Retaining ethics in the light of scarcity

Posted on: 26th March 2015

Section 17 of the Children Act (1989) gives local authorities the power to provide accommodation and financial support to families with ‘children in need’. This support is available even if the family has no leave to remain in the UK, or no recourse to public funds.

As a caseworker in a frontline HIV charity over the last 3 years I have met countless homeless mothers who have been obstructed in their attempts to seek support from social services. Local council housing departments across London routinely seem to turn away homeless families by telling them they don’t fit the criteria to be housed or threatening to remove the children.

Most recently I registered Gloria, a young single mother with a four month old child. Several days prior to our meeting, Gloria had gone with her son to the local authority to apply as homeless and was refused help. When she insisted, she was advised that they were prepared to house her child but could offer her no further support. With all options apparently exhausted, Gloria and her son returned to the street. At first glance, perhaps the council did everything they could? After all, they offered to fulfil their legal obligation to house a homeless child and it was the mother’s choice to refuse. However, the information that section 17 promotes the upbringing of children by their families in so far as there are no safeguarding concerns of abuse or neglect was withheld. Gloria was misled.

I’ve spoken with colleagues across the statutory and voluntary sectors who know the status quo; that our social services routinely deter vulnerable families from accessing the care they desperately need.

This strategy is outed in a leaflet on homeless rights produced by LCAP (London Coalition against Poverty). The third page is divided in two sections; the first titled “What the council should do,” the second titled, “What they actually do.” So, what should the council be doing and why aren’t they doing it?

In the wake of retrenchment and restructuring, local authorities are understaffed and over stretched. Regardless of one’s views on austerity, it is not unreasonable to argue that there must be some limit to the provision of social care. However, the question of where to set the limit is at its heart, ethical and not financial.

What we have here could be called ‘gate keeping’, a desperate attempt to protect ever dwindling resources. Unfortunately, in the context of social care, the gate keepers are duty bound to protect the people outside the gate. There are standards of conduct, performance and ethics to which any registrant of the Health & Care Professions Council must adhere. Right at the top is “You must act in the best interests of service users,” and further down at number 13, “You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession.”

Greater controls over spending priorities coupled with devastating cuts have led local governments to degrade the social work profession. Any professional pushed to the point where they deny their integrity and obstruct a vulnerable family from receiving the care they are entitled to in order to save time, space or money has been let down by the government’s cynical circumvention of its moral imperative to seek the common good.

Informed of her rights, we advised Gloria to return to her local authority with her child to apply as homeless. Following the same response….Gloria was eventually accepted by the council. She has since received a permanent offer of accommodation.

“If it’s not true, don’t say it. If it’s not right, don’t do it.” Marcus Aurelius

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