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Why our Human Rights Act social work

In this blog, we hear from two social workers sharing why the Human Rights Act matters to them and their profession.

Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.

Why our Human Rights Act matters... to independent social work

Daisy Jackson-Bogg is a member of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), an independent social worker and Director of DCC-I, an independent social work consultancy and Continuing Professional Development (CPD) organisation. Daisy is a practicing Approved Mental Health Professional and Best Interest Assessor, undertaking independent assessments and Serious Adults Reviews work alongside developing and delivering CPD for the health and social care sector.

Is it important to, or important for? A key question in strengths-based practice, an approach which is upfront and central in the part of the profession I occupy, adults and mental health. This is a question I can ask, and know to ask, because of the influence of the Human Rights Act. Without it, social workers, independent or otherwise (along with other health, social care and public sector colleagues), would still be making unilateral decisions based on what they believed was most likely to keep people safe, guided by what the moral majority thought was best (translated at points in our history as almost ‘warehousing’ people who didn’t fit the norm or who were seen as broken, weak or less than, those who were seen as not being able to ‘make a contribution’ to the society in which they live.

Whilst I agree in general terms that safety is a positive and important aspect of both civil life and specifically social work practice within that. I also recognise that it is a subjective term, one that varies according to the individual, context, and choices available. There is a balance to be struck between what society believes is best, and what the individual may want and/or need, and this is the position that adult social workers occupy on a daily basis.

For many of the people we work with, their view of the world is not the same as our perceptions as workers, or our health colleagues’ perceptions, or the perceptions of the wider society (including the press at some points!). We know that one persons’ safety can be another person’s worst fear, and without a framework to underpin our decision-making, social work responses would have no benchmark, no consistent way of navigating thorny dilemmas and would likely have limited consistency – based on the issue, the context, the players involved and the values of the practitioner rather than a sense of fairness, respect, equity, dignity and autonomy (aka the FREDA principles, the key principles that underpin social work practice overall). While many would argue this is the case anyway (which I can’t deny in general terms, we don’t always get it right and people are not always acting with positive intent), what I believe we do have is a common understanding of how the state should support its citizens, and a mandate which requires us, as professional social workers, to intervene and challenge when individual or community rights are being interfered with or otherwise eroded. For me the Act is the authority that the profession rests, and relies upon, to deliver both our statutory and non-statutory duties, often without knowing that this is the case/

For me, social work sits on that boundary between the benefit of the many versus the benefit of the few / individual. We are both advocates for individual rights and, in some cases custodians of both individual and public safety. It’s a sharp double edge sword that we walk on, and for me, the Act is the constant that leads us through some thorny ethical dilemmas we (and the people we support) are faced with, often whilst managing conflicting demands, shocking resource deficiencies and subjective interpretations of need and risk. As an AMHP and BIA it is the cornerstone of practice, the very reason my role exists, it is the roots of professional social work practice, ever present but not always noticed.

Why our Human Rights Act matters… for social work and legal literacy

With a background in mental health social work, Jane Foggin has been a social work educator at Sheffield Hallam University since 2005, specialising in teaching law, including human rights and equalities. Jane is a member of BASW's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group, and she has lived experience as an unpaid carer for a close family member and regularly reflects on what it is like to be on the "other side of the fence" as a recipient of health and social care services.

In my many years of interviewing people who apply for social work courses, they often speak passionately about their wish to speak up for those who are most vulnerable in society, advocating for their Human Rights. This continues in class, when the lived experiences of students, including those who are refugees, and of service users and carers who teach on our programmes, bring the everyday relevance of Human Rights very much to life for all concerned when the Human Rights Act 1998 is discussed.

Now, if we follow social work graduates out into the world of practice, a more mixed picture emerges concerning how Human Rights figure in their practice. Research with social workers indicates that the imperatives of human rights are not always at the forefront of practice (Preston-Shoot, 2019, p61).

My concern is this: between those heartfelt commitments expressed by students, something can derail that commitment a few years down the line into their careers. So, what is going on?   I think several intersecting influences are at work. Social work practice under austerity is complex, with tensions around reduced resources, higher caseloads, staff shortages and competing priorities. This can contribute to defensive and risk averse decision-making in organisations. But it also drives a concern for legal literacy in the practice of social workers when seeking to arrive at defensible decisions, that are legally, ethically, and evidentially justifiable.

There is long history of human rights being at the heart of values statements in social work. In its global definition of social work, the International Federation of Social Work says:

“Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.”

British Association of Social Workers has retained a central commitment to human rights as a core value for social work in its 2021 refresh of its Code of Ethics:

“2.1 Social work is based on respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people as expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), other related UN declarations and the European Convention on Human Rights and the conventions derived from those declarations.”

Every action and decision taken by a social worker has the potential to promote or impinge upon the right to liberty (e.g. Mental Capacity Act 2005, Mental Health Act 1983) or the right to private and family life (e.g. Children Act 1989). We can be engaged with the right to freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment whenever we encounter safeguarding issues in the lives of children or adults with care and support needs, whether at home or in organised care settings.

The Human Rights Act 1998 reinforces and complements key social work values and needs to be positively embraced by practitioners and organisations for this reason. Human rights are an essential thread in legally literate decision making. Rights must be in that decision making equation, carefully weighed up in each unique situation.

As Ruth Stark, President of the International Federation of Social Workers, summarised it,

By its very nature, social work 'is a human rights discipline… It’s not just an element of it – it is the core principle'.

Preston-Shoot. (2019). Making good decisions : law for social work practice . 2nd Edition. Palgrave Macmillan.

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