Why BASW should end its involvement with the private equity-owned Sanctuary Personnel Social Work Awards
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW — the professional association for social workers in the UK) must end its involvement in the Sanctuary Personnel Social Work Awards (AKA the Social Worker of the Year Awards).
This was the general thrust of a motion put the BASW 2021 AGM, the rationale being that BASW should not undermine its capacity to uphold its stated values, missions and principles, and those of the profession, by being intrinsically linked as ‘corporate partner’ to an Awards scheme sponsored by one of the largest recruitment agencies in the country, Sanctuary Personnel.
Sanctuary is doing very well (see below) out of the increasingly difficult working conditions for social workers that are driving increasing numbers out of secure employment into insecure short term roles so that they have, at least notionally, more choice and control over who they work for, often on the promise of higher pay, but with an under-acknowledged reduction in employees’ benefits and protections. This, in turn, drives high turnover of staff, creating an unhealthy supply-demand cycle as struggling LAs turn to agencies to fill increasing numbers of vacancies. This high turnover of social workers also leads to poorer service to the people social workers support, at a time when they are facing near-unprecedented deprivation and increasingly poor living conditions, due to the multiple changes of social worker caused by this ‘churn’, which is corrosive to trust and the capacity for vital relationship-based work.
Further, it is arguable that Sanctuary benefits greatly from the opportunities for business networking and brand promotion afforded by its decade-plus of sponsoring the Awards.
BASW — a member-led association?
The motion to BASW AGM was passed by the majority vote of members, despite an eleventh hour 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. As the Awards are an England-only event (Scotland, Wales and NI having their own, far more modest, not corporately-sponsored schemes) the motion then had to be considered by BASW England national standing committee. The committee decided not to act on the majority of members’ concerns on the basis that it believed the Awards benefit the profession (there is no evidence that this is the case) and also that, should BASW withdraw, the profession would have less influence over the Awards, the concern being that BASW’s withdrawal would then open up the Awards to being taken over by other sponsors who do not share BASW’s values.
This ‘better the devil you know’ argument underscores the concerns about corporate sponsorship of the Awards.
And so, BASW’s involvement as ‘corporate partner’ to the Sanctuary Personnel-sponsored Social Work Awards continues.
Why is that a problem?
Sanctuary Personnel has been the ‘headline sponsor’ of the annual Social Worker of the Year Awards for the past twelve years. During this time Sanctuary Personnel’s profits from social work recruitment have increased more or less year on year, including during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, an extremely difficult time for social workers and the people they support.
Last year Sanctuary posted gross profits of £21m, up from £17.5m the year before. There can be no doubt that Sanctuary is both a key player in, and chief beneficiary of, the growing social work recruitment industry which is extracting increasing profits from the public purse, while social support and welfare services are decimated by ongoing politically-motivated cuts, the ideological shrinking of the welfare state and a decade-plus of austerity.
This is what material social injustice looks like.
A key mission of social work’s is to identify, address and challenge such injustice. It is regrettable that social work leaders encourage and promote social workers’ uncritical participation in an event with such close ties to an increasingly powerful private company with a clear vested interest in influencing key players in the sector.
Sanctuary Personnel is at the centre of an expanding and evolving web of companies operating in and around social care: Invision360, which provides a tool for local authorities to quality assure Educational Health and Care Plans for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, or SEND; Innovate Therapeutic Care provides entire social work teams and access to its residential therapeutic care home for children to tackle “high cost placements”; Innovate CYPS provides a CIN (Children in Need) programme which involves them “taking full case management of all cases, ensuring the local authority’s statutory responsibilities are met”; Innovate Fostering offers a “therapeutic foster care recruitment and support model”; and Skylakes provides specialist ‘project teams’ to LAs and trusts.
Four new companies have recently been created with Sanctuary’s CEO as director — Septinuary Bidco Ltd, Septinuary Midco 1 Ltd, Septinuary Midco 2 Ltd and Septinuary Topco Ltd. It is likely these were set up to support Sanctuary’s recent buy out by opaque private equity investors (see below).
The CEO of Sanctuary Personnel has been a member of the Social Work Awards’ board of trustees since 2014. He is a previous chair of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), the representative body and ‘voice of the recruitment industry’. According to a member’s testimonial, ‘the REC have elevated the way that the industry is seen by government with their skilful lobbying and engagement’.
It should be recognised that some of REC’s lobbying has secured fairer outcomes for agency workers, such as on time off for training and Covid vaccination for frontline workers. However, as a representative industry body, the REC’s primary consideration is the interests of its members: privately-owned, for-profit recruitment businesses.
The CEO of Sanctuary Personnel currently sits as chair of REC’s health and social care board, which ‘actively campaign[s] and lobb[ies] on behalf of members’. It’s ‘priorities’ include fostering the recruitment ‘market’ in health and social care, attempting to undermine NHS-run staff ‘banks’ (which provide temporary workers without the need for recruitment agencies) and increasing the influence of recruitment agencies within the public sector.
Private equity — the Social Work Awards’ new stealth-sponsors
Concerns about the increasing encroachment of private equity into children’s residential care are well-founded. It is particularly worrisome, then, that Sanctuary Personnel, in partnership with another large recruitment agency, Seven Resourcing, was recently bought out by private equity investors. It is likely that the four new companies mentioned above are what is known as a ‘Newco group’ created for the purpose of the private equity buyout (‘[a] straightforward structure will consist of a top company (Newco), which will act as the investment vehicle for the investor, and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Newco (Newco 2), which will act as the purchasing and debt vehicle’) — ‘septinuary’ apparently being a portmanteau term created from the Latin for ‘seven’ and ‘sanctuary’ (see what they did there?).
This means the Social Work Awards are now sponsored by a growing business empire that is in hock to the same sort of opaque private investors that are extracting excessive profits from children’s residential care, often for inadequate or poor services, and to extremely damaging effect on the outcomes for the children and families concerned.
You won’t have heard about any of this, and certainly not from Sanctuary itself, for obvious reasons, but it is a topic that warrants serious attention if we care at all about the future direction of travel of the social work workforce, which is being effectively privatised by a recruitment industry that is attracting the interest of private equity investment already wreaking harm in children’s social care.
And, let’s be clear, the ONLY reason private equity invests in a business is because investors believe they can make very substantial returns, one way or another. This indicates that private equity investors see opportunities for substantial growth in the increasingly out-of-control agency social work industry and the associated endeavours of the likes of Sanctuary/Innovate/Skylakes. And, even if that fails, they can renege on big loans leveraged against businesses to fund investments by filing strategic bankruptcies and selling off assets. That way, private equity investors win big and lose little, like the house in a casino.
The problem is, when it comes to social work and social care, they are gambling with the stuff of people’s lives, not just other people’s money.
BASW — and the profession — should have no truck with this socially unjust and damaging way of doing business.
The business benefits of Awards’ sponsorship
All of this raises questions about how Sanctuary Personnel may benefit from having contact with representatives of local authorities — and, indeed, BASW, which has its own umbrella company for agency social workers — through mutual involvement in these awards.
It is beyond question that core functions of all corporate awards schemes are the generation of positive publicity and the enablement of business networking for sponsors. As we can see from the Social Work Awards’ own sponsorship marketing material, sponsorship of the Awards purchases just those things:
· The opportunity to network with key individuals across the world of social work at the Social Worker of the Year Awards ceremony and exclusive Winners Parliamentary Reception
· Raise your organisation’s profile and increase brand awareness: our comprehensive marketing and PR programme reaches millions of people across England each year
Specifically, here’s what the ‘headline sponsors’ (a position held by Sanctuary Personnel for the past 11 years) get for their £22000 (ex VAT):
In addition, tax rules concerning business sponsorship mean sponsorship contributions are tax-deductible where there are demonstrable business benefits for the sponsor. The fact this sponsorship money may be written off may seem like good news for those concerned about the outlay by public bodies and our professional association, but, even so, it is ultimately the public footing the bill for this ostentatious event.)
We can only assume, given Sanctuary’s near-continual growth over the past 11 years, that sponsoring the Social Work Awards has proven a sound investment for the business. It is certainly a (tax-deductible) drop in the ocean when compared to Sanctuary’s ever-increasing profits.
Genesis PR/PLMR Genesis
We can trace the origins of the current Awards, — previously a modest, non-corporately sponsored affair — to the contracting of Genesis PR by Sanctuary Personnel in 2011 with a specific mandate to reinvent the Awards as a high-end corporate event. In 2012, Genesis PR won a Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) Award for this reinvention of the Awards.
One of Genesis’s first acts was to secure G4S as major sponsor for the 2011 Awards, a company mired — then, as it is now — in controversy concerning its practices and activities. The Social Work Action Network (SWAN) subsequently campaigned — successfully — for the Awards to drop G4S as sponsors in 2012, highlighting concerns about the company’s facilities in the occupied territories which detained Palestinian children and also its running (along with Barnardo’s, another previous sponsor of the Awards) of The Cedars, a ‘pre-departure’ detention centre in the UK in which immigrant children and families were detained prior to deportation. G4S subsequently gained contracts to provide secure facilities for children and young people, including Medway Secure Training Centre in Kent (soon to be site of the long-overdue, 645% over-budget Oasis Restore ‘secure school’) where staff abuse of resident children and young people was uncovered by BBC Panorama in 2016. The case study of Genesis PR’s stellar handling of the Social Work Awards reboot contains this quote from the then Managing Director of G4S Children’s Services:
“G4S Children’s Services were pleased to sponsor the SWA in 2011 and ensure that staff are properly recognised for the job they do. The event was beneficial in raising our profile as a provider of quality services for looked after children and young people and we have been able to follow up with attendees to support the work we undertake”.
G4S’s sponsorship of the Awards and the subsequent testimonial raise disturbing questions about the benefits to such companies of involvement in these Awards. Whatever the case, it’s clear the Social Work Awards are far from being just about generating positive narratives of social work. They are also very much about the revenue and profiles of corporate sponsors.
Purely on the basis of what G4S and its record in public services represent, it’s both astonishing and dismaying that the firm were even considered suitable to sponsor the Social Work Awards in the first place. This surely must lead to questions about the wisdom of handing over control of the Social Work Awards to a for-profit PR firm with a brief that seems not to have required it to consider the ethical dimensions of its decision-making. Dismaying also to think that the G4S’s sponsorship of the 2011 Social Work Awards facilitated contact with influential players in social work and social care which it was, by its own account, later able to follow up on.
You would think they’d have learned from the G4S debacle. But no. In 2018, the ‘Championing Social Work Values’ category at the Social Work Awards was sponsored by outsourcing giant Capita, by virtue of their partnership with Essex County Council, still a frequent supporter of the Awards.
Examples of Capita’s business practices that really hammer home the firm’s complete and utter unsuitability to be anywhere near a celebration of social work include its delivery of brutally discriminatory ‘work capability assessments’ for Personal Independence Payment applicants and its key role in the Windrush scandal in which it was offered bonuses by the Home Office for exceeding its deportation quota.
It’s hard to believe these are simply missteps by those who run the Awards.
Genesis PR’s was purchased in 2021 by PLMR (Political Lobbying and Media Relations Ltd) whose business is lobbying, networking and influencing in the public sector on behalf of paying customers. It would appear, then, that not only are the Social Work Awards a vehicle for the now private equity-owned Sanctuary Personnel to expand its reach in the social care and social work sectors, but that Genesis PR, which manages and runs these awards, is now part of a group of businesses involved in consulting, lobbying and media relations in the social care and health sectors, where the majority of social workers are employed.
PLMR Genesis’s recent contracts with a local authority that is a frequent sponsor and prolific nominator of the awards (see here, here and here) lend credence to the argument that a key function of the Social Work Awards is to serve the interests of private businesses while suggesting an uncomfortably cosy relationship between the PR firm running the awards and a key sponsor and supporter which could throw up potential conflicts of interest.
PLMR Genesis is also the PR company behind the branding and website of the MacAlister review of children’s social care. In 2022, PLMR acquired Healthcomms Consultancy, which advises private and third sector social care and health providers and has former Guardian public affairs editor David Brindle as a ‘strategic advisor’. (Brindle, interestingly, over the course of a few articles for the aforementioned Frontline and its progenitor, Josh MacAlister, during his Guardian tenure tended to cast critics of Frontline and MacAlister as standing in the way of progress and ‘[eager] to pounce on the first slip’ (see also here and here), on one occasion prompting this response from prominent social work academic and yours truly.)
It is of course impossible to detail the who’s, what’s, how’s and when’s of business dealings in and around the Social Work Awards but on the basis of what we do know it is reasonable to conclude that these awards, being a point of confluence for all these organisations and taking the form of a corporately sponsored industry awards scheme that offers access, networking and publicity in return for sponsorship, are providing opportunities for businesses associated with the Awards to connect and do business with each other. So, while the understandable desire is to focus uncritically on the eye-catching positives of the Social Work Awards, we should not let our hunger for positive narratives and kudos blind us to the reality that these awards are every bit as much about opportunities for private businesses to increase their revenues, reach and influence. Of course, PLMR Genesis, paid tens of thousands every year to organise and run the Awards, while also being availed of business networking opportunities as a result, aren’t likely to foreground that fact. Far better to distract with razzle dazzle and present yourself as altruistically supporting a beleaguered profession than expose your motives to the searing light of scrutiny. That’s what PR is for, after all. Which raises the difficult question: what, and who, are the Social Work Awards really for?
This begets another question: can the Social Work Awards be done differently, without serving the interests of private businesses? The stark truth is that money is the primary driver here. The cash injection of corporate sponsorship has allowed the Awards to become a glitzy, high profile, celebrity-endorsed affair, which many social workers feel they deserve in the face of multiple challenges in the profession. Recognising this, I respectfully ask them to consider: at what cost?
All of this underscores the importance of BASW reviewing its involvement in the Awards, lest it allows itself — and the profession — to continue to be played by vested business interests that include not only a very large and growing recruitment agency but also a PR company involved in political lobbying and media relations which benefits financially and also, no doubt, in terms of networking, sector connections and influence.
It’s noteworthy that PLMR, like many other PR firms, is fond of gathering awards itself.
Awards all the way down: a self-sustaining industry, built on faux-meritocracy, into which BASW, using members’ fees, has uncritically bought in, despite members raising objections by voting in favour of the aforementioned motion to the 2021 AGM, which BASW England committee decided to go against for less than compelling reasons.
All of which raises another troubling question:
Who’s lobbying BASW?
Distancing and co-option — bad looks in bad times
There are also concerns that a glitzy ceremony at an upmarket London hotel at which social workers consume the finest of food and drink is an exercise in ‘distancing’. This very public display of ostentatiousness sits uncomfortably with the lived experiences of poverty and inequality social workers encounter every day and which see unprecedented numbers of people and families they support using food banks. It is an exceptionally bad look at a time when it is vitally important to show humility and modesty in the face of the dreadful challenges faced by people social workers are charged with supporting.
Further, there is the matter of the vaunted Parliamentary Reception which sees winners and sponsors visit the Houses of Parliament at a later date to have their photographs taken with government ministers. This reception costs in the region of £5000. There are also the individual expenses of those attending. This means that the Social Work Awards and those attending are footing the bill (which is ultimately subsidised by the public in some way) for this bash which amounts to an invitation 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 frankly painful and exposes the troubling power dynamics underpinning the Social Work 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 the social workers seeking to support them, a ‘privilege’ for which their LAs and professional association are paying for.
It is hard to escape the strong sense that we are all effectively being played for fools here, by both government ministers and private businesses that stand to gain most from this enterprise. This is incredibly corrosive and damaging to the profession.
Proponents of the Awards argue they celebrate social work’s capacity for positive change and social justice. They say the Awards celebrate the fact that social workers are able to achieve great things in the face of often seemingly insurmountable challenges. That being the case, a celebration of social work without an ostentatiously ‘distanced’ ceremony and co-opted parliamentary reception, without corporate sponsorship, without the expanding, private equity-owned Sanctuary Personnel or the for-profit lobbying and PR firm PLMR Genesis, should be possible.
Why not make it happen?
Such a celebration must be founded in and accord with the values of social justice, equality and professional integrity, and can therefore only be done in full and equal partnership with people with direct experience of social work. And, if that is not possible to achieve, then we should consider whether such a celebration is warranted at all. As the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families in England, a previous judge of the Awards, recently said:
You might hanker after public recognition and respect and want the same positive headlines that other professions receive. But we work within the most private spaces of people’s lives. These are stories of the utmost intimacy, often involving shame and desperation, often involving great joy and progress and change. But they are not our stories to share…