Politics and the Professional
Politics is always in the news and, among other things, I seem to be hearing an awful lot about UKIP at the moment. Perhaps because the whole European debate is hotting up and UKIP is keeping to the fore of the arguments. Whether you or I agree with UKIP policies or not is one thing, and I’m not planning on pinning my political flag squarely on the mast (it might be there and a bit lopsided though), but the right to follow a legal political party, and the impact that can have on your employment status, is another.
And not so long ago (November 2012) that debate arose when foster carers in Rotherham had three children removed from their care following an anonymous allegation that they were paid up members of UKIP. Having worked with a considerable number of applicant foster carers in completing their Form F Assessments (which do not specifically require applicants to reveal their political affiliations) and worked extensively in the private fostering sector, this story was of particular interest to me, and I have attempted to follow the outcome.
There was a brief furore in the press and promises of inquiries made. As yet I can find no evidence of the publicly available result of any inquiry. So I am writing this blog on the basis of the information given in the news reports from the time and without knowing any official outcome of any inquiry, or if indeed there ever was (or will be) an inquiry once the initial dust had settled. (Update March 2014 – there is still no publicly available evidence of an inquiry or the outcome.)
First a quick recap, culled from the various news reports. A couple from Rotherham in South Yorkshire had been fostering for seven years when out of the blue the three children they had in placement were removed by the local authority. Of course, except for the carers and the children, it wasn’t entirely out of the blue: the local authority had been in discussion with the fostering agency for around three weeks before removing the children with no notice to either the children or the carers. Unless there were genuine concerns that the carers might abscond with the children (which does not appear to have been the case) the lack of professionalism displayed by both the local authority and the fostering agency is sadly astounding.
But, back to the original story. The three children concerned were siblings of an ethnic minority family (Eastern European Roma) and had been in placement for just under eight weeks. Various concerns about the placement were mentioned but the primary reason that kept surfacing in the news was the fostering couple’s membership of UKIP. UKIPs foundational campaign of UK independence from Europe was not the issue. The issue was found hidden in the depths of their policy on Asylum & Immigration, which the local authority considered racist.
Now, without an inquiry, it seems to me that poor old Rotherham, who haven’t had the best of press over the years, have had a quick knee-jerk reaction and these carers and children have been the ones on the receiving end. Criticised in court for not previously taking into consideration this particular sibling group’s ethnic needs a whiff of further criticism following an anonymous tip off that the carers were members of a racist non-mainstream political party led to an unfortunate reaction that got them back in the headlines again. The placement was not sound on the grounds of poor matching to ethnic needs, including the birth parents concern that the children were losing their ability to speak their native language. But this was a temporary placement while a more suitable ethnic match could be found. To then bring politics into the argument and remove the children in an unplanned (with the children’s welfare at heart) manner seems a little unfortunate.
Now, the bit that scares me is that I don’t personally agree with ALL the policies of any one political party, for various reasons. But I might choose to vote for them if I agree with the overall principles of that party, whether that is UK independence from Europe, or the socialist or capitalist policies of other parties. And I might not even be aware of all the minute details of some of the policies if, like most people, I haven’t read the small print.
When UKIP first came on the scene, as I recall, their focus was on trade and sovereignty issues but it is some time since I last looked at their policies. Now seemed a good time to take a closer look at their Asylum & Immigration policies, just for my own pleasure. It’s pretty boring. The main parties are all pretty much vying for who can be the most effective in reducing immigration and the most strict on dealing with illegal immigrants. UKIP want to cap immigration at 50,000 persons per annum, which initially sounds comparable to Conservative and Labour comments, except UKIP include EU citizens in that figure. And of course the UKIP policy has that damming phrase that got Rotherham all in a bother: “End the active promotion of the doctrine of multiculturalism by local and national government and all publicly funded bodies”, alongside a less trumpeted but rather worrying intention to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act and enforcing the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees while a new Asylum Act is created.
Having worked in the local authority with “asylum seekers and refugees” during the immigration ‘crisis’ period that began in the late 1990’s I am well aware of the political posturing on this subject from that time, and since. It was appallingly chaotic with the government of the day, the Refugee Council and the courts effectively changing policy and the legal rights of those affected on an almost daily basis in some way or another. It wasn’t a pleasant time and the added stress caused to those on the receiving end was an abuse in itself. However, I am also aware of the social tensions caused in those areas most affected. My home town and those around are still hot beds of some serious prejudice caused by the resentment fuelled in part by political posturing and the media. But then those same towns also have a higher than average proportion of the population from Eastern European countries and beyond. Worryingly, through my work, I have seen this lead to a rise not just in support for relatively mainstream parties such as UKIP but also for the BNP in particular.
Back in the early days of radicalism in social work anyone that didn’t support an obviously socialist political standpoint ended up skulking in a corner and keeping quiet about their political views. But that was grass roots opinion: social workers standing up for the oppressed and seeing socialism as the representative of the poor. Society has changed in the intervening years (whether for better or worse). Politics has also changed in the intervening years and the differences between the mainstream parties have become less clear. Who to vote for now?
And there is the dilemma. Anybody working in public services might have a personal belief that EU membership is not the best way forward for the UK. If that person is a social worker or foster carer, or maybe a teacher or nurse or police officer, then does that preclude them from supporting a political party that represents their view, at least to some extent? If it is accepted that supporting UKIPs views on the benefits of EU membership is not appropriate because of some of their related policies, where does that leave the social care professionals? Is there an acceptable political party? What if you don’t personally support one or two of their policies that you find in the small print? Some social workers may be Christian or Muslim, and perhaps don’t support a pro-abortion or gay marriage stance (some do, some don’t): who are they allowed to vote for? What about the fact that political parties sometimes change their views with the wind and tide of public opinion and media pressure? Even to the point of absolute U-turns. Where can the line be drawn? Should there be an approved political party for social workers and other care professionals?
This is the danger behind Rotherham’s knee jerk reaction to the tip off about this fostering couple being members of UKIP. No-one took the trouble of checking out their actual views on race and immigration (which would have been covered in their Form F Assessment). If social work is to reclaim its radical roots (as most academics promote – see my book review on Green Social Work), then social workers cannot be afraid of their employers stance on their political views. Social workers need the freedom to be political, and maybe there does need to be a new political party to represent that. But they cannot be afraid that their political views will incur the wrath of their seniors in a heavy handed way as happened with this fostering couple in Rotherham.
Finally, I have a professional code of practice to abide by. In my work it overrides my political and religious views. I don’t bring my religion or my politics to work in any way that contradicts my professional code of practice. Out of work I do not do anything that brings my profession into disrepute (although that cannot change my personal opinions and beliefs). That is the nature of social work. If I can’t accept that then I get out.
ADDENDUMS – March 2014
Things within and around UKIP appear to have changed in the year since the above post was written, in particular there has been a marked increase in racist and sexist allegations made against the party. The UKIP spring conference has drawn considerable concern and criticism from mainstream media for blatant racism:
The Mirror focuses their report on the racist humour of the comic entertainment at the conference, which Nigel Farage did not condemn.
Alex Massie, blogging for The Spectator declares UKIP a party for reactionary xenophobes.
But perhaps the most relevant article for me was from Dan Hodges of The Telegraph, in which he declares “UKIP is now a racist party”, comparing this to his view of the party a year ago, and in particular how UKIP has moved from “raising general concerns regarding immigration to directly targeting and stigmatising individual national groups”.
In Nigel Farage’s keynote speech from the Spring conference he states the key issue for the forthcoming European elections (May 2014) is the issue of ‘open door immigration’ and the impact on British jobs and services (this reference begins at 17:40 minutes into the speech).
Official UKIP video on ‘commonsense immigration’.
New Social Work Left
Since writing the original article above I note that there has been a continued push from within academia to encourage political awareness among social workers, in particular looking towards the development of a ‘new social work left’ (The New Politics of Social Work edited by Gray & Webb – see separate review).
There will also be a forthcoming blog on the link between political opinion and morals and values.