Until I worked on this audit my perceptions of social work came from the media: overworked professionals in a very challenging environment, constantly trying to do the right thing and having to make decisions which would likely have a serious impact on people’s lives.
And, unless you have had recent personal experience, I suspect many people think that when there is a need, the state will step in to provide help.
During this work the team learnt that the challenges we are confronting as a society are huge. The number of elderly people is increasing, there will be fewer people of working age, and more children and adults living chaotic lives or longer lives with complex needs.
While we are living longer, the number of years we spend in good health is not increasing, and in order to live independent, fulfilling lives, many of us will need help for longer. So we all have a responsibility to make lifestyle choices which will keep us healthy.
One thing that surprised us was how much we rely on unpaid carers to provide support. One in six adults in Scotland and almost 1 in 25 children under 16 are caring for someone. And the amount that saves the public purse is estimated at nearly 11 billion a year.
The audit threw up a lot of philosophical issues for me.
Legislation gives certain groups rights but how do we balance them with other’s needs, such as the difference between a 64 year old and a 65 year old with the same needs? Or children who lose benefits and opportunities once they become adults?
How do we pay for the care we need? How much is it the responsibility of the individual or their families and how much should society pay from a finite and reducing public purse?
During this audit the team had a privileged opportunity to meet with those working in social services at all levels in six council areas. We were surprised to find that, in spite of the size of the challenge, social workers were positive about their work and confident that they can help people change their lives for the better.
It was interesting to see how different the principal issues confronting different councils were; for example, providing care for people living in rural and isolated communities in Eilean Siar or coping with wide scale deprivation, and the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse in Glasgow.
But the overall thing I have taken away from the audit is that we as society have to make some really difficult decisions about how we define need, how we want to support those in need of help – and how we will pay for it.
About the author
Liz Ribchester joined Audit Scotland’s Performance Audit and Best Value group as a Senior Auditor in 2004. She was a member of the Social work in Scotland audit team.