The Meandering Social Worker

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Archive for the tag “responsibility”

Why soundbites don’t work for society

I often see Facebook images and articles about social issues and share them on my own timelinepensions image, but I don’t think I can share this one.  It’s not that I don’t agree with the sentiment behind it.

Let me start by saying that I support people of retirement age getting an appropriate pension. It’s a part of human decency in supporting society. Not least as, after forty years of working myself, my own retirement is on the near horizon.

This image came with the comment that ‘inept governments who did not invest wisely over the years shouldn’t blame the olds’. But it’s not as simple as that. Firstly we elected those inept governments and then put our trust in them to act in our best interests. At one time we genuinely believed they did, now as a society we are much less sure (NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey highlights just how much our trust and belief in our governments have declined over the years).

But did our governments act ineptly in this matter? Surely governments over the years (1) could never invest the money because it was always paying out this year’s pension with this year’s Tax and National Insurance income and (2) why should they because in the early days of pensions they could reasonably assume that it would always be possible to work that way. Isn’t that how the majority of us budget our own weekly or monthly income?

They didn’t have a crystal ball any more than the rest of us to see how technology and globalisation would change the world. And so for all sorts of reasons that balancing of the budget between pension income and pension outgoings became harder and so in recent years we have seen the promotion of the private pension provision and the raising of the retirement age. That doesn’t take into account the fact that there are only so many jobs in the market place and if the old are working then the young aren’t – but that’s another debate.

In the meantime there are some things for which we should still be grateful – the UK state pension has only existed for 106 years and when it was introduced in 1909 it was as a non-contributory but means tested benefit claimable only over the age of 70 when only 25% of the population lived long enough to claim it. And, due to poor working conditions and health, many of those who did reach 70 years of age would have been among the better off and so not entitled to a means-tested benefit. Before 1909 you went to the workhouse or died if your family couldn’t keep you if you couldn’t work for any reason. (for more detail see History of State Pension Age)

When the new contributory pension was introduced in 1925 this was still an era when married women did not work. Men became entitled to pension payments at the age of 65 but had to wait until their wife retired, often 4-5 years later, to receive the full couple’s entitlement, forcing them either into poverty or the wife into the impossibility of entering the workplace, some for the first time in 40 years. Fortunately in those days employability depended less on employment record, although she would still have faced the barrier of married women not being seen as needing employment. This was no doubt harder on the women of the middle classes at the time as the women of the working classes were more likely to have had to supplement the family income through domestic work, taking in laundry, ironing and mending, and could continue to do so.

Women didn’t work outside the home because that was the social norm. A young woman might begin working when she left education but when she married she was often forced to resign her job to allow that opportunity to be passed on to another young person. My own mother was forced to resign her job in a local pharmacy when she married in the mid-1950’s as she was now perceived to be the ‘responsibility’ of her husband. But her husband was a manual labourer and on low income and not earning enough to keep the two of them. One day when my mother went into the pharmacy she was talking to her old boss and said how hard it was. He offered her her old job back – on the condition that she was called Miss, used her maiden name at work and took off her wedding ring at work: he feared the disapproval and that he would lose customers if they thought he was employing a married woman. As a carryover from that time, when I married in 1981 my new aunts (all in their 70’s) were shocked and disapproving that I intended to continue working once married.

In the meantime, in this same cultural environment, when the retirement age for women was reduced to 60 in 1940 it allowed couples to receive their pension entitlement at approximately the same time, based on the average age differences between husbands and wives, reducing pensioner poverty but with the happier side effect of allowing long term marrieds to retire and spend their last few years together, particularly as men were still likely to die of old age before their wives retired before that time.

Of course the second world war (1939-1945) did a lot to change the culture then, with married women making up the backbone of the domestic workforce while so many of the men were away fighting in the war. Expectations changed and with the end of the war things were never the same again.

The continued changing nature of society and relationships, powered by technological developments and globalisation, has changed our society almost beyond recognition to those times and things like the age differential has ceased to seem quite so defensible, allowing for legislative changes for men and women’s pensionable ages to be increased and brought on a par again.

Finally, with improved health care for everybody under the NHS, far more people have been living longer not only to reach pensionable age but also to be entitled to a pension income for half as long again as they worked and contributed for, thus increasing the burden on those still working and contributing. Back to my own mother’s story: thanks to the generosity of her employer she was able to work full time for around 8 years between leaving school and giving birth to me. Thanks to a local employer who specialised in exploiting young mums in need of an extra income she was able to work part time for a further 11 years. Then she worked a further 12 years full time until she retired at the age of 60. Had she not retired at 60 she would not have been able to work for much of the next five years as she underwent two hip replacement operations, one of which took much longer to heal than normal, due to infection. On a low income or working part time for 31 years, it is questionable whether she could ever have invested enough in her working life to have funded what is already over 23 years of retirement. Why should I consider a government capable of doing that (as suggested by the commentator I quoted at the beginning of this article)? For comparison, my own pension arrangements include two private company pensions now invested in private insurances that represent 10 years of working life and a combined anticipated income of £70 per month. If that is representative of the potential investment over 50 years I would have £350 per month to look forward to – less than the rent on a one bedroom flat. The rest of my private pension entitlement is better for having been with a local government pension scheme for a number of years but since halved due to divorce and a compulsory pension sharing agreement, just one of the newer challenges faced by today’s pension investors and not anticipated by the original pension planners 100 years ago, and still, in my case, not enough to pay the rent on a one bedroom flat. Admittedly I started late, having been born into the generation that was still being told our National Insurance contributions included an investment for our pensions. For all governmental intentions, private sector pensions are never going to fill the Welfare Benefits gap.

Like most people of her age, my mum could not work if she wanted to. She may have lived well beyond the life expectancy of a woman at the beginning of the 20th century, when pensions were introduced, but like so many of her friends, it has not been in the kind of health that would have enabled her to compete in the workplace.

The fact is, when life expectancy means that retirement is going to last for as much as half as many years again as we are able to work (more if you add a long university education in to the equation), governments need to budget for an aging population that is based on more than ‘investing wisely’ what is paid in National Insurance contributions.

Public spending on Benefits in the UKIn 2011-12 pensions and pension credits amounted to £82.33b, almost double what was spent on disability benefits combined (£24.58b) and almost a third of the total welfare benefits bill; although neither figure takes into account Housing and Council Tax Benefits, which will somewhat increase both these figures and their proportion of the overall benefits bill. These are not figures that can be easily changed. Age and disability cannot be ‘undone’. And ironically a capitalist society needs a pool of unemployed people to keep wages in check and provide incentives to workers to conform.

Some things might be changing. Concerns over the impact of the rising incidence of diet related health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and more, have raised the possibility of a lowering of the average lifespan. The very real issue of antibiotic resistance, compounded by use of antibiotics in intensive farming methods and reduced research into new antibiotics under the growth of privately funded medical research where antibiotic development is not profitable, will have the same impact.

While the mercenary view suggests this will reduce the pressure on pension provision in the future it will hardly help the wider financial picture as pressure is put on health providers and disability benefits, while reducing the pool of people available to work.

Emotive photos with captions that pensions are not a benefit but something that has been paid for over years is sound-bite propaganda. It’s not helpful in the wider debate. We are collectively a part of a wider community. Bunkering down into our own field of concern, whether it be pensions, disability benefits, child poverty, NHS, or education, will not help. The creeping privatisation of our National Health Service and Education system (through increasing academies) will not produce an answer. Just as communism fell because of the greed of a minority and the oppression of the majority, so too will capitalism eventually follow for the same reasons.

The whole system needs an overhaul. Society as a whole needs to recognise shared responsibility for the functioning of society. That includes the domination of our food industry by companies that put profit before community health (and global impact); the impact of the privatisation of research that means that essential but unprofitable research doesn’t get done; the privatisation of healthcare that will disadvantage the already disadvantaged (just look to the United States to see why the NHS should be saved); the privatisation of education and social care that means that costs and services have to meet the needs of shareholders often at the expense of service users, because that’s how capitalism works; governments that make policy decisions based on short term objectives, or what will get them voted in again next time, because that’s how democracy works, instead of on what society needs five generations into the future, as the old American Indians thought.

I have become a fan of Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness (she’s also on TED Talks). Its human nature, it’s in the way our brains have been wired, to see only that which is easy to see. Facebook works that way: ever noticed how you always get more of what you believe, that’s because facebook works like your brain and ignores that which you will find intellectually uncomfortable. But we have to make the effort to see beyond the natural blindness, to see beyond the soundbites, if we ever want to be a part of a fully functioning society that cares for one another.


Respect! as well as responsibility

Respect is a variable.  In some ways it is a right.  But it can be lost and it can be given.  It can be deserved and it can be earned.  It can be directed outwards towards others.  It can be directed inwards towards ourselves.  But one thing is for sure: it seems to be missing in a lot of places, including university campuses.

A new report commissioned by the NUS (National Union of Students) “That’s what she said” has come up with some alarming findings.  And it links in with the anti-blame-the-victim campaigns.  The NUS found that the extent to which “lad” cultures are prevalent in university campuses is detrimental to education and social development.  At the ‘soft’ end, if there can be a soft end, a generous interpretation might liken some of the findings to “Miss World” competitions at best – sexist and about women’s looks and bodies.  Of course, in an environment populated mainly by hormonally maturing young adults it might be reasonable to expect an undercurrent of sexual interest.  But it doesn’t stop there.  The most alarming aspect is a rise in jokes about rape, including one that points out that the under-reporting of rape makes it worth taking the risk.

They might be considered old fashioned values but it’s about time respect and responsibility started getting a better press.  If there was more respect for others as well as ourselves there might be less victims of crime (sexual or otherwise).  And there might be less need for police and social workers.

Know Your Responsibilities

The old 2006 UK NHS Know Your Limits Campaign to raise awareness of the risks of drinking (alcohol) is popping up in emails and social media news-feeds again thanks to a petition started by to get one particular campaign poster removed in all its formats.  The offending poster is the one that states that one in three reported rapes happen when the victim is drunk.  The objection to this poster is that it implies that rape is therefore the fault of the victim and not consistent with more recent NHS advice that “a sexual assault is always the fault of the perpetrator”.  Among those supporting the campaign is the NUS (National Union of Students) who state that the “only way to stop rapes is to stop rapists”.

I remember the original NHS campaign: it was designed to shock and the rape poster was just one of many shocking adverts and images at the time.  I agree with both and the NUS that a victim should not be blamed for being a victim.  But isn’t there another message in the NHS Know Your Limits campaign, which is about being aware of our individual and personal responsibility to ourselves?  If the facts are that one in three reported rapes occurred when the victim was drunk isn’t it the responsibility of the authorities to make that information available?  Don’t we then have the freedom of choice as to whether or not to take that information on board and decide whether we want to take it in to account when we make our decisions about our drinking habits?

We live in a culture that has moved from taking personal responsibility to blaming others for all our woes.  We have a government that perpetuates the message of fear on the one hand while they make it look as if they are protecting us, such as recent legislation that automatically sets up filters on home internet to protect the vulnerable from exposure to harmful websites, or allows the government to monitor all emails, texts, phone calls, to enable the authorities to prevent terrorism.  But the underlying message in the NHS Know Your Limits was to take responsibility for ensuring your own safety.

The wider campaign of which this petition is a part sates that the only way to stop rapes is to stop rapists.  And that is true, but until the authorities have successfully eradicated the issues that lead to rape – power struggles, inequality, difference and more – from our society we all, individually and collectively, have a responsibility to look after ourselves.

Rape is a heinous crime, unimaginable in its violence and invasion.  Emotive in all its guises.  Which can make it difficult to consider the message objectively.  There are less emotive crimes where we take responsibility to protect ourselves from those crimes – we lock windows and doors when we go out, the car door when we park it, we conceal purses and wallets to reduce the risk of being targeted by pickpockets, or get a lift or taxi rather than walk through known dangerous areas (for protection against mugging), make sure the car we are driving has brakes that work, use the right ropes and harnesses when rock climbing or bungee jumping.  Sometimes our precautions are not enough, or we are just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we become a victim of a crime or an accident.

I often support the campaigns of but not this one.  Not all my social work colleagues will agree with me.  In fact, I know many who will be supporting the campaign.  It’s because I believe the issues are way more complicated and far reaching than the campaign.

The arguments for and against internet blocking

I have already bloged about the British government’s decision to introduce compulsory internet blocking in the UK, at source.  In order to view websites that contain references to drugs, sex, rape, domestic violence, murder and suicide, householders will have to consciously ‘turn off’ the blocking.  The same goes for terrorism and bomb making.  The purpose of this is to protect children in the home from having access to potentially harmful websites, especially pornography and some of the sites that have encouraged eating disorders in children and adolescents.

I argued before that this will only protect the children who are already protected.  Responsible parents could always apply parental controls and take steps to supervise children’s access to the internet.  Children who are already in households where they are vulnerable to neglect and abuse are more likely to experience parenting where there is less or no supervision of internet access, and whose parents are just as likely to turn off the blocking features that would protect their children from accessing harmful material.  These are the same households where children may well find pornographic videos readily available on the shelf next to the TV/DVD.

And of course there is still the risk children from ‘protected’ households will be friends with children from vulnerable households and access these sites unsupervised.

This is what seems to be the case in a recent report of a 12 year old boy who sexually assaulted his younger sister after watching hard-core porn on an Xbox with a group of friends at the house of one of the friends.  At home his internet use was monitored.  When his parents had discovered he had accessed porn using his phone during a sleepover at a friend’s house they had confiscated his phone.  They were not aware at the time of the abuse that was happening with their daughter.  Everything in the reporting of this case suggests that this boy came from a ‘protected’ home but had friends whose parents were less vigilant.

The case is tragic and underlines the association between viewing pornography and sexual abuse.

But it doesn’t change my mind on the reasons against automatic blocking:

  • as tragic as this case is, the boy was clearly able to access inappropriate pornography at a friend’s house – that won’t change
  • vulnerable people, victims of domestic violence or other forms of abuse may find it harder to access websites where they can get help and advice – the internet is increasingly a source of information in these situations, especially where the victim is unwilling to risk approaching the authorities (common) – and it is unlikely that public internet providers, such as libraries, will ‘risk’ turning off any blocking on their systems
  • genuine research by social and health care professionals and university students will require the lifting of many of the automatic blocking – employers and universities are likely to be cautious about turning off internet blocking
  • and finally, this is a removal of individual responsibility and accountability in society – an attack on freedoms and liberty (in my previous blog I mentioned concerns that have been raised regarding the sub-conscious pressure on self-censorship and worries about official interference and spying as ‘opting-out’ will be recorded by internet providers)



Will social work sites be burned up by the UK firewall?

Is the UK government’s proposal of an opt-out ‘parental firewall’ a matter for social work?  After all it is being promoted as ‘parental’: helping parents protect their children from exposure to pornography, the promotion of suicide and anorexia, to name just a few of the ills and evils faced by modern society.

Does it matter that, in a drive to protect children, this move would have huge implications for free speech in restricting public access to the internet?

Sure, there is to be an opt-out button, but what effect will that have?

On Social Work

As one UK blogger has succinctly put it, “Coverage of important issues like pornography, child abuse, LGBT, eating disorders, depression, suicide, domestic violence, drug use and sexual health advice will be forced out of mainstream coverage, and made virtually inaccessible to anyone whose family has enabled web censorship in their home.”  No more access to BASW online, or SCIE reports for social workers then!  I can hardly imagine local authorities and private employers lifting access on work based internet access so no more work based online research for social workers, especially on sensitive subjects such as ritualistic abuse (‘esoteric’ sites are also likely to be subject to barring) – more work to be done at home!

Women, and men, suffering from domestic violence, patients with mental health or addictions problems, children who are being abused and want to find help, may all find themselves with reduced options for seeking information and help.  It’s not enough to say that these victims should contact their doctor, social worker, the police, teacher or any other of a number of people and organisations who can offer support and help.  As social workers we know those are options, but we also know that people take a long time to find the courage to make those contacts.  In the meantime they seek information from wherever they can find it, including the internet.  Even, in one case, a 7 year old child apparently contacting a Facebook moderator because she was being abused by her uncle and was too scared to ask elsewhere for help.  On occasion I have successfully encouraged vulnerable clients to use media such as television and the internet to reinforce messages I have been trying to promote – perhaps no more.

On vulnerable children

What about the children? Children who are already protected by their parents will continued to be protected.  The very ones the government seeks to protect, and especially the most vulnerable among them, the abused and neglected, will continue to be at risk.  As social workers we know that the homes where the most vulnerable children live are the same homes where the opt-out button is most likely to be applied.  The same homes where pornography, dirty needles, drugs and neglect are already physical daily hazards to be navigated.

I’m not alone in my concerns.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation have pointed out that “…if you wish to defend your nation’s children from abuse, when such abuse is frequently from within the family then locking children away from external but “adult” advice and giving the key to those who control the rest of their lives, is the worst possible strategy. That’s why youth advice charities and abuse survivors have come out against these filters.

On Education

How will the firewall affect further and higher education?  How will universities and colleges respond to the opt-out button?

I don’t particularly want to view pornography but who will draw the line, who will define what is or is not acceptable.  Several years ago there was a humorous news reporting of Daily Star journalists being unable to access their own newspaper’s website because it violated the company’s firewall access policy*.  What if a teacher of senior school pupils or college students wants to set an exercise comparing the quality of news reporting in different publications, does that mean The Sun (famous in the UK for its Page 3 pictures) will not be accessible for comparison online even though paper copies can be bought in every High Street and beyond in the country?  Would that exercise be possible when there is the chance that not all students would have access to the necessary information at home, and almost certainly not able to access it in the library or possibly even in school or college or university?  Would the teacher be castigated for including The Sun in the first place, when probably half their students  can see the same newspaper at home?

On society

Common among bloggers and commentators (way to many for me to cite here) is the view that the opt-out button will have a sub-conscious self-censoring effect on us all.  We will have to make a decision to declare what we want access to.  We will think twice before we opt to be able to access (but not necessarily actually view) anything that might be related to violence, terrorism or pornography.  We might want to be able to access some aspects, low key elements, of these areas for our work, particularly if we are involved in social work, policing, education or even journalism, but we would have to think twice before we clicked that button, lest government agents learn of our choices and label us subversive.

Following on from the recent revelations in the US about the extent to which governments can obtain access to our personal information, e-correspondence and activities, also common among bloggers and commentators is the view that the extent of the firewall proposals, as revealed by the Open Rights Group, is a backdoor method of UK government increasing their control of the British public.

The Spectator online considers the risk that these attempts to tackle online pornography from a British perspective will only push pornography further ‘underground’ where the most dangerous porn can already be accessed, making it less traceable and more dangerous.  Contrary to the government position this will endanger rather than protect the abused and vulnerable.

The government proposals show a naivete in understanding the perversity of human nature and how quickly those who want to will subvert any restrictions, as this Yahoo! News report suggests the possibility of blocking all non-porn sites!

There is no doubt still much to be revealed about the government’s plans but these proposals, due to take effect later this year, are pernicious and dangerous and do little to protect the vulnerable but rather take away some of their resources.  As social workers we should concern ourselves with the effect not only on our own lives but on those we strive to serve, the vulnerable.

* This was at least 4-5 years ago and I have not been able to find confirmation of this report online.  If anyone remembers this and can confirm the story, or provide a link, that would be much appreciated.

Just a few of the many blogs and commentaries on this subject not already cited above – in no particular order

BBC News Report of David Cameron’s speech
Boing BoingNational Review Online
Right Thinking
Huffington Post
The Economist
(on how China censors the Internet)
Open Rights Group

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