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Adult social care in Britain has been at the centre of much media and public attention in recent years. Revelations of horrific abuse in learning disability settings, the collapse of major private care home providers, abject failures of inspection and regulation, and uncertainty over how long-term care of older people should be funded have all given rise to serious public concern. In this short form book, part of the Critical and Radical Debates in Social Work series, Iain Ferguson and Michael Lavalette give an historical overview of adult social care. The roots of the current crisis are located in the under-valuing of older people and adults with disabilities and in the marketisation of social care over the past two decades. The authors critically examine recent developments in social work with adults, including the personalisation agenda, and the prospects for adult social care and social work in a context of seemingly never-ending austerity.

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Two stories dominated the British news media in the early summer of 2011. The first concerned Winterbourne View, a private hospital for adults with learning disabilities near Bristol. Undercover filming for the BBC Panorama programme in late May 2011 showed staff there involved in appalling abuse of vulnerable residents, some of it verging on torture. Residents were seen being pinned down by staff members, slapped, dragged out of bed and, in one case, doused in water and left outside in cold weather. The programme caused public outrage and some weeks later, the home, owned by the private care company Castlebeck, was closed by the Department of Health and a group of eleven carers subsequently charged with some 45 counts alleging illtreatment against or neglect of five victims.

Hard on the heels of the Winterbourne scandal came the announcement of the closure of Southern Cross, with 37,000 residents in over 750 care homes, the biggest provider of residential care for older people in the UK. The announcement caused huge anxiety among the residents of its care homes, their relatives and Southern Cross workers, 3, 000 of whom lost their jobs. In echoes of the banking crisis of 2008, the state was forced to step in, with the Conservative– Liberal Democrat Coalition Government announcing that no resident would be turned out onto the street. In the event, many of the homes were subsequently bought out by Four Seasons, the second largest care provider (the financial stability of which was also the subject of considerable speculation in the financial press during 2011: Bowers, 2012; Scourfield, 2012).

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Recent years have witnessed a number of 'child protection' scandals where children, often from the poorest and most marginalised communities, have been on the receiving end of violence, abuse and social harm. In this short form book, part of the Critical and Radical Debates in Social Work series, Paul Michael Garrett looks at the impact of marketisation of social work services in both Ireland and England. He argues that marketisation has had a negative impact on policy regimes, working conditions, social work practices and on the services for vulnerable children and young people. Leading researchers from across the globe contribute to the debate and provide additional evidence from a range of policy regimes that catalogue the negative impact neoliberalism has had on children's services.

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England and the Republic of Ireland are bound together historically and in a contemporary sense. Both are currently governed by coalition administrations intent on pursing broadly neoliberal policies. In terms of social work practice, in the Republic, the main legislation relating to social work with children was, until the enactment of the Children Act 2001, the Children Act 1908 placed on the statute book by the former British colonial administration. Today, social work in both England and Ireland is mostly work undertaken by women workers. In the latter jurisdiction, 83.2% of social work posts are filled by women (NSWQB, 2006, p 23). Nevertheless, not surprisingly, there are certain national defining characteristics. That is to say, the difficulties and dilemmas confronting practitioners, social work academics and the users of services are not the same in England and the Republic of Ireland.

This relatively short contribution to the ‘Radical and Critical Perspectives’ series can only begin to identify some of the main emerging issues and themes relating to social work with children and families.1 In this context, readers need to be alert to the fact that it is, I feel, misguided to simply view social work – with children and families or any other group – as an entirely benign and emancipatory activity. Social work should not be sentimentalised and its function and purpose misunderstood. When discussing social work, we need to keep the state in vision: by and large, social workers are employed by the state and this is a social formation that does not simply act as a ‘good-enough parent’, seeking to intervene in the lives of children because of the need to ensure that their welfare is ‘paramount’.

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Paul Michael Garrett offers a powerful indictment of state and Church responses to children and young people in the Republic of Ireland. He also argues persuasively against the ‘spirit of reform’ that characterised New Labour's approach to social work in the UK and is now embraced equally enthusiastically by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition. Garrett emphasises the relentless nature of the neoliberal advance and the extent to which it has already ‘remade’ society. He is clear about the damage done to social work with children and families (to both workers and service users) and recognises that the onslaught is far from over. Although there is nothing in Paul's article that I disagree with, I would like to raise additional points about poverty, inequality and injustice in relation to children and families policy and practice because, as austerity gains a stronghold across the UK, it is those who are already disadvantaged who stand to lose most. There are oppositional voices in social work – Garrett mentions the Social Work Action Network (www.socialworkfuture. org), an organisation uniting practitioners, academics, service users and students in campaigning for social work as social justice. Social work, however, is often both ‘oppressive and conservative’ (Weiss-Gal et al, 2012) and, for many working-class families especially, it can feel like little more than surveillance and control (Jones, 2009). Where relevant, I want to include a Scottish perspective. Scotland has its own parliament and may yet vote for independence, but how far does the language of ‘social justice’ and ‘solidarity’ (Mooney and Scott, 2012) take us down the road of genuine improvements for children and families?

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In his book Reclaiming social work, Ferguson (2008, p 132) includes a short section entitled ‘Reclaiming the ethical’. He writes in the context of increasing managerialism and marketisation in the field of social work in the late 20th and early 21st century – a period that has witnessed an erosion of practice premised on values of social justice and human dignity. This chapter is a response to Ferguson’s call – made all the more urgent with the new public austerity that prevails in many countries following the financial crisis of 2008. In this climate of welfare reform and public sector restructuring, social workers are increasingly finding themselves expected to monitor and control the behaviour of the growing numbers of people who are poor, sick, disabled and stigmatised.

This article examines the growth of interest in social work ethics in the context of neoliberal policies and, in particular, the growth of managerialism in public service professions. The main characteristics of neoliberal policies are the promotion of free markets and the privatisation of public goods, along with a strengthening of private property rights and weakening of labour rights – resulting in a growing centralisation of wealth and power (Harvey, 2005). Taking the UK as an example, while drawing links with trends across Europe and other countries in the global North, the article traces the development of the ‘new public management’ (NPM) since the 1990s. NPM is characterised as stressing the importance of measurable outputs, targets, competition and cost-effectiveness in the provision of public services.

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In his highly interesting and provocative article, Paul Michael Garrett gives a detailed sketch of recently emerging developments in social work with children and families in England and the Republic of Ireland. Underpinned by Gramscian ideas, Garrett asserts that it is vital to focus on the molecular details associated with the current project of creating a new hegemony in the sector that is influenced by the discourse of reform, operating within different professional, expert and emotional registers in the field. Our rejoinder should be considered as an attempt to share some situated reflections and issues that are emerging from our research praxis in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). Only recently, we have positioned our work (inspired by the French philosopher Camus and the Belgian philosophers Apostel and Hertmans) as a productive and meaningful engagement with complexity and ambiguity as vital elements of social work, since:

every answer to social problems remains incomplete in any case because it is, in a sense, just an answer that opens up new possibilities, questions and limitations. Nevertheless, the question might be more essential than the answer, as every answer holds the potential to shift evident meanings and to transform realities into provocative issues. (Roose et al, 2011, p 9)

In our point of view, Garrett situates social work justly as rooted in contemporary issues of major socio-economic, political and ideological changes, referring to the global economic crisis that has led to emergency measures providing for greater welfare state intervention, which seems to run entirely counter to the rhetoric of neoliberalism.

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Let us start with the context. An estimated one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Of the 2.6 million people claiming long-term disability benefits in 2012, 43% had a mental or behavioural disorder. This huge level of suffering comes at a cost: emotional, social and also financial (in 2012, £105 billion per year, a figure expected to double in the next 20 years).

These statistics come from the Coalition government’s 2011 strategy paper No health without mental health(HM Government, 2011; hereafter, NHWMH). The paper focuses on England but recognises that the issues that it addresses resonate across the UK. It lists as ‘vulnerable groups’: children (with one in 10 between the ages of 5 and 16 having a mental health problem that may persist into adult life); women with postnatal depression (experienced by one in 10 mothers); and prisoners, 90% of whom have a diagnosable mental health problem. NHWMH also acknowledges the risk factors for ‘many people from black and minority ethnic [BME] communities’ (HM Government, 2011, p 8). It uses the language of ‘social justice’ and ‘challenging stigma’ and (perhaps reflecting the influence of Wilkinson and Pickett’s [2010] seminal text The spirit level) acknowledges that ‘Social inequality of all kinds contributes to mental ill health’ (HM Government, 2011, p 2).

NHWMH, then, links ‘mental health objectives’ to action points, whether ‘under way’, ‘new’ or ‘ongoing’, and the named government department responsible for seeing the objective through to completion.

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