid to stand up for those in need". And I think that really that is the challenge for social workers in Hungary, it is a challenge for social workers in Hong Kong and Japan - I think it is also the challenge for social workers here in Scotland.


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