An introduction to Social Policy

Social Policy: Theory and Practice - 3rd edition

Paul Spicker

The personal social services: social work and social care

Personal Social Services

There is no clear or coherent category of 'personal social services', which cover both social work and 'social care', services to people which fall outside the remit of health services. In Britain, these departments have developed as a residual category of services not provided by other services. The categories include:

The services are provided within particular settings, including

Field social work is a relatively minor part of the activity of personal social services overall.

Social work

Social work is to some extent defined by the activities of the personal social services and the client groups they deal with. What social workers do is interpreted in various ways. 'Casework', or 'direct' work, includes

Basic skills include assessment, interviewing and recording; others include groupwork, counselling, negotiation and advocacy. The role of the social worker, and the methods used, depend largely on the interpretation of the problems the worker is dealing with.

The Barclay report on social work also introduced the idea of 'indirect' social work, which includes supervising staff and volunteers, training, management, mediation and community development. (1)

Community care

Community care. The idea of community care is ambiguous. It can refer to care in the community or by the community. Care in the community includes care that is not in an institution; care in ordinary housing; and independence or 'normalisation'. Care by the community includes care through solidaristic social networks; care by community services; and care by informal carers.

Care management. Community care also refers to the management of care for people in the community. The central idea behind the development of 'care management' is the development of a 'package' of care from a range of different sources. A 'package' is designed for each person taking account of existing sources of support and making use of a range of options to meet that person's needs. In principle, this should mean that packages can be selected for each individual. However, the options are not always there; services are underdeveloped and over-subscribed.

Services to criminal justice

Picture: Bentham's model prison.  Public domain.

Bentham's panopticon, which for some has become an icon of the penal process. It was never built; the British Empire had New South Wales.

Criminal justice and penal policy sit uncomfortably with much of the other material on social services, because they are not necessarily intended to promote welfare. Historically, however, the movement for penal reform was often inseparable from other developments in welfare provision , particularly those focused on the poorest. The first probation officers were appointed as 'missionaries', to encourage moral improvement in the criminal classes. The role of social workers in services to criminal justice is partly to serve the courts, through making social enquiries, and partly to promote the welfare and rehabilitation of offenders.

Punishment is generally justified in terms of

The aims are mixed, and punishment often co-exists with measures to further the welfare of offenders.

Personal Social Services in Britain

After 1948, three departments were responsible for personal social services:

Following the Kilbrandon report in Scotland and the Seebohm report in England and Wales,  in the 1960s and early 70s these departments were unified into Social Work Departments in Scotland, and Social Services Departments in England and Wales. This gave the impetus to social work as a generic profession, though genericism is rare in practice.

Although much of the spending on social services went on residential care, the SSDs and professional social work were dominated by child care. The balance was shifted by the introduction of community care policies in the 1990s, following the Griffiths report of 1988. Since then there has also been a movement towards integrating children's services, combining personal social services for children with education departments, and services are now being planned jointly. Reforms in central government have divided out responsibilities further. In England, social care is principally within the Department of Health; children's services within the Department for Education, formerly the Department for Children, Schools and Families; and criminal justice is within the Ministry of Justice. Many English councils now have Childrens Services Departments, combining education and child protection, and an Adult Social Care department which deals with older people, disability and mental health. Scottish councils are more likely to have retained Social Work departments.

Child protection

The Children 's Departments in 1948 were founded in part in response to a child care scandal. Under the 1948 Children Act, it became the duty of a local authority to 'receive the child into care' in cases of abuse or neglect. Local authorities gained powers to investigate neglect in 1952, and to take preventative action only in 1963. Child care became part of generic social work with the unification of the social services departments.  In the course of the last few years 'Childrens Services' have integrated with Education departments, but child protection is increasingly seen as a multi-disciplinary activity with Safeguarding Children Boards (England) or Child Protection Committees (Scotland) working as inter-agency partnerships.

The problems of children who were deprived or abused have been connected closely with issues concerning young offenders. The Children and Young Persons Act 1969 sought to remove any distinction between young offenders and children who had been abused or neglected. The 1989 Children Act represented an important break with this philosophy, and removed the provisions which made it possible to admit a child to care for committing an offence. The basis for admission to care has to be the welfare of the child, taking into account his or her needs, wishes and family background. In order to be admitted to care, a child should be suffering or at risk of 'significant harm', which is defined as 'ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development', or should be beyond parental control.

The Maria Colwell case, in the 1970s, showed deficiencies in the new professional arrangements, and child care practice became increasingly defensive. In the early 1980s, pressure for 'parental rights' increased. The 1989 Act, while rejecting this view, limited the circumstances under which children could be taken into care, and the numbers of children admitted to care has fallen substantially. There has been from the 1970s to the present, a long series of inquiries into failures of support leading to the deaths of children who were in principle in care or being supervised. The fundamental problem is that children are the responsibility of their parents, and in most cases social work and other agencies, working on imperfect information, can only offer monitoring and guidance.

Social care

When Social Services Departments were formed, the intention was to co-ordinate their activities as far as possible with health services. In the 1970s, arrangements were developed in joint finance and joint planning.  The Griffiths report on Community Care, published in 1988, proposed a different kind of arrangement. Rather than depending on co-ordination and integration of services, there should be one service with clearly defined responsibility, which would commission services from others. This function, in the case of community care, would be performed by Social Services Departments (Social Work Departments in Scotland). Each budget would be redirected to come under the SSD's control. In principle, the role of social services departments would be the purchasing of care from a range of providers. The departments were to develop the range of provision they need by making contracts with providers for services. Care managers were to be responsible for allocating resources and setting priorities; practitioners would assess individual cases and guide the selection for each person. [2]

The Griffiths reforms failed to deliver. This is often blamed on a lack of resources, but it has more to do with the design of care management. Care management in practice is unlikely to be devolved close to the practitioner level; there are not multiple purchasers, but one main purchaser - generally the Social Services Department, Adult Services, Social Work or equivalent; there are often few choices in practice, and clients are not the ones who get to make them; and there is much more emphasis on co-ordination than on choice and the market.  The systems which have been put in place have more in common with the planning of the 70s than with market ideology, and in practice emphasis on co-ordinated activity with other services has increased rather than diminished.


Personalisation is based in the idea that services should be indivdiually tailored to the needs and preferences of the service user.  The same principle can found in the Griffiths report [2, para 6.5].  The term is used in a variety of ways to refer to a range of methods that are intended to achieve this general aim.  They include
Personalised services have been intended to offer users greater freedom of choice, enhanced control over what is provided and by whom, and improved service quality; but there has been extensive criticism of personalisation in practice, coupled with some scepticism as to how 'personal' such care really is. [3]  The evidence on individual budgets is mixed: they work in some circumstances and not in others.  [4]

Services to criminal justice

There are significant differences in the system of criminal justice in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own legal system.

Most offenders in the UK are dealt with by non-custodial sentences. Custodial sentences for indictable offences by adults account for less than one sentence in five, while fines cover more than a third of all offences. About a fifth are given intermediate sentences like probation or community service. For most of the last hundred years, the duty of the Probation Service was to 'advise, assist and befriend' offenders. Since 2001, these objectives have been replaced by aims which have more to do with community based punishment: probation has been absorbed into the 'management of offenders' along with prisons. The service is intended

An attempt in 2014 to privatise low-level probation supervision in England and Wales failed through lack of adequate staffing and supervision, a combination of producers accepting too many risks, some fraudulent activity by providers. The equivalent service in Scotland is still situated in social work with criminal justice.

The welfare approach has been most prominent in the treatment of young offenders. From 1963 until 1989 it was policy to treat young offenders as needing care, but since 1989 there has been a renewed emphasis on penal policy. The age of criminal responsibility is not uniform throughout the UK; in England and Wales it is 10. Custodial options for young people include detention centres (14-21), attendance centres (10-21) and youth custody (15+). A range of non-custodial activities are undertaken by Social Services Departments, intended partly to rehabilitate young offenders, and partly as 'diversion', intended to postpone the point at which young offenders incur custodial sentences.


  1. National Institute of Social Work, 1983, Social workers: their role and tasks, NISW.
  2. R Griffiths, 1988, Community care: agenda for action, Department of Health and Social Security.
  3. C Needham, J Glasby (eds) 2014, Debates in personalisation, Policy Press.
  4. C Glendinning et al, 2008, Evidence from the Individual Budgets pilot programmes, York: Individual Budgets Evaluation Network.

Further reading

M Davies (ed), The Blackwell companion to Social Work, Blackwell 2007.
Social work, social care and social services, from the British Library's Social Welfare Portal