I sometimes have the good fortune of being invited by various organisations to attend conferences and meetings without having to pay the fee of between £200 and £400 for a morning – let alone a whole day. I say good fortune because there is no way I would gain funding to attend otherwise and these events provide me with a window into a world of opulence to which I would have no access.
In recent months, I have enjoyed the beautiful surroundings of many central London venues belonging to Royal Colleges and Royal Societies as well as exclusive hotels and private clubs. It’s a good life. Chandeliers, luxurious carpets, marble pillars, wine, canapés and a range of top quality soaps and lotions in the toilets. Topics have included a range of subjects concerning child care and child protection. I have heard presentations from Lords, Baronesses and politicians as well as civil servants and academics – the top of the tree in policy formation and promotion. I’ve learnt about the work of All Party Parliamentary Groups and Select Committees and witnessed the launch of the latest reports and inquiries.
Although I have many hundreds of contacts within social work, I rarely recognise anyone at these events. The audience usually consists of representatives from the private sector because these events are where ideas and trends in service provision are marketed and promoted within an explicit political context. The academies, private consultancies and social work education and service delivery companies abound. These events are characterised by language such as ‘transformation’, ‘leadership’ and ‘changing children and families’ (rather than changing the oppressive social structures within which they live) and social work aiming to ‘inspire and persuade’. The language used, and the tone with which it is expressed, commonly exposes an absolute lack of social work knowledge or experience. The same speakers do the rounds of most of these events because they speak for their business interests and are often instrumental in organising the programme. They provide glossy brochures and powerpoints with colourful images to accompany their soundbites and almost always tables of evidence that cannot be read, let alone digested, which are used to impress and obfuscate. There are few opportunities for questions and workshops to allow for small group debate and feedback are concepts quite alien to the organisers. The speakers eulogise about each other and restate the same principles as though a statement spoken with an upper class accent signifies a well-researched and well-evidenced policy development. It is smoke and mirrors.
A brief look into the speakers’ backgrounds often provides a picture of business interests with companies which overlap and inter-relate. It would need an economist to provide an in-depth analysis of who is trying to sell us the full-scale privatisation of social work including statutory child protection. However, academics, such as Dr Terry Murphy from Teeside University, have identified the multi-national interests at the helm of social work privatisation and those companies the government is financing to the tune of millions. I guess some of the money goes into funding these prestigious events and serves further the interests of the rich.
At these events there is nothing that relates to my work of the past 40 years or the values and ethics I hold dear in providing a service to the most vulnerable. I cannot speak their language, socialise with them effectively or even wear the right clothes, because quite clearly I am not of their socio-economic class. I have nothing in common with their principles of profiteering and exploitation of the poor and needy for their own insidious ends.
Afterwards, I generally take my time taking a stroll through London streets and draw breath before returning to my work with survivors of child abuse. Here I enter a different world. This world is one of human rights and social justice. A world where the only possible approach is one of integrity, sincerity and humility and where my social work core values and methods of social activism may be of some use in supporting survivors in seeking justice and healing. It is a world which puts the spotlight on corruption and the exploitation of children for the interests of the rich and powerful.
There are of course conferences and events well worth attending such as the SWAN (Social Work Action Network) conference where I heard Dr Murphy speak on 4th June. These events are recognisable by the fact that they charge very little, are convened in simple, accessible venues and crucially have the involvement and contributions of service users and social work practitioners.