Social Work Awards, ‘distancing’ and the problem of ‘two fridges’
It’s almost cliché for me to say that I had no intention of writing about the Social Work Awards again, but here we are. I’ll try to keep it short. You can find my previous missives on the subject here.
For those that don’t know, the headline sponsor of the Social Work Awards is, and has been for the last ten years, Sanctuary Personnel, the ‘UK’s leading recruitment agency’ and also a network of businesses providing agency social workers, teams and therapeutic support for children, including residential care, the profits of which have increased substantially over that time. The Awards’ corporate partner is the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) which is a professional association paid for and notionally led by members.
I am the current Chair of the North East branch of BASW. In 2021, the branch brought the following motion to the BASW AGM:
It is worth noting that on the eve of the AGM there was a last minute intervention by a party whose ID was not made known to me, which resulted in all mention of Sanctuary Personnel being excised from the motion on the day. The phrase which appeared to be the focus of concern from the unknown party was ‘Sanctuary is a growing network of businesses that has recently expanded into residential children’s homes with an annual revenue in the £100ms’ which, it was said to me, could be construed as defamatory, as it implied the residential care homes element of the growing Sanctuary business empire had a revenue in the £100ms. I am happy to correct that here, as I did at the time, to ‘Sanctuary is a growing network of businesses with an annual revenue in the £100ms that has recently expanded into residential children’s homes’.
That important matter being cleared up, the motion was heard and debated and BASW members voted in favour of the motion. This meant that the motion then had to be considered by the BASW council. As the Awards are an England-only event, this was delegated to the BASW England national standing committee, which decided that BASW should retain its sponsorship of the Awards. And here we are.
The sponsorship ‘menu’ for the Awards (see below) shows that BASW’s contribution as corporate partner is £15000 per year. This does not, as far as I’m aware, include the costs of sending delegates to the prestigious Awards event night at a well-appointed London hotel, or to the Parliamentary reception for the category winners, which I believe from the Awards’ own accounts costs the Awards in the region of £5000. BASW prides itself as a member-led organisation, and is funded by members, so there does seem a disconnect between the membership voting for a motion to end BASW’s sponsorship of the Awards and the decision of the BASW England committee to continue with it. This is how the decision was explained to me as Chair of the branch proposing the motion in an email from the then BASW Chair:
Distancing and the problem of ‘two fridges’
The real point of this blog, though, is to talk about the phenomenon of ‘distancing’ as it applies to the Social Work Awards.
What follows is in part adapted from a Twitter thread I wrote on the Awards, with some bits added, prompted mainly by this blog by someone who has reason to be critical of their LA’s social services department. It’s worth a read, not least because critical perspectives from non-social workers are often not heard in these debates.
The blog contains the following ‘menu’ of sponsorship packages currently offered by the Awards.
Looking at the above menu, the sums involved, what these buy sponsors in terms of profile, access and networking, I’m struck by the fact that patronage, preferentialism and business networking appear to be the main values on display. Further, this stuff is bought and paid for not only by private businesses like Sanctuary but also largely with LA and BASW sponsorship money — i.e. from cash-strapped LAs (paying between £2500 and £10000) struggling to meet rising needs while at the same time paying exorbitant rates to recruitment agencies like Sanctuary for locum staff and from BASW’s members (paying £15000). (It is worth noting that, should you be lucky (or, as awards would have it, meritable) enough to be nominated as a finalist for an Award, you (or your employer) will have to stump up for a ticket and associated costs to attend the final to see if you won.)
The £10000, £15000 and £22000 packages buy sponsors the opportunity to have their pictures taken with Government ministers, which is effectively an invitation to cash-strapped LAs to fund PR opportunities and favourable optics for the very politicians that are the cause of the austerity and ideological cruelty driving increasing social needs and the decimation of resources needed to meet them. The expectation that representatives of our profession be pictured dutifully smiling alongside the political architects of the deprivation, misery, distress and trauma besetting the people and communities social workers support is really beyond the pale and exposes the troubling power dynamics underpinning these Awards, in which social workers on the one hand are held up as the representing the best of the profession while being pressed into service as PR fodder for the politicians causing untold harm and misery to the public and to social workers, a ‘privilege’ for which their LAs and professional association are paying for.
Finally on this, it is usual for industry awards to bear the name of their headline sponsors - for example, the Pearson National Teaching Awards. It’s noteworthy that the Social Work Awards dispense with that convention when it would be more accurate — and honest — to call these the Sanctuary Personnel Social Work Awards. A key question and point for reflection is: would doing so impact on social workers’ willingness to be involved? Indeed, given the sums involved, the names on trophies and publicity the top two sponsorship bands buy, it would be perhaps be more accurate and honest to call these the Sanctuary Personnel-BASW Social Work Awards.
But what has any of this got to do with fridges?
Well, my first job in social care and health services was as a support worker in residential rehab for people with mental health challenges. While working in the kitchen on my first day, I noticed there were two fridges: one, a big American-style thing, spotless, crammed with good food, with an ice dispenser, the works; and the other, an, old, dilapidated thing, dirty, empty save for a half pint of out-of-date milk and some Kraft cheese singles. There were also two crockery cupboards and two cutlery drawers. You can guess what differentiated each.
It soon became clear to me why this was, which fridge, cupboard and drawer were for staff, and which for ‘service users’. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t have the language to articulate why, but I knew it wasn’t right.
I can’t remember if I went looking for it, or whether I happened on it, or someone passed it to me, but I came across a chapter in a book (I can’t remember which — if it rings a bell let me know) that talked about the social phenomena of ‘distancing’ in the helping professions. Nowadays, ‘social distancing’ is viewed rather differently, as desirable, in fact, in certain circumstances. But pre-pandemic it carried a rather different set of meanings. As I say, I can’t remember the book I read but this article is a good starting point. See also the related concept of ‘othering’.
The upshot is that distancing is enforced and reinforced in myriad ways and often through visible markers and material differences in environments and experiences of environments. I’m not explaining that very well but hope you know what I’m driving at. So, I took this chapter to one of my first staff meetings and, perhaps somewhat naively, read key passages to my colleagues.
The main effect of this, it must be said, was to entrench the positions of those who coveted their separate fridge, crockery and cutlery, who responded, ‘It’s a hard job, we need some perks’, which did nothing to address the concerns about distancing, stigma and the impact on the people we were supposed to be there to support. It also consolidated the positions of those (the minority) who had, like me, been uncomfortable but had either been afraid to speak up against this long-standing cultural practice, or didn’t have the language to articulate that discomfort.
The two fridges remained until the day the service closed five years later.
I never found out what the people who used the service thought. I probably should have, but I didn’t want to ‘lead’ them by raising it with them. Besides many were in situations where it may well have been the last thing on their minds. But I’m certain at least some of those people, being astute, will have noticed, and had questions about it, and, perhaps because of inherent power differentials, or not having the language or theoretical concept on which to hang it, did not voice them.
It’s probably because of that formative experience that, now more than ever, as so many of the people we try to support struggle to feed their families and themselves, to heat their homes, to buy the right clothes for the season, occasion or setting, the Sanctuary Personnel-BASW Social Work Awards with their much vaunted glitz and glamour, the millionaire host, the ostentatiousness, pictures of social workers drinking champagne, the abundant food, seem to me very like one of those big American-style fridges, sparkling, crammed with good food, with bells and whistles on, which we feel we deserve cos ‘it’s a hard job’. My concern is that in doing so we may be conveniently forgetting the very values — social justice, equality, integrity and solidarity with the people we hope and aim to support — that we seek to celebrate through these Awards.