The promised liberation of adult social work under England’s 2014 Care Act


This article repays reading and re-reading as the essence of Colin Whittington’s argument and analysis needs some disentangling. Yes, the 2014 Care Act (particularly when the Care and Support Bill) was thought by some to be liberating, and yes, the politics of liberation somehow got entangled in the promise.

In an earlier article (March 2016), Whittington raised the possibility that the Care Act would be offering a genuine prospect of liberation for social work with adults in England, or whether it was marketing a false prospectus. In a timely update of the March article, his new article (published October 2016) examines the impact of the revised and second edition of the Care Act guidance that was issued in March 2016.

Both articles capture the recent past and indeed a story that is still unfolding. Whittington carefully describes the importance of statutory guidance and regards the revised second edition as a ‘potentially significant step’.


In order to explore the ways in which the revised guidance endorses or undermines a vision of liberated social work with adults, he searched the online text of the guidance for ‘manifest’ or surface meanings and then the ‘latent’ or underlying meanings.  This enabled him to see what changed between the first and second guidance and, importantly, what was not changed.

Other dimensions of this analysis draw on comparisons with The College of Social Work’s Guide to the practice implications of the 2014 Care Act. He also refers to comments being made by Lyn Romeo, the influential Chief Social Worker for Adults at the Department of Health.

Three key classifications of social work roles are also considered: A) the guidance’s endorsement of specific social work roles; B) functions that could be undertaken by social work or other professionals; and C) roles and functions that don’t mention social work. Whittington concludes that not much has changed in respect of these.


The author analysed the online guidance and compared it to previous versions to see what had and hadn’t changed.


The revised guidance does set out one particular change and that is the new content about the role of Principal Social Workers. Whittington sees this both as a symbolic position and as one having an operational remit. The guidance offers an important definition of the role.  He describes it as making a ‘potential contribution to social work’s renaissance’.

However, Whittington observes that other steps to the liberation of social work are being advocated by those interested in strengths or assets based approaches, variously also described as community-oriented social work or asset-based community development. While these are not well articulated in the guidance, they are traceable within it and other policy documents or commentaries. Whittington points to the powerful professional interest in these approaches; their welcome advances compared to care management, and their potential acceptability to communities and service users. He describes the approach as an ‘emblematic strategy’ – another potential future milestone on the road to professional renaissance.

Whittington considers that there are other possible paths. Taking a strengths based approach might be liberating and transformative but compromises might need to be made. There may be tensions in taking a strengths based approach when other social movements and ideologies are prompting more restrictive decisions about welfare. Whittington refers back to the Care Act’s endorsement of social work roles as primarily being around adult safeguarding rather than holistic or community orientated practice. This he views as the ‘operational reality’ – although Making Safeguarding Personal approaches might have something to say about the negativity of this view of adult safeguarding as essentially atomised and individualistic.

Despite these conclusions from his analysis, Whittington ends on a positive note about the stated support for social work with adults from government. His final observations are that the road to liberation is not straightforward but long and winding.

A woman thinking about community

The role Principal Social Workers is emphasised.

Strengths and Limitations

There are several complex themes followed in this article and it is probably helpful to read both articles to get a sense of the methods and of the flow of the arguments. Indeed a lexicon of social work personalities and organisations could be helpful. How will those not ‘in the know’ understand what and who is TLAP, for example? But the articles do repay reading and rereading – partly because the 2014 Care Act is so new and partly because guidance is influential but often ignored as a document to be analysed and compared with previous iterations.

In this article several threads are not fully woven together so we lose, for example, the thread about the Principal Social Workers amid the shift in discussion to strengths based approaches; we don’t really hear much about the complex cases for which social workers might be seen as appropriate; and we are left with adult safeguarding as more akin to adult protection. This is not a fundamental problem since any attempt to think through current issues probably has to move between subjects and there are indeed loose ends.


This second article hints at the improbability of any wholesale liberation of social work; but Whittington raises the importance of being alert to continued change and the need to acknowledge that change can come from several directions. The implementation of the Care Act will likely take a longer time than expected in terms of professional accommodation to its principles and the resource context but it is helpful to see the journey being carefully mapped out in respect of its early aspirations.


Primary publication

Whittington, C. (2016) ‘Another Step towards the Promised Liberation of Adult Social Work under England’s 2014 Care Act? The Implications of Revised Statutory Guidance and the Politics of Liberation’, British Journal of Social Work, first published online October 29, 2016, doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcw155

Other reference

Whittington, C. (2016) ‘The Promised Liberation of Adult Social Work under England’s 2014 Care Act: Genuine Prospect or False Prospectus?’ British Journal of Social Work, doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcw008, First published online: March 10, 2016.

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Jill Manthorpe

Jill Manthorpe is Professor of Social Work and Director of the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health & Social Care Workforce at King's College London, Associate Director of the NIHR School for Social Care Research, and social care theme lead of the NIHR Applied Research Collaborative (ARC) South London. She is working with colleagues on a major five phase COVID-19 workforce study:

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