What role do payments from social workers have to play in tackling poverty?


Aberlour’s Urgent Assistance Fund has witnessed record demand. Chief Executive SallyAnn Kelly talks to Professional Social Work magazine on the need to stop stigmatising people who are struggling to make ends meet.

The idea was seen as controversial and radical when it was floated. Give social workers discretion to make cash payments to people they support in order to do preventative work or provide emergency support.

Scotland introduced this via legislation fifty years ago, under section 12 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, which gives councils a duty to promote social welfare in their communities. Since then social workers have used s.12 payments to offer a lifeline to struggling adults, children and families. This has helped people get a bed for the night, heat homes, pay rent, get a meal and clothe children during hard times.

But a new exploratory study suggests the types and levels of s.12 support practitioners can provide has changed markedly since its introduction, and charities say they are increasingly being asked to try and fill the gaps.

The Social Work Scotland report, Prevention or Crisis Response? Reflections on the 1968 Act, interviews workers and families on the current picture and compares this to how councils applied s.12 support in the past.

Several findings are striking. Firstly, the cash value of assistance has dropped markedly. A research paper found the average s.12 spend per person was £16.70 in 1978 – equivalent to £195 in today’s prices. These days the average pay out is just £20-25. Secondly, in the early years of s.12, it was mainly used to help people pay for fuel and rent. These days it is predominantly used for food and is usually provided via vouchers or supervised shopping, not cash.

Thirdly the research suggests s.12 payments are now almost exclusively used for crisis assistance. The idea of preventative social work, which dominated the early use of s.12, appears to have given way to firefighting.

Changes to attitudes

At a workshop in Edinburgh discussing the findings SallyAnn Kelly, chief executive of children’s charity Aberlour, said she’d seen a significant change in the attitude towards, and use of, s.12 payments since she started out as a social worker in Glasgow in the 1990s.

“We used section 12 regularly in terms of sustaining families who needed support. And we did that without judgement because we knew it was all about trying to prevent children from being received into care and actually trying to provide families with a stable life not just survival,” she said.

“Sadly in my experience we have moved, in certain areas, to judgement in relation to cash payments. One thing that happened is we moved away from direct payment of money to people and we started giving people food parcels instead.

“That for me wasn’t something driven by financial considerations – it was driven by judgement and the idea that you can’t trust poor people to go and buy food. Instead it’s ‘we’ll give you what we think you need’. We need to stand up and say no, this is stigmatising.”

Jane Scott, the researcher who led the project, said families interviewed “really appreciated” help but also talked about their “embarrassment” of having to seek support or visit food banks. It also left them dependent on whatever food was donated or provided by the local authority and the parcels are unpredictable – one mother spoke of how grateful she was when one included washing powder as it meant she could wash her children’s clothes.

growing levels of poverty

Alongside concerns over the changing nature of s.12 support are fears that demand for this type of assistance will only continue to grow. The report notes that several children and parents organisations are increasingly worried about the number of families affected by extreme poverty.

And social workers, seeing cuts in local authority budgets including s.12, are exploring all the options they can to help, including from the third sector.

In the first six months of 2018-19 Aberlour’s Urgent Assistance Fund, which provides emergency financial support for families for essential items such as clothing, children’s beds and kitchen equipment, has already paid out 40 per cent more in cash assistance and 50 per cent more individual grants than the previous year. Almost one in six grants from the fund has been to working families.

“A lot of the requests are for things that social work, or the local authority, would have provided back when I worked there,” said Kelly.

She said a lot of Aberlour’s work has shown how when families are asked what they need “they come up with really sensible, practical solutions” and these are often very different to the systems services have “created around poverty” – the tokens, the vouchers, the food parcels.

“We have a growing body of evidence where we have supported families to turn their lives around with the provision of really practical family support. There are really good social work-informed practices. But some of that practical stuff is about putting money in people’s hands.”

Article by Andy McNicoll and first published in Professional Social Work magazine, December 2018 / January 2019 edition.

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