Section 17: exploring managerialism versus autonomy and Labour’s institutional turn

I had a brief twitter to-and-fro with the Chief Social Worker for England, Isabelle Trowler yesterday:

Now, social workers of a certain age tend to talk of Section 17 of the Children’s Act 1989 with a mix of reference and nostalgia.

The Act as a whole put children’s interests at the centre of everything they do, and Section 17 gave local authorities in practice social workers) the power to provide any assistance deemed appropriate to a child in need and their family, with a child in need defined in broad terms as and inter alia as “unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority…”

As such, although passed towards the end of the Thatcher years, Section 17 represented something of a high point for the welfare state in Britain. Not only did it confidently assert that the state would do what it took to end developmental disadvantage for children, with no apparent constraint on the funding needed to do so; it also invested trust in the professionalism as frontline staff to allocate resources wisely, as advocates for children and families rather the operatives of the state.

Fast forward thirty years or so, and this resourcing and trust seem a halcyon dream, and two snippets from very different councils in England provide the evidence we don’t really need of how things have changed.

First, there’s the ultra-managerialism in the relatively well-resourced West Berkshire Borough Council’s instructions to social workers on how, at almost all possible cost (so just about within the law), of which m,y ‘favourite’ sentence is probably this one reeking of suspicion of the motives of poor families.

Advice can also be sought as to possible solutions to administrative and procedural problems such as non-arrival of benefit payments, recovery of alleged overpayments, benefit suspensions due to fraud investigation etc. This may include supplying contact details for liaison staff in the relevant benefit-paying agencies.

Second, there are Lancashire County Council’s 2018–19 approved budget papers (p.189), which announces the reduction in the Section 17 funding pot from £2.729 million in 2017–18 to aroind £2.370 m in 2018–19, accompanied by acknowledgements that this may lead to more children being taken into care (we can imagine the false economies here) and, in an ironic reversal of Berkshire’s stance on the need to exhaust other benefits first, a concern that the DWP may be “under increased pressure to process claims/resolve issues quickly”, the poor mites.

It is in this context of the ongoing devolution of state cruelty to the managerial cadre that I asked Isabelle Trowler about her commitments.

I was encouraged by her confirmation that, yes, direct autonomy over the Section 17 is back on the table, if only through some kind of pilot project; I take as a good thing any sign, however “in principle” at this stage, of a step back from the deleterious managerialism that leads to the kind of absurdist documents referenced above.

Of course, this is a single statement online from the Chief Social Worker but there are encouraging signs elsewhere that the doctrine of managerialism, which took holder under Thatcher (in that respect the Children’s Act was already a throwback) and was pursued with vigour under New Labour, may be coming under challenge. In education, for example, the archetypal New Labour apparatchik Michael Wilshaw has been replaced as Head of Ofsted by Amanda Spielman, who after a cautious start now looks set to improve drastically the way in which school performance is measured, with a very Children’s Act-like focus on the whole of a child’s experience, a renewed trust in the education professions to run schools professionally, and an implicit turn away from the short-termism embraced under the disastrous academization process.

My concern, though, is that Labour has not yet caught on properly to how essential “re-professionalization” is when it comes to forging the new institutions of the post-neoliberal 21st political economy it now espouses; without Labour’s convening power, any new impetus towards a new system in which worker expertise is properly valued and heeded — and here i’m talking in much wider terms than children’s services — may fail to develop into the kind of full-blown movement we need.

In terms of the immediate tactics therefore, I would love to see a welfare-informed Labour MP stand up as the Chancellor’s budget is debated in the House, and demand that, as part of the professed “end to austerity”, Section 17 budgets be properly restored — quoting Lancashire as necessary as an example of an authority which might actually be acting unlawfully by provide zero money for the implementation of a statutory duty — but also making proper reference to Labour’s renewed trust in “the professions”.

Ideally, such a demand would also revolve around the argument that Section 17 financing cannot logically be set within Departmental Expenditure Limits, but should be managed as part of the overall welfare system within the Treasury’s Annual Managed Expenditure procedures.

More broadly, though, I’d like to see Labour’s new thinkers how this impetus to professional autonomy might actually be the missing part of what Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill have recently described as Labour’s’ ‘institutional turn’ to a new political economy. That missing part is, in my view, the bit that says clearly that Labour has turned away not just from neoliberalism, but also from the managerialism which became neoliberalism’s principal modus operandi.

While the autonomy of children’s social workers operating on the tough front line of child protection may not seem at first sight like the model for a new economy, I’d suggest that this kind of institutional (re)turn to the value of professional expertise and advocacy, institutionalized as a bulwark against the paternalism of the state [1] is precisely the kind of stuff we need to be fostering.

As a party readying for 21st century government through reflection on our 20th century traditions, Labour needs to take more seriously than it currently does GDH Cole’s proposals in Guild Socialism Restated — referenced by Joe & Martin in their important paper, but currently underdeveloped to my mind.

Much more of that soon.


[1] Here I’m referring to Anthony Painter’s useful response to Joe & Martin’s paper, in which he expresses the following concern about the possible outcomes of Labour’s institutional turn;

Will [the institutional turn] be grounded in freedom or paternalism?…….There is much to commend Labour’s recent development of economic democracy into both policy and platform. But will the ‘institutional turn’ be experienced more as a paternalistic state institution every which way one turns? The answer to this will determine whether Labour’s socialism is truly one for freedom in the modern age or an attempt to turn back to a bygone age.

To my mind, a lot of these concerns can actually be allayed by ensuring that professional (Guild) autonomy of the type envisaghed by GDH Cole, is built into the planning, alongside Cole’s other key objective of a society in which freedom is guaranteed by economic as much as political equality (Joe & Martin do emphasize this when they reference Cole, in fact, contra Dahl’s more guarded approach.)



Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.