How the Thatcher years marked a turning point for social work

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher
© Newsfocus1 |

Originally posted by Andy McNicoll on the Community Care Social Work Blog on 1 May 2013.

Margaret Thatcher was a divisive figure who oversaw profound changes to both social work and the welfare state during her 15 years as leader of the Conservative Party, writes social worker Steve Rogowski.

What was Margaret Thatcher’s legacy for social work? The social work profession actually remained relatively unscathed during the early years of her premiership. In fact, progress was made in relation to community social work and youth justice.

For example, diversion from the youth justice system and alternatives to incarceration were key factors in the decline in recorded youth crime in the 1980s. It remains, in my view, the most significant evidenced-based social work achievement.

However, the Children Act 1989 – introduced a year prior to Thatcher being replaced by John Major amid opposition to her controversial ‘poll tax’ – marked a significant turning point for children’s social work. The Act resulted in a move from a concern with child welfare to one of child protection, often involving authoritarian interventions.

Meanwhile in adult social care, the introduction of care management under the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 saw direct, relationship-based work with adult users replaced with bureaucracy aimed at rationing resources.

It was the beginning of a shift in social work that was subsequently accelerated by Tony Blair’s New Labour government – an administration that embraced Thatcher’s ‘free market’ ideology.

Under New Labour the BA social work degree was introduced but was underpinned by a preoccupation with producing a reliable and compliant workforce to work at the will of managers.

Social work as a distinct profession gradually became subsumed under the more general banner of ‘social care’. The Central Council for the Education and Training in Social Work was replaced by the General Social Care Council. The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) led to the demise of the National Institute of Social Work.

New multi-agency bodies were created, including Youth Offending Teams, where the influence of social work declined. Social work was also absent from any real role in relation to Sure Start and the Children’s Fund.

The death of Victoria Climbie in 2000 led to the supposed integration of health, education, social services/care and others, and the demise of social services departments.

‘Modernisation’ of children and families work meant increased bureaucratisation and control of the social work task. It also saw a move a move away from preventative work – now it’s the case that unless there are child protection concerns, children and families are unlikely to be offered social work help.

Children and young people who are asylum seeking or refugees, those with mental health issues and disabilities all fared less well under New Labour. For instance, practice with asylum seeking and refugee children became narrow and negative in relation to immigration control.

Ironically, any positives for social work emerged from the fallout of the tragedy of Baby Peter’s death.

The Social Work Task Force acknowledged that practitioners spent too much time on computers and bureaucracy. This was confirmed by the subsequent Social Work Reform Board and Munro Review, with both arguing for less bureaucracy and more scope for professional judgement.

Another of Margaret Thatcher’s legacies that we see the impact of every day as social workers is the way she changed the welfare state. During her 15 years in power, Thatcher oversaw cuts to social security benefits, housing and education. Council houses were sold off and curbs on the power of trade unions culminated in the defeat of the miners.

Private and voluntary sector involvement in health, education, housing and employment services was encouraged. Entitlement to benefits and services became more conditional, with a ‘modern’ welfare state working with the grain of market imperatives, rather than tackling embedded class inequalities.

This approach was broadly continued by the governments that succeeded Thatcher’s. We are currently seeing David Cameron’s coalition using the global financial and economic crisis (which is directly linked to the free market ideology Thatcher promoted) to impose severe cuts to public services.

People in difficulty must rely on themselves, family, friends or charity (food banks are a prime example) rather than the state through social work.

As well as having a reduced role, social work with children and families involves the aforementioned authoritarian turn – parents told to change their behaviour/lifestyle or face losing their children via adoption to middle class families.

These issues mean that for social workers, critical practice is essential. This involves quiet challenges to managerial diktats and allows critical engagement with the issues at the root of social injustice, the widening inequalities in society.

As practitioners we must work individually with users as well as collectively (through our professional bodies, trade unions, political parties) to challenge an approach that, 34 years on from Margaret Thatcher’s election as Britain’s first female prime minister, still drives policies that promote inequality and damage those in need.

Steve Rogowski is a social worker and author of Critical social work with children and families, available with 20% discount at

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