Tuesday, April 28, 2015
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Scottish Parliament Speech: Social Services Workforce (April 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I support Adam Ingram's motion highlighting the contribution that is made by all who work for social services in Scotland, especially the front-line workers and carers. I can say that because I work practically every day with such staff, who are supplied by private contractors to the Borders social work service.

I, for one, would never be able to perform any parliamentary work without Wilma, Cath, Anne, Fiona and their colleagues, who help me with my 92-year-old parents, although some members might consider that that is a service too far. There are many volunteers working in social care. The estimated 660,000 Scots who care for family and friends probably save the Scottish economy around £7 billion to £8 billion a year.

Adam Ingram stressed the importance of imaginative, subtle leadership. The challenge is to integrate the various networks of support to provide assistance, relief and association through social care services. We must approach the issue of social care leadership by focusing on strengthening the confidence that the people who use such services have in their situation and their expectations. We must co-ordinate performance in response to users' changing needs. That is very important for elderly people who might be suffering from progressive, but not necessarily hopeless, dementia.

It is equally important to streamline administrative structures and procedures and to look at them from the viewpoint of the person who is being cared for, so that they can comprehend what is expected of them and are not baffled by complicated phone procedures and the like. It is important to channel funds to and place emphasis on the social workers and carers on the ground. That involves seeking a personal rapport with the people who require assistance and the carers who work with them. That is important because, often, the people who need support from social work services are particularly vulnerable - they do not just suffer economic hardship and health and emotional problems but very often find it difficult to express their feelings. As a result, they can feel overwhelmed and rejected by an unfamiliar, overtechnologised, bureaucratic system. For instance, they might fear the abolition of the cheque, because they have always been used to cheques and are frightened by the business of having a phone conversation that will inevitably involve being asked to press 1, 2 or 3. God, that baffles me - goodness knows what it must be like for either of my parents. Providing intelligent assistance from the start, mapping out the likely progress of a particular patient's condition and reducing bureaucracy are other leadership challenges for the future.

Co-operation, as well as leadership, is important. Other pragmatic elements can help to improve social work and social care. Forgive me if my examples focus on care and support for the elderly, but that is my personal experience. There is also short-term, emergency care. For instance, I am relieved one weekend in every month by my brother, who is a lorry driver, coming up from the south to look after my parents for a long weekend. A fortnight ago, he went in for a speedway run in Wolverhampton - he is 60 years old and should know better - where he fell off and ended up in hospital with a fractured pelvis. I went down there to help the carer at his house to do something that is often quite necessary and will become more necessary in future, which was to move all his electronics around, so that his computer and phone were down on his bed, where he could access them. That sort of technical intervention was required for someone who would not usually be the subject of such care but desperately needed it at that time.

Much of social care is not just about dealing with ailments or sight or hearing impairments but about handling domestic equipment, such as the alarms that go wrong. I had a horrible hour when my parents' alarm, which rings in the Borders care section, got tangled up with the telephone system and none of us - not even the care people - could get to the bottom of it. The thing was going off every 10 minutes. Such high-technology equipment is put in to assist patients, but it can have great deficiencies, too, so it is important that people who can deal with it are easily accessible. We need such things as phone bells that are loud enough for people to hear and we need people to come in and help people with their hearing aids, which, if they have very small controls, are something of a problem.

I do not have a panacea to offer, but I have a suggestion. In many countries on the continent, students going into tertiary education are required to do a year of social service, which can vary from pushing and pulling to helping elderly folk with computers and household equipment. A voluntary community or social service year between high school and higher education or job training is valuable and is an important part of education, which offers the practical introduction to life that such students require. The voluntary year is not simply a burden.

Finally, when my daughter was growing up, we had an elderly Welsh lady in the house next to us. Miss Thomas, who had been born in 1905 and lived until 1999, was a person whose wisdom had accumulated over the years, along with her cheerfulness and intelligence. She kept a diary in which she noted down details of her condition, such as what she was eating and how she was sleeping. When I asked why, she said, "Because if someone comes in and finds me flat out, they will know at least something about my previous condition." She was very bright and still had the eyes of a young girl, as well as the intelligence. When we saw her last, the taxi driver, whom she had schooled in the local school, told us, "She will be out skiing next." As it happened, she was not there to see us when we went back, but she had lived her life for 94 years and she was still teaching people up to the end. I can think of no better tribute for anyone at the end of their life. Often, those whom we set out to help us every bit as much we help them.

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