Social work and the law in Scotland
Social work and the law in Scotland

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Social work and the law in Scotland

2.2 Finding out about social work

There is evidence that public knowledge about social work in Scotland is ‘fairly low’, with apparent confusion between social services and welfare benefits – ‘the social’ – and over the boundaries between social work and social care. The MORI survey also reported that those most likely to be in need of social support – older people, lower social income and minority ethnic groups – were particularly ill informed about availability and access to services (Davidson and King, 2005). If you are not sure about the kinds of social work services provided in your area, the following activity will enable you to locate and familiarise yourself with the information available. (Those of you working in the sector might also like to complete this activity and consider how accessible this information is to the general public.)

Activity 2: Understanding social work services

0 hours 30 minutes

Find the website of your local council from the Directgov local councils directory, and navigate the site (using the toolbars or site search engines) to locate information on social work services in your area. Make a note of which department/s are responsible for this work, and compile or print off a list of the services that are available. (You will find it helpful to bookmark this website for future reference.)

Next, repeat this activity, selecting a local council which serves a different constituency from your own, for example, if you are served by a city council take a look at the services provided in a more rural setting for comparison.


This activity should have alerted you to some of the reasons for confusion over the meaning of social work services. Not all local authorities have a social work department, and social work may be located variously within ‘community services’, ‘children's services’, ‘adult services’, or ‘community care’. With the emphasis on inter-professional cooperation, social work practitioners are increasingly integrated into larger departments, combined for example with health, education or housing. As the boundaries between health, social care and other public services become blurred, this can make it difficult for the public, and sometimes for workers themselves, to separate and identify the nature of the social work task.

You should have found that the range of services provided under the umbrella of social work is extensive; this again is a source of some confusion especially where tasks are presumed to be within the remit of other professional groups. The MORI research referred to above found that fewer than one in ten respondents knew that they could receive help or advice from social work services on, for example, preventing re-offending, prisoner resettlement, respite care, occupational therapy or legal issues. Limited awareness of criminal justice social work may result from a failure to recognise the distinctiveness of the social work role in Scotland, which includes social work with adult offenders, in contrast to the position in England and Wales where offender management is undertaken by a separate agency. We will see throughout this course that there are other significant differences from the rest of the UK, which result from the fact that Scotland has its own cultural and political heritage and a separate legal system.

The services offered differ in some respects from council to council. We will see throughout this course that local authorities have legal duties to provide certain statutory services, for example in relation to child protection and mental health. Social work departments were created by statute in the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 and increasingly the practice of social workers is defined by statute (an Act of Parliament, which will be explained in Section 3). As well as being required to meet certain duties, they also have legal powers to provide additional services, and can tailor these to local priorities, needs and resources. It is not always easy for social workers to explain to service users the reasons for these disparities in provision without reference to law.

You might also have noticed that some services are offered in partnership with voluntary charitable organisations or private providers, as a result of competitive commissioning and a policy of securing best value in public services. Social workers are not all employed by local authorities, but work in a variety of settings and specialist roles. Understanding and responding to the diversity of this role is one of the challenges which social work is facing today.


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