Friday, 11 September 2009

Social Work: No subs allowed

The government is currently trying to recruit more social workers. In an effort to improve the image of a profession tainted by a series of failures, from Baby P to the Doncaster Delinquents, a glossy new advertising campaign has been launched, featuring celebrities including Samantha Morton and Goldie "giving their voice". Ed Balls wrote in the Guardian the other day that he wanted "to reach out to the public in a way that captured their imagination and challenged their preconceptions, encouraging people from all walks of life to give serious consideration to a social work career". Attracting more people into social work at a time of such negative media coverage is, he says, a "key challenge".

Yet this aim seems at odds with the draconian requirements of the registration system that has been in the name of public protection, but which can also be a front for unwarranted intrusion and misplaced moralism. Anyone applying to study social work at university - the first step towards a career as a social worker - must first be vetted by the General Social Care Council. As well as passing an enhanced CRB check - a procedure that takes account of unproved allegations as well as criminal convictions - prospective students must satisfy the Council of their good character. And this can go beyond their trustworthiness and professional integrity into highly personal aspects of their lives. Their private sex lives, for example.

I recently came across the case of Serena, a 38 year old living in the North West who was keen to pursue a new career as a social worker. Committed and idealistic - she has been doing voluntary work among homeless people for more than ten years, and hoped to specialise in helping drug addicts rebuild their lives - she sounds like an ideal social worker. "I loved it," she says. "I guess it’s hard to find something that you feel so passionately about." Chester University had offered her a place. Last month, however, she was summoned to a meeting with academics, who had received a malicious allegation that she had been working as a prostitute.

This wasn't true, but she does have what many would consider an unconventional lifestyle. Her partner is a "transvestite mistress", she regularly attends fetish parties, and she admitted that she had taken money as a submissive about six months ago. The panel quizzed her closely about her personal life, an experience she found deeply humiliating. The man chairing the meeting, she says, left the door ajar and acted rather strangely throughout, as though he feared she was about to "drop her knickers and start screaming 'Spank me, big boy!'". She adds, "I felt dirty, abnormal and wrong trying to explain my lifestyle to the decision makers. I know I'm not.. but that's how they made me feel." It was also clear that they had already made up their minds to bar her.

Serena was told "that with all the recent hype and negative limelight social workers had got, that they were going to have to be careful who they were allowing on the course. Then they explained that if I was involved in an activity that led my profession in to disrepute that the GSCC would simply not register me." In effect, her career ambitions were shattered - even if she got in somewhere else, there was always a likelihood that her secret would come out. "It is almost as if the 10 yrs of voluntary work I did means nothing," she says, when set against her personal preference for being dominated. "People should have the right to consensual play". Happily, she has managed to secure a place on a different degree course (in psychology) - but the contribution she might have made as a social worker has been lost.

She seems to have fallen victim to S 5.8 of the GSCC's code of practice, which states that social workers - or anyone wanting to be a 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." Moreover, when registering someone the GSCC must (Section 6)


take into account conduct, both within and outside the workplace, and whether or not this is likely to constitute a risk to service users. This is made clear in paragraph 5.8 of the code of practice, which requires social care workers to uphold public trust and confidence in social care services by not behaving in any way, either in work or outside work, which would call into question their suitability to work in social care services.


The provision assumes that a person's private life would create a "risk" to service users - but only, it seems, because it is assumed that it would diminish "public confidence" if it was exposed. It's not explained why this is a risk to anyone but the social worker being exposed. Being spanked - professionally or otherwise - may not be to everyone's taste, but Serena is not harming anybody, nor is she herself psychologically damaged. Such evidence as there is, indeed, tends to show that people who are into S&M are actually better balanced, and less likely to exhibit major psychiatric problems, than the general population. The fact that Serena has in the past earned money in a somewhat recondite part of the sex industry does not mean she would pose any sort of threat to vulnerable people she would be working with. Indeed, it may well have given her a greater understanding of her clients, many of whom will themselves have been involved in the most exploitative forms of prostitution.

The situation is compounded by the culture of hyper-vigilance that has taken root - partly as a result of scandals, but partly also because of the paranoid tenor of the age. Ken McLaughlin (senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University) wrote recently that the introduction of the GSCC and its associated registers and enhanced CRB checks - soon to be joined by the Orwellian Independent Safeguarding Authority - represented "the institutionalisation of mistrust". It had done little to improve either service provision or public safety, he argued. On the other hand, it had heightened public anxiety, leading to an atmosphere of suspicion and demands for ever greater regulation. "Behind the rhetoric of care and protection", he thinks, "lies a deep distrust of all social care workers. It is possible to argue that the government and GSCC have a far lower opinion of social workers than the general public does."

Especially sinister is the abolition of private life implicit in such moves - that someone can be disqualified for a job, not because of anything that might interfere with their work, but because of their past choices, or because of aspects of their private life that they often manage to secret even from their families. It also seems anomalous in a society where alternative sexual lifestyles are increasingly accepted and openly discussed. Public protection is of course important. But the GSCC register - or those who act as its gatekeepers at universities running courses in social work - would seem to be confusing actual risk with blatant prejudice.

Serena is far from alone in experiencing hostility and loss of career opportunities as a result of an unconventional private life. The evidence so far is largely anecdotal, but Clair Lewis's pressure group CAAN has begun collecting stories of anti-kink discrimination to present to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has so far shown very little interest in takling the problem. She says that the project, which includes a handbook being written by The Register's John Ozimek, will also "put forward a model for understanding such discrimination which moves away from the individual and who they are, refocusing on structures in society which exclude and discriminate."

Clair argues that discrimination against kinksters is actually getting worse.

Consenting adults with any kind of alternative sexuality are now in a position where discrimination is so rife that even where employers are not strictly obliged to discriminate in these matters, all of them can and many do. We've had another such incident drawn to our attention the other day where someone who has kept their BDSM interests private at work has been outed and is being bullied at work by a colleague who has taken the matter to line management. Despite its lack of relevance to their work, another person is this week being pulled into talks with managers and having to defend their consensual pastimes. The thought that someone of a more typical sexual persuasion could have this happen, or for this to happen to a gay man, is obvously outrageous.


And here, of course, is the paradox. The safety-first culture of suspicion, checking and databases which has produced like situations in which someone like Serena can be barred from social work on plainly spurious grounds has gone along with a huge official effort to combat other forms of discrimination, to protect and promote other minority groups - often through the same type of cumbersome bureaucratic procedures. Homosexuality was a criminal offence little more than forty years ago and defined in medical dictionaries as an aberration (as sadomasochism sometimes still is). Now, though, politicians want to be seen on Gay Pride marches. Progress of a sort, perhaps: but it still leaves the state picking and choosing which sexual orientations it officially approves of, on grounds that are entirely arbitrary.

There's precious little logic involved here. Evidence suggests that kinky sexuality is can be as inbuilt and central to a person's identity as their attraction towards a particular gender. Public opinion, too, is probably ahead of the politicians. While there may still be a market for tabloid exposés of what the Mail's Paul Dacre described (in the context of the Max Mosley case) as "unimaginable depravity", there is a growing tolerance for, openness about and, indeed, exploration of what were once hidden and shameful practices. Most people have now come round to the idea that what people get up to in their private lives, so long as it involves consenting adults, is no-one else's business. It's time the law - and New Labour's monstrous vetting machine - caught up.